UNICOI COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – With lottery queues becoming crowded in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park plans to provide an unforgettable experience for a lucky few.
In late spring, the slopes and seeps of Rocky Fork are lit up in a performance made possible by Photinus carolinus, AKA the Synchronous Firefly. The species’ hallmark is found in their behavior, with entire fields of flashing lights going dark all at once as the animals perform mating displays.
“It blows people away because you have the waves on the hillside and then the blackness that comes out,” park manager Tim Pharis said. “And that’s what’s neat about these, is that they go completely black.”
While the exact cause of this behavior is not fully understood, one thing is abundantly clear: It definitely has an impact. Visitors from around the country flock to the region to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights of the South. So many arrived that GSMNP instituted a lottery to offer everyone a chance to see them.
Now synchronous populations are being found throughout Appalachia, and Rocky Fork State Park is happy to show them off after their local discovery in 2017.
“I’ve been out there 20 times a night in the past five years, and I’m still amazed every time,” Pharis said. “It doesn’t get old.”
One special feature of Rocky Fork’s experience is the density of another kind of firefly: the Blue Ghost. A beetle with a name like that is bound to stand out, and they don’t underwhelm when they light up in a dim blue glow and drift through the air like a will-o’-wisp in flight. Rocky Fork boasts a massive population of Blue Ghosts and plans to dedicate a full weekend of night experiences that highlight their haunting appearance.
“What makes Rocky Fork special is there are easily 200 right in front of you,” Pharis said. “It’s just a huge population, and when you get that together it is an eerie and amazing sight.”
But like many things in nature, the diminutive beetles have to be closely guarded for future generations to enjoy. Other state parks opened themselves up completely in the past — to deadly effect.
“People trampled through the woods all through the night, and they lost like 50, 60% of their Blue Ghost population,” Pharis said. “So, we are pretty strong on that stance that we are not letting people out to see them unless they’re lucky enough to get a lottery ticket.”
To keep the impact on the environment low and allow as many people to enjoy the opportunity as possible, a maximum of 360 people will tour the park during the insects’ peak times. Across six days, 10 cars will be allowed in with a maximum capacity of six people.
“Our lottery’s pretty much a direct clone from the Smoky Mountains because they’ve been doing it for decades now and have a great system in place,” Pharis said. “We have significantly less parking, significantly less room, so unfortunately have to have significantly less participants come out.”
On May 2, a press release will be sent out by the park to announce official dates and lottery protocol, and then the public will have to wait until 8 a.m. on Monday, May 9 for entries to open. Names can be added to the hat for free until midnight on Friday the 13th, and after that lucky date, they’ll just have to wait for contact from park officials.
“All walks of life are enamored with this little beetle,” Pharis said. “I’ve gotten yelled at and cussed at about this little beetle before. They’re kind of superstars, and rightly so…they’re awesome.”
Winners will receive a ticket for one car, which can hold six people of the winner’s choosing. Entry is $20 for each person who arrives.
As it stands, the weekend of May 27, 28 and 29 is scheduled for Blue Ghost viewing. Synchronous Firefly tours are slated for June 3, 4 and 5. Weather patterns and climate changes can impact peak times year-to-year, so Pharis said these dates may have to shift back.
“We have to do the math; there’s a big calculation involved to decide when the peak dates will be,” Pharis said. “And it’s all a guess based on historical temperatures.”
Even if you don’t win a chance to view the phenomenon alongside park naturalists and other guests, there are still ways to catch a glimpse of the lights before they’re gone.
Backcountry camping will still be open for the night during firefly season. Nighttime hiking is not allowed in the park, but if you catch one of the three sites open for a $9 registration, you just might see them from your site.
In addition, Pharis said volunteers can get involved directly through service with Friends of Rocky Fork State Park (FRFSP). The non-profit organization works independently from the park, with members and volunteers providing revenue and labor to improve park services. On the night of each event, FRFSP volunteers will help with logistics, information and service for guests. Instead of paying, volunteers will get a chance to witness the show for free.
Members of the organization will also get to experience their own night alone in the park as thanks for their work throughout the year.
If all else fails, you might be able to find the species elsewhere in Appalachia. Synchronous Fireflies (which aren’t actually flies, but that’s another topic) have a specific habitat that Pharis said isn’t exceedingly rare.
“Rocky Fork has them, Smokies has them, that means there are many more places that have them that have yet to be developed,” Pharis said. “I know of reports of them up on Unaka Mountain Road in Cherokee National Forest, other places…Chances are, if you can find a nice large creek somewhere between two to four thousand foot elevation, in the Appalachians, in the Blue Ridge, there’s a good chance you’ll see some.”