• Roger W. Downes

See Elk In The Smoky Mountains

Updated: Sep 15

See elk bugle, battle and live during the rut, in Western North Carolina...

As the summer’s surging temperatures start to fade in late August and early September, haunting calls begin to echo out of the mist of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There is no need to worry however, as these ghostly high pitched bugles are those of bull elk searching for a willing cow to expand their families. One of the most exciting times of the year has arrived in the Smokies, filled with epic battles and the blessings of new life, this is the Rut.

However, this wasn’t always the scene in the Smokies, sadly the Eastern Elk population had been hunted to extinction centuries ago leaving the Southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains silent of their beautiful calls. It was only after the combined efforts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and many conservation groups that elk were reintroduced into the mountains of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. Those initial and continued efforts have made the difference as the herds continue to grow.

This blessing of compassion by the natural world and wildlife lovers has now blossomed into a chance for you to witness wild elk again in their natural habitat. One of the top locations to discover elk grazing, bugling, and battling during the rut is in Cataloochee Valley, just a few miles into the mountains outside of Maggie Valley, North Carolina. The rolling open fields filled with high lush grasses, a plentiful creek, and high sheltering mountain are a favorite morning and late afternoon retreat for the elk who typically take shelter in the forest from the heat of the day.

You can easily watch the elk from the comfort of your vehicle along the winding road which traverses the valley floor. However, many people are a bit more daring and wander along the road on foot with their cameras to capture images of the bull elk battling, bugling and chasing the cows (lady elk) in hopes of romance. If you decide to stretch your legs while in the valley, remember that the elk are wild animals and the bulls are especially hyped up on hormones during the rut making them protective and feisty.

With that in mind, the Park requires that you stand at least fifty yards (half a football field) away from the elk at all times giving them their space and helping you to avoid injury. If your plans include photographing the elk while you are there, I would suggest bringing along your best telephoto lens or using the zoom feature on your cell phone’s camera. In the event that the elk should walk or run out of the forest in front of you, back away slowly without making sudden movements to provoke the elk into believing you are a threat. Yes, even the cows will attack if they believe you pose a threat to their calf.

With that said, elk typically do not attack people observing the herd. However, if you follow the suggestions by the Park you will limit your chances of provoking an attack and or being fined by a Park Ranger. What is truly sad, is if an elk attacks you, the Park will be forced to put that animal down as it has now become a danger to the public. So please do not risk yourself or the elk, remain fifty yard away or watch them from within the safety of your vehicle.

I personally believe the best time of day to watch the elk is just after sunrise, because the valley floor has a better chance of being filled with mist giving your photos a magical ambience. If you are not interested in driving in before the rooster crows you can either camp in the valley, at the Parks campsite, or visit in the late afternoon when the elk come back out to graze. But, in my opinion, there is a small challenge to visiting in the afternoon, and that is the additional people who arrive to watch the elk.

Parking spaces are limited so it becomes more difficult to find a spot to sit peacefully without having to constantly move to allow others by. There are several ways for you to help alleviate this challenge;

One, arrive early in the afternoon and find your spot along the open fields before the crowds arrive.

Two, try and safely carpool as many wildlife lovers as you can to the valley.

Finally, the road into the valley is a narrow two lane dirt path through the forest with multiple blind curves. But don’t let that discourage you, even if you have a low riding vehicle, you can traverse the dusty passage if you drive slowly and take each blind curve as if there was another vehicle coming.

Please believe me when I tell you that these small challenges are well worth the effort. Witnessing the elk in person is a blessing that leaves you feeling more connected with nature and God than you will be able to replicate in a metropolitan or suburban setting.

No matter if you visit Cataloochee or not, I strongly encourage you to escape your fast paced life and head into the national forests and parks to recharge your soul.

Travel Tips For Staying In The Smoky Mountains


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