You may have heard of Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but they’re only found in certain areas. We recommend taking the drive southeast from Gatlinburg for the best chance to see them in one of two areas, Cataloochee Valley and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Best Places and Times for Elk Viewing
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
The fields around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center are an excellent place to see elk, and the driving time is only about an hour from Gatlinburg.
There’s additional attractions like the Mountain Farm Museum, below. Maybe you’ll even be lucky enough to get a photo of the old farm with Elk grazing nearby.
One of the two best places to see Elk is the Cataloochee valley area, in the park’s southeastern section. While it’s a bit further from Gatlinburg and Pigeon forge, it’s valleys and surrounding mountains make a great backdrop for photos.
There’s some great scenery along the drive too.
Elk are most active and visible during early mornings and late evenings. They’re also more likely to be seen cloudy summer days and around storms. During the mid-day sun, your chances of finding them are pretty low. Using binoculars or a spotting scope is recommended to avoid disturbing them.
Elk were native to the area, but eliminated by hunting in area by the 1800s. The reintroduction of elk into the park in the early 2000s was a successful effort to restore Elk.
Viewing Safety Tips
Elk are not only large—females weigh about 500 pounds and males up to 700 pounds—but can also become aggressive, especially when protecting calves or during the rut season (fall).
It’s illegal to approach within 50 yards (150 feet) or any distance that disturbs or displaces them. Never try to touch or feed them. If an elk’s behavior changes because you’re too close, it means you’re too close. Staying by the roadside close to your car is the safest way to see them.
Viewing elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great way to see this amazing animal in it’s natural habitat.