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Elk Viewing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Elk Viewing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North CarolinaElk Viewing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Two centuries ago, elk naturally roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains. Due to overhunting and loss of habitat, they disappeared from North Carolina by the late 1700s and from Tennessee by the mid-1800s. In 2001, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park implemented an experiment to see if elk could inhabit this region again. The results have been favorable, and elk viewing in the park has become a special treat for visitors of all ages.

The Experiment

In 2001, 25 elk were taken from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky and introduced into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Another 27 were introduced in 2002. All 52 individuals were radio-collared and monitored over the eight-year experimental period. By 2011, the herd had grown to 140.

Over the 10-year period, a few elk were killed in collisions with vehicles, and at least one breeding bull was poached for his antlers. In the early years, black bears took several elk calves, but the elk seem to have adapted to their presence, and fewer calves have been lost to bears in recent years. All other elk deaths have been due to natural or unknown causes. A minimum of 19 calves were born during the 2011 season, and the survival rate was good. All in all, the experiment was successful, and the project is now considered to be a reintroduction rather than an experiment.

Where and When to View the Elk

The best place to view elk in the park is in Cataloochee Valley. To get there, take exit 20 from I-40 and travel 0.2 miles on Route 276. Turn right on Cove Creek Road and follow the signs for 11 miles to the valley. There are picnic tables available within the viewing area. The best time of day to see elk is in the early morning hours and at sunset.

Where to Stay and Eat

Cherokee, North Carolina, is located just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park on U.S. 441. It offers several options for lodging and dining. Because this area caters to recreational visitors, businesses tend to close early, and some may be seasonal. It is best to call ahead before making your plans.

Cherokee Lodge

1593 Acquoni Road

Cherokee, North Carolina

828-497-2226

The Cherokee Lodge is located directly on the banks of the Oconaluftee River and only 2 miles from the park entrance. The rooms are economical and clean, and queen suites are also available.

River's End Restaurant

13077 Highway 19 W

Bryson City, North Carolina

828-488-2175

Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.

Open for breakfast (March through October), lunch, and dinner, River's End Restaurant is located right on the river and serves a varied menu including pizza, pasta, fish, and steak.

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