Smoky Mountain Bird-Watching Guide

Bird in tree.

Haywood County has long been a destination for outdoor adventure and sightseeing, but did you know this is also one of the best places in the country for bird watching? You’ll find some of the rarest species in North Carolina in these mountains—from Peregrine Falcons to Northern Saw-Whet Owls. If going birding is how you like to spend your time outdoors, grab your binoculars: we put together our favorite places to spot North Carolina’s native feathered friends.

Art Loeb Trail at Black BalsamSouthern Great Balsam Mountains

Many bird-watchers have described similarities of this area to regions much farther north: the chilly temperatures, tree types, and bird species here are reminiscent of the Canadian wilderness. Expect to find the Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creep, Winter Wren, Veery, Pine Siskin, and Hermit Thrush at the Cowee Mountains and Richland Balsam Overlooks. There are also some access points with really great parking, like the Rough Butt Bald Overlook and the Bear Pen Gap Overlook.

Lake Junaluska

This 200+ acre lake provides more than a cool breeze and refreshing glimpse at mountain landscapes—it’s a premier bird-watching location year-round! And because the altitudes are different around the lake, you’ll find dozens of beautiful species here. Come late April and early May, this part of the county becomes a good warbler trap. Expect to find Blue-winged Teal, Common Goldeneye, Northern Shoveler, Greater Scaup, Common Loon, and Horned Grebe here. Recently, there’s been a bald eagle spotted here, too. Consider treating yourself to stay at the gorgeous Lambuth Inn for beautiful views of the lake from your hotel room.

Bird in tree.Waterrock Knob

This is a popular stop-off for Blue Ridge Parkway travelers, offering up an information center, exhibits, and restrooms during the summer. The 1+ mile loop trail can prove difficult at some points, but we’re thinking the jaw-dropping panoramic view at the top—reaching an exhilarating 6,400 feet—is worth the trouble. This summer, be on the lookout for the Broad-winged Hawk, Ruffed Grouse, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Hairy Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Dark-eyed Junco here, to name a few. Need to refuel? The locally-famous eateries of Maggie Valley are just a short drive from this spot.

Cataloochee Ranch

With open pastures and diverse vegetation, Cataloochee Ranch is home to dozens of birds, including Ruby Throat Hummingbirds, Northern Parulas, rare Swainson’s Warbler, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, and Blackburnian Warbler. If that’s not enough to convince you to swing by, you can also extend your bird-watching trip—Cataloochee has cozy cabins, delicious dining, and plenty of other things to do on site.

Bird in tree.Heintooga Spur Road

Tired of birding in heavy traffic areas? Venture up this partially-secluded 9-mile road on Balsam Mountain in the northern part of Haywood County for easily-accessible bird watching. This is one of the most reliable locations for Red Crossbill towards the end of spring, but you’ll also find Ruffed Grouse, Black-capped Chickadees, Blackburnian Warblers, and Pine Siskins here. Plus, the views are stunning!

Max Patch.Max Patch

At the end of Max Patch Road, you’ll find a popular bald providing a 360-degree view of the Smokies. In the open fields, you’re likely to spot Willow Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds, Orchard Orioles, and Yellow-breasted Chats. As the fields give way to thickets and forest, check for Dark-eyed Juncos and American Redstarts. Right on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, this place is equal distance from Knoxville to Asheville and is an iconic spot for photos!

Bird in tree.Big Creek

Take I-40 north from Waynesville and you’ll find Big Creek near the Tennessee border. A handful of trails originate from the camping area, leading either along the creek or up the ridge towards the 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail. According to travelers who’ve come to this spot, the best birding here happens in springtime when you can hear the songbirds from a long distance away. Commonly-found species here include blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Scarlet Tanagers, and Whip-poor-wills. If you happen to come across any rare or unusual bird sightings in this park, local officials ask that you please report them and include a description, location, date, and contact information.

Whew, that’s a lot of bird-watching you’ve got to do! You might as well make it a trip—find budget-friendly places to stay and other ways to stay entertained while you’re in the area. Don’t forget to fuel up for your excursion! Swing by one of our favorite Breakfast Restaurants—they’re open early! For more bird-watching resources like beautiful hand-drawn hiking maps, swing by our Visitor’s Center in Maggie Valley. We’d love to help you make the most out of your bird-watching adventures.

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