In the frosty darkness of the early, early morning, I met Tim, my tour guide from Cataloochee Valley Tours. Mind you, I’m not a morning person and the thought of being up before the chickens is generally not my idea of a good time. Until now.
Tim was pleasant and informed on the history of the valley and the introduction of elk to the park. Riding in the SUV in the dark as Tim navigated the winding road into the Cataloochee Valley was slow going but when the sun rose over the horizon, all that crawling down the mountain was show stopping. In the misty valley, a bugle sounded in the distance.
There, in all their magnificent glory, a gang of elk overseen by a huge bull grazed on the grasses of Cataloochee. Enthralled, I enthusiastically watched nature unfold, hoping to see the bull and his harem up close. The bull, his majestic crown stretched towards the heavens, kept watch over his harem like a father over his teen daughter – a 700 pound father no less and he didn’t have a sense of humor.
Protective of his cows, he bugled and pawed the ground, communicating his displeasure with a cow that wandered from the gang. Unperturbed by his actions, the cow continued grazing further and further away from the others. Swiftly, he charged her, and their thunderous hooves pounded the ground next to the vehicle as he brought her back to the herd. I felt the sheer strength and power of these animals in that instant.
We continued further into the valley and spied another bull. Like the other male, he was quite the specimen with a huge rack crowning his head. After getting a better look at him we realized he was limping on what looked to be a swollen leg. His injury was likely sustained in a tussle with another bull.
Scattered through the park were more elk and several turkeys. Also left behind as a reminder of the park’s history are several preserved historic buildings from the former settlement, including a church, homes, and outbuildings.
The Cataloochee Valley is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once the tour was over and I went on my way I couldn’t get the vision of the magnificence of the elk, mostly the bulls, out of my head. That’s always the way it is, isn’t it? What makes the boys so alluring?
I didn’t know this before my trip, but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the US. Straddling the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, you can start out on one side of the park in one state, and end at another.
Later in the day after the morning Cataloochee Valley Tour I pulled into the parking lot at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Oconaluftee Visitor Center in NC. A large crowd was gathered near a high grass area close to the parking lot. Curious, I approached the group to see what they were watching. Casually grazing in the tall grass only a few feet away was a young bull. He was not as big as the one seen earlier, but he was no less majestic.
Several park rangers kept the crowd at a safe distance. By law, you cannot come within 150 feet of an elk, for your safety and for the safety of the animal. Although the bull cared less about the people surrounding him, after witnessing the power of the bull rounding up his cow that morning I can assure you, you don’t want to be at the front end of a charging bull.
The rut season is begins around August and runs through around October each year. Trust me, there is nothing like the early morning bugle of a bull or seeing a rather large elk calf with its spots. Although the herd in Cataloochee was reintroduced 13 years ago with about 52 elk, the herd today has grown to about 150.
Unless you’ve seen elk before and don’t feel like you need to see them again, I think everyone should visit Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I also recommend using the Cataloochee Valley Tours. Probably the best reason to use them, aside from their knowledge of the area, the elk, the history, and the narrow, winding road is the fact that you don’t have to drive and can focus on spotting elk. And that’s really why you’d want to visit in the fall anyway, right?