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Stories from the Smokies

Autumn is a special time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition to the beautiful fall colors, Fall also brings the rut, the annual mating season for the elk. With the bull elks’ bugling echoing through the valleys, this is one of the most popular seasons for elk watching. But from a distance.

Where to watch elk? The most popular venues are the open fields at Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee and in the valley at Cataloochee. The fields are closed to people throughout September and October, but viewing is permitted from the roadside. Ideal viewing times are at dawn and dusk.

It’s important to understand that elk are wild and potentially dangerous animals. The National Park Service suggests watching the following video on safe elk watching during the rut.

Avoid close encounters. Both males and females have been known to charge at people who get too close. Bulls are territorial, and cows are very protective of their calves. If you see an elk calf lying alone in tall grass, do not approach it. You can be sure that its mother is grazing nearby.

Use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view the animals. Willfully approaching within 50 yards, or any distance that disturbs or displaces elk, is illegal in the Park and subject to fines and arrest. Park volunteers called the Bugle Corps patrol up and down the road and on trails educating visitors and trying to help them stay the recommended distance from the elk.

You can find more information with a quick visit to the Elk Watching page on