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The Elk of Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains Things to Do: Smoky Mountains Overview | The Elk of Cataloochee Valley | Clingmans Dome | Newfound Gap | Oconaluftee Visitors Center & Farm Museum | Deep Creek Waterfalls | Hiking & Outdoor Activities | Andrews Bald Hike | Chimney Tops Hike | Charlies Bunion Hike | Mt. Cammerer Hike | Mt. Sterling Hike | Scenic Drives | Mt. LeConte & Alum Cave Trail | Balsam Mountain | Dying Hemlocks | Cades Cove | Cherokee | Gatlinburg | Fontana Lake | Great Smoky Park News & Updates | Great Smokies Birding | Friends of Smokies | Purchase Knob
Elk in Great Smoky Mountains

For a romantic evening watching elk graze a short distance away, drive to the Cataloochee Valley section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Watch elk from the roadside (do not approach them in the fields).

In the beautiful Cataloochee Valley, you can tour a school, churches, a barn, and several homes. Five historic buildings are located along the road in the valley. An additional four buildings can be reached if you're willing to walk a couple miles down the nearby Little Cataloochee Trail. The self-guiding Auto Tour booklet (available roadside near entrance) provides brief histories of each structure.

The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the importation of 25 elk, In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. All elk are radio collared and are monitored. By 2014, the number grew to 140+.

Elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the eastern United States. They were eliminated from the region by over-hunting and loss of habitat. The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s.

The best times to view elk are usually early morning and late evening. Elk may also be active on cloudy summer days and before or after storms. Enjoy elk at a distance, using binoculars or a spotting scope for close-up views. Approaching wildlife too closely causes them to expend crucial energy unnecessarily and can result in real harm. If you approach an animal so closely that it stops feeding, changes direction of travel, or otherwise alters its behavior, you are too close!

There are several hiking trails in Cataloochee Valley. Boogerman Trail is named for Robert "Boogerman" Palmer, whose homesite you will see as you complete this moderately challenging 7-mile loop trail, which can take between 2 and 3 hours to complete. You will gain nearly 850 feet on your way to 3,600 feet at the trail's highest point. The trail is well maintained, and this hike offers views of some of the largest trees in the area, old homesites (including Palmer's) and mountain streams. This area was spared from the logging operations.

A primitive campground with 27 sites, is open mid-March through October for tents or RVs up to 31 feet. Reservations are required for all campsites. Reserve online at or toll-free at 1-877-444-6777. Walk-ins are not accepted.

Before the arrival of the Park in 1934, Cataloochee consisted of farmland maintained by an agrarian community of approximately 1,000 people. While few of the original structures remain, Big Cataloochee, the largest of several coves in the area, is considered to be North Carolina’s "Cades Cove." The Caldwell and Woody homes, the Will Messer barn, Beech Grove School and Palmer Chapel are maintained by the Park Service.

Spring: Most elk shed their antlers in March. The antlers, which are rich in calcium, are quickly eaten by rodents and other animals.

Summer: Most calves are born in early June. Male elk roll in mud wallows to keep cool and avoid insect pests.

Fall: Male elk make their legendary bugling calls to challenge other bulls and attract cows. Their calls may be heard a mile or more away. Large bulls use their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males. During the "rut" in September and early October, dominant bulls gather and breed with harems of up to 20 cows.

Winter: Elk wear a two-layer coat during the colder months. Long guard hairs on the top repel water and a soft, wooly underfur keeps them warm. Elk may move from the high country to valleys to feed.

Elk at Cataloochee

Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley

See the Smokies Hiking Guide. Also see our guide to a hike to nearby Mt. Sterling.

You can also usually see a view elk in the open field by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee.

Watch the elk in our video and hear the bugling!

Elk, Great Smoky Mountains
2014 Elk Update

Now more than 140 elk live in the Great Smoky Mountains. During September and early October, male elk make their legendary bugling calls during the "rut" to challenge other bulls and attract cows, using their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males. Stay along the road or hiking trails and do not approach elk in the fields. Elk can also be seen occasionally by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee. Elk are big and can be dangerous, and it's illegal to approach them. Willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces elk, is illegal in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Do not enter fields to view elk—remain by the roadside and use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view. It is also illegal to remove elk antlers or other elk parts from the park. Never feed elk or other wildlife or bait them in for closer observation.

Directions To Cataloochee Valley
About 45 miles from downtown, allow 1.5 hours to travel. Take I-40 West from Asheville to Exit 20 onto 276. Follow 276 for 1/4 of a mile, and turn right onto Cove Creek Road (NC 284). Travel 5.8 miles on this narrow, steep, winding, mostly gravel road to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Go slow and be careful! Continue another 1.7 miles to a paved road and turn left. Follow road another 3.5 miles until you see several old buildings and a meadow on each side of the road.
Cataloochee Valley
Elk in Great Smoky Mountains
Cataloochee Valley NC
Remember, willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces elk, is illegal in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Do not enter fields to view elk—remain by the roadside and use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view the animals.
Beech Grove School, Cataloochee Valley
Beech Grove School (1901)

Palmer Chapel, Cataloochee Valley
Palmer Chapel (1898)

Elk in Great Smoky Mountains

Cataloochee ValleyCataloochee Valley
Explore the hiking trails and historic buildings in Cataloochee Valley


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Writing & Photography By Mark File - ©2003-2014 File Investments, Inc - All Rights Reserved