Created in 1934 and encompassing 522,419 acres, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America, attracting more than 10 million travelers each year.
Straddling eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a haven for nature lovers.
The most popular Great Smoky Mountains attractions include dynamic mountain landscapes (16 of which are over 6,000 feet tall), rushing North Carolina waterfalls, pastoral mountain streams, and the largest intact forest ecosystem in the southeastern United States.
The national park is home to some of the most stunning scenic viewpoints in the Smoky Mountains, include Cade’s Cove, Clingman’s Dome, and Newfound Gap Road. Some of its most popular activities include camping, fishing, and hiking the Appalachian Trail.
You’ll find copious flora (see: 1300 native vascular plant species) and fauna there, including Black Bears, White-tailed Deer, and the world’s greatest diversity of Salamander species (31, including 24 lungless varieties).
But our day trip to the park’s Cataloochee Valley during our visit to Asheville had a different purpose: We went there specifically to see the last herd of wild Elk in North Carolina.
CATALOOCHEE VALLEY GUIDE
- History of Cataloochee Valley, NC
- Cataloochee Elk Reintroduction
- Facts about the Cataloochee Elk
- Best Time to Visit Cataloochee Valley
- Cataloochee Campground Options
HISTORY OF CATALOOCHEE VALLEY, NC
Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, western North Carolina’s remote Cataloochee Valley was home to around 1,200 people, most of them farmers (apple-growing was especially popular at the time).
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park today, it’s easy to see why they chose the location. Surrounded by stunning 6,000-foot mountains that give off a distinctive blue haze at sunrise, the pristine valley is as pastoral and picturesque as it is isolated.
Hiking the Little Cataloochee Trail takes you to a number of historic frame buildings from that era. These include two churches, a schoolhouse, and several residential homes that have been lovingly preserved. Park visitors are allowed to explore them for a walk back in time.
With its vast open fields, a quaint creek running through it, and buildings built in the 1800s, exploring the Cataloochee Valley felt a little like walking through a chapter of Little House on the Prairie (check out the newspapers used to wallpaper an upstairs bedroom!).
You can also hike the 7-mile Boogerman Trail, which takes you through gorgeous groves of deciduous old-growth forest.
The road to Great Smoky Mountains’ Cataloochee entrance is long, winding, and covered in gravel, with steep drop offs and no guard rails.
Because it’s narrow, you’ll want to proceed slowly, as you’ll likely need to stop or back up to let oncoming traffic pass. Fortunately, we got there fairly early– both in the day, and in the tourist season– so traffic was fairly minimal.
READ MORE: The History of Downtown Asheville
CATALOOCHEE ELK REINTRODUCTION
We weren’t even fully into the national park before we spotted the main attraction we’d come to see: A male Cataloochee Elk grazing right by the side of the road.
Great Elk herds once roamed the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains freely. But the Elk in North Carolina had been completely killed off by the late 1700s.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park began an experimental Elk reintroduction program back in 2001, releasing a total of 52 animals in the span of one year.
The yellow tag on his ear indicated that the animal we saw was one of the original releases, while orange tags are used to mark Elk that have been born in the park in the years since.
Some of the Elk we saw were also radio-collared, monitored by biologists so they can learn more about the animals’ movement and life span.
The National Park Service publishes an annual Elk Progress Report. By the end of 2014 there were around 200 Elk in North Carolina, with at least 13 calves born during the previous year’s mating season.
If you visit this portion of the park, national park volunteers can offer insider tips on where the Elk herd has been spotted earlier that day.
FACTS ABOUT THE CATALOOCHEE ELK
A huge attraction for Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors, these megafauna are massive. Adult Elk weigh 500 to 700 pounds, measure 7 to 10 feet from nose to tail, and their antlers can reach a width of five feet.
Elk antlers can grow at a rate of up to one inch per day. Males shed theirs every year in autumn, and their horns start growing back around March.
Scientists are studying the regenerative capabilities of Elk antlers, and are currently testing the tissue in relation to cancer research.
In the fall, when male Elk go into rut, their mating calls sound a lot like whales.
Most of the Cataloochee Valley Elk calves are born in late May through June. The mamas will often hide them in the tall grass to avoid being seen by predators.
The best time of day to view Elk is around sunset and sunrise. Barring terrible weather, the animals usually come out into the open fields of the Cataloochee Valley at these times to graze, then return to the wooded areas to rest during the middle of the day.
READ MORE: 30 Fascinating Blue Ridge Mountains Facts
BEST TIME TO VISIT CATALOOCHEE VALLEY
Late spring/early summer is a great time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park if you want a chance to see newborn Elk calves. But do remember that cows can be very aggressive if they sense any impending threat to their young.
The calves are typically moving with the Cataloochee Valley herd by late June, when they can often be seen grazing in open fields. The young put on weight quickly during this time, while male bulls are rapidly growing new antlers (a.k.a. “in velvet”).
Autumn is arguably the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. The weather is cooler, the crowds aren’t as big as they are in summer, and male Elk are in rut (which lasts from mid-September to late October).
During this time large bulls are very aggressive, bugling and fighting for domination, which brings the right to mate with the cows. Their behavior can be unpredictable, so park visitors are advised to stay on the road and close to their vehicles at this time of year.
Winter in the Cataloochee Valley is quiet and cold. The fields don’t offer much food, so the Elk herd tends to stick to the woods for weeks in end. Roads can also become icy and treacherous, and they’re often closed when there’s snow on the mountains.
CATALOOCHEE CAMPGROUND OPTIONS
There are plenty of different options for visitors interested in camping in Great Smoky National Park, including backcountry, front country (a.k.a. car camping), horse camps, and group campgrounds.
Cataloochee camping options include a primitive campground with 27 sites (tents or RVs up to 31 feet, surrounded by picturesque mountains and pristine mountain streams.
Open from June 11 through November 1, this Cataloochee campground offers a traditional camping experience, but with modern conveniences such as flush toilets and drinking water. However, there are no hookups or showers here.
The nearby Cataloochee Group Camp can accommodate larger parties, while the Cataloochee Horse Camp provides convenient camping for horseback riding enthusiasts.
The Cataloochee Valley area’s trails also offer designated backcountry campsites available by permit only. Note that all Great Smoky Mountains National Park camping sites must be reserved in advance.
READ MORE: 20 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Overlooks in NC & VA
–Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted