So you have heard that there are elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you want to see some elk! 🦌
Elk are wild animals so there’s no guarantee you’ll see them.
But there are some spots that they are known to frequent which means there are some spots you can go that will give you a better chance of seeing them, if you go at a time that there’s an increased chance that they are there.
While Cataloochee Valley is said to be the best place to go to see elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, if you have just a short time in the Smoky Mountains, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center may be the best place to go to see elk for the relative convenience!
Elk without antlers can look a bit like deer from a distance. The ones with antlers are male elk.
There’s a large open field next to Oconaluftee Visitor Center
If there are elk around at the time of your visit to Oconaluftee Visitor Center, then chances are you’ll see cars lined along the side of the road, along with people out and about looking towards the field!
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center seems to be the most relatively conveniently reliable spot for a chance to see elk because of the location in the park. “Convenient” in the sense that it is located in an area that’s not too out of the way, and you can make an excuse to see other things on your trip to Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
If you’re visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, chances are that you will be driving Newfound Gap Road. This is the main road that goes through the national park from north (Tennessee side) to south (North Carolina side). The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is located at the southern end of Newfound Gap Road near Cherokee NC.
If you’re driving from Gatlinburg to Clingman’s Dome Road (which means you are driving on Newfound Gap Road), then after your Clingman’s Dome summit visit, you can keep driving further south to reach the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. You’ll also pass by the Mingus Mill shortly before you reach the visitor center.
A straight drive from Gatlinburg to Oconaluftee Visitor Center is around 1 hour. But that’s without traffic and without stops.
More places where you MIGHT see elk in or near the Smoky Mountains
Here are a few more places to be on the lookout for elk if you are in the area.
1. Mountain Farm Museum
👆 Spot the elk! 🦌
Just chillin alone.
The Mountain Farm is basically an outdoor museum. This is right next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center so it’s in the same area. You might as well go see if there’s elk there! And see how people used to live while you’re at it!
2. Small field driving along Newfound Gap Road, between the visitor center and Smokemont Campground
Once you start getting closer to the visitor center, pay attention to any fields you see along the side of the road. You might see elk!
👆 Spot the elk! 🦌
3. On the drive to Mingo Falls in Cherokee NC!
Now, you may not go to this location ONLY for the chance to see elk since your chance might be less, but Mingo Falls are great waterfalls to see so it’s an excuse to go! And maybe you’ll see elk while you’re at it.
Mingo Falls is located outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and it’s about about a 15 minute drive from Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Mingo Falls.
You’ll pass a Cherokee school on your way to Mingo Falls. The road of the north entrance of the school is called Elk Crossing Lane.
And in fact, it was shortly after passing Elk Crossing Lane that I did see a lone elk!
If you do decide to go to Mingo Falls, you also may consider going to Soco Falls while you’re at it! This will get you a little further away from the national park, and Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Soco Falls is about a 30 minute drive. You can take the Blue Ridge Parkway to get there. Mingo Falls to Soco Falls is also about a 30 minute drive.
And if you’re into waterfalls, be sure to see the list of waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains.
Side note! See the more of the Smoky Mountains:
- Best shoes for hiking in the Smoky Mountains
- Best hikes with VIEWS in the Smoky Mountains
- Best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains
- Driving the scenic route from Gatlinburg to Clingman's Dome
- Driving the slow scenic route from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove
- The big list of things to do in the Smoky Mountains
Best time to see elk
Once again, elk are wild animals so there’s no guarantee you’ll see them. In addition to going to spots that they are known to be more often, there are some times during the day that they are known to be in those spots more often. In short: dawn, dusk, if it’s cloudy, or if it rains!
According to the National Park Service:
The best times to view elk are usually early morning and late evening.
Elk may also be active on cloudy summer days and before or after storms.
I stayed near Smokemont Campground (the Smoky Mountains campground near Oconaluftee Visitor Center) so I was in the area a few times.
And well, the listed “best times to see elk” was my experience as well!
I was able to see elk in the evenings, and I was able to see elk during light rain! I never saw them in the fields on sunny days during the day. When I saw them during the day, it was rainy.
So if you happen to be on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains when it’s raining, you might check out the popular elk spots!
If you are interested in making a day trip to a less visited area of the national park, then you may want to go Cataloochee Valley to see elk.
According to the National Park Service:
Most of the elk are located in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park.
The easiest way to reach Cataloochee is from Interstate highway I-40.
Exit I-40 at North Carolina exit #20.
After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee valley.
Allow at least 45 minutes to reach the valley once you exit I-40.
Your destination for google maps can be Cataloochee Valley. You can expect it to be a 1.5 to 2 hour drive from Gatlinburg TN.
What the National Park Service wants you to know when you see elk
Basically… stay away!
Enjoy elk at a distance, using binoculars or a spotting scope for close-up views.
Read more about elk viewing from the people of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
And that’s a bit about seeing elk on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains!
More for the day you drive to the NC Smoky Mountains:
- Stops to make driving from Gatlinburg to Clingman’s Dome
- Clingman’s Dome summit trail
- Andrews Bald hike
- Mingus Mill
Plus see the best of Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
HAPPY ELK WATCHING IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS!
Best shoes for hiking in the Smoky MountainsYou will want good shoes for hiking in the Smoky Mountains.
In general, the best shoes for hiking in the Smoky Mountains will be hiking boots (more ideal) or trail running shoes (more versatile for everyday activities compared to hiking boots but still will give you advantages compared to regular shoes).
I liked wearing my hiking boots for the thicker soles (good on rocky trails) and the waterproof (water resistant) nature of them.
They were especially helpful on rainy day hikes to keep my shoes (and socks!) dry! They are also better to be walking on mud compared to regular shoes.
On rougher terrain (like the trails that are a bit rougher with more rocks), hiking boots are more ideal so you won't feel it on the bottoms of your feet as much.
If you want shoes that can work out better as everyday "out and about" kind of shoes, then you might like trail running shoes better! Trail running shoes are a little more durable than regular shoes, so they can also work out as good hiking shoes. Trail running shoes are a bit lighter weight and less bulky compared to hiking boots.
Shoe fit is very important for your feet! Be sure to break in your new shoes by walking around the neighborhood and/or at the grocery store before you go on your "big hike" in the Smoky Mountains!