When I was a kid, while my friends got all gaga over the ideas of no school, ice cream trucks, swimming pools, and other treats that were ours only in summer, I was more interested in something small but quite spectacular. Right after dinner, I’d head out to the patio and scan the backyard for a tiny pinprick of yellow-green light piercing the growing dark.
Part of the appeal was the wondering and waiting. You never knew what you were going to get. Some nights were a bust, with only a few lightning bugs bothering to come out for the evening’s entertainment. Then, on other nights, hundreds would show up and set their bottoms all aglow, one here, another there, another way over there. It was like someone was reaching out and turning the stars on and off. I lived for the latter nights when I was a child; actually, I still do.
If you too truly appreciate bio-luminescence in flying form and feel a warm knot of pure joy any time you see even one firefly do its thing, then the show put on by a special species of this insect each June in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park might just make your head explode.
On the Tennessee side of the Park at Gatlinburg, hundreds of thousands of synchronous fireflies let their light shine all at once, flashing in near-perfect unison as part of a mating ritual. Their fascinating courtship only happens a couple of weeks each year and draws thousands of spectators to the area every summer. It usually takes place between late May and mid-June.
While this display of Mother Nature’s magic is magnificent, it’s only one of the reasons you should visit the Park, and you should check out Gatlinburg too. The little mountain town may be best known for kitschy souvenir shops, pancake joints, and the “Believe it or Not” Museum, but it’s got plenty more to offer.
A few blocks behind the tourist traps along the town’s main drag, The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts is a wellspring of culture and creativity. This national art education center invites beginning, intermediate, and highly experienced artists to its fourteen-acre campus to participate in weekend, one-week, or two-week workshops taught by national and international practicing artists and university faculty. The artists work in ceramics, fiber, metals/jewelry, painting, drawing, photography, warm glass, woodturning, woodworking, mixed media, books, and paper. Guests can visit the school and view the fruits of their labors by perusing the rotating exhibits in Arrowmont’s five galleries as well as attending presentations and demonstrations. You can even take some of the talent home; the school’s store has works from past Artists-in-Residence for sale.
PLAY IN THE PARK
Whether you’re into hard-core hiking and primitive camping or prefer to get your fresh-air intake on a leisurely drive with the windows down, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the most visited national park in the country, welcomes you to enjoy its multiple offerings at your own pace.
The bio-diversity in the 800-square-mile Park is unmatched anywhere else in the country. Over 10,000 species have been documented in the Park, including over 100 species of trees, 1,500 different flowering plants, 200 species of birds, 66 types of mammals, 50 native fish species, 39 varieties of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians. And some scientists believe thousands of species are yet to be found.
You can explore all of this and more on any one of the Park’s 150 well-maintained trails that traverse more than 800 miles and lead up to rocky summits, down to sparkling waterfalls, and through old-growth forests. One must-do is the hike to the Park’s highest point, Clingmans Dome. It’s only a half-mile trek to reach an observation tower with panoramic views stretching into four surrounding states, but the incline is seriously steep. While your calves will make you pay for this trip later, the vista from 6,643 feet is well worth every ache.
High above the hustle of Gatlinburg, the Lodge at Buckberry Creek rests on the side of a foothill in the shadow of Mount LeConte and overlooks bubbling Buckberry Creek. It’s surrounded by twenty-six acres that abut the Park, and, constructed of rough-hewn logs and native stone, the property looks as if it simply grew out of the mountainside instead of being built there.
Accommodating both the desire to be close to nature and a taste for the finer things, the lodge’s forty-five suite-style rooms are rustic, yet refined and individually decorated with antiques and furnishings appropriate for a mountaintop haven. Each boasts a private balcony with a scenic view. With amenities like large soaking tubs and working fireplaces, comfort is ensured too. These considerations, combined with stellar service, earned the lodge its AAA Four-Diamond Award.
The lodge has its own walking trails and a cozy creek-side pavilion (complete with a mammoth fireplace and comfy rocking chairs) for guests to enjoy. And when the fireflies come out to dance each summer, the lodge provides transportation for its guests to a prime viewing place. Take note: Seats for this fill up quickly, as do the accommodations at the lodge, so reserve a room and secure your spot now.
WATCH THE SYNCHRONOUS FIREFLIES IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS HERE
SEE MORE “MOUNTAIN MAGIC” PHOTOS HERE