If you happen to be driving through Cherokee into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just before sunset chances are good you’ll spot an elk. Or several elk. Sometimes as many as two dozen will leave the dense forest behind in favor of feeding in the large field at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. But before you try to view these elk for yourself there are a few things you should know.
The elk are the result of a successful experiment
At one point in history elk were plentiful throughout the Great Smoky Mountains. But over hunting and loss of habitat led to the removal of the elk by the late 1700s. But after being gone for over two hundred years the park service came up with an idea.
In 2001 the national park conducted an experiment: return a single herd of elk to the park to see if they could sustain themselves. It worked. Sixteen years later there are over 150 elk in the park scattered around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Cataloochee Valley. The initial herd of 25 elk, and the next herd of 27, were imported from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
Best time and places to view the elk
Elk enjoy grazing when it’s cool and out of direct sunlight. Early mornings just after sunrise and usually about 1-2 hours before sunset they will leave the shady comfort of the forest to begin grazing in the large field at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Cataloochee Valley. It’s not always a guarantee but the large wild animals do need to feed each day so chances are definitely in your favor.
The best place to watch the elk are at the visitor center near Cherokee. The large field provides plenty of food and room for them to roam. There is ample parking at the visitor center and it’s an easy walk back to the edge of the field. Visitors are discouraged from stopping in the middle of the road because it is a major thoroughfare between Cherokee and Gatlinburg.
Another good place to view the elk is sometimes at the Mountain Farm Exhibit behind the visitor center. It’s a short five minute walk down a primitive path. Often times the elk will graze or roam the field directly beside the exhibit.
How to view them safely
The national park requires people to stay at least 150′ away from wildlife at all times. This is as much for their protection as yours. Elk are big animals with the female weighing around 400 pounds and males around 700. You don’t want one of them trampling over you! But it’s also dangerous for the wildlife to get close to humans because if they become used to such an interaction it will encourage further interactions that will eventually lead to an animal’s death or human’s injuries.
Bring binoculars with you or camera with long focal lengths of at least 100mm. The field is quite large and elk will roam any section of it. Visitors are allowed to walk around the edge of the field alongside the road but are discouraged from entering the field. Photographers eager for a good photo need at least a 300mm lens for full body photos and around 600mm for close up action shots.
What is the autumn elk rut?
Each year from about mid-September to mid-October male elk, also known as bulls, will vie for the affection of females, or cows. Bull elks will let out a loud bugle call in an attempt to attract the attention of the females. The bull elks are more aggressive and territorial than usual and will frequently challenge smaller bull elks. These challenges aren’t actual fights since neither wants to suffer a grave injury but rather a display of their antlers and prowess.
Cool autumn days near the end of September, right before sunset, are the best times to visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to see the elk rut. If you’re really lucky you’ll catch a couple of bull elks challenging each other but I’ll warn you now: it’s a slow process. From the first bugle to the conclusion of the challenge can take around 20-30 minutes.