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Travel Guide to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Learn how to get there and what to do when you visit Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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I had been to Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Cosby, driven the 39-mile Foothills Parkway that few seem to know about, Fontana Dam, Roaring Fork, and Greenbrier. Although some of these destinations were remote, they were easy to drive to from Gatlinburg, Townsend, or Cherokee. But after years of driving, hiking, camping, and tubing, there was still one place I had not visited in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I had never been to Cataloochee Valley.

In 2020, after years of thinking to myself, I’ll visit there one day, I finally visited. Leaving Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Cherokee behind – my three preferred places to stay while visiting the national park – I headed for Waynesville for a single night. The following day, veins full of caffeine from a morning replete with local coffee, I drove into Cataloochee Valley for the first time.

It was everything I had hoped to find, nothing like what I expected, and left me thinking, I need to visit one day again.

The two-lane road passing through Cataloochee Valley.
The two-lane road passing through Cataloochee Valley.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created in 1926 when President Calvin Coolidge signed an act by Congress to establish two national parks on the east coast. Tennessee and North Carolina contributed $2 million for purchasing land, along with $1 million in private donations and $5 million from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Fund.

Buying the land was a slow process. It took eight years for the states to finally transfer 300,000 acres across the Great Smoky Mountains to the National Park Service. From 1934 until 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps built picnic shelters, bathrooms, visitor centers, and carved hiking trails to waterfalls, scenic overlooks, and mountain tops.

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In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated to the park. With no admission fee and within a one-day drive of 70% of the country’s population, Great Smoky Mountains National Park remains one of the most-visited national park sites.

READ MORE: https://www.roadtripsandcoffee.com/category/great-smoky-mountains/

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View of Cataloochee Creek from a small bridge in Cataloochee Valley.
View of Cataloochee Creek from a small bridge in Cataloochee Valley.

History of Cataloochee Valley

At the end of the Revolutionary War, there was a rush of settlers moving west. Colonel Robert Love, a land speculator, was one of the first to explore Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains. He divided the land into home sites and sold them to eager families.

In 1834, Hendry Caldwell purchased a large tract and moved his family into the valley. He would not be alone. By 1910, nearly 1,200 people lived in the valley, making it one of the largest communities in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Families in the valley provided for all their own basic needs. They maintained farmland for vegetables, pastures for beef, and orchards for fruit. They raised churches for weekly Sunday School and monthly services from circuit-riding pastors. They built schools for teaching basic reading and writing.

But when word spread in the late 1920s that North Carolina was purchasing all the land throughout the mountains for a new national park, the families left the valley. By the 1930s, few remained. The last holdouts were eventually bought off, and the valley was left unoccupied for the first time in a century.

Did You Know? Long before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, the people living in Cataloochee Valley promoted it for tourism. In the early 1900s, they began stocking the creek with trout, opened their homes to overnight guests, and marketed their peaceful valley in local newspapers.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

How to Prepare for a Day in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley is the most remote section to visit in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are no gift shops, gas stations, restaurants, or visitor centers in the valley. Visitors need to be more prepared for visiting that section of the national park than any other.

It’s easy preparation, it just takes foresight – and this list. So here are a few things to consider before hitting the road into Cataloochee Valley:

  • Bring all the food and water you’ll want for the day
  • With limited cellular reception, it’s a good idea to let someone know where you’ll be and an estimated time for your return
  • Download the Google Map for the area for offline use
  • Get a copy of the Cataloochee Valley Auto Touring Guide at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee or the Haywood County Visitor Center in Waynesville
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View from the Cataloochee Valley Overlook along the road leading into Cataloochee Valley.

Getting to Cataloochee Valley

Turn-by-turn directions to Cataloochee Valley are deceptively brief. From US Highway 276, turn onto Cove Creek Road, continue to Old Cataloochee Turnpike, then turn onto Cataloochee Entrance Road. It’s only a ten-mile drive, but it will take half an hour.

The quickest route is to take Exit 20 from Interstate 40. Almost immediately, turn right onto Cove Creek Road. The two-lane, paved road passes several homes as it begins a gradual, curvy climb over a mountain ridge. Halfway along the ten-mile drive, the paved road ends, and travelers are left with crunching gravels beneath their tires. That road is well maintained and drivable by two-wheel drive personal vehicles.

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READ MORE: Day Trip on the Cades Cove Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

After turning onto Cataloochee Entrance Road, a scenic overlook appears on the right. A short two-minute walk leads to the top of a hill with a moderate view of the mountains surrounding the valley. Despite the name, you cannot see the valley from the overlook.

There is another option for the more adventurous drivers who enjoy long, scenic drives. From the Cosby Campground in Tennessee, take Route 32 around the base of Mount Camerer, across Mt. Sterling, and through Little Cataloochee to Cataloochee Entrance Road. The 25-mile route of narrow, curving paved and gravel roads takes almost two hours to drive.

Pro Travel Tip: Check current road conditions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/conditions.htm or https://twitter.com/smokiesroadsnps.

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Two elk bulls battle of dominance as a female grazes in a field in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Viewing the Cataloochee Valley Elk

In 2001, the National Park Service began an experiment to reintroduce elk in the Great Smoky Mountains. A herd of 25 elk was gathered from the Elk & Bison Prairie at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, transported to Cataloochee Valley, and released into the wild. A year later, another herd of 27 elk was released into the valley.

Elk were native to the Great Smoky Mountains. But deforestation during the peak of the logging industry of the early 1900s ended the wildlife’s existence in the mountains. Since the initial herds were released into Cataloochee Valley, they have grown to nearly 200. They are thriving again in the mountains.

There are no enclosures or zookeepers. The elk are not fed or groomed. They are just as wild as the bald eagle, black bear, and squirrel.

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Viewing the elk is easy. Seeing the elk is more complicated.

The herd travels throughout the valley, deep into the forest, and along the river. For days, they can only be seen along hiking trails or in a far corner of the valley. But other times, they spread across the open field within sight of the road.

READ MORE: Viewing the Elk at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

On those days, typically early in the morning or late in the evening, dozens of elk can be spotted grazing in the field. Viewing them from the side of the road – please remember to pull your vehicle to the side of the road – is the best place to see them. The National Park Service recommends visitors always remain at least 75 feet from wildlife.

The best – and most common – place to view the elk in Cataloochee Valley is a large field past the campground.

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The Jarvis Palmer House in Cataloochee Valley.

Historic Buildings

At its peak, nearly 1,200 people lived in Cataloochee Valley. Many homes, barns, churches, and schools have disappeared among the forest since the inhabitants left. But several historic buildings were preserved by the National Park Service. Five of the historical buildings are located along the roads in the valley, while the others can be seen along the Little Cataloochee Trail.

Jarvis Palmer was the grandson of George and Nancy, the first generation of their family to live in Cataloochee Valley. In the early 1900s, Palmer built a stick frame house, one of the youngest structures remaining in the valley. When the national park was established, the Palmer House was used as a ranger residence for many years. Today, the dilapidated house is open to the public for a brief walk through.

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READ MORE: Complete List of All 423 National Park Service Units by State + Social Media and Website Links

The Palmer Chapel sits in the corner of a small field, viewable from the road, at the far end of Cataloochee Valley. It’s one of three church buildings remaining in the valley.

The Caldwell House, built in 1909, is the largest structure remaining in Cataloochee Valley. The gorgeous two-story farmhouse features a wraparound porch that begs to be sat upon and enjoyed during summer rain showers.

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A rustic log footbridge crosses the Cataloochee Creek.
A rustic log footbridge crosses the Cataloochee Creek.

Hiking Trails

Cataloochee Valley Entrance Road comes to an end in a circular gravel parking lot. A gate blocks vehicles from traveling further and marks the point where the Rough Fork Trail begins.

The two-mile out-and-back trail crosses the small creek a few times on quaint log footbridges and leads to the Woody House.

The Little Cataloochee Trail is a more vigorous hike, but possible with a day trip. The 12-mile out-and-back trail leads to the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, Beech Grove School, and a couple of other small historic buildings. The hike is moderately easy, and the trail well-maintained.

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Cataloochee Campground

The Cataloochee Campground is one of the nine front country campgrounds throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located in the middle of Cataloochee Valley, this campground offers a secluded and peaceful getaway from the typical hustle and bustle of the rest of the park.

The campground features 27 campsites that can accommodate small travel trailers and tents – RVs are not allowed. There are no hookups or showers like the other campgrounds in the national park. A fire ring, picnic table, and bathrooms are the only amenities.

Find more information and book your getaway at https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/233284.

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Where to Stay

The Cataloochee Valley Campground is a great place to stay for campers, but what about everybody else? Gatlinburg is too far away for a day trip to the valley. Cherokee is even a bit of a stretch requiring nearly three hours of driving back and forth.

I recommend staying in Waynesville, Maggie Valley, or Lake Junaluska while visiting Cataloochee Valley.

Budget

Quality Inn & Suites ironically does not have any suites, but they have comfortable rooms with an outdoor swimming pool. Located in Maggie Valley, the hotel adds about 15 minutes to the drive time to Cataloochee Valley.

Best Western in Maggie Valley is a good choice for a budget motel in the area. Rooms feature two queen beds or a king bed and updated furnishings.

Comfort Inn is one of the newest hotels in Maggie Valley. The hotel features an indoor swimming pool, rooms with one or two beds, and some rooms with comfortable couches.

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Moderate

Located in Waynesville, the Days Inn is the closest hotel to Cataloochee Valley that I recommend. Balconies offer a commanding view of the nearby mountains, but it’s not exactly peaceful beside the busy US Highway 74. The motel features rooms with one or two beds and some rooms with an additional sleeper sofa.

Grandview Lodge is an interesting place to stay. It’s located about ten minutes south of Waynesville in a residential neighborhood. The lodge is a gorgeous log home with several guest rooms. The rooms include one or two beds.

Luxury

Overlooking Lake Junaluska, the Lambuth Inn is one of the most comfortable hotels in the region. The hotel doesn’t offer many amenities, but the guest rooms are comfortable with one or two beds, including rooms with two twin beds perfect for traveling families. Be sure to book a room with a lake view.

The Terrace at Lake Junaluska offers gorgeous views of the lake through large picture windows in all the lakeside guest rooms. The hotel offers rooms with one or two beds and an outdoor seasonal pool.

3 Responses

  1. Love this, Jason! We have not been to the Cataloochee Valley portion of the park, and now we want to go! Very informative post and wonderful photos. Thank you for sharing.

  2. We love to read about different places to see . We do love the smoky mts., but never been to catalogee valley. We are retired now,so hopefully will venture over that way.thx. Also do u know anything about the Bryson city railroad ? Love some info!

    1. Gloria, I have not been on the scenic railroad in Bryson City yet. It’s still on my never ending bucket list! But I do know Bryson City is a charming town with lots of great restaurants and local retail shops, and I’ve never heard a bad review of the scenic railway.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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