Find Elk Roaming in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This post is contributed by Justin Fricke of The Weekend Warrior

Forget the stigma and stereotyping you’ve heard about where to see elk roaming and grazing in wide open fields. Unless you’ve heard that you can see them on the east coast in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because that’s true. We usually associate elk with western states like Wyoming and Montana, but elk are also indigenous to eastern states like North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

For centuries, elk roamed and grazed the southern Appalachian Mountain valleys. There were once thousands of elk on the east coast, until settlers came through and over-hunted them, pushing the animals out of their natural habitat. It’s believed that the last elks were shot in North Carolina in the 1700s and in the 1800s in Tennessee. Centuries went by before elk would roam the southern Appalachian Mountains again.

Part of the National Park Service’s goal is to reintegrate indigenous animals and plants that have been extradited from the areas in the past. Fast forward to 2001 when the National Park Service reintroduced 25 elk to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and then another 27 the next year. Now the herds are doing well, and the park visitors love to see them graze when they come.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Sign

Image Credit: Justin Fricke

You need to be at the right part of the park at the right time of the day and year. Cataloochee Valley is where they hang out, and you’ll need to take exit 20 of I-40 in North Carolina. Turn right onto Cove Creek Road and hang on for the 11-mile ride through the mountains to get to the gate of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Drive safe, and plan for it to take 45 minutes from the exit to the park entrance.

Keep your eyes peeled because the herd could be anywhere—you just have to find them. Most of the time, they’re grazing in a big field surrounded by a wooded area at the back of the park. Follow the one and only road all the way back and set up your viewing area. Sometimes the herd is grazing in a field just off the side of the road.

Elk grazing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Image Credit: Justin Fricke

You might want to bring a blanket, chairs, binoculars, and a camera to see them. If you’re into photography, bring a lens that’s at least 200mm since the elk are usually far away in the field. Be sure to keep your distance, staying at least 50 yards from the elk all the time. They are wild animals after all.

Your best chance at seeing some elk in Cataloochee Valley is in the spring and fall months. Get to the park early and enjoy the park, hiking and exploring the trails and learning the history. Or get to the park late to do the same. Then turn your attention to looking for some elk. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to view them.

Two elk at Smoky Mountain National Park

Image Credit: Justin Fricke

Milltown State Park: How a State Park is Made

There are over 700 million visits to the more than 6,600 state-run parks, recreation areas, historic sites, beaches, and nature preserves across America every year. From sea to shining sea, we all probably have a favorite state park, either for our own enjoyment or for the satisfaction they serve our families. It’s plain reality that visitors are brought closer to nature through public spaces that invite and encourage them to get back to basics and relax away from whatever their responsibilities are outside the park’s boundaries.

But one wonders: How do the parks come into being? We talked about the CCC’s work in the past, but what has to happen to make all the hiking, camping, swimming, boating, and other outdoor activities we enjoy on thousands and thousands of acres of public land possible?

Clark Fork River

The Clark Fork River on what is actually a fairly average day. It’s always quite good-looking. [Image:]

Fortunately this process is presently unfolding just east of Missoula, MT where Milltown State Park is entering the last stages leading up to it fully opening its doors finally.

The park is a 500-acre parcel located at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers, about nine miles east of Missoula. The confluence was the setting for the Milltown Dam for nearly a century. The dam provided hydroelectric energy to the mills in the area so they in turn could process timber for shoring up shafts in Butte’s copper mines. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the site was investigated and designated a Superfund Site due to toxic, heavy metal saturation in over two million cubic yards of sediment directly surrounding and downstream from the dam, which had contaminated the local water supply. The remediation and restoration began in 2006, and with the help of local, state, and national organizations, was completed in 2012.

The Superfund Site at Milltown Dam, being addressed.

The area near the Milltown Dam shortly after its breaching in 2008. [Image:]

The building of Milltown State Park was the goal of the cleanup project from its start, and the original conceptual design was drawn up in 2007 between the Milltown Superfund Redevelopment Working Group; the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks; the National Park Service Rivers & Trails Program; and the Idaho-Montana Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The grant proposal to pay for building the park was submitted in 2009 to the Natural Resource Damage Program.

In 2013 and 2014, Montana State Parks drafted and finalized an Environmental Assessment to be implemented, “pending resolution of access issues.” That latter part refers to the 16-acre plot of privately held land the state would need to make a road and parking lot for park access.

After numerous efforts to bargain for the land and direct involvement on the part of Montana’s governor, it seems as of November 2015 the private company is ready to part with the specific 10-acres needed for the park’s access road—in a manner that is welcome to both the state and the landowner. The final Environmental Assessment on this acquisition is open to the public for questions and comments until November 25th. The park is hopeful it will break ground in the spring and will be up and running by mid- to late-fall 2016.

At present, the park’s main feature is access to a trail that settles into an overlook facing the Clark Fork, a rugged, robust river that makes its way through the Hellgate Canyon and into the Missoula Valley. The overlook is open for day-use purposes, like picnicking or bird watching.

Milltown State Park Information Booth

Some information available at the park that will hopefully be fully open by next fall. [Image:]

So in a sense, Milltown State Park has been a park-in-the-making over the last decade and is growing toward its potential, thanks to the help of many citizens, environmentalists, and government agencies. A state park, it turns out, is made of the work, time, and attention invested by people who recognize the importance of our relationship with nature and its preservation.

Whew! Knowing all that, it’s easy to feel grateful for the many ways we can enjoy the beautiful parks we already have, which is a good reason to download your state’s Pocket Ranger® mobile app and get on out there today!

Featured: Yellowstone National Park

This month’s featured park is none other than Yellowstone National Park, a sprawling 2.2 million acres of natural geothermal bedspread based in the northwestern corner of Wyoming and certain parts of Idaho and Montana.

This vast ecological center is seated on top of the Yellowstone Caldera, a massive supervolcano stretching between 35–45 miles. Not to worry, though; the last recorded eruption was approximately 70,000 years ago, and our technology has since improved so that you’re highly unlikely to be caught in the fireworks so to speak.


Yellowstone National Park is dazzling in the summer. [Image:]

While there are various debates on where the park attained its name, the two outstanding theories are that it may be named after the Yellowstone River from the Minnetaree Indian name Mi tse a-da-zi (Yellow Rock River). However, based on common lore, there is also the possibility that the name was derived from the yellow rock surrounding the area. French trappers came and called the river “Roche Jaune” (Yellow Rock) which, when later translated, was what stuck with travelers and led it to be referred to as “Yellowstone.”

Ferdinand V. Hayden primarily headed the expedition, discovery, and the park’s eventual designation as a protected natural area. It was a slippery discovery that lasted an approximate 30 years before it stepped past the label of myths and folklore. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant officially signed what was considered The Act of Dedication that protected the park’s area from settlement and occupancy. Since then, the park has been successfully conserved for almost two centuries and is the leading (and arguably most important) geothermal resource in the entire world.

If you’re planning to visit Yellowstone National Park this fall or coming winter, here are some activities and views that you can enjoy while at this wonderful, breathtaking area.

Geothermal Glory

Yellowstone is well known for its geothermal and hydrothermal system and its many geysers that can be found within the park. A study in 2011 estimated the park to have approximately 1,200 geysers with about 400 of them active annually. Impressively, the park is estimated to contain 10,000 geothermal features, meaning that 2/3 of the world’s geysers are concentrated in Yellowstone.

One of its most famous geysers is Old Faithful, which erupts at a rate of 45–120 minutes.


Old Faithful erupting in the sunset. [Image:]

Aside from Old Faithful, other famous geysers in the park include Castle Geyser, Lion Geyser, Beehive Geyser, and the Norris Geyser Basin. You can visit the park at any point throughout the fall and winter to witness these amazing spectacles.

Wildlife Viewing

Because the park’s ecosystem is one of the most primitive and well-preserved on Earth, it makes for a suitable environment to house a diverse population of wildlife. All across its mountains and acres of space, various mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and fish can be found dwelling within this natural ecospace.

Among the mammals that can be found in Yellowstone are coyotes, wolves, the largest purebred bison herd in the Americas, and antelope. Bears are also commonly encountered in Yellowstone, so it is highly advised to read up on safety methods before visiting. Coming near or disturbing the animals is not advised, and visitors are recommended to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and 25 yards away from any other mammals in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone wolves howling. [Image url:]

Yellowstone wolves howling. [Image:]

The park is also home to 311 species of birds, including bald eagles, ravens, and even whooping cranes (though the recorded sightings of those are rare). One can also spot harlequins, ducks, ospreys, and peregrine falcons.

Fishing is allowed in Yellowstone, and 18 species of fish can be found here, including lake trout, cutthroat trout, and mountain whitefish. Be sure to check the Rules & Regulations as well as the seasons and bag limits if you wish to go fishing in this reservoir.

Reptiles can be found within the park, including about six types of snakes such as the rubber boa, wandering garter snake, and the prairie rattlesnake. And additionally, amphibians can be found on the park grounds as well. Boreal chorus frogs, boreal toads, and blotched tiger salamanders are only three examples of what can be found within Yellowstone.

Early Winter in Yellowstone

Now that winter is coming, Yellowstone is probably the first park to trudge deep into the season. With its wonderfully arched slopes and miles upon miles of trails, Yellowstone is premium for winter adventuring. Tons of snow piles on top of the surroundings so that the whole scene is a gorgeous blanket of white surrounded by pine trees adorned in silver. It’s particularly beautiful when the setting or rising sun’s soft shades of red, purple, orange, and yellow hug the skies. These same colors illuminate the blanket of snow, truly making for a breathtaking sight.

Winter in Yellowstone [Image url:]

Winter in Yellowstone. [Image:]

Meanwhile hot springs decorated with tufts of snow erupt in their usual frequency, providing a sense of heat. Coyotes, wolves, bison, and bears trudge through the snow and leave behind paw prints on the winter grounds.

Despite the cold freeze, Yellowstone is a marvelous place for various winter activities, offering miles of perfect, snow-filled trails for skiers and commercially-guided snowmobile tours. Other opportunities include winter ranger programs, guided ski and snowshoe tours, and cross-country skiing.

If you wish to visit Yellowstone, check out the following links to help guide you in your adventure!

And as always, let us help you! The Pocket Ranger® National Park Passport Guide features a comprehensive guide of Yellowstone National Park. Find us in Apple Store and Google Play, and go adventuring today!

Celebrate Thanksgiving at Your Favorite State Park!

Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to spend in mother nature’s warm embrace: The weather is crisp yet not too cold to make you want to bundle up inside, and the changing foliage presents a gorgeous backdrop to any outdoor activity. It probably goes without saying, but we’re big proponents of not spending the day after Thanksgiving stuck on long lines buying discounted electronics and would much rather be outside at our favorite state parks. Luckily, many state parks feel the same way as us.

After Thanksgiving Hike, Tennessee State Parks

Tennessee's After Thanksgiving Hikes.

Work off all the turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing on any of Tennessee’s state parks. [Image:]

Eat as much as you want on Thanksgiving, then work it off while also avoiding the Black Friday craze at any of Tennessee’s lovely state parks through their After Thanksgiving Hikes series. Hikes range from easy to more challenging and are of varying distances. Get totally immersed in any of the parks and reconnect with your roots a bit along the way.

Thanksgiving Day Buffet, Ohio State Parks

Thanksgiving dinner.

Celebrating Thanksgiving the way it was meant to be—alongside family and friends. [Image:]

Don’t feel like cooking this Thanksgiving? You’re not alone on that front. Head on over to any of Ohio’s state park lodge and conference centers or dining lodges where they’ll do the cooking for you—your biggest responsibility will be relaxing, eating delicious food, and chatting with friends and family. And really, is Thanksgiving meant to be spent any other way?

Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot, Choke Canyon State Park

Wild turkey.

A little inspiration for the event perhaps? [Image:]

If you’re looking for a unique way to spend your Thanksgiving weekend, then you’ll definitely want to check out Choke Canyon State Park’s Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot. Learn the history and basics of archery with trained instructors, and maybe even learn a bit about turkey hunting as well. It’s a great event for the entire family! If you’re looking to exert yourself on an exciting hike, want to play around with arts and crafts, or just want a tasty Thanksgiving dinner, many other Texas state parks have events going on for the long weekend as well. Don’t let the opportunity to spend the weekend outside and with other outdoor enthusiasts pass you by!

Thanksgiving Dinner, Kentucky State Parks

Turkey dinner for Thanksgiving.

Cue mouth watering and stomach rumbling. [Image:]

All of Kentucky’s resort state parks are offering delectable buffet-style meals on Thanksgiving so you don’t have to slouch over your stove for a whole week to prepare it yourself. So kick your feet up, stuff yourself full of tasty food, and join other state park lovers to start off the holiday season on a positive note. Use the weekend to camp out in one of these gorgeous parks rather than on a long line at your local Best Buy.

Are you totally convinced yet that you need to spend Thanksgiving and the following long weekend outside? We knew you would be. Make sure you download our Pocket Ranger® mobile apps to enhance your outdoor experience throughout the fall, too.

Pack Your Bag and Head to the Woods: Great Fall Camping Sites Near You

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that fall is one of the best times to pack a bag and pitch a tent in the middle of the woods. Fall camping means colorful foliage swirling around, crisp air biting at your nose, and the opportunity to be completely immersed in the wilderness without having to worry about feeling sticky in your tent or freezing on the cold, hard ground. Really, does it get any better than having an autumn adventure? We made a list of some of the best state and national parks to spend the night in this fall.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Perfect Fall Camping Setting at Acadia National Park

Seriously, how is Acadia National Park allowed to even be real? [Image:]

Of course Acadia National Park is a camping hub—with its gorgeous views and wide array of outdoor activities to partake in, it’s almost easier to make a list of things you can’t do here. You’ll find everything from mountain ranges and dense woodlands to vast expanses of beaches and sparkling waters. With a wide variety of different habitats comes the opportunity to see all the fall changes that come to each, which of course you can’t be expected to see in just one day.

Lost Maples State Natural Area, Texas

Lost Maple State Natural Area in fall.

The colors, Duke, the colors. [Image:]

Head out to the Lone Star State to watch the leaves change and enjoy the cooling weather—if the name wasn’t indicative enough, it’s an especially fantastic spot to peep some changing maple trees at! The Lost Maples State Natural Area is updating their website to note the changing foliage throughout November, advising when the best time for visiting would be. It’s a great resource to have to make sure you don’t accidentally show up after all the leaves have already fallen.

Kissimmee State Park, Florida

Kissimmee State Park trees.

Tour the gorgeous trees at Kissimmee State Park this fall. [Image:]

Whether you’re looking to head out into the water or opt for a low-key, relaxing picnic instead, you’ll be accommodated at Kissimmee State Park. It also happens to be one of the most ideal places in Florida to extend your stay by a few days and relax into the warm weather. If you aren’t already aware, fall in Florida is entrancing and is not something to be missed.

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park in fall.

Yosemite National Park, how’d you get to be so beautiful? [Image:]

There’s a reason that Yosemite National Park has a reputation for its jaw-dropping views and plethora of outdoor activities. So it only makes sense that it’d have premium camping opportunities as well. Although a California autumn isn’t quite the same as an East Coast one, it still makes for a unique adventure that’s worth experiencing. Bottom line: You could definitely do worse than spending a few nights in Yosemite National Park this fall.

Snow Canyon State Park, Utah

Snow Canyon State Park.

Although there aren’t any pretty leaves, we think we can forgive Snow Canyon as it’s still super beautiful. [Image:]

A bit of a different direction—one that doesn’t exactly have the changing leaves we normally affiliate with fall. But spending a night in the hypnotizing Utah desert is a worthwhile venture regardless. Climb over the spreads of black lava and red rock cliffs during the day then collapse into a tent as the seemingly endless sky spreads out overhead. Can’t you picture it already? It’s just like a movie.

Perrot State Park, Wisconsin

Perrot State Park in autumn.

Breathtaking views and amazing foliage: Coming this autumn to Perrot State Park. [Image:]

Some of the most picturesque campsites can be found in Perrot State Park, and they’re only enhanced by autumn and all its predictable changes. Many visitors come for the hiking, biking, and canoeing. Then they decide to stay so they can do it all again the next day.

Are you feeling convinced yet that fall camping is one of the best ways to spend your autumn? Good, we figured as much. Before you head out, make sure you download our handy Pocket Ranger® mobile apps to aid in any and all of your explorations.

Four State Parks Where You Can Enjoy the Legacy of the CCC

Grand Teton grandeur.

CCC enrollees take in a dazzling view: A future instilled with hope. [Image:]

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March of 1933, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression and faced a workforce unemployment rate of nearly 25%. In almost the same breath as his inauguration oath, FDR began presenting programs to Congress and implementing his vision for the New Deal, which promised to help the investors devastated by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, windblown Dust Bowl farmers, and the American people at large to reclaim some of the high spirits and prosperity that had characterized life just a decade earlier.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one such program, and ran from 1933 until its funding and manpower were diverted to the American WWII effort, in 1942. The CCC was run in part by the U.S. Army, and as such was playfully dubbed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” In truth, the CCC was perhaps, not-so-secretly, Roosevelt’s favorite program and it became hugely popular with the general citizenry. In its nine years, the CCC would train and employ some three million American men between the ages of 17 and 28 who were put to work across the United States building infrastructure and establishing, amongst other things, what is now our fantastic and beautiful network of state and national parks. Below is a list of parks still touched by this bright legacy that park-goers can enjoy today.

Longhorn Cavern State Park Burnet, TX

Not only are there amazing rock formations and a stunning natural bridge at this state park, but all of the park’s features and experiences have been highlighted by the careful planning of CCC engineers and carried out dutifully by the corpsmen. The CCC cleaned out the main cavern in 1937, which entailed manually removing debris and guano from its base and tunnels. The workers then built a winsome stairway and installed lighting along a couple of miles of the underground passageways. The experience at this park would not be as enthralling were it not for the clever resourcefulness and dedication of the men of the CCC.

Rugged, yet elegant.

These charming CCC-built structures at Longhorn Cavern work in harmony with the area’s existing natural features. [Image:]

Guernsey State Park Guernsey, WY

This park is one of the best examples of extant CCC construction around. It features many trails, roads, structures, buildings, and even the remnants of a CCC-designed 9-hole golf course, which was abandoned in the 1940s. Perhaps best of all, in addition to the elegant and rugged CCC architecture and facilities, visitors to the park can also gain ten points in the Pocket Ranger® Park Passport GeoChallenge through April 2016.

Still rugged, yet elegant.

At Geurnsey State Park we find another CCC-built structure, handsomely constructed by and with the area’s natural elements. [Image:]

Koke’e State Park Waimea, Kaua’i, HI

The reach of the CCC even extends across the Pacific to the island state of Hawai’i. At Koke’e State Park, the CCC’s compound was built and in use by 1935 and is still a functional park of the park’s experience today. 

Tishomingo State Park Tishomingo, MS

The CCC’s presence is still quite present at Tishomingo State Park. Several of the park features are named for the CCC companies that established the majority of the park’s gorgeous facilities in northeastern Mississippi. Among them are trails, a pond, a “swinging bridge,” several pavilions, and the remnants of the camp the corpsmen used through their tenure at the park. As a bonus for history or pre-history buffs, there are Paleoindian artifacts from as long ago as 7000 B.C.E. as well as rock formations that give the park an air of the ancient.

An American flag flies brightly over an early CCC camp

An American flag flies brightly over an early CCC camp in Grand Teton National Park. [Image:]

Nearly 80 years later, the importance and lasting impact of the program cannot be overstated. While the CCC was in its heyday, approximately three billion trees were planted. Over 200 million of those were planted in the areas hit hardest by drought and windstorms in the Midwest. In just the first year of those trees’ presence, the amount of the rich soil being blown away reduced immensely. In addition to the trees, educational programs were offered regarding soil erosion and animal husbandry that, along with the end of the drought, helped the farmers and their families establish their livelihoods again—and keep them. Modern wildfire fighting and wildfire prevention also have roots in the program, and today’s land and wildlife management owes much to the men who built roads, blazed trails, planted forests, dug ditches and canals, and generally made headway for the many and varied ways we enjoy the natural splendor of our country today—including Pocket Ranger® apps!

Where do Wildlife Go in the Winter?

It is officially November! All around us, trees are shedding their summer skins to make way for a winter slumber. While the weather still allows us to enjoy some measure of comfort in the outdoors without the numbing chill, it is slowly beginning to make its presence more apparent through cold tinges in the air. Around this time last year, it seemed as if we skipped autumn entirely—one day it was summery and full of the sun’s blissful brightness, and the next saw the dimness of winter and a freeze seeped into our bones, knocking our teeth together as we rubbed our arms in a desperate attempt to retain heat.

Luckily, many of us have heated homes and thick jackets to bundle in once winter fully strikes. But where does various wildlife go in the winter? What happens to them as the earth snows itself to sleep for a couple of months? The answer is that it depends on the species!

Each species has developed a unique approach to winter survival that allows them to maintain their existence in the ecosystem. For instance, large species, such as the white-tailed deer, change fur colors in the winter, transforming from a beautiful copper hair into a gray-brown winter coat during wintertime.

Deer in winter

Deer in winter. [Image:]

This adaptive ability is useful as the gray-brown winter coat has hollow hair shafts and a dense underfur that keeps deer insulated during harsh winter conditions. During the fall months, deer also start to store body fat around their skin and internal organs, which is helpful for diet changes when they switch from high to low protein intake. Disregarding the movement patterns of these regally impressive species, deer survive in groups with fawns traveling closely alongside adults to preserve their numbers during the spring and summer months, due to the possibility of a high mortality rate if winters become too severe.

On the other hand, other species such as birds and monarch butterflies deal with winter through migration.

Wildlife Image of Migrating Birds

Birds migrating under setting sun. [Image:]

While some birds do migrate during winter months, many bird species generally don’t. This migration pattern is largely due to the availability of food sources during winter; if there’s a food source that’s readily available, there is no viable reason to migrate. For this reason, you may still see chickadees and blue jays during winter, but not birds such as swallows and hummingbirds, who migrate either North or South depending on the viable food source available.

Aside from the common method of migration, though, another way for animals to deal with winter is through hibernation.

Typically the term “hibernation” is assigned to deep hibernating animals like rodents, but has since expanded to include bears, other mammals, and even snakes. The act of hibernation is the state of inactivity that involves a decrease in body temperature and a slowing of breathing, heart rate, and metabolic rate to conserve as much energy as possible during the winter months when food is scarce. It is worth noting that true hibernation is only with warm-blooded animals, though. Animals such as snakes undergo what is called “brumation,” a state where the animals are awake yet exhibit typical hibernation behaviors.

Hibernating dormice

Dormice hibernating. [Image:]

Then there are insects, such as grasshoppers and praying mantis’s, whose lives are much shorter. These insects do not survive in winter, dying once the cold settles in. As such, they survive by leaving their eggs in the ground, which hatch as the weather becomes warmer when spring rolls around.

Praying mantis egg case

Praying mantis egg case in winter. [Image:]

It seems like harsh lives for insects such as the praying mantis, which only survive during three seasons, but they are actually doing perfectly well. And so are the other animals. Being in the wild during winter and surviving it through the spring has shown them to be extremely resilient to weather conditions, even developing abilities to the extent of altering their own physiological components to survive.

Despite the harsh weather conditions, animals manage to work their way around it and continually impress us with their resiliency. Wildlife is indeed amazing!

But while we still have a few days or weeks of autumnal sunshine, don’t forget that you can still take some time to watch wildlife through the Pocket Ranger® mobile apps available in your state! Find us in Apple Store and Google Play. Happy wildlife watching!