Black Bears

Infographic with a main title that says, "Dogs + Bears = Trouble." A light blue box with black text says, "Dogs are allowed in campgrounds and picnic areas, along roads, and on two trails only: the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail."
BearWise Outdoor Safety: Keep people and dogs safe, and bears wild.

Smokies Life Graphic/Emma Oxford

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Is Bear Country

Over the last 10 years, an average of 339 negative human-bear encounters have been reported annually; many more go unreported. Visitors should be aware that high bear activity can occur in any area, and that your safety is not guaranteed. To increase your odds for a safe visit, please follow best practices for living and recreating in bear habitat. Stay alert and be prepared to react appropriately during possible encounters, and always report any unusual bear interactions as soon as possible.

Dogs + Bears = Trouble

Infographic Description: Dogs are allowed in campgrounds and picnic areas, along roads, and on two trails only: the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. Dogs are not allowed on any other park trails. You must keep your dog on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times.

Tips for Enjoying the Park with Dogs:

  • Carry bear spray and know how to use it: it works from 30 feet away.
  • Stay alert; music and phones are distracting.
  • If you see a bear, turn around and leave.
  • Don't let your dog bark at, harass, chase, or corner a bear.
  • If your dog gets into a fight with a bear, don't rescue it. You will get injured. Use bear spray.

Dogs are involved in the majority of all physical encounters involving people and black bears. Black bears are not normally aggressive or confrontational, but will defend food and cubs and fight back when cornered. If your dog gets into an encounter with a bear, there's about a fifty percent chance it will be injured or killed—and an even higher chance you'll be injured if you intervene. If your dog runs after a bear, it may bring the bear back to you.

Leashes Save Lives

Letting your dog off leash in the park is illegal and dangerous. Don't put your dog and yourself at risk. Please, leash up. Learn more at

Black bear standing on a log
Attacks on humans are rare. If you are physically attacked by a black bear, fight back aggressively with any available object—the bear may consider you as prey! Do not "play dead." Help protect others by reporting all bear incidents to a park ranger immediately. Please keep your distance from bears.

Gary Carter Photo

What Do I Do If I See a Bear?

Bears in the park are wild and their behavior can be unpredictable. Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death. Treat bear encounters with extreme caution!

If you see a bear:

  • Remain watchful.
  • Do not approach it.
  • Do not allow the bear to approach you.
  • If the bear is at a distance, feeding, or walking by and notices you but continues its natural behavior, no action is needed on your part. Proceed while continuing to observe the bear.
  • If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you, etc.) you are too close.
  • Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don't run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same.

If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing or paw swatting:

  • Change your direction.
  • If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground.
  • If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it.
  • Act aggressively to intimidate the bear.
  • Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground).
  • Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear.
  • Use a deterrent such as a stout stick.
  • If you are carrying bear spray, begin to discharge it when the bear comes within 20 yards of you. Watch this video on how to safely use bear spray.
  • Don't run and don't turn away from the bear.
  • Don't leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
  • Don't discharge a firearm; this can cause a safety hazard for other visitors.

If the bear's behavior indicates that it is after your food:

  • Separate yourself from the food.
  • Slowly back away.

If the bear shows no interest in your food and you are physically attacked, the bear may consider you as prey:

  • Fight back aggressively with any available object!
  • Do not play dead!

Help protect others and report all bear incidents to a park ranger immediately. Above all, keep your distance from bears.

A large black bear standing by a tree
Black bears are dangerous and unpredictable wild animals. Do not approach bears or allow them to approach you.

Gary Carter Photo

Bears in the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings.

Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate that roughly 1,900 bears live in the park. This equals a population density of approximately two bears per square mile. At one time, the black bear's range included most of North America except the extreme west coast. However loss of habitat has resulted in a significant reduction in this range.

Black bears in the Smokies are black in color, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. They may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, a typical adult male bear weighs approximately 250 pounds while adult females are generally smaller and weigh slightly over 100 pounds. However, bears may double their weight by the fall. Bears over 600 pounds have been documented in the park. Bears can live 12-15 years or more, however bears which have had access to human foods and garbage have a life expectancy of only half that time.

Bears, like humans, are omnivores. Plant materials such as berries and nuts make up approximately 85% of their diet. Insects and animal carrion provide valuable sources of protein for bears.

Bears have color vision and a keen sense of smell. In addition, they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run 30 miles per hour.

Bear Behavior

Bears are most active during early morning and late evening hours in spring and summer. Mating usually takes place in July. Both female and male bears may have more than one mate during the summer.

Bears choose a denning site with the coming of cold weather. Dens are usually hollow stumps, tree cavities, or wherever there is shelter. Bears in the Smokies are unusual in that they often den high above the ground in standing hollow trees. Bears do not truly hibernate, but enter long periods of sleep. They may leave the den for short periods if disturbed or during brief warming trends.

One to four cubs are born during the mother's winter sleep, usually in late January or early February. Bears weigh eight ounces at birth. Females with newly born cubs usually emerge from their winter dens in late March or early April. Commonly born in pairs, the cubs will remain with the mother for about eighteen months or until she mates again.

Fire ring with pieces of trash in it.  A red slash across it.
Trash in fire rings is harmful to wildlife and unsightly. Take the extra step and bring your trash to one of our many bear proof dumpsters or trash cans.

NPS Photo

Garbage and Food Scraps Kill Bears

The bear's keen sense of smell leads it to insects, nuts, and berries, but the animal is also enticed by the tantalizing smells of human food and garbage such as hot dogs, apple cores, chips, and watermelon rinds left on the ground in picnic areas, campgrounds, and along trails. Feeding bears or allowing them access to human food and garbage causes a number of problems:

  • It changes the bear's behavior and causes them to lose their instinctive fear of humans. Over time, these bears may begin approaching people in search of food and may become more unpredictable and dangerous.
  • Bears that obtain human food and garbage damage property and injure people. These bears pose a risk to public safety. They can also teach other bears this dangerous behavior. Often, they must be euthanized.
  • Studies have shown that bears that lose their fear of people by obtaining human food and garbage never live as long as bears that feed on natural foods and are shy and afraid of people. Many are hit by cars and become easy targets for poachers.

For these reasons, park rangers issue citations for littering, feeding bears, and for improper food storage. These citations can result in fines of up to $5,000 and jail sentences lasting up to six months. Visitors are urged to view all wildlife at a safe distance and to never throw food or garbage on the ground or leave it unattended. Garbage Kills Bears!

Two bears relax in a tree
Help keep the park's bears wild. Do not feed bears. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear!

Gary Carter Photo

Bear Management

Bear management is really people management. How visitors behave while in the park has an impact on the safety of bears. If you are careless with your food or litter, YOU may be responsible for a bear's death!

The park has done many things to make it easier for you to protect bears. Bear proof dumpsters or trash cans can be found in all campgrounds and picnic areas. Please use them to dispose of garbage.

During summer months, some of the busiest picnic areas close at 8:00 PM so these areas can be thoroughly cleaned before dark and any food scraps or trash left by careless visitors can be removed. Park rangers patrol picnic areas and campgrounds to enforce evening closures, littering, and food storage regulations. They also strictly enforce regulations that prohibit approaching, harassing, disturbing, or feeding bears.

An army of park volunteers patrol the park's most popular trails, picnic areas, and campgrounds to educate visitors about protecting bears. They confiscate unattended food or coolers and clean up food scraps left behind by careless visitors. These volunteers also assist in managing people during roadside bear jams.

In the backcountry, food storage cables have been installed to make it easier for backpackers to hang their food and garbage so that bears cannot get to it. At some campsites, telephone poles were flown into remote backcountry areas because the trees around the campsites were too small to set up an effective cable system.

The park's Resource Education staff provides information about bears at visitor centers, in the park's newspaper, and at evening programs. Educational signs about bears can be found on picnic tables throughout the park and bear safety videos are posted on this website.

Wildlife managers actively monitor for bear activity and use innovative and proactive techniques to keep bears shy, secretive, and afraid of people. This approach allows bears to remain in their home range, and discourages them from visiting developed areas or approaching people.

Results of these efforts are very encouraging. In some areas, the number of bears that have to be trapped and moved away has decreased by ten fold.


What Can You Do to Protect Bears?

  • Dispose of all garbage or food scraps in bear proof garbage containers or take it with you.
  • Do not feed wildlife. Feeding a bear guarantees its demise!
  • Do not approach within 50 yards or any distance that disturbs a bear.
  • Do not allow bears to approach you (see What Do I Do If I See a Bear? above).
  • Use the food storage cables to store your food and garbage when camping in the backcountry.
  • If you see another visitor breaking these rules or encounter a bear in a picnic area, in a campground, on a trail, or in any other developed area, please call (865) 436-1230 or stop at a visitor center to report it.

Other Threats to Bears

Non-native Species:

  • The European wild hog is one of the most direct threats to the black bear. These pervasive intruders feed on the acorns and other foods that are mainstays of bear diets. Another non-native species, the spongy moth, is expanding its range toward the park. This insect defoliates oak trees, weakening them and leaving them susceptible to other insects and diseases which may kill the trees. Not only could bear's food source of acorns be affected, but some of the prime denning spots in old growth trees may be lost.


  • Unfortunately, the lure of high profits on international markets encourages the poaching of black bears. Several cultures believe that bear gall bladders, paws, and claws have medicinal powers or consider them gourmet delicacies.

Urban Encroachment

  • Community and private developments near park boundaries are causing a loss in habitat for the bears. Poaching activities can be somewhat curtailed, and bear populations can eventually rebound from the losses. But once the critical habitats are destroyed, major declines in bear populations are inevitable. In addition, bears that venture outside park boundaries into neighboring communities may encounter human food and become unpredictable, dangerous, and a threat to human safety.

Additional Information

Wildlife Watching in the Park
Every year park animals must be destroyed because of mistakes humans make. Learn how to protect park wildlife.

Learn More About Black Bear Research in the Park
Scientists at the University of Tennessee discuss work they conducted through 2009.

Appalachian Bear Rescue
This nonprofit organization is a rehabilitation, research, and education facility that cares for injured and orphaned bears.

Last updated: February 29, 2024

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107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738



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