black bear - Gatlinburg TNOne of the most enjoyable elements of a trip to Gatlinburg is getting away from cares and immersing oneself in a whole new world of natural wonder. From dozens of tiny, colorful salamanders that crawl along the ground to over two hundred types of birds in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a diversity of life that is important to cherish and protect.

As the nation's most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has so much to offer today's citizens and future generations. This remarkable national asset offers so many opportunities to enjoy and study flora and fauna, some of which doesn't exist elsewhere in the country.

One of the most visible wild creatures one can encounter in the park is the black bear. As ubiquitous as black bears are in the park, it's amazing how little the general public knows about them. They are intriguing animals that have the freedom to roam the park as its natural inhabitants. They are not zoo creatures that are living in an enclosure. With that said, there is so much to learn about black bears. With nearly 10 million visitors to the park every year, there are definitely hundreds of  bear sightings and stories that people share about their encounters with bears. Seeing bears at a distance is acceptable and even awe inspiring. One should never intentionally approach a black bear, especially a cub, as the mother is likely nearby. Some people report that they've seen quite a number of bears on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. As they've driven and hiked in that area, it has been a pretty common sight to see mother bears and cubs. Look up! Several visitors have seen cubs in the trees!

The streams and trails of Roaring Fork are a prime place to see bears, as is Cades Cove. Some of the guided walking tour companies in the area can take you on fun educational walks through either of these places in the park, and they can impart a lot of knowledge about black bear habits and how the bears act in different seasons. If you prefer riding on a tour you can find companies who provide bus tours through Cades Cove. This can be a great way to observe deer, birds and black bears in their natural habitat without getting too close to possibly disturb them. There are hayride tours earlier in the fall in Cades Cove, which make fun activities for families.

It's especially interesting to observe bears in late fall as they gain weight in anticipation of winter. Some of them double in weight or get even heavier, up to 500 pounds or more. Black bears don't hibernate in the winter but they do sleep deeply and sometimes move from their dens in the winter. The winter is when their cubs are born too. When you walk through the park you may see sheltered areas, old tree stumps or hollow trees. It's a good idea to steer clear of these areas as they may be black bear dens.

Bring your camera along as you may be fortunate enough to photograph a black bear. Photographing bears is best done from a distance of a few hundred feet; any closer isn't safe. Many visitors have taken photos of bears and cubs. While the cubs look cute they are of course wild creatures whose freedom must be respected.

Fascinating fact about black bears: Did you know that black bears are omnivorous? They eat many different things, including insects, berries, mammals, roots and much more. Discover more about black bears on National Geographic's website:

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/black-bear/

While it’s interesting to watch black bears in their natural surroundings, it is always important to remember important safety precautions and what to do if you should encounter a bear. You can learn more about black bears and what to do if you should come face to face with a bear. Read the park's page about black bears here: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/black-bears.htm

Have you seen black bears in the park? Share your experiences with us in the comments, on Facebook, on Twitter @travelgburg, or on Google +!