Elkmont is a former community nestled near the Great Smoky Mountains between Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee. Named for the numerous elk that once roamed the area, the region now is host to a ranger station and the aptly named Elkmont Campground. However, the small town may be best known for its annual synchronized firefly phenomenon, when tens of thousands of fireflies swarm, dance and blink in unison near the campground as part of their mating ritual. The display typically lasts 2-3 weeks in late May or early June, and has become so popular that primetime viewing permits are now required by the National Park Service. However, you can still catch part of the show by visiting Elkmont an evening or two before or after the official event dates.
Drive time from Chattanooga: 2 hours, 42 minutes
Other claims to fame:
> Explore Clingmans Dome and enjoy the breathtaking views from the tallest peak in the Smokies, standing at 6,643 feet. For those who love a challenge, there are several hikes to the top, including a 13.2-mile trek from the Elkmont Ranger Station. If you drive, turn off of Newfoundland Gap Road and follow Clingmans Dome Road for seven miles to the large parking area at the end. Once there, you’ll find a moderately difficult half-mile hike to the observation ramp.
> Visit Elkmont Ghost Town and take a step into history, hiking the James Creek and Little River trails past abandoned walls and chimneys — remnants of a community that existed before the park service purchased the land. The site is easy to find: From the ranger station, take a left at the sign for Elkmont Nature Trail, where there is a parking lot. From there, the historic structures are within walking distance.
> There’s no shortage of swimming holes near Elkmont. For an easy option, check out Metcalf Bottoms, located alongside a picnic area and parking lot. The scenic spot boasts shallow waters (only up to about four feet deep), making it an ideal spot for families. From the campground, Metcalf is about a 15 minute drive up Little River Road.
Places to stay:
> For camping, try what the area is known for: Elkmont Campground. Bathrooms are currently under reconstruction, but porta-potties are available. The picturesque campground is considered one of the busiest in the area, so reservations are required.
>For a unique glamping experience, check out the safari-inspired Under Canvas in nearby Pigeon Forge. The luxury tents (more like hotel rooms with canvas walls) include amenities such as bathrooms with hot water, king-size beds and wood burning stoves for chilly nights.
> Nestled in the trees, Townsend “Tree House” offers a private two-bedroom cabin located on a 2-acre property, complete with short trails, picnic area and mountain views. About a 30 minute drive from Elkmont (in the opposite direction of Gatlinburg), find this crowd-free accommodation on Airbnb.