Elk in the Smoky Mountains

When I first started coming to Tennessee, it was the beauty of the mountains that captivated me, I just couldn’t get enough of it. The other thing that attracted my attention was the wildlife, especially the bears. I come from the small flat state of Delaware so the thought of a 180 LB bear that could cross your path at any time was both fascinating and a bit unnerving. Everyone who comes and visits the area always wants to see bear in the wild.

This trend could be changing soon, however. Could you imagine seeing a 700 Lb. Elk crossing your path? This is not as far-fetched as you might think… If you travel from Pigeon Forge to the Cataloochee area in North Carolina or West to the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area you will find herds of over 300 Elk in each location. Its less than a two-hour drive!

Elk used to roam the Great Smoky Mountain in large numbers but due to habitat loss and overhunting the eastern herd we nearly wiped out, none have been reported in the Great Smoky Mountains since the mid 1800’s. Elk were reintroduced on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains in 2001 with about 25 animals, the herd has flourished ever since.

There set of Elk introduced in Tennessee in 2000 as well, they were released in the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. They manage a herd of about 400 elk there, you can even watch them on TWRA’s elk camera.

Some elk from the North Carolina herd have ventured to Tennessee in the past, mostly along the I-40 corridor in Cocke County. Recently though, two young male elk from the herd in North Carolina have made its way across the highest peak in the Smokies and ventured several miles into Tennessee.

What makes this sighting interesting is the animals literally took the high road to Tennessee. Crossing at the highest peak near Clingmans Dome. Elk have a way of following the same trail as other Elk and experts say that we are likely to see more Elk on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountain, but until we start seeing some female Elk there will not be any
new herds forming any time soon.

This fascinated me so this month my wide and I, with three of our grandchildren, decided to take a ride and see for ourselves. We went into the Great Smoky Mountain State Park from Gatlinburg (441), passing Sugarland’s Visitors’ Center and passing Newfound Gap. It is a nice ride.

We passed the Clingman’s Done turn off and went a couple more miles before we saw a traffic jam. There was a herd of about 30 Elk right there grazing in a meadow!!

We had binoculars and were watching as they moved towards us. They got so close my wife had to close the window. They walked right past the car grazing. If the window was open, we could have almost reached them. I told the kids to keep quiet and very still, it was fascinating and exciting. They are big animals and the males had some impressive antlers. I could have stayed there all day….

Of course, authorities suggest staying at least 50 yards away from these animals because they can be very unpredictable. I was thinking later that we were way to close but I’m not sure if it would have been worst if we pulled away.

The best time to see Elk is early morning or late afternoon or sometimes on overcast days. If you want to see Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains stop in and ask the rangers at the Sugarland Visitors Center, They are full of valuable information and will know where the Elk are on any given day.

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