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.
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.
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.