You can See Elk in The Smoky Mountains: Here’s Where

You might not know it by driving through Pigeon Forge, but there are Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

They’re only in a few areas, so we recommend taking the drive about an hour southeast from Gatlinburg for the best chance to see them.

Best Places and Times for Elk Viewing

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Oconaluftee Visitor Center is at the entrance to the national park just outside Cherokee, North Carolina.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center outside
Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Photo by Ashley @ The

The fields around the visitor center are an excellent place to see elk, and the driving time is only about an hour from Gatlinburg.

Normally morning and afternoon are the best time to see them, and you’ve got a pretty high chance of seeing them by showing up then.

On this cloudy and rainy day in April, there was plenty around even mid-day.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center field with elk grazing
Elk grazing in a field at Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Photo by Ashley @ The

If you’re entering the national park for the first time here, it’s a good place to grab a parking pass, which is required for parking more than 15min inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There’s more to see than Elk at Oconaluftee, such as the Mountain Farm Museum.

Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Photo by Ashley @ The

Tip: If you’re visiting Oconaluftee to see Elk, Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg will take you past a couple other must-see stops like Clingmans Dome (a bit of a detour) and Newfound Gap’s overlook (right on the road).

Smokemont Campground

Just down the road from the visitor center is a Smokemount Campground, where you’ve also got a great chance of seeing Elk.

Road near Smokemount Campground. Photo by Ashley @ The

Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley
Cataloochee Valley. Photo by Adobe Stock

Another great place to see Elk is the Cataloochee Valley area, in the park’s southeastern section.

It’s valleys and surrounding mountains make a great backdrop for photos.

Cherokee, North Carolina

Cherokee North Carolina. Photo by Ashley @ The

Just south of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the town of Cherokee, North Carolina.

This is one of the best areas to see Elk that’s not inside the national park.

We saw several large Elk (including the one below) there next to a convience station, close to the road and not minding the cars or people nearby.

elk grazing in a field
Elk grazing near Cherokee, North Carolina. Photo by Ashley @ The

Viewing Times

Elk are most active and visible during early mornings and late evenings. They’re also more likely to be seen cloudy summer days and around storms.

During the mid-day sun, your chances of finding them are pretty low.

Elk Reintroduction

Elk were native to the area, but eliminated by hunting in area by the 1800s. The reintroduction of elk into the park in the early 2000s was a successful effort to restore Elk.

Viewing Safety Tips

Elk are not only large—females weigh about 500 pounds and males up to 700 pounds—but can also become aggressive, especially when protecting calves or during the rut season (fall).

Never try to touch or feed them. If an elk’s behavior changes because you’re too close, it means you’re too close.

Staying by the roadside close to your car is the safest way to see them.

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