Hemmed in by rugged 6,000-foot-high peaks, the secluded Cataloochee Valley is one of the hidden gems of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Beyond its rich history and wild beauty, the valley also offers an extraordinary opportunity to see majestic wild elk in their natural habitat.
Elk, which once freely roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains, were decimated in the area through over-hunting by the mid-1800s, but a small herd was reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley in 2001 and has now grown to over 150 head. Three seasons out of four, the elk congregate here, although they’ve also migrated to nearby Maggie Valley, and the Oconaluftee and Ravensford areas. You’ll have the best viewing success at sunrise or just before sunset, the prime grazing times. Calves are born through the end of June, so the earlier in summer you visit, the smaller they’ll be. (They grow quickly, packing on 140 pounds by their first winter).
Summer is typically a good time for watching the herd; use your telephoto lens to see bulls “in velvet,” as they begin to grow new antlers. For optimal excitement, go in the fall rutting season, when large bulls bugle and fight for the right to mate. If you wait until spring to visit, stay out of the fields to avoid inadvertently angering a mama by walking near a new calf she’s left hidden in the tall grass.
Be sure you have your phone charged, or your camera handy, as the valley affords once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities. To be safe, stay at least 150 feet away from the herd at all times, and don’t be tempted to feed the elk—it’s dangerous to you and future visitors. Stay on the roadway during rutting season, and take advantage of your vehicle’s sunroof for a safe way to get fantastic photos.
EAT, STAY, SHOP
You’ll pass historic structures from an original pioneer settlement on your way to the remote Cataloochee Valley, where campsites and miles of wilderness trails are also available. Don’t expect to find amenities of any kind once you leave Highway 276; you’ll need to head to Waynesville for those.
This popular outdoor-tables-only deli serves lunch and brunch, and is about 45 minutes from the valley—a perfect stop after a sunrise adventure. 26 Church St, Waynesville, NC; patio-nc.com
Frog Level Brewery
At this dog-friendly creek-front microbrewery, you’ll find tasty pub food, more than a dozen beers on tap, and live music. With plenty of outdoor seating, Frog Level makes a nice place to wind down under the stars. 56 Commerce St, Waynesville, NC; froglevelbrewing.com
Oak Hill on Love Lane
Jaw-dropping views, delicious breakfasts, and a gracious hostess make this welcoming B&B—a half-mile walk from downtown Waynesville—stand out from the crowd. For exploring farther afield, 250 waterfalls lie within an hour’s drive of the inn. 224 Love Ln, Waynesville, NC; oakhillonlovelane.com
If your appreciation of nature extends to wild birds, you’ll find a tantalizing selection of goodies in this downtown shop. 90 N Main, Waynesville, NC; pleasantplaces-waynesville.com