Elk Viewing in North Carolina’s Gorgeous Cataloochee Valley

Waynesville, North Carolina’s Cataloochee Valley has become a prime spot for elk viewing since 2011, after an experimental program reintroduced elk to this part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The program was led by the National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and a few other partners. Twenty-five radio collared elk were brought in and released. Additional elk (and other animals) were gradually brought in over the years, and today there are around 200.

Some elk have migrated toward Cherokee, North Carolina and other areas of Appalachia where they originally roamed, before excessive hunting and loss of habitat led to regional extinction in the 1700s.


Cataloochee Valley is often called the North Carolina version of Tennessee’s famous Cades Cove.

Cataloochee Valley is one of the most remote areas of the GSMNP, accessible by the narrow, gravelly, ten-mile Cove Creek Road that snakes around hairpin curves during its steep incline across Cove Creek Gap and up the mountain.

The mountains here are known for their distinct ruggedness and nearly 6,000 feet high peaks. I became so motion-sick on the drive up Cove Creek Road that we had to pull over so I could barf a few times on the way, so take some Dramamine if you are prone to nausea.


Best times for elk viewing are right at dusk and at dawn, so you have two chances each day, if you plan it right and wait patiently.

We arrived around 7 am, just in time to watch the sun rise above the mist, setting the stage for the majestic elk to appear. Slowly, they began to emerge a few at a time.


Early fall is known as The Rut, the mating season for elk. Crowds gather to hear male elk bugle at each other. Bugling is a distinct sound they make to assert dominance and attract mates.


This mating call is often a pre-cursor to a good old session of whoop ass, so stay at a safe distance, now more than ever. Here is a short video on Youtube if you would like to hear examples of bugling.

We kept laughing because every time we were just about to take an incredible shot, the elk would turn around and show us their bums. I have lots and lots of blurry photos of elk bums from this trip.


Other popular “seasons” for elk are Calving Season in late spring when new babies are born, and Growing Season in the summer when the babies start to mature and emerge with the rest of the herds for viewing.

My favourite moment of the trip was after this bull (below) got out-bugled and chased off by another bull. He stormed away, angrily grunting under his breath and shaking his head as he crossed the field. I imagine he was cursing in some ancient elk language. Poor guy.


Cataloochee Valley was first home to the Cherokee and was used as their hunting grounds until the 1830s.

Then Henry Caldwell and his family moved in, with many other settlers soon to follow. The new settlement grew and thrived for nearly a century.


By the 1920s, around 1200 people lived in the valley. It had become known for its farms and fruit orchards, especially commercial apple farms.

Tourism became the valley’s second most important industry, attracting guests from all over that wanted to spend time in the beautiful mountains.

In the early 1930s, word got around that the area would be bought up by the US Government to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and within a decade, only a few settlers remained.


The Caldwell House is on display to walk through, just watch out for low ceilings and wiggly boards.


We found this cute little brown bat resting inside one of the rooms by himself.



Across from the Caldwell House is an old barn, which I found to be the most pleasantly rustic shot of the trip. I love any place where water runs between the mountains. It was so serene here.



When I learned about the land being purchased to create a park, my first thought was of the families who were forced to move.

Removing humans from land in order to conserve it has been a common necessity throughout time, the background story of most national parks and forests.


However, when we visited the valley’s small history center, there were a few topography maps on display showing that the settlers of the Cataloochee Valley had been selling off lumber. They had been allowing the entire area to be stripped of its natural resources, cleared and destroyed for profit.

Creating the park was a dire effort to conserve this beautiful land before it was too late.

Stop by the Jarvis Palmer House, which has been converted into a small walk-through history exhibit of the area.


Other structures in the valley include the abandoned Beech Grove School House.



The schoolhouse sits right beside a gorgeous creek flat, so be sure to take time to admire it.


I loved the gigantic dense field of ferns lining the creek on both sides.


The old Palmer Chapel Methodist Church is a cute little building tucked back into the foliage. It was once the only church in the whole valley.


If you know what you are looking for and when to do it, you can find a variety of snakes, salamanders, lizards, and other crawlies in the park. Check out these little ring-neck snakes!



This guy was found near the creek.


We walked the Rough Fork Trail for a mile, through a lush forest and across a few primitive waterfall bridges.



From the main trail, you can continue on and connect to longer trails like the Boogerman Trail and the Big Fork Ridge Trail.


Rough Fork Trail leads to the old Woody House, another cute but abandoned house you can walk through.


We also walked up the main hill to two different cemeteries once the elk herds had passed. Both were a little steep and I am embarassingly out of shape, but the view was rewarding.




Small signs marking the start of both cemetery paths, but just look for two wide, mowed clearings in the grass leading uphill.

Be aware that elk and other animals use these paths also, and that they may be present at any time once you step into the woods.


Visitors can camp with tents or RVs in one of nearly thirty sites between March and October, but only if reserved in advance. There is a horse camp onsite, so you may see them roaming about or running past you on some of the trails.

A small crowd can usually be found at the Cataloochee Valley Overlook, the perfect spot for a selfie.  Fishing the abundant wild trout of Cataloochee Creek is popular here too, but make sure you get your TN/NC fishing license and know the proper park guidelines first.

In the area for a while? Follow me to Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Maggie Valley, Sylva, Cherokee, and Bryson City!

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