On a crisp fall day in 2015, innkeepers Sue and George Brown were walking along the riverside path at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee—a lovely walk that meanders through the woods along a mountain stream. As they came around the bend, they saw something that stopped them dead in their tracks. A massive bull elk was grazing on the path right in front of them, his huge rack almost brushing the ground. The elk raised his head, gave them a long look, and then slowly entered the water and forged the stream. When he got to the other side, he threw his head back and bugled once before disappearing into the woods.
As Sue and George can attest, it’s a sound you never forget—a sound so terrifying that it was the inspiration for the scream of the “Ringwraith” in the Lord of the Rings. It begins as a low moan and grows in volume and intensity until it ends in a high-pitched scream. It was quite incredible, to say the least!
From Millions to Extinction
Prior to the European settlement, 10 million elk roamed the country. A bull stood five feet at the shoulder and weighed as much as 1,000 pounds. Their antlers were often 6 feet wide or more. They were prized for their meat—the tastiest of all venison—and their hides were used for everything from clothing to book covers. Enormous herds or “gangs” roamed the land from Louisiana to Canada. Other than wolves and bear, they had few natural predators. That is, until man came along.
In 1887, the last surviving eastern elk in the United States was shot in Pennsylvania. Three years later the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared them extinct. Overhunting and encroachment onto their natural habitat eventually decimated the eastern elk, but their cousins, the Rocky Mountain elk and the Manitoban elk, continued to survive in the less populated Western US and Canada. Eventually, conservationists stepped in to save the entire species from extinction.
Reintroducing Elk to the Great Smoky Mountains
In 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) was organized. One of their primary missions was to preserve plant and animal species, so in 2001 and 2002 the NPS reintroduced 52 elk into the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They were mostly Manitoban elk, and smaller than their predecessors—but not by much. A bull weighing in at 800 pounds is around 7 to 10 feet long, and a mature bull can have a rack that is 5 feet wide and 4 feet tall. They stand 4.5 feet at the shoulder and are sometimes 9 feet from hooves to antler tip, making them one of the largest mammal species in the US. There are now more than 200 elk in the Smokies.
Where to View Elk
In spring and summer, elk are mostly in the high country, but in the fall and winter they seek the valleys. There are two places near Bryson City to observe the elk. The largest herd is in the Cataloochee Valley viewing area, about an hour and a half drive from the Fryemont Inn. But they are also often found in the vast field that borders the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, only 20 minutes from the Inn.
Seeing one up close is an amazing experience!