Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Restoration of Elk in the Park

The experimental reintroduction of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the release of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. All elk are radio collared and will be monitored during the experimental phase of the project. Elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the eastern United States. They were extirpated from the region by over-hunting and habitat loss. The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s; the last in Tennessee in the mid-1800s. By 1900, alarmed by the decrease of population of elk in North America, hunting groups and other conservation organizations became concerned the species was headed for extinction. 

One of the National Park Service's primary missions is to preserve native plants and animals on land it manages. In cases where native species have been eliminated from park lands, the NPS may choose to reintroduce them. Successful wildlife reintroductions in the NPS include river otter, peregrine falcon, and several fish species, , wolves in Yellowstone and big horn sheep in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. 

Elk Facts

Bulls weigh an average of 600—700 pounds and have antlers as wide as five feet, while cows average 500 pounds. Adults are seven to 10 feet long from nose to tail and stand four and a half to five feet tall at the shoulder. Cows usually give birth to only one calf annually beginning in the second autumn of their lives. Newborns weigh about 35 pounds and can stand within minutes of birth. Calf and cow usually rejoin their herd within a couple of weeks, with the calves nursing for one to seven months. They graze on grasses, forbs and acorns; and browse bark, leaves and buds from shrubs and trees. 

In the Smokies, coyotes, bobcats and black bears may kill young, sick or injured elk. In other parks, including Yellowstone, gray wolves and mountain lions prey upon elk. Those that survive these threats can live as long as 15 years.

Viewing Elk

The best times to view elk are usually early morning and late evening and during the breeding season, known as "the rut", which occurs in the fall.  The rut lasts several weeks and Is a fascinating mating ritual when the bulls bugle and compete for dominance to attract cows. Elk are sometimes active on cloudy summer days and before or after storms. Elk are best viewed at a distance, using binoculars or a spotting scope for close-up views. Approaching wildlife causes undue stress, forcing them to expend crucial energy unnecessarily and can result in real harm. If you approach an animal so closely that it stops feeding, changes direction of travel, or otherwise alters its behavior, you are too close!

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 I-40, at North Carolina take exit 20. After 0.2 miles, 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.


While elk are vegetarians, they are the largest animals in the park and they can be dangerous. Cows with calves will defend their offspring and they've been known to charge people in the park. Bull elk may perceive people as a challenge to their territory and may charge also, especially during the breeding season. Always keep your distance and never touch or move elk calves. Though they may appear to be orphaned, it is likely that their mother is nearby feeding. Like white-tailed deer fawns, a calf's natural defense is to lie down and remain still.

The use of spotlights, elk bugles and other wildlife calls are illegal in the national park. It is also illegal to remove elk antlers or other elk parts from the park. Never feed elk or other wildlife or bait them in for closer observation. Feeding park wildlife is strictly forbidden by law and almost always leads to the animal's demise.