This last weekend of September marks the calm before the October storm of people descend on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. More than a million visitors enter the park each October to see the magnificent seasonal colors produced by the trees.
The forests are already producing an enormous amount of food for a hungry population of black bears.
"We have a bumper crop of acorns this year, specifically from the White Oak trees," said Dana Soehn with the GSMNP Public Affairs office. "Bears are having a feeding frenzy. They're gorging themselves. We hope that added weight is going to help them through winter. We didn't have a good acorn crop last year so there was a lot more dispersion."
A severe food shortage in 2011 sent black bears scouring vast areas in search of nourishment. Now the bears are so focused on fattening up for the winter they are ignoring other bears and people while they chow down on fall mast.
"We have been managing this group of around eight black bears that are eating right beside this road," said park volunteer Pat Carbone. "We got out here around 8:00 this morning and we will probably be here until late this evening after dark. This is the only time you're going to see this because they [the bears] tolerate each other. You do not normally see a bunch of male and female black bears just eating side-by-side. If you look up there you see two of them right together up here which is very unusual."
Carbone and other team members lined the edge of the narrow road with orange cones to prevent drivers from trying to pull off the road for a glimpse of the bears.
"We spend most of our time actually pretty much managing people, not so much the bears. We kind of let the bears do their thing which is what they are supposed to do," said Carbone. "We try to let people take pictures and have fun, but at some point you have to get them to move on or else you can quickly end up with a big traffic jam."
"We want to remind people to use the pull-offs if they are going to park. Do not just pull off on the side of the road because you cannot trust the stability of the slopes," said Soehn.
If the bears can beef up in the short-term, park officials hope they will not resort to seeking out food from people the rest of the fall season. Now the Park wants to ensure people do not dangerously seek out bears.
"As exciting as it is to have that encounter and experience with bears, the safest thing for yourself and that bear is to remain 50 yards away at all times," said Soehn. "It is actually illegal to intentionally go within 50 yards of wildlife, including bears and elk. That is for the safety of our visitors, but also to make sure we do not interrupt the animals while they prepare for the winter. It is a crucial time of year for the bears that coincides with some of our largest visitation numbers during the beautiful fall foliage."
The GSMNP has a fall colors page on its website with updated information on the locations where to find the most vivid foliage.