If one of your reasons for coming to Gatlinburg and the national park is the chance to get a glimpse at some of the amazing wildlife that call the Smokies home, I’d suggest taking the 65 mile trip from Gatlinburg to Cataloochee in North Carolina. The Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to one species you won’t see on the Tennessee side – Elk.
The Smokies has seen the elk population continue to grow ever since they were reintroduced to the area in early 2001. Cataloochee’s elk began to roam the forests in 2002. At one time, elk were as prevalent in Smokies as the black bear and were one of the dominant herd animals in the area. If you haven’t seen an elk up close, they’re much bigger than the white tail deer that are commonly seen on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains. Outside of Cataloochee, your best chance to see elk, especially a herd of them, is near the Cherokee entrance to the park, but there is always a really good chance of seeing them in Cataloochee.
Cataloochee compares favorably to Cades Cove, only it’s on the northern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Whether you are staying in Tennessee or North Carolina, Cataloochee is only 10 miles from Interstate 40. In comparison to Cades Cove’s historical buildings, Cataloochee is much more secluded, thus less population, which equals fewer homes/buildings. It also has fewer visitors then Cades Cove. Moreover, Cades Cove does not have elk. Cataloochee is also a great place to take a lunch or even camp out for a night, the elk will find you. It’s hard to miss them.
Since elk were introduced in Cataloochee, it’s hard to go to that side of the GSMNP without seeing an elk. They’re literally everywhere. So amazing! The size of the elk is almost unrivaled in the national park. Their trophy racks are unparalleled by most deer and cause most wildlife to approach with hesitancy. Their racks tower above them and make the elk itself seem even more imposing. Some racks seem almost as tall as the animal itself. Nevertheless, elk are very docile and, though you don’t want them to get as close as the deer do in Cades Cove, it’s their nature to get close.
On at least one trip to Cataloochee, a tagged female was so close that you could have reached out and touched her. Meanwhile, the bulls were all in a field together, grazing. There were also about a dozen lying in a field – herd mentality. In Cataloochee these normally aggressive animals have found a stress-free location to graze and raise their young. Let your family experience the beauty of an animal that has been reintroduced to their rightful home. Head to Cataloochee on your next trip to the Smokies and experience the elk.