In the 1800s, thousands of elk used to roam the area between North Carolina and Tennessee that’s now known as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But, like many majestic creatures on this earth, they were hunted to extinction in the mid-1800s.
But in 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced 25 elk into the park from nearby Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The next year, the NPS added another 27 elk. And today, the elk population is thriving, showcasing about 200 strong.
Besides catching a glimpse of black bears, seeing elk in the Smokies is the second-best wildlife treat you can have in the park. They’re best seen in the Cataloochee Valley and near Cherokee, North Carolina outside the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Where to See Elk in Great Smoky Mountains
I’ll dig deeper into where to see elk in the Great Smoky Mountains, but first you’ll need to know when is the best time to see elk in the Smoky Mountains. Although you can typically see them year-round due to the National Park Service’s excellent preservation of these beasts on two human-restricted plots of land, the best time to see them is during the rut and early summer.
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park early in the summertime gives you the best chance to spot young calves getting their footing on the newly green pastures. But the rut, which runs from September to October and is the elk mating season, is your best bet to see bull elk with large antlers showcasing their dominance.
Elk tend to shed their antlers in March, so visiting the springtime won’t have the same effect as visiting other parts of the year. Calves are typically born in June, so that presents a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of newborns. Elk typically move to higher elevations during the winter, due to having two coats that keep them warm, so winter may not be the best time to see elk in the Smokies.
No matter what time of year you visit the park, the best time of day to see elk grazing on grass or just hanging out is during the early morning and late evening. I was lucky enough to spot one grazing late in the evening.
1. Cataloochee Valley
The Cataloochee Valley is the most remote part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Aside from being home to awesome hiking trails, spectacular scenic drives, camping and some of the best-preserved homes from the 1800s, it’s also the best place to see elk in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Cataloochee Valley is located on the northeastern tip of the park. Since roads don’t run through the park due to the rugged peaks, it takes at least an hour to get there and back from just about anywhere in the park.
The fields of the Cataloochee Valley allow you to get an up-close, unobstructed view of the elk. The fields are also closed off during rut season, so you may not be able to get as close a view as you’d like during this time.
2. Oconaluftee Visitor Center
The second-best spot to see elk is Cherokee, North Carolina, directly adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Having camped at nearby Smokemont Campground inside the National Park, I decided to drive to the end of Newfound Gap Road one evening after a long day of hiking.
I toured the Mountain Museum outside the visitor center, drove into Cherokee to do a little exploring and, when I headed back into the park, about 10 cars were stopped on the side of the road near the designated elk fields.
I knew I hit the jackpot, so I latched on the 300mm lens to my Canon T7i, waited patiently and caught a glimpse of a beautiful elk grazing on grass near the back of the field.
Elk are big (bigger than black bears) and can be potentially dangerous, so you need to keep a safe distance from them at all times. Always try to stay about 100 yards away and, whatever you do, don’t approach or feed the elk. They’re wild animals and they can harm you.