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Breakfast with the Elk

You may have heard of "Breakfast at Tiffany's",  the Breakfast of Champions and the Breakfast Club, however in Cataloochee of the Great Smokies, it's "Breakfast with the Elk".

On February 2, 2001, 25 elk were released in the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Amid hundreds of onlookers, the elk dashed into their holding pen and waited for the release into the 500,000+-acre park.

The first year in the park has been very successful for the elk and has even included new additions to the herd. Several calves have been born and aside from some males temporarily wandering outside of the park, the elk have remained close to the original holding pen.

This herd of elk was moved from the US Forest Service property in Kentucky named the Land Between the Lakes. There the elk were exposed to humans and as a result they are not fearful of man.

Up close and personal

This lack of fear affords good viewing of the elk in the Cataloochee Area. They are usually spotted at dusk and dawn, the best time to view most wildlife. The herd can be seen grazing in the fields that make up a large portion of Big Cataloochee Valley.

On the morning that these photos were shot we made it a breakfast trip to Cataloochee. After gathering a thermos of steaming coffee and a bag full of country-sized biscuits we headed for Cataloochee. Our destination was the giant field at the end of the road in this remote valley.  We didn't make it that far. As we passed the ranger station, several elk were standing in the middle of the road gawking at a couple from Florida. The couple was amazed at the size of the large buck guarding his herd. As the buck observed the visitors to his turf, the women spoke to him as though he was an infant. Each time the woman spoke; he would cock his head and gaze at her quizzically. I wanted to warn the woman of the dangers of a buck in rut but the large animal looked curious and not dangerous! It was breathtaking to watch the huge buck throw back his head and "bugle" to warn the younger males and any other trespassers away from his harem. We even had one adult female come up and sniff the hood of our car. All it would have taken was to simply reach out through the window to touch her. However, keep in mind that these are wild animals. Familiarity with humans has caused many problems in the park with several species, such as bears and the attempt to reinstate the red wolf.

As the sun climbed in the sky the elk slowly wandered out of sight and into the dense forest. We were so star struck that our coffee and biscuits had become cold. 

Best viewed at sunup and sundown, the elk can be seen almost daily. It is illegal to use artificial light to take pictures. (No flash!) 

It is also illegal to approach or otherwise harass the elk. They are wild animals and as cute as they may appear they are also the one of the more potentially dangerous animals in the park. A charge by a large male with antlers can prove to be fatal. Too much familiarity with humans could also jeopardize the success of this program.

Gettin' There

Just 35 miles from Asheville, Cataloochee is very easy to find. Take exit 23 in Interstate 40. The Cove Creek Road exit is also the exit for RT. 276. Turn right on Cove Creek Road as soon as you exit the interstate. Follow Cove Creek Road for seven miles to the park entrance. Beware of precipitous drop offs and the absence of a shoulder in most sections of the road. Many cars have plunged off of the edge. Once in the park it is another 5 miles until you reach the paved road. As you enter the paved section, the road to the right has a sign that shows Mt. Sterling to be 20 miles. Take this branch to go to "Little Cataloochee". Continue to the left on the paved road to reach "Big Cataloochee". Be sure to stop at the first parking area on the right. Walk up the sloped and fenced walkway to take in the view of this beautiful and lush valley.


CATALOOCHEE (Car Camping) 27 sites, elev. 2,610', $12, open March 16 to Nov. 1, 31' RVs 

Reservations for camping: 1-800-365-2267 (park code GRE) 

Or contact :

http://www. reservations.nps.gov 

If you're camping in the Backcountry there are some great sites in the Cataloochee Area. Two of them are just short walks from the trailhead. Before you head into the backcountry to camp you must obtain a free camping permit.

Contact Numbers

For more information on park road conditions, call the park at

 (865) 436-1200.

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