Best Places to See Elk in Cherokee NC

Male elk emitting a bugle call during mating season in Cherokee

Have you ever heard a male elk’s bugging call? I heard it while exploring Cherokee, North Carolina, during the fall rut season. The Great Smoky Mountains is an excellent place to spot elk throughout the year; however, there are some places to visit for optimum chances for elk sightings. Here are the best places to see elk in Cherokee NC.

Male elk emitting a bugle call during mating season in Cherokee
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History of Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains

A male elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Did you know that in the Cherokee language, elk means “great big deer?”

Elk are the second largest member of the deer family (after the moose), with males (bulls/stags) weighing approximately 650-900 pounds and females (cows/hinds) are approximately 450-550 pounds. Elk used to be plentiful in the Appalachian mountains, but their numbers dwindled due to overhunting and loss of habitat. By the 1900s, elk numbers were so low they were leading to extinction. To revitalize the elk population, they were re-introduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001 (25) and 2002 (27). Today they are currently protected, and numbers are around 140 and growing. You can see tracking collars on their ears to allow for monitoring of the elk population.

Best Times for Elk Sightings in Cherokee

Female elk relaxing in the shade

You can see elk all year long in the Great Smoky Mountains. During the winter, you might see female elk and calves in the valleys in the late afternoon, around 3-4 p.m., while the males stay in the mountains. In the Spring, Summer, and Fall, you can find the elk coming down from the mountains into the valleys to graze early morning or at dusk. The best time for elk sightings is in the fall during the rut season, between September and late October.

A male elk disappointed by a female's rejection during mating season

Autumn is a great time to see clusters of female elk and male elk showcasing their dominance. And the peak of elk rut season is when the most elk breeding activity occurs. You will be able to hear lots of bugging, which is used to chase off rivals and attract female elk. During elk rutting season, bull elk may attack anything close to them or their mates as their protective instincts are keyed up during this time, including clashing antlers with other males.

Best Places to See Elk in Cherokee NC

Male elk walking through the field at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center

Several places around Cherokee, North Carolina, provide plenty of viewing opportunities to see the elk. The key to seeing them is knowing when they come down from the mountains to graze in the valleys and get there ahead of time. Planning will enable you to get prime elk viewing spots.

Oconaluftee Visitor Cent r

A male elk trying to mate with a female by the Oconaluftee Visitors Center

One of the prime viewing spots for elk in Cherokee, NC, is the open field next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Make sure to show up before dusk to get a parking spot along the road right next to the field. The elk wander down from the mountains and gather at the tree line before grazing in the open field. The National Park Rangers will keep you from getting too close to the elk and keeping vehicles moving down the road so you aren’t blocking traffic, so you need to get there early. Most people bring snacks and lawn chairs to watch the elk mating dance. The others you see there will be the photographers setting up their tripods, cameras, and long telephoto lens.

My aunt and I spent a long time watching the elk. At first, we saw a group of females (harem) resting under a tree. Then after a short while, we heard a sound. A male elk had come down from the mountain right by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and started to cross the open field toward the females. He noticed two other male elk further down the field and made a bugle call. We watched him walk to the group, and then we couldn’t help laughing as the females all scattered as he approached. The bull elk then proceeded to chase after one female after another, but they all ran away from him. It was quite a soap opera drama that we watched.

Elk sightings at Oconaluftee, NC

Oconaluftee River Trail

Oconaluftee River

Another place to see elk in Cherokee NC is by the Oconaluftee River Trail. If you are on the trail or by the Oconaluftee river, you might see elk in the water or crossing the river. My aunt and I decided to keep looking for elk after watching them at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. We drove around the town and saw a couple of cars pulled over by the side of the road next to the woods.

An elk in the woods within Cherokee, NC

Being the adventurer I am, I hiked into the woods to see what was there. I found a giant male elk eating leaves and racking its antlers against trees. I got close enough to get some amazing close-up photos without disturbing him. He looked straight at me at one point, and I knew my time was up watching him. I backed up and headed back to the car. I was so focused on capturing him that I didn’t even notice my aunt taking a photo of me taking a photo of him.

Other Places in Cherokee for Elk Sightings

A group of elk grazing in Cherokee

On my Aunt’s and I adventure to have more elk sightings, we drove to a few other sites known as good spots to see elk in Cherokee. My aunt heard that the High School and KOA areas are good spots for elk sightings. In addition to those places, the lowland fields about 1 mile up US441 from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center are a good spot for seeing elk. We headed to those places but didn’t see any elk on this day. However, we did find more elk randomly scattered along the roads in town. Keep an eye out for parked cars and people standing around. We saw a group parked in an empty car repair lot, so we pulled over to see what was there.

A young male elk in the bushes

Seeing elk in their natural habitats is an amazing sight. The crowd stayed away from the elk and watched him eat leaves from a distance. I was glad that I had brought my telephoto lens with me. When the elk was finished eating, he started to walk toward the road. That is when the crowd got in gear to help because the elk was about to cross the street in front of traffic. Everyone stepped up to block traffic away from the elk to let him cross the road without a mishap. Driving around Cherokee in the fall, you must remember that you might encounter an elk crossing in front of you anytime. Drive cautiously!

Tips on Photographing Elk

Elk looking through the bushes

For you to get great wild elk photos, here are some tips for you to follow. First and foremost, these are wild and potentially dangerous animals; stay at least 50 yards from the elk. Plus, as many of these areas in Cherokee are on private land, don’t pull into driveways or turn around in yards to get a photo of these giant animals. Here are some more photography tips:

  • Use a 100-400mm or 200-400mm lens on a tripod 
  • Focus on the eye to keep the animal as sharp as possible
  • Try using backlighting to highlight the furry edges of the elk’s antlers
  • When shooting in the fall, look to get the elk framed against colorful fall foliage
  • Fill the entire frame with the head and antlers of a bull elk
  • Take portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) images of the same subject to increase variety in your images
  • Remember that the elk are preoccupied during the rut, which does lend itself to special photo opportunities; however, with all that extra testosterone, elk can behave unpredictably and aggressively, and you should keep 50-yards between them your camera.

Summary

Heather taking photos of an elk

When traveling through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Cherokee, North Carolina, try to catch a glimpse of those ‘great big deer.’ They are magnificent creatures and are a beauty to photograph. Remember to focus on your surroundings and stay at least 50 yards from them. I didn’t know about that distance when I first saw them—something to remember next time. I did remain cautious and respectful of every one of the elk that I captured. I hope that this article helps you find your own great wild elk photos. Have you been to Cherokee to see the elk?

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Further Reading

If you are exploring Missouri and Southern Illinois for the holidays, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

If you are exploring the Carolinas, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

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