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

Learn about viewing the elk and get some valuable tips to make the most of the experience.

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Elk are magnificent animals. Standing five feet high and weighing up to 700 pounds, they’re bigger and heavier than black bears. They can run as fast as 40 miles per hour, a terrifying sight if you’re the target. Fortunately, when you read this guide, you’ll know how to avoid being the target.

Eastern Elk were hunted to extinction in the late 1700s. But in 2001, the National Park Service planned to reintroduce elk – albeit a different species – into the Great Smoky Mountains. The elk are perhaps the most iconic animal in Great Smoky Mountains National Park today.

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Safely Viewing Wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The national parks were built for the enjoyment of all – including the wildlife that calls it home. Like two cars simultaneously stopping at a cross intersection, someone has the right to go first. In this case, the wildlife comes first.

The National Park Service requires visitors to stay at least 150 feet away from wildlife. But that is a minimum requirement. Willfully approaching at any distance that disturbs or displaces the wildlife is a federal crime that can result in hefty fines and permanent banishment from the national parks.

But it is possible to enjoy the sight of wildlife without fearing fines and bans.

The best place to view wildlife is inside your car. The second-best place is outside your car, opposite the wildlife. Either way, you are less likely to disturb the wildlife. But using your car to disrupt the wildlife is the same as approaching them on foot – don’t do it.

Pack a good pair of binoculars like the Nikon Monarch M5 12×42. These binoculars are perfect for viewing larger wildlife like beer and elk from a safe distance of 200-300 feet.

The worst mistake people typically make is getting closer to the wildlife to capture a photo with a smartphone. Many smartphones today include multiple lenses, from wide-angle to telephoto. But you can get even more power to the lend with the Moment 58mm Tele Lens. The lens screws into a Moment case on your smartphone and effectively doubles the zoom power, allowing you to capture wildlife photos from a safe distance.

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History of Elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When Colonial America developed in the 1600s and 1700s, elk roamed most of North America from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies. But elk were hunted to extinction after the Revolutionary War and the sudden westward expansion. The Eastern Elk native to the Appalachians became extinct by the late 1700s.

In 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced elk to the Great Smoky Mountains. 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area were transported to Cataloochee Valley and released. Another 27 elk were released the following year.

Within a decade, the herd grew to an impressive 200. They roamed from Cataloochee Valley to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Oconaluftee area. But these are not the native elk since they are extinct. Instead, these are Manitoban Elk originally rounded up at Elk Island National Park in Canada.

Today, over 200 elk roam throughout the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are wild animals left entirely on their own for survival. Just as they once did long ago.

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Viewing the Elk at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is about five minutes from Cherokee, making this a much easier way to see the elk in the Great Smoky Mountains. Elk frequently graze in the large field on the east side of Newfound Gap Road beside the visitor center.

The best place to see the elk is from the sound end of the visitor center’s parking lot. It’s possible to pull off Newfound Gap Road and watch the elk, but this isn’t the best option because it’s a busy thoroughfare.

The elk frequently travel into Cherokee along the shallow Ocaconluftee River and roam through other fields. However, the fields at the Job Corps Center and the park’s maintenance office are not open to the public, and no parking is available.

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Viewing the Elk in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley is the most remote section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s an 11-mile drive along a two-lane road with multiple switchbacks. The drive takes about 30 minutes from the start on U.S. Highway 76 and 45 minutes from Waynesville.

Once inside Cataloochee Valley, continue past the campground and the park ranger’s residence. A long and narrow field surrounds both sides of the road. It is commonplace to find elk grazing.

It’s easy enough to pull over on the side of the road and view the elk from the comfort of your car. If the elk cross the road, stop and give the herd time to cross. And it will provide you with plenty of time to watch them.

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Autumn Elk Rut

The most exciting time of year to see the elk is during the annual rut season from mid-September through mid-October. It’s the mating season when younger bull elks attempt to dethrone the reigning bull elk as alpha of the herd.

Bull elks bellow an unforgettable sound, called the bugle, when they challenge another bull elk. But don’t expect a battle to commence immediately. It takes 5 to 30 minutes before the bull elks finally lock antlers after the bugle.

While it’s the most exciting time to watch the elk, it’s also the most dangerous. The bull elk are incredibly territorial and possessive. Encroachment into their territory during the rut season can lead to dire consequences for humans.

Instead, bring a chair and binoculars because the elk rut is a fantastic show. Sometimes. Other times, there are no challengers, and the elk simply graze for an hour before retiring for the night.

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Spring Calving Season

It takes about 250 days for an elk to gestate. The spring calving season is typically from mid-May through mid-June, when the calves conceived during the rut season are born.

Calves can run twenty minutes after birth. They typically remain with their mother for 60 days before becoming an adult member of the herd. Most calves stay with the herd.

Like the pros and cons of watching the elk rut season, the spring calving season can also be dangerous. Cows are incredibly protective of their newborn calves. Approaching a newborn can lead the cow, and sometimes the parent bull elk, to attack.

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Tips for Viewing the Elk

Elk are magnificent animals that are exhilarating to watch. Here are a few tips on how you can easily view the elk and enjoy the experience:

  • Like all wildlife, elk are most active the first and last hour of the day
  • Elk are excruciatingly slow – bring a chair if you’re sitting a safe distance away
  • Elk cows are very protective of their newborn calves
  • Elk are least active on hot and humid summer days
  • Park your vehicle off the road in a secure location without blocking other traffic
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Frequently Asked Questions

Where are the elk in the Great Smoky Mountains?

The elk roam freely in Great Smoky Mountains National Park between Cataloochee Valley and Oconaluftee.

How many elk are in the Great Smoky Mountains?

There are about 200-300 elk in the Great Smoky Mountains.

What kind of elk are in the Great Smoky Mountains?

Manitoban elk roam the Great Smoky Mountains today after they were introduced by the National Park Service from Canada.

Where can you see elk in the Great Smoky Mountains?

The best places to see elk in the Great Smoky Mountains is Cataloochee Valley and around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Can you hunt elk in the Great Smoky Mountains?

Hunting elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is prohibited.

When is the elk rut in the Great Smoky Mountains?

The elk rut is typically mid-September through mid-October.

When is the elk calving season in the Great Smoky Mountains?

The elk calving season is typically mid-May through mid-June.

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2 Responses

  1. We have been there numerous times and it is an amazing sight to see and something I look forward to every time we visit the mountains.

    1. I’m right there with you! The first time I ever saw the elk was during the annual elk rut in October so it was a fascinating introduction!

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