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Are There Bears in the Smoky Mountains?

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The Great Smoky Mountains -- also known as the Smokies or the Smoky Mountains -- are located on both sides of the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Almost all of the range is contained within and protected by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Only one species of bear is found in the Smokies: the black bear.

Physical Description

Despite the name, black bears can be brown or cinnamon in color, in addition to black. However, black bears in the Smoky Mountains always have black coats. During the summer, the average male weighs around 250 pounds and the average female around 100 pounds. However, as they move closer to hibernation, they may be twice as heavy. They usually stand between 2 and 3 feet at the shoulder.

Population and Habitat

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates there are between 850,000 and 950,000 black bears in North America. Of these, roughly 1,500 live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is approximately two bears for every square mile of park land. They can be found at all elevations across the park. They tend to prefer living in forested areas -- as they're great climbers who often shimmy up trees for protection -- but they can also be found in places with dense brush or other vegetation.


Although black bears den for around six months of the year, they don't truly go into hibernation -- it could be better described as a very deep sleep. They'll usually den anywhere that provides good shelter, such as tree cavities or hollow stumps. Black bears in the Smoky Mountains almost always choose to den higher up, off the ground in standing hollow trees, which is not typical behavior.

Bear Watching

Black bears are wild animals, and can be dangerous or unpredictable, but that doesn't mean you can't watch them from afar, as long as you're careful. They're more commonly found on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains. You're more likely to see them in open spaces, such as in Cades Cove or Cataloochee Valley. Don't feed or interact with the bears, which might cause them to seek out food from others in the future. Bears in the Smokies that beg for human food have to be reconditioned to their natural behaviors or they may have to be destroyed.