Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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More than two hundred years ago, in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, one could often hear the haunting sounds of Eastern Bull Elk, as their territorial bugle sounds echoed off the mountain sides.  

But that unique and wonderful sound became steadily less and less common, and then suddenly silent all together in the late 1790s, as Elk in the Blue Ridge Mountains reached near extinction.

Today, thanks to the National Park Service, visitors to the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, can once again hear and see the majestic Elk, thriving in their natural habitat.

History of Elk in the Appalachian Mountains

Hundreds of years ago, extensive herds of the great Eastern Elk roamed the Southern Appalachian mountains, which the Blue Ridge Mountains and Smoky Mountains are part of.  These fearless animals were large, and often weighed upwards to 1000 pounds.  Eastern Elk where proliferous in the area, and more common as deer and many other mountain animals.

Fall in Cataloochee Valley

Fall in Cataloochee Valley

In fact, Louis and Clark often wrote about the endless Elk herds they encountered as they travelled west.  Ironically, those writings were in journals, bound by Elk hide.

Unfortunately, the large Eastern Elk quickly became one of the most common, and sought after game animals in the area.  Due to overhunting and loss of habitat, as people began moving and living in the mountains, Elk were all but eliminated in the 1700 and 1800s.  The last Elk in NC is believed to have been killed in the late 1700s.

By the 1900s, significant concern was raised, that the Elk were either extinct all together or at the very least very quickly headed for extinction.

Elk Reintroduced in Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A primary mission of the National Park Service, is to monitor both animals and plants, and in the event either are facing extinction or eliminated, the park service may decide to re-introduce the species.   

Fortunately this was the case in 2001, when 25 Elk were brought to Cataloochee Valley, and re-introduced in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This was the first time Elk had been back in the area in over 200 years.

In 2002, another 27 Elk were brought in, bringing the total to 52.

Today (2019), some of those Elk, and their offspring are thriving.  There are now at least 150 in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  But, many experts believe there are most likely many more than that.   Counting the Elk has become more difficult as they've grown in numbers, and are quickly spreading out.

There is currently an effort underway to obtain a more accurate count of the Elk in and around the park.  The results of that study should be available soon.

All About Elk (aka What the Elk?)

Elk, also called Wapiti, are in the deer family, and are the largest species and native to North America.  Wapiti is Shawnee Indian, and means "white rump".

Many centuries ago, a number of species of Elk existed, both in North America, and other continents.  Today there are 14, and North America has 4 of them:

  • Roosevelt - The largest of all the North American species.  They primarily reside in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Tule - Reside in the Grassy Hills of California.  Tule Elk were nearly hunted to extinction, but conservation efforts have brought them back.
  • Rocky Mountain - Having the most diverse habitat, these Elk are found in the Rocky Mountains, and plains below them.
  • Manitoban - The Elk we have here in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but not the original Elk that were here.

Eastern Elk were also a North American species and one the largest Elk species in the world.   Mature Bull Elk were often 5 foot at the shoulder, weighing up to 1000 pounds, and having antlers up to 6 foot long.  

The Eastern Elk were the original Elk found here the Southern Appalachian Mountains (which contain the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains).

Unfortunately, the Eastern Elk are extinct.   The species reintroduced into the Park are Manitoban Elk, which while still very large and majestic, are a bit smaller.  Bull Manitoban Elk weight up to 700 pounds, and cows (females) up to 500 pounds.

Even with their smaller size, the Manitoban Elk are the largest animals that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   They are herbivores, feeding on a diet of grasses, shrubs, trees, and other plant life.

They really have no natural predators now, as the two primary predators, the Gray Wolf, and the Mountain Lion have both been declared all but extinct.

Bull Elk are easily recognized by their large set of antlers (often called a rack), which can reach lengths of up to 5 feet.  Many don't realize it, but Bull Elk shed their antlers each year, and re-grow a new and larger set the following year.    Female Elk, called cows, are smaller, and do not grow antlers.   There are often multiple cows, around one Bull.

Elk Antlers are at their largest size, just prior to Rut Season, in August, September and October of each year.

On average, Elk live to be about 10-13 years of age, but without predators, they can often live for 15-20 years.

Elk Rut Season

Rut Season is the most exciting time to come see the Elk.  Rut season is breeding season for the Elk, and the Bulls really put on a show for their "ladies" and for visitors as well, including bugling, sparring with other Elk, and herding their "harems" or groups of cows.

Bull Elk Bugling in response to hearing another Bull

Rut season begins in mid-September, and runs through mid-October, although the Bulls usually begin bugling and grouping females in early September.  Bull Elk Antlers are also at their largest size during this time.

During Rut, Bull Elks bugle to compete with other bulls, and to call their herd of cow Elk.  If you've never heard a Bull Elk bugle in the mountains, it's something you won't soon forget.  It's one of the most unique and haunting sounds you'll ever hear.  Our Cataloochee Valley video, below, has clips of Elk Bugle sounds.

In addition to bugling, Bull Elk spar for territory and females.  You'll often hear and see the hard clash of antler to antler as Bulls hit their antlers together and try to push each other around, to determine who's dominant.  It's exciting to witness in person.

The gestation period for Elk is about 240 to 262 days.  Calves from Rut season, are generally born in the spring, from mid-May to mid-June.  

After 20 minutes after being born, calves can stand on their own.  After 16 days the calf will join the herd and will complete weaning by the time it's 60 days old.  Calves remain with their mothers for almost a year, leaving about the time that the next season's offspring are produced.  Elk are ready to mate around 16 months of age.

Best Places to see Elk

One of the top questions we get in our Blue Ridge Mountain Life Facebook group is:

Where are the best places to see the Elk?

While Elk can be found anywhere in the eastern portions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (and even in some areas close to, but outside the Park), the most common, best and safest viewing locations are:

  • Cataloochee Valley, where the Elk were originally re-introduced​​​​​​
  • Cherokee NC, and specifically around the Oconoluftee Visitor Center, of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
  • Maggie Valley NC - Elk can often be seen in public along the stretch of Highway 19 (Soco Rd), that travels through Maggie Valley.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway, near Maggie Valley.  The Elk often hang out along the Parkway between Maggie Valley and Cherokee NC​​

Elk in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley is where the majority of the Elk still reside, which makes sense, since this was where they were introduced.

There are a number of different fields where they will often be, early in the morning or later in the evening.   You'll definitely want to drive all the way through in order to see them.

Visitors will often find Park Rangers, and Park Volunteers in the area, both protecting the Elk, keeping people safe, and willing to answer questions.   We always enjoy talking with them, they're great folks, who love the Elk.  

If you have children, be sure to go see the volunteers, as they often have antlers the kids can touch and hold, and other items to see as well.

Cataloochee Valley Guide

For more information on Cataloochee, including directions, photos, tips, things to see, hiking trails, and more.  See our Cataloochee Valley Guide!

Elk in Cherokee NC

Elk in the Ocnoluftee River, Cherokee NC - Photo by our friend, Pam Parker

While Elk were originally reintroduced in Cataloochee Valley, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it didn't take the Elk long to begin branching out as they migrated.

One of the first areas the Elk came to was Cherokee NC, where today, they can often be found near the Oconoluftee Visitor center or wandering in or around the Oconoluftee River.

Hordes of cars full of people, often stop at the fields next to the Visitor center, causing what we often refer to as an "Elk Jam".

Pro Tip - Be sure to pull over, completely out of the road to allow through traffic to continue.  

The number of Elk in Cherokee continues to grow, and has become a very popular place to see them.

Be sure to check out this amazing video, captured by some friends of ours that live in Cherokee!

Elk in Maggie Valley NC

As the Elk multiple and spread out from Cataloochee Valley, they inevitably encounter people's homes, and even local mountain towns.   This has been the case for Maggie Valley NC, where you can often both bull and  cows wondering around town, near homes and businesses.

When traveling through Maggie Valley, and especially on your way up the Parkway, you'll want to drive slow and carefully as the Elk are often along the roadside or even crossing the road.

Maggie Valley NC Life

We have a whole sister website, called Maggie Valley NC Life, full of information on where to stay, where to eat, things to do, photos and more!

Elk on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Photo by Gina Ledford Mitchell

Further up from Maggie, between the Maggie Valley exit and the Cherokee exit on The Blue Ridge Parkway, has become another popular area for the Elk, and for people to view them.  

The number of Elk here though, is low compared to Cataloochee Valley or the Oconoluftee Visitor center.

Blue Ridge Parkway Guide

For more information on the Blue Ridge Parkway, see our Blue Ridge Parkway Travel Guide

Elk Safety

One of the biggest issues with the popularity of Elk, is safety, both for the Elk and for the people. 

You'll want to follow these simple safety tips (do NOT be the guy in the photo, he's WAY too close):

  • Never approach elk within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs the Elk, or causes them to change their behavior.
  • If an Elk changes its behavior due to you, you are too close, and you should back away slowly.
  • While Elk seem very friendly, and docile, they are large animals that can be very dangerous.  This is particularly true of cows with calves, or bulls during Rut season.
  • During Rut, males (bulls) can often perceive people as a threat or competition to their territory or females.  Keeping your distance is the best way to avoid a possibly very dangerous encounter.
  • Never touch or approach a calf, even if it appears to be alone.  Chances are, the mother is nearby, and will defend her calf.
  • Never, EVER, feed them.  Feeding leads to Elk associating people with food, causing them to become dangerous.  Feeding almost always leads to the animal being killed.  Think of it as a death sentence for the Elk.

Why do some of the Elk have collars?

Small numbers, like the initial 25, and then 27 Elk introduced into the park, are susceptible to disease.  To help monitor and control this, the new Elk were monitored daily by Park staff using radio and GPS collars, put on each of them. 

Park officials constantly monitored the Elk, watching for prolonged lack of movement, which could indicate illness, injury or even death.  A death of an Elk, results in various field tests to be sure the animals cause of death, didn't risk the rest of the herd.  If so, immediate measures were put into effect to treat and protect the remaining herd.

As Elk grow, the collars age and fall off.  New calfs are also collared, whenever they are seen and can be.   But as the Elk continue to reproduce and grow in numbers, while many still are collared, many are not.   This makes tracking and monitoring them more difficult for rangers, and makes counting their numbers more difficult.  

But even with collars, the Elk look like they are met to be there.  Grazing on grass, and slowly moving around the old buildings, through the creeks, and woods.  They look content, and even happy.

Cataloochee Valley Elk

Tips for Viewing and Seeing the Elk

The Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have become on of its top attractions.  People come from all around the world to view the re-introduced Elk, and take photos of them.

Much the wildlife in the park, is naturally very shy, working hard to avoid being seen.  This includes Bears, coyotes, bobcats, deer, and the many other animals found in and outside of the park boundary.  

The Elk though, are big, and while during the day they are often in the cool and shady woods, in the mornings and evenings, they'll come out into the open fields to graze, where they are easily seen and enjoyed.

Here are some tips to help you not only see the Elk, but to enjoy viewing them as well:

  • The best times to see the Elk, in any location are early morning, and late evenings
  • They will also be active, and out, on cloudy days, or before or after rain.
  • Bring Binoculars, as Elk are often far out into the fields, which are usually closed to the public.
  • If you enjoy taking photos, bring a camera with a good zoom lens, and a tripod.
  • Bring some comfortable, portable chairs
  • Remember, Elk are wild animals.  Please follow all of our safety tips earlier in this article.
  • Be courteous of others.  Many people are taking photos or videos.  Stay quiet, be aware of walking in front of others while taking photos, and avoid making any loud sounds to avoid startling the Elk.

Special Seasonal Times to See the Elk

While any time is a great time to see the Elk, there are a few times a year, when some extra special "Elky" kinds of things are going on.  Here's the scoop!

Spring Calfs!

The majority of calves are born in Mid-May through Mid-June of each year.  You'll want to stay out of the fields at this time, due to the calves hiding in the tall cross.  

Elk calves remain so still sometimes, that you can walk right up on them and not even see them.   Don't be fooled though, Mom is usually close by, and will defend her calf.

By late June and early July, most of the calves are up and about, and traveling along with the herd.  They can often be seen jumping and playing.  It's really wonderful to watch.

Summer

Elk herds will commonly be found during this time of the year, out in the fields grazing in the morning and evening.  Calves will be growing quick, and learning how to be adults.  Bulls antlers begin growing again in April and are full size by mid-August.  During the summer, the horns will be in velvet.

Bulls, cows and calves will all be feeding heavily to gain weight for the coming winter.

Fall Rut

This is our favorite time.  Rut is mating season for the Elk, and officially beings in mid-September and runs through mid to late October.  Bulls will bugle, and spar to dominate females and territory.  Both are amazing to observe and hear.  

The Elk in Rut, coupled with the beautiful Fall colors of the Great Smoky Mountains, is just pure magic.  Visiting is an experience you won't soon forget.

While wonderful to watch and see, it's also the most dangerous time to view the Elk, and the Bulls can often be very aggressive, and mistake visitors as competition of a threat.

You'll want to stay out of the fields, maintain the minimum viewing distance, and stay close to something that you can put between you and a Bull, if they decide to walk toward you or charge.  Your vehicle is a great option.

Winter Calm

During the winter, the Elk herds generally stay in the woods to avoid the harsh, cold winds, and to stay warm.  They may go for days or weeks without coming out the fields.  

Your best bet to see the Elk during this time is a warmer and sunny day.

Be aware that both the road into Cataloochee Valley, and the Blue Ridge Parkway are often closed during the winter due to hazardous road conditions.