An amazing wildlife viewing experience is available in the Smoky Mountains. On any given day you can find dozens of elk in the heart of the Cataloochee Valley.
Here the elk roam freely through the valley’s open fields. The elk are most often seen in morning and late afternoon. Bring a camera to take photos, but keep a safe distance — as with any wildlife encounter, respecting the animal’s space is important.
A good rule of thumb is to stay 50 feet or more from the animals and to stay close to your car in case you need cover. If you get close enough to alter the elk’s behavior or make them stop what they’re doing, then you’re too close.
This is especially important in the fall during mating season, which is also known as “the rut.” This is when bulls (males), with their large rack of antlers, will let out their bugle call to get the attention of females. These bulls are incredibly territorial and you may see them butting heads to win the chance to mate. It’s this territorial aggression you’ll want to avoid.
From the Brink of Extinction
America’s elk population was decimated from over-hunting and loss of habitat in the early 1900’s. They were nearly wiped out altogether. Efforts to revitalize the species have slowly paid off and now the numbers of wild elk are beginning to grow.
In 2001, the National Forest Service introduced 25 elk into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then a year later 27 more elk were added. Now, two decades later, current estimates of the elk population are around 200.
How to Find the Elk
From Waynesville, take US Hwy 276 north about 10 miles to Cove Creek Road, which leads to the Cataloochee Valley park entrance. Here you’ll find elk grazing in their habitat and plenty of places to pull over and get a photo. In this area you’ll also find trails for hiking and you can take a self-guided tour of several historic buildings.