Today we’re visiting the Cataloochee Valley Elk Viewing Area in the Great Smoky Mountains, NC. The valley was given its name by its original inhabitants, the Cherokee, meaning “standing tall,” likely a reference to the many ridges that surround this remote place (the drive in takes 40 min on a winding, dirt road).
First impression: it feels a lot Cades Cove without the crowds. There are beautiful fields, several old buildings and wildlife. We’re here to find, hopefully, elk. This valley was chosen as the most suitable habitat to reintroduce elk to the park. Starting with 50 individuals brought in from Canada in 2001, Cataloochee is now home to the largest herd of elk in the park. It’s estimated that there are about 300 elk in the Smokies and surrounding area, split into 2 herds, this one and one near Cherokee, NC. There were no elk in the fields when we arrived, which we sort of expected. Apparently, they spend their days cloaked in the forest.
We visited the church and the Beech Grove School, each with beautiful, bubbling streams flowing by.
The Caldwell farmstead was also in a in spectacular spot with its own bubbling stream.
We drove down to the Horse Camp and found a pair of wild turkeys.
At the end of the park drive is a trailhead for several trails, including one to the Woody House (2 mile total out and back). It’s a lovely, quiet walk along an old stony road and stream with multiple log bridge crossings.
We sat at the house, ate some snacks and enjoyed the peace and beauty around us. There were so many butterflies in the yard that it felt like we were in our very own butterfly sanctuary.
On the walk back we spoke about how, while we would have loved to see the elk, we’d had an incredibly special time here anyway.
After a picnic lunch with a view of the flowering fields and mountains beyond we drove back to the Horse Camp to dispose of our garbage and use the restroom before heading out. We turned up the drive and lo and behold, we found elk! A herd of 9, including 2 with velvet antlers, were walking and eating in the woods, just a few feet from our vehicle. We followed along beside them to the Horse Camp where we were able to park and watch them spread out to graze in the clearing. We spent over an hour with the herd. At one point, one of the does looked directly at us and slowly started walking towards us. We backed out of her way and she went to where we’d been and began eating right where we’d been standing. When we drove out we passed the a field with a female elk and her calf. The whole experience was incredible, perhaps once in a lifetime.