Great Smoky Mountains National Park has announced a new reservation system for the Elkmont Firefly Viewing event beginning in 2012. The popularity of the firefly event has increased significantly over the past several years, prompting park officials to re-evaluate the effectiveness of managing the event on a first-come-first-served basis.
Every June, thousands of visitors gather near the popular Elkmont Campground to observe the naturally occurring phenomenon of the Photinus carolinus; a firefly species that flashes synchronously. In 2005, the Park began closing the Elkmont entrance road each evening and operating a mandatory shuttle bus system to and from the viewing area to provide for visitor safety, resource protection and to enhance the experience for both viewers and campers at Elkmont.
In 2011, over 7,000 people rode the mandatory shuttle system from the Sugarlands Visitor Center parking area to Elkmont to view the fireflies. As the popularity has increased each year firefly watchers have begun to arrive earlier and earlier. Last year visitors started arriving in the parking lot as early as 2p.m. in order to ensure they would be able to ride the shuttle that transports visitors to the viewing area beginning at 7p.m. Visitors who have traveled from long distances have had to be turned away simply because the parking lot was full and general park visitors have not been able to access the Visitor Center due to the lack of parking.
For this year’s viewing event, which runs from Saturday, June 2 through Sunday, June 10, a new on-line ticketing system, operated through www.recreation.gov, will provide visitors with parking passes to guarantee they will be able to park at Sugarlands Visitor Center, but without the inconvenience of having to arrive hours in advance. The Park expects the new system will result in improvements in visitor service.
A parking pass will be required for all vehicles. A reservation fee to receive the pass will cost $1.50 and will cover a maximum of 6 persons in a single passenger vehicle (less than 19 feet in length). Four passes for oversize vehicles, like a mini bus (19 to 30 feet in length and up to 24 persons), will also be available. Parking passes will be non-refundable, non-transferable, and good only for the date issued. There is a limit of one parking pass per household per season. Each reservation through www.recreation.gov will receive an e-mailed confirmation and specific information about the event.
The number of passes issued for each day will be based on the Sugarlands Visitor Center parking lot capacity. Passes will be issued with staggered arrival times in order to relieve congestion in the parking lot and for boarding the shuttles.
The shuttle buses, which are provided in partnership with the City of Gatlinburg, will begin picking up visitors from the Sugarlands Visitor Center RV/bus parking area at 7:00 p.m. The cost will be $1 round trip per person, as in previous years, and collected when boarding the shuttle.
The shuttle service will be the sole transportation mode for visitor access during this period, except for registered campers staying at the Elkmont Campground. Visitors will not be allowed to walk the Elkmont entrance road due to safety concerns.
The majority of parking passes for this year’s event will be on sale on-line beginning after 10a.m. April 30. The Park will hold back 25 passes for each day to accommodate individuals who did not learn of the need to pre-purchase tickets. Those last 25 passes will go on sale on-line at 10:00 a.m. the day before the event and will be available until 3:30 p.m. on the day of the event or until the passes are all reserved. Passes can be purchased at www.recreation.gov. Parking passes may also be obtained by calling 1-877-444-6777, but Park officials strongly encourage the use of the on-line process, because it provides far more information to visitors about what to expect when they arrive at the Park. The $1.50 reservation fee covers the cost of processing the requests for the passes. The Park will not receive any revenue either from the reservations or the shuttle tickets.