Elk in Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains Park

Elk in Cataloochee Valley, 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). The best time of day to see elk is the last hour before sunset and at sunrise. Remember to keep your distance!

Palmer Chapel

Cataloochee Valley is also home to nine historic buildings, including a school, church, barn and several homes. Five buildings along the road in the valley. An additional four buildings can be reached via a hike down the Little Cataloochee Trail. The self-guiding Auto Tour booklet (available roadside near entrance) provides brief histories of each structure.

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 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 2016, the number has grown to almost 200.

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.


While 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! For more things to do in the park, see our Great Smoky Mountains Guide.

Cataloochee Valley Hiking
Rough Fork Trail to the Woody House

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 2-3 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. This hike begins near the Cataloochee campground. Drive past the campground about 500 feet and park in the next to the footbridge. The Boogerman Loop hike begins from the Caldwell Fork Trailhead, immediately crossing over one of the longest footbridges in the Park. At just over 0.8 miles, turn left onto Boogerman Trail. At 4.7 miles you’ll reach the Caldwell Fork Trail once again. Turn right at this to complete the loop. The Little Cataloochee Trail takes you up a ridge and back down into another valley with some historic cabins and the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church. This hike starts near the group campsite near Palmer Chapel.

Quick Hike: Hike Rough Fork Trail along the cascading stream, crossing log foot bridges as you walk to the Woody House. This is an easy two-mile roundtrip that starts at the very end of the road in Cataloochee. The trail continues another 5.5 miles to Polls Gap, so you can extend your hike.

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

Guided Elk Tours

Elk Tours
Cataloochee Valley Tours
Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains is a special place that is not easy to get to, but hard to forget. Take a guided eco-tour with a naturalist to see the elk on one of their tours: Evening Elk Eco-Tours, Spring Wildflower Hike, or Synchronous Firefly Night Walks. Reservations required.

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 www.recreation.gov or toll-free at 1-877-444-6777. Walk-ins are not accepted.

Watch our video of the elk!

Directions To Cataloochee Valley from Asheville
Don't rely on GPS. 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. 

Elk Safety
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 bait them in for closer observation. 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. During September and October, fields in Cataloochee are closed to all use. But you can watch the elk from along the road. Elk are big and can be dangerous. 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. 

The Seasons for the Elk

  • 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. 
  • 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: The elk's fall breeding season is known as the rut (begins mid September). Even if the elk are not present, people are not allowed to walk into the fields. During the rut, male elk make bugling calls to challenge other bulls and attract cows. Dominant bulls use the fields to gather and breed with harems of up to 20 cows. Bull elk actively defend their territory by charging and sparring with competitors using their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males. Encroaching too close may lead a bull to perceive you or your vehicle as a threat causing them to charge.

For more hikes, see our Smokies Hiking Guide. Also see our guide to a hike to nearby Mt. Sterling

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