When and Where to See the Shadow of the Bear, One of Fall's Coolest Natural Phenomena

At sunset, mountain shadows in North Carolina form the shape of a bear.

Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina, Shadow of the Bear
Photo: Getty Images

Autumn in the Blue Ridge Mountains sees dozens of people gathering along North Carolina's Highway 64 daily to spot the famed Shadow of the Bear. The road, surrounded by the rock cliffs of Whiteside Mountain, is a perfect vantage point for this fleeting phenomenon. As the sun starts to move behind the mountain, a shadow emerges along the rocky terrain and gold- and red-tinged foliage, slowly revealing the image of the animal, imposing and charming all at once.

The Shadow of the Bear is best viewed between Highlands and Cashiers in southwestern North Carolina. It casts its shadow for about 30 minutes each day starting in mid-October, always drawing crowds along the highway to watch the nightly show.

"The black bear … seen often around western North Carolina is a symbol that resonates with people. For the black bear to make an appearance on the mountain itself just adds to the mystery and the intrigue," Nick Breedlove, the executive director for the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority, told Travel + Leisure. "It's the only one of its kind in the country. You get chills the first time you see it, it's sort of this 'ah-ha' and this inspiring moment when it finally emerges, and you can feel the crowd get energized when you're waiting for it to come out."

High-angle view of autumnal mountains with a shadow resembling a bear
Michael Russell/Getty Images

Whiteside Mountain, with an elevation of 4,930 feet, can draw as many as 30 to 40 people each evening, about as many as the space can accommodate, Breedlove said.

Here's what you should know if you're out leaf peeping in the Blue Ridge Mountains and want to see the Shadow of the Bear.

Where to See It

Breedlove said the image of the bear is best viewed from the Rhodes Big View Overlook off of Route 64. But he notes that you should be careful when parking and walking along the highway as it is a major and busy road.

When to Go

The Shadow of the Bear emerges from around 5:30 to 6 p.m. on evenings in mid-October through early November. The bear can also be seen between mid-February and early March, a time that may be less crowded.

"The bear is very particular," Breedlove said, adding that it only comes out "on sunny days after 5:30 p.m." But you should get there early, around 4:45 to 5 p.m. at the latest, he said.

"What I recommend is people arrive there early if they want a spot because people will stand shoulder-to-shoulder to see this phenomenon," he said. "There's limited space to view this and it does take some time. It starts as a little black spot on the mountain and it gradually grows into a bear. And close to the end of it, it looks more like a mouse."

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