The Smoky Mountains are known for their black bears. But what about the elk? I always loved seeing the wild elk in the Smoky Mountains! Their story is often forgotten and to me, it is one of the coolest experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Wild Elk In The Smoky Mountains
The North Carolina side of the Smokies doesn’t always get the most attention. The Tennessee side seems to shine brighter, which could be from all the bright lights in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. But the Carolina side of the park is pretty remarkable too. With beautiful sheltered meadows and forests, the North Carolina side of the Smokies has given the thriving elk herd a place to freely roam and call home – something that has been vital to growing the numbers of the original 52 elk that we reintroduced to the park.
The truth is that elk, like the American Buffalo, were once abundant throughout the United States. Over the years their numbers started to decrease due to overhunting and habitat loss. The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s and in Tennessee by the mid-1800s. By the 1900s, the eastern elk herds were wiped out and there were growing concerns that the species was on its way to extinction.
After many elk-less years in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a five-year study, there was a move to restore the park’s elk herd. The reintroduction of elk into the national park began in 2001 with 25 elk that were brought in from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The following year, in 2002, the park imported another 27 animals from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. The original 52 elk have grown to a heard of over 150 and counting! They can mainly most often be found in Cataloochee Valley where they were reintroduced but have been spotted in Maggie Valley and Cherokee too.
Elk facts and figures
- Adult male elk are known as “bulls” and weigh on average about 700 pounds. Female elk are called “cows” and average 500 pounds. Newborn calfs weight 35 pounds.
- Adults are 7-10 feet long from nose to tail and stand 4.5-5 feet tall at the shoulder.
- Adult males have antlers that may reach a width of five feet.
- Elk can live as long as 15 years.
- Elk have an acute sense of smell and excellent eyesight. Coyotes, bobcats, and black bears may kill young or sick/injured elk, but adult elk are generally safe from predators in the park.
- Elk are vegetarian. They eat grasses, forbs, and acorns, as well as the bark, leaves, and buds and berries from shrubs and trees.
- Cows usually give birth to only one calf per year. Newborns can stand within minutes of birth and calf. Calves nurse up to 7 months.
- Elk are part of the deer family which includes moose, caribou, mule deer, and white-tailed deer
- Bull elk grow and shed a new set of antlers every year. The new set of antlers will start growing as soon as the old antlers drop off and can grow up to one inch per day!
- Antlers on an adult male can weigh as much as 40 pounds.
- The best time to see elk is early morning and late afternoon.
Viewing the elk
Safety for both you and the elk should always be a top priority! And remember federal regulations require you stay at least 150 feet away from the animals. Elk are wild animals in the park. There are no boundaries or barriers keeping you and the elk separated so be aware of your surroundings. It is also extremely important that you do not feed the elk or interact with them in any way! Viewing is a year-around opportunity in the park though, so no matter when you visit you can still make plans to view the herd.
Where to view the elk
Most of the elk are located in the Cataloochee Valley area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some of the elk have migrated to other areas but the Cataloochee Valley, where they were originally reintroduced, remains the most prominent area for elk viewing.
Cataloochee Valley is nestled among rugged mountains and surrounded by 6000-foot peaks. The valley was one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1910, before the national park came to be, some 1,200 people lived in Cataloochee.
Cataloochee the most popular area to see the wild elk in the Smoky Mountains even though it is a remote area of the GSMNP. Once you leave Hwy 276 there are no food stops or gas stations available. Make sure you fill up your car before heading into the valley.
In the valley itself, there are several historic structures and exhibits. You’ll be able to see homes, a schoolhouse, and churches from the original pioneer settlement. This living museum in the mountains lets you see what life was like in these mountains many years ago. There are also hiking trailheads with miles and miles trails and plenty of places to view wildlife, including the elk.
Primetime to view elk is around sunset and sunrise. The elk come out into the open valley fields at these times to graze and they return to the wooded areas during the day. There is only one road in and out of Cataloochee Valley and we’ve always had luck seeing the herd as we drive along the main road. If you want a more in-depth experience, you can also go on a fully guided eco-tour with Cataloochee Valley Tours for a wonderful viewing experience.
Cherokee and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center
If you don’t have time to drive to Cataloochee, we’ve always been able to see elk grazing in the fields next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee. Elk have also be spotted in the water and on the Oconaluftee River Trail in fall. This is one of my favorite places to see the herd of wild elk in the Smoky Mountains.
Another viewing location is the area around the Cherokee schools complex. About 1.5 miles up Big Cove Road just beyond the schools, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians created a grassy garden area just for the elk. You can also find the herd in the lowland fields along US 441 in the National Park or in the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center just north of park visitor center.
Spring is known as the first half of calving season. Most of the calves in Cataloochee are born late May thru June. The cows will hide their calves in the high grass which are perfect for protecting their young.
In early spring (usually March) the elk have generally shed their antlers. The antlers are solid bone and can as much as 40 pounds. As soon as the old pair fall off a new pair starts to grow! The newer growth looks like it is covered in a fuzzy brown velvet.
And in late spring the elk start to shed their winter coats and start growing sleek, copper-colored, one-layer summer coats.
By late June, the calves are typically up and moving with the herd. Since summers can get hot in the mountains, don’t be surprised if you see a male elk rolling in mud wallows. They do this to keep cool and avoid getting bit by bugs. The herd will often be seen grazing in fields as they start to prepare for the winter to come. Calves grow quickly in the summer/fall months often gaining over 100 pounds by the time winter rolls around.
Fall means breeding season, known as “rut”, is in full swing and during this time males will make their bugling calls to challenge each other and with the hopes of attracting cows. While sparing males can look like they are causing each other some serious injury, the truth is that most of these spars are ritualistic and involve little physical contact. Their calls can be heard from a mile away so don’t be too worried if you hear if off in the distance while you’re hiking – but be aware as during this time males can be aggressive and unpredictable!
In winter elk wear a two-layer coat for extra warmth in colder months. The long guard hairs on the top will repel water and a soft, wooly underfur keeps them warm. During winter most of the males go up into the mountains. The females and calves winter in smaller groups and the groups will come back together in spring. Elk may move from the high country to valleys to feed but viewing can be hard to predict.
Seeing the wild elk in the Smoky Mountains is truly something special. Maybe it is their story of survival, maybe it is their sheer size that leaves you amazed, but one thing is for sure: no trip to the Smokies is complete without seeing the wild elk herds.