The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a lot of wildlife. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see many of the animals in the wild. However, the elk in Cataloochee Valley are accustom to people and will graze right along the road so you can enjoy from your car. Many visitors tailgate and enjoy a picnic while watching (of course, don’t feed the elk). Fall is a beautiful time to visit with great peak color usually the second and third week of October.
During September and early October, male elk make their legendary bugling calls during the “rut” to challenge other bulls and attract cows (watch video above), using their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males. During these months, it’s important not to walk into the fields that are popular for elk grazing. Stay along the road or hiking trails and do not approach elk. Elk are big and can be dangerous, and it’s illegal to approach them.
Now more than 140 elk live in the Great Smoky Mountains after they were reintroduced beginning in 2001. The best times to view elk are usually early morning and late evening. Elk may also be active on cloudy summer days and before or after storms. Elk can also be seen occasionally by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee.
Cataloochee Valley is about 45 miles from downtown Asheville. Allow 1.5 hours to travel since there are a few miles of winding, narrow unpaved road. Take I-40 West from Asheville to Exit 20 onto 276. Follow 276 for 1/4 of a mile, and turn right onto Cove Creek Road (NC 284). Travel 5.8 miles on this narrow, steep, winding, mostly gravel road to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Go slow and be careful! Continue another 1.7 miles to a paved road and turn left. Follow road another 3.5 miles until you see several old buildings and a meadow on each side of the road.
Read more about the elk at http://www.romanticasheville.com/elk.htm.