This was such a great night. If you haven't ever done this, go next year, you won't be sorry.
We had to reserve our parking pass several weeks in advance. I had heard they sell out pretty quickly, so on the appointed morning I was sitting at the computer at 9:59am dutifully clicking on refresh over and over to ensure success reserving our spot right at 10:00am. (I heard from several people who missed out by waiting until just a few minutes later, so I'm glad I had years of concert ticket buying experience under my belt.)
On the big night we packed up some food and headed for the mountains. The whole parking and shuttling setup was very well organized, if just a little slow-moving. We left home about 5:40, arrived around 7, and by the time we had parked, waited in line, then shuttled over to Elkmont it was a bit before 8pm. We had about an hour and a half of daylight to burn, and that suited us just fine. We explored around and found Spence Cabin right by the water. We stashed our camp chairs and food supplies on the stone patio facing the river, then whiled away the time climbing around on rocks, skipping stones, and wading in the cold water (which is pretty much our specialty any time we're in the Smokys).
As dusk settled in we retreated to our chairs and ate the picnic dinner and treats we had brought along. We sat and ate and talked facing the water till it was good and dark. We saw just a few fireflies here and there and wondered when the big show would start in earnest. Luckily, Scott theorized maybe we should go check on the other side of the cabin in the thicker woods. I went to scout it out and a few steps into the trees realized we had been sitting in entirely the wrong place. Where on the patio by the river the full moon still illuminated things pretty well and the occasional fireflies looked pretty normal, in the middle of the dense tree growth it was dark and quiet and and the fireflies turned magical.
We quickly scooped everything up and replanted ourselves right in the middle of the forrest. I can't even begin to describe it. We sat in silent awe as thousands of lights undulated all around us. They would start out in the distance then come toward us in a fluid wave until we were surrounded on all sides by twinkling lights. We sat there slack jawed and feeling almost reverent for a long time.
[Disclaimer: Okay, Afton wasn't quite as enamored as the rest of us. As soon as we sat down in the trees I whispered to her, "Isn't this the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" Her quick answer was, "Yes! How much longer do we have to stay here?"]
It was a bit of a long line to board the shuttles back to the parking lot again, and it was a few hours past the little girls' bedtime by then, but it was completely worth it. Even as we stood waiting and tired, the kids were asking to come back next year.
I didn't bring my camera, though I don't know how well it would have been able to capture the display anyway, and our phones didn't even come close. So you'll have to go for yourself to see what it's really like. We did take plenty of shots of the playing in the river part though.