Elk Watching 101

elk at cataloochee

One of the biggest reasons people visit Haywood County – Elk watching! As the proud home of Cataloochee Valley, a remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the birthplace of the reintroduced elk population, Haywood County welcomes plenty of elk-watching enthusiasts every year hoping to get a glimpse of these majestic creatures.  The elk of Cataloochee Valley roam free and wild in the valley (no cages or fences) so it is always a good idea to familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of wildlife viewing. But with a little lesson on the elk and how to best enjoy their beauty, you’ll be all set for an incredible adventure.

Two bull elks headbutting in the morning fog at Cataloochee Valley | Photo by Adrienne Rainy

Photo by Adrienne Rainy, 1st Place Winner of the 2019 Smoky Mountain Elk Fest Photo Contest


Elk were once abundant across the United States but by the mid-1800’s, the population of the eastern herds were wiped out due to over-hunting and habitat.  However, that is no longer the case because in 2001 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along with other partners including the Rock Mountain Elk Foundation joined together to restore the wild elk into the national park in Cataloochee Valley.  The initial 52 elk were released and have grown to a heard of over 150 and counting.  They can mainly be found in Cataloochee Valley but have been spotted in other popular areas in and around the GSMNP, like Maggie Valley and Cherokee.


First and foremost, safety should be a top priority.  Elk are wild animals and there are no boundaries or barriers keeping you and the elk separated.  When elk are present, federal regulations require that you DO NOT approach an elk within 150 feet or any distance that disturbs the animals. Failure to do so can result in fines, arrest, or even harm from the animal itself.  It is also extremely important not to feed the elk or interact with them in any way.  Feeding causes way more harm than good, so please do the elk a favor and keep your tasty treats to yourself.

What to expect when viewing:

Most of the elk are located in the Cataloochee Valley area in the southeastern section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  As mentioned previously though, some of the elk have migrated to other areas including Maggie Valley, the Oconaluftee and Ravensford area, and the land of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, NC.  However, Cataloochee Valley remains the most prominent area for elk viewing and you are more likely to witness elk in this area. Cataloochee is a remote area of the GSMNP, so once you leave Hwy 276 there is no food, gas, or other commercial services available.  Tip: Fill up your car, grab some snacks or picnic items, and make one last pit stop before heading into the valley. 

In the valley itself you’ll find several historic structures and exhibits like homes, a school house, and churches from the original pioneer settlement.  You’ll also find hiking trail heads leading to miles and miles trails, camping, and of course the opportunity to view wildlife, including the elk.  The herd is strong and growing quickly.  Keep in mind the prime time to view elk is around sunset and sunrise.  The elk come out into the open valley fields at these times to graze and they return to the wooded areas during the day. There is only one road in and out of Cataloochee Valley, so please practice caution and remember to share the road with your fellow wildlife enthusiasts.


Photo: Cataloochee Valley Tours


Seasonal Highlights:

Calving Season: Late Spring – Most of the calves in Cataloochee and WNC are born late May thru June.  The cows hide their calves in the high grass so for safety and to avoid disturbing the calves, visitors should stay out of the fields. Cows can be aggressive in protecting their young.  By late June, the calves are typically up and moving with the herd.

Growing Season: Summer – The herd can often be seen grazing in fields. Bulls are “in velvet,” rapidly growing new antlers. The calves are growing quickly and will gain as much as 140 pounds by winter.

The Rut: Fall –  The mating season for the elk is called the rut, which occurs from mid-September through the end of October. Large bulls bugle and fight for domination and the right to breed with the cows (lady elks).  This can be a dangerous time for visitors as the bulls can be aggressive with unpredictable behavior. For your protections, please remain on the roadway and near your vehicle during the rut.

Winter in Cataloochee – Winter is a quiet time in the valley.  The elk herd retreats to the woods and may not be seen in the fields for weeks. The road can become treacherous in the snow. The road will often be closed when the snow is on the peaks around Jonathan Valley.

For directions and more information about the elk of Cataloochee Valley, download a copy of the Elk in the NC Smokies Guide or stop by the Haywood County Visitor Center 1110 Soco Rd, Maggie Valley for your free guide. You can also go on a fully guided eco-tour with Cataloochee Valley Tours to make the most of your elk-viewing experience.

As for now, class is dismissed so get out there and enjoy the elk!

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[…] Elk were reintroduced into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001 with 25 elk from the Tennessee-Kentucky border. The herd is now self sustaining and has grown to over 150. Our vacation home is close to the entrance to Catallochee Valley where you are able to view the elk and enjoy the beauty of Western North Carolina. We have enjoyed visiting this beautiful area many times. For more information, visit Elk Watching 101. […]

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