Elk watching in Cataloochee Valley – Digging

November 25, 2022

I’d hoped to hear the bugle of bull elk during our road trip through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but those eerie, whistling autumnal calls elude me yet. Still, I can’t complain about the elk viewing in the scenic Cataloochee Valley of North Carolina, about an hour west of Asheville. We arrived at twilight on October 29th, bumping down a rugged, twisting road to reach the valley, knowing it would be dark on the way out and wondering if it would be worth the careful navigation of a narrow mountain road at night.

Oh, it sure was.

As soon as we reached the valley we saw an enormous bull elk vigilantly watching a herd of cows. We pulled over to the side of the road to watch him.

There were only a half-dozen or so other cars at that hour, with people watching quietly from their windows or standing behind their cars. The bull picked his way across a meadow, keeping pace with the cows.

One cow emerged from a creek in the woods on the other side of the road and thought about coming across.

The bull decided he needed to round her up, and she turned back.

Why did the elk cross the road? During the rut, he’s got one thing on his mind: the ladies.

He surveys the scene.

And then he lifted his muzzle and charged at her. No bugle, but he made other noises.

She responded by taking off running.

At first everything seemed pretty laid-back.

Another female looked on from across a swale.

Then suddenly the bull was flat-out giving chase.

Only for a moment. As she galloped across the swale he pulled up.


He watched her go.

Thinking about things

Then he followed her across the swale…

…and lurked, watching the two cows. We waited a while longer, hoping for a bugle, but eventually we lost the light, and a chill settled over the valley. We headed home, our heads filled with visions of these majestic animals.

Elk are native to the Smokies, but they were hunted out of existence here more than a hundred years ago. In 2001, 25 elk were reintroduced to the park. Another 27 were released the following year. Today the elk population has rebounded to around 200 animals.

Up next: An autumn drive through Great Smoky Mountains and Cades Cove, where we saw bears and turkeys. For a look back at the gardens of Biltmore House, click here.

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All material © 2022 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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