Searching for Elk in Cherokee – North Carolina

Bull elk Smoky Mountain National Park North Carolina

North Carolina – home to the Cherokee Indian and the elusive Elk…


It was around Memorial Day when I got a call from a good friend of mine inviting me to spend some time in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina – time to go and spot some elk in the homelands of the Cherokee.

I did have some free time available, so I made the trip south from my home in New Hampshire. My base of operations for this five day trip was the Qualla Boundary, which is home to the town of Cherokee, in North Carolina, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian.

Entrance Cherokee North Carolina 2

Besides a great place to learn about Cherokee history and Cherokee culture, this area is a great place to spot elk. And don’t miss the Museum of the Cherokee Indian while you are in town.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian Cherokee North Carolina

Local Elk History

At the time of European arrival, elk (Cervus elaphus Canadensis) roamed the forests and fields east of the Mississippi River as far north as southern New England and as far south as Georgia. This sub-species of elk was soon eliminated due to the over hunting of Euro/Americans and their guns. According to the National Park Service, the last elk in North Carolina was killed at the end of the 1700s, with the last one in Tennessee being killed in the mid-1880s.

elk in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

The elk we find in the Smoky Mountains today are the descendants of Rocky Mountain elk introduced in two separate releases; one in 2001 and another in 2002. Today there are an estimated 200 elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers a great deal of territory and I knew that with so few animals that finding even one elk would be a hit or miss proposition at best. I spent a day driving along the many roads that cross the park with the hope of finding areas that would be a good place to start my search. I also spoke to park rangers and the local Cherokee people for information.

Quiet Trail Great Smoky Mountains

Armed with my camera, I set myself in a natural hide at the edge of a large field known to be used by elk. Dawn and dusk are the best times for viewing these animals, but there are no guarantees. Such was the case with this adventure. Another day down and still no elk. I was running out of time.

Back in my hotel room in Cherokee I re-grouped. I poured over maps and applied all of the lessons I have learned over the years. I burned sage and said a prayer as my Native ancestors would have done. With dusk was fast approaching and I decided to change my tactics. Parking my rental car at the ranger station, I asked for permission to leave my car and hit the trail. The rangers had no problem giving me permission. They also gave me a more detailed map and wishing me luck, sent me on my way.

On the trail for Elk

Camera in hand and pack on my back, I headed back to the field. After a little searching, I found signs of the elk, namely in the form of droppings. These droppings had been there for awhile, but at least I was in a field where the elk feed. Following the droppings I finally found tracks in the soft earth which led me to a trail into the woods. It was dusk as I made my way down the fairly worn, yet narrow path. I slowed my pace as I made my way along the trail.

Not only did I have to keep an eye open for elk, but also for bear, which are far more numerous. Nether one I wanted to come face to face with. Elk are large and like any wild animal, can be unpredictable, especially when startled.

bull elk 2 Smoky Mountains National Park

As I rounded a corner what I didn’t want to happen, happened…
There in front of me was a large cow elk with a tracking collar around her neck. She was coming down the trail while I was going up it. We both stopped in our tracks, both of us not sure what to do. Slowly, I raised my camera and snapped off a few shots before she slowly turned around and walked off.

As I didn’t want to make her feel threatened I waited about fifteen minutes before slowly continuing my walk. A short distance down the trail the area turned from forest to a small field. Here in the field was a small herd of elk, each wearing a collar. I had found the animals I was looking for.

After snapping a few more photos from a safe distance, I left the elk as I found them. I had to wonder, was this elk sent to guide me to where the rest of the elk were? Needless to say back at the hotel I burned more sage and said a prayer of thanks.

Smoky Mountains North Carolina

Images: courtesy © Dana Benner

For more:

Visit North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Elk in Cherokee, North Carolina
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

DANA BENNERdana-benner-bio-image

Dana Benner has been writing about the outdoors for over 30 years with his work appearing in both regional and national publications in the U.S. He has a particular interest in wildlife, culture and the environment, and Native American history. He holds a M.Ed. in Heritage Studies and teaches Sociology, History and Political Science at the university level. Dana is based in the USA and is a regular guest writer for Our Planet Travel.

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