Western North Carolina has a ton of amazing reasons to visit, from the cool weather and the amazing views to the waterfalls and hikes. But for us, and for wildlife enthusiasts across our region, the elk in the NC mountains are one of the coolest reasons to visit!
According to the Wildlife Commission, there are currently about 150 to 200 elk residing in North Carolina.
How did the elk get to Western NC?
The Eastern Elk was once a predominant species in North Carolina and across the eastern coast. Unfortunately, due to loss of habitat and unregulated hunting, the species was entirely wiped out by the late 1800s. Between 2000 and 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced 52 North American Elk into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park as part of an experiment to see if the elk could survive and repopulate the area. As the picture illustrates, the reintroduction was a success! Other wildlife that make their home in the valley include black bear, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys.
And where can I find the herds?
Of course there is a chance you could stumble upon an elk while hiking on the many various trails throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But, if your goal is to see an NC elk (or the entire herd), below are the two places that give you the best chance. Just remember, elk like cool weather and don’t like to be bothered. So, get there early in the am just as the sun rises (or late as it sets) and be respectful!
1. See The Elk In The NC Mountains at the entrance to the National Park just outside of Cherokee
Just an hour from Asheville, NC, Cherokee has a large herd of elk with several extremely large bulls. You can see them grazing right outside of the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park usually by the fields near the Oconoluftee Visitor Center. Get out there early because there will be a crowd. And remember to respect these creatures and keep your distance. Once the sun warms up the area, the elk will retreat from the fields into the woods. Sometimes they walk directly through downtown Cherokee but if you’re lucky you can get a chance to see them retreat to the Oconoluftee River to sip water and enjoy the shade of the forest.
2. See The Elk In The NC Mountains at the Cataloochee Valley
Cataloochee Valley, which is where the elk were first introduced, is another great place to spot these majestic animals. The northeastern part of the park is a little further out there but worth the drive. This tucked away valley is accessible by a gravel road. Because of this the crowds are lighter here, but again, still remember to be respectful to any other onlookers. Also, remember to maintain a safe distance from the elk, and for the ultimate experience, we recommend bringing binoculars or a telephoto lens.
Best time of the day to visit to see the elk in the NC mountains:
To see the elk, the best time to visit is in the early morning right at sunrise when they are grazing or in the evening around sunset.
Hikes and overlooks to see while visiting the area:
- Cataloochee Valley Overlook
- Rough Fork Trail
- Little Cataloochee Trail
- Purchase Knob
Other things to visit in the area:
- Mingus Mill (pictured below)
- Soco Falls
- Elevated Mountain Distilling Co.
- Midnight Hole Falls
Best time of the year to visit:
- Spring is the best time of the year to see a bull elk and the entire herd
- Winter you can see female and calves
Where to stay when visiting the NC mountains:
- The Swag
- Cataloochee Ranch
- Smoky Falls Lodge
- The Yellow House On Plott Creek Road
- Lambuth Inn