The buzzing, flashing, zipping, light-up-the-night nature party is back this year in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The only way to score a ticket to the light show is by entering a lottery for a vehicle pass through recreation.gov. The lottery opens for vehicle pass applications at 10 a.m. April 29 through 10 a.m. May 3. All applications, regardless of the time or date of entry, are considered equally in the pool of lottery applicants, according to a news release from the park.
Every year in late May to early June, thousands of visitors gather near the popular Elkmont Campground to behold the naturally occurring phenomenon of Photinus carolinus, a firefly species that flashes synchronously.
Since 2006, access to the Elkmont area has been limited during the eight days of predicted peak activity in order to reduce traffic congestion and provide a safe viewing experience for visitors that minimizes disturbance to these unique fireflies during the peak mating period.
A total of 800 vehicle passes, 100 passes per night, will be issued through the lottery process. Each vehicle pass provides admission for parking directly at the Elkmont viewing location for one passenger vehicle with a maximum of seven occupants.
During the application process, lottery applicants may enter two possible viewing dates over the eight-day period.
The number of passes issued each day is based on parking capacity and the ability to safely accommodate a large number of viewers on site, while minimizing impacts on resources. The lottery system uses a randomized computer drawing to select applications, which cost $1 per applicant.
Successful applicants will automatically be awarded parking passes and charged a $24 reservation fee, which covers the cost of awarding the passes, on-site portable restrooms, supplies and nightly personnel costs for managing the viewing opportunity at Elkmont.
Hitting the lottery is not easy.
Last year, a total of 24,401 households applied for a vehicle pass, said park spokesperson Dana Soehn. Applicants were from all 50 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and three countries — Australia, Canada and Great Britain.
The top five states to apply were Tennessee (35%), North Carolina (19%), Georgia (7%), Florida (5%) and South Carolina (3%).
Soehn said the park issued 800 passes in 2021, 100 passes each for eight nights.
Parking passes are non-refundable, non-transferable and good only for the date issued. There is a limit of one lottery application per household per season. All lottery applicants will be notified by e-mail by May 13 that they were “successful” and awarded a parking pass or “unsuccessful” and not able to secure a parking pass.
During the viewing period, access to Elkmont is restricted after 4 p.m. to passenger vehicles with a parking pass, registered campers staying at the Elkmont Campground or backcountry campers with a valid permit.
Visitors may visit recreation.gov and search for “Great Smoky Mountains Firefly Viewing Lottery” for more information and to enter the lottery.
Visitors may also call 877-444-6777 to enter the lottery, but park officials encourage online applications. For more information about the synchronous fireflies, visit the park website at nps.gov/grsm.
Karen Chávez is Content Coach/Investigations Editor for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Tips? Call 828-712-6316, email, KChavez@CitizenTimes.com or follow on Twitter @KarenChavezACT.