The Elk of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

November 26, 2020  •  1 Comment


I made my first trip to the Oconaluftee area of North Carolina a few years ago and had a great time shooting the herd of Manitoban subspecies of elk (Cervus elaphus manitobensis) that lives in the area. The eastern elk that originally inhabited much of the east coast was killed off by over hunting, with the last one killed in 1877. In 2002, a herd of elk were transported into the Cataloochee area by the National Park Service and have flourished ever since after breaking up into several herds.

In addition to the elk in the area, which are easy to photograph since they are used to being around people, the scenery of the national forests of the area are remarkable and worthy of a trip just for their beauty. Between the majestic views, rocky mountains, roaring streams, and accessible waterfalls, this is an area that is worth a trip...or three.


For this trip, I had a couple of specific photographic goals in mind. Rather than capture the traditional elk portraits, I wanted a shot of one backlit by the morning sun, in the cold air, and a picturesque shot of one crossing water. After three days, I managed to come home with both of those trophies.

I chose to stay in the Cherokee area since it is so close to the visitor's center of Oconaluftee, the spot where a fairly large herd tends to hang out, totally unbothered by the presence of people and traffic. Upon arrival, my photo-buddy, Phil, and I made our way to the visitor's center. This was a first for him so I doubled as tour guide. Before we even got to the large grassy field where the herd is known to frequent, I spotted an elk down in the Oconaluftee River, in the human-populated area of town. We quickly pulled over and I grabbed my 500mm lens and headed for the river's edge. I had no luck seeing around the thick vegetation along the bank so I hurried up stream to where I had seen the elk. I really didn't want to get too close because I didn't want a shot of the top of her head, but rather a profile with some of the scenery to go with it.

No such luck. It turned out that there were eight elk making their way across in various places and we were right on top of them on the high bank. As they made their way across, it was difficult to get a decent shot through the thick growth and even harder to make any decent compositions out of it. I managed to fire off a few shots and I got my elk crossing the water but I knew it was not going to yield any satisfying images. Just more portraits.



Once all the elk had made their way across the river, and then into a small field across the street, it was obvious that the show was over. They were all grazing in the grass, with their heads down. I had gotten elk crossing water but not the way I had wanted.

We made our way to the visitor's center area. It was mid-afternoon in November so the sun was already getting low. In the mountain valleys, the sun drops behind the mountain peaks and the shadows take over early in the day. At the Oconaluftee Visitor's Center, there is a large, narrow field, bordered by the road on one side and a thin strip of trees that line the river on the other. The elk spend the day up in the highlands and come down to graze in the mornings and the evenings. Along the side of the road is a parking area with plenty of space for cars to park for viewing. Of course that doesn't stop people from stopping in the middle of the road, blocking the traffic behind them.


The view itself it spectacular. Add 50 or so elk and it becomes pretty exciting, especially during the rut, when the elk are all on hormonal overdrive. We were here at the end of the rut so there wasn't as much action going on and the crowds were thinned out accordingly. When shooting here, one can easily shoot from the window of their car but it's much better to get out and set up along the side of the road, either with a tripod or by just walking back and forth, handholding.


Since elk are grazers, like deer, they spend much of their time with their heads down and not really providing a wide variety of photogenic poses.


For shooting here, there really is no wrong lens choice because the elk can be right at the edge of the road or tucked along the back side of the field. Zooms can be a good choice but I always grab my 500 prime just because it's my favorite lens.

In most of the groups you will see in the Fall, there are likely to be a few juvenile bulls with small racks along with plenty of cows and a few large bulls with the 10-point plus racks. Usually one is the dominant, often the largest one, and takes claim to all the females, keeping check on them and any other bulls nearby. Watch for the patriarch to chase away any other bulls that get too close or otherwise challenge his dominance over the herd.


As the sun drops and the shadows begin to spread across the field, shoot quickly because the light drops off rapidly. But be prepared for an early rise the next day as the elk will be out before dawn.

On this next day, we decided to head to Cataloochee Valley where another herd resides. It was about an hour drive from Cherokee and included driving over some pretty steep, narrow, and winding, unpaved roads. Transmission braking is suggested as the grades get pretty heavy in some areas. Once in the valley, it opens up to green fields, not unlike that of Oconaluftee.


When we got to the ranger's station, we spotted wild turkeys in the road ahead of us and a sow and two cubs in the field. As we were there before the sun had come over the peaks, the light was still quite low, calling for slower shutter speeds and all the things that come with lower light shooting. The mother had found something to eat and was sharing it with her cubs. We kept our distance so as not to interfere. Cubs are usually playful and entertaining but these were too hungry to do anything but wait for Mom to prepare breakfast.

With the turkeys now out of sight, we headed down the road to a clearing where we saw a couple of elk in the heavily shaded field. We drove farther, past the old Palmer Chapel and found the old Beech Grove school house. The road was blocked for repairs for all vehicular traffic so we parked and explored the school building. It was built in 1901 and was used until just after 1940 when the park was established.


Like with many public attractions that are not policed, graffiti and carvings have taken over.


There was still a sense of presence as it seemed that class had just taken a break a day or two ago. The desks were still in place and the floors were clean.


With the road closed off, we headed back toward the field and were greeted by more than 20 elk who were just emerging from the heavily wooded area and pouring into the field. The sun was directly behind them and the shadow of the mountain peak was shortening and being replaced by the golden glow of the morning sun by the minute.

With the early air almost freezing, the warming ground was glistening with frost, almost blue from the sky above. You could easily see the breath of the elk as it was backlit. This was the scene I had hoped to capture.


There were about 20 elk emerging from the woods. Several juvenile bulls, plenty of young cows, and two large bulls. The first of the large bulls put on a pretty good display, walking close to us as it grazed in the field. Several juvenile bulls alternated between grazing and practicing their sparring techniques, likely not even knowing why they would ever be using them.

49964996 If elk can be cute, these two definitely were. The larger of the two approached the smaller one very slowly yet very methodically while the other stood as if to be wondering what was about to happen. As the distance closed between them, they both lowered their heads, almost in a ritualistic way - definitely not in an aggressive manner - and continued to get closer and closer.



They eventually came head to head, rack to rack, and stared one another in the eye, in a way that was almost endearing. They nudged one another back and forth a little, rattled their horns, nudged a little more, and then the smaller one finally took a step backwards and ended the encounter, looking at the instigator as if he were puzzled about what had just taken place.

08170817 At the far end of the field, well behind the rest of the herd, stood the patriarch bull and one cow. Although it was at the end of the rut, there were likely still some opportunities for last minute romances or at least this fella seemed to think so. He patiently followed her toward the rest of the herd as they both grazed and took their time meeting up with the others.

08470847 Meanwhile, the other large bull, who was with the majority of the herd, took advantage of the opportunity to check in on some of the cows who were unattended. Here he solicits some attention from a cow with a full belly who had laid down to do some necessary cud shewing. His advances did not pay off as he was pretty much ignored.


As the dominant bull approached the herd, the smaller one stepped away from the ladies and gave the larger one plenty of room. The patriarch was constantly watching his challenger's every move. They seemed to get along fine as long as the rules of the hierarchy were followed.

With the bellies full, most of the elk were now resting or moving farther away and spreading out. And with the harsh sun now in command, we decided to make our way across the border, into Tennessee, to Cades Cove, a popular spot for wildlife and scenery viewing.


This was my second trip to Cades and with a controlled grass burn in progress and with half the day behind us, there was no wildlife to be seen.


On our way out, we ran into a small group of wild turkeys who didn't seem to mind a little bit of attention.


As we made our way back to Cherokee, we took some time out to watch the sun drop behind the peaks as the shadows once again took over the land.

57465746 The next day, our final day in the area, we ventured back to Oconaluftee in search of my second photographic goal - that of capturing an elk crossing the river in a picturesque scene. We parked and took a sometimes-paved trail that ran along the river bank. Covered with lots of exposed roots from river erosion, it was a tough walk to make with gear while in a hurry. The sun was already getting high and the elk that were in the field were heading toward the water in search of the highlands.

57565756 The vegetation was thick and difficult to see through. As we approached a group of elk, we set up next to the river bank in hopes of a crossing. Several large cows who were eating tree bark noticed us and kept a watchful eye on us. One of the young cows was especially curious of our presence.


While watching the river, we saw several cows with their young and several solitary ones make their way across the swift but shallow water to the bank on the other side where they soon disappeared into the woods.


I noticed some activity down in the water in front of us and saw my very first mink as it came up out of the water and paused on a downed tree to check us out. Not expecting to find small critters, I was underequipped for a great shot of this little guy. He then plopped back into the water and disappeared under the swirling currents.

And then finally, I saw a large bull - the patriarch - approaching the river, but much farther away from the others. I didn't think I could pull off a shot that far away and through the heavy foliage. But for just a few seconds I saw the shot I had wanted.

57345734 After making his way into the water, he slowly walked across, pausing every few steps to check on his herd. Finally, he walked to where several trees looked like they were about to give in to the constant erosion of the shoreline. The fog from the morning mist was drifting over his head, the deeper water gave way to the shallows, and I had just seconds to take my shot. Success!

With a little time left before we had to hit the road, we ventured a very short distance past the visitor's center to Mingus Mill. Built in 1886, it is one of the first grist mills to use a turbine rather than a water wheel to harness the power of the nearby water flow. It was closed to visitors but I managed to get a sneak peek inside through a hole in the door. Click on the image below to see a short video.



Once on the road home, we stopped by a couple of waterfalls that were within easy reach of the highway. Just down the road is Soco Falls. It's a double cascade where the Soco river splits. The observation deck provides a nice view but if you are brave (or stupid) enough to climb down the rocks, with the assistance of weathered and worn ropes, you can get a very different and worthwhile view as seen below. Click on the second image below to see a short video.



A little later down the road, and with a worthwhile detour into the Pisgah National Forest, we came upon Looking Glass Falls, another worthwhile treat. Like Soco, it's very easy to access but much less treacherous if you go beyond the observation deck. Click on the second image below for a short video.



For me, photography has become a matter of setting goals and then seeking them out. It's like hunting, but with a camera. It's about watching and learning about the wildlife in front of me. It's about taking home that experience to relive over and over again. For me, this short trip was a success.

I'll go back to the area again but likely with different goals in mind. For now, I can revel in the satisfaction of having planned to capture two scenes. Scenes that I could not guarantee but ones I had thought to be reachable. I succeeded, or was rather lucky - this time. Probably a little of both.

Be sure to check out my other blog articles for useful photographic tips and techniques.


Lela Simms(non-registered)
Great pictures and article. We love to visit all three areas you talk about. It is the luck of the cards when you go, we were blessed to see them in rut in October.
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