Photographing Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Where, When and Why

Bull elk bugling during rut
Bull elk bugling during rut

Story & photos by Tom Croce

As nature photographer, one of my favorite things showing someone a picture of a beautiful elk bull, and ask them where it was taken. They usually guess the Rocky Mountains or somewhere out west. It’s fun to see their expression when I tell them no, it was taken in North Carolina! Perhaps one of the most important things we do as nature photographers is educate and help bring awareness to the plight of animals in the wild. Equally important is highlighting the programs where thoughtful, patient intervention has helped ensure that these wild places remain wild for future generations. One such program is the United States National Park Service’s reintroduction of the majestic elk to the Great Smoky Mountains. That’s the why. But where are the best places to photograph elk and when are the best times?

Elk became regionally extinct in the North Carolina /Tennessee area of the United States by the mid 1800s due to hunting and loss of habitat. There were similar issues elsewhere and many other states began losing this magnificent animal. By the turn of the century, the elk population in the United States dropped to the point that both hunting and conservation groups were concerned the species was heading for nationwide extinction.

Elk cow nursing calf.
Elk cow nursing calf

Part of the mission of the National Park Service is to preserve native plants and animals on lands it manages. In cases where native species have been eliminated from park lands, the National Park Service may choose to reintroduce them. The National Park Service began to study the reintroduction of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1990s. In 2001, 25 elk (from Kentucky) were reintroduced in the Park with another 27 animals (from Canada) imported in 2002. The elk population in the Great Smoky Mountains appears to be slowly increasing, from the 52 animals first introduced, to the 200 or so individuals now ranging along the North Carolina–Tennessee border.

Best locations for photographing elk

Most of the elk can be found in the Cataloochee Valley and the area near Cherokee along the Oconaluftee River. The easiest access to Cataloochee is from Cove Creek Road, an 11-mile winding gravel road with several hairpin turns. It will take about 45 minutes to reach the valley once you turn onto Cove Creek Road. The valley is about 1 mile long running east to west and surrounded by some of the most rugged mountains located in the Eastern United States. Other main herd is located near Cherokee, NC. One of the easiest places to spot these elk is in the fields surrounding the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, stretching along the Oconaluftee River to the Oconaluftee Job Corp Center.

Elk in a fall morning's fog.
Elk in a fall morning’s fog

Best times to photograph elk

The best time to photograph the elk is during the rut, which starts in mid-September and lasts about a month. Plan to arrive in Cataloochee about 30 minutes before sunrise. Quite often the valley will be filled with a thick layer of fog and the sound of the bulls bugling. As the sun rises above the mountains the light can be beautiful, offering some great opportunities for habitat shots, or light filtering through the trees. Typically, once the sun rises above the mountains and the fog burns off, the animals head into the forest to bed down avoiding the heat of the day. During the day the valley can be eerily quiet but, as the sun starts to drop, the sounds of bugling bulls again announces their presence, followed by the cows and calves returning to the valley. There is nothing like watching two of the big bulls fighting. A fight can be as short as a couple minutes, or as long as 20-30 minutes, depending on how evenly matched they are. I have been following the dominant males for several years and, in 2019, the valley was ruled by one dominant bull, but the three slightly smaller males were beginning to test his dominance. The 2020 rut could be very exciting.

Two bull elks fighting for dominance.
Two bull elks fighting for dominance

Bonus tip

The Oconluftee herds, due to their location along the main road near the visitor center, can draw some big crowds. As soon as the animals head toward the woods, follow the path behind the Mountain Farm Museum to the Oconaluftee River, where you will have a good chance to catch a shot of the animals crossing the river. Later in the evening the animals will move to the fields around the Job Corp Center. If you arrive there early and follow the road until it dead ends at the Oconaluftee River, you may catch some of the animals moving along the river to the fields.

Tom Croce is a fine art Black and White Landscape photographer located in South Western Ohio. In addition Tom pursues his passion for nature and wildlife photography offering prints and workshops. To see more of his work visit tomcroce.com.