Where To See Wildlife In The Smoky Mountains
There’s nothing quite like seeing animals up close in their natural habitat. The feeling of awe that comes with getting face to face with a massive elk incites a respect that can only be achieved by seeing wildlife, well, in the wild.
One of my favorite things about national parks is that it offers a refuge for wildlife. Here, they’re protected. This makes them the perfect destination for wildlife viewing!
My favorite national park to visit on the east coast lies along the southern stretch of Appalachian mountains, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is like no other! It offers scenic drives, plenty of hikes, and, of course, abundant wildlife. Elk, deer, black bears, turkey, owls, and woodchucks all call Great Smoky Mountains National Park home.
One question I get constantly is “where are the best places to see wildlife in the Smoky Mountains?”. Well, without further ado, here’s a list!
The Best Place To See Elk: Cataloochee Valley
The Cataloochee Valley lies on the east side of the Smokies, in North Carolina. What used to be a Cherokee hunting ground is now a short valley road with a church and a campground, and a favorite place to graze among elk.
However, elk didn’t always used to call this valley home. With the rise of colonization, the Cataloochee Valley became a settlement of nearly 1,200 people in 1910. It wasn’t until the National Park Service obtained the land that elk were reintroduced here in 2001.
When To Go
You can see elk here pretty much year round. However, if you really want to feel like you’re on a wildlife show, go during the fall. Autumn is elk mating season, meaning that if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see bulls fight over mating rights. Keep an ear out for their mating call, a deep, loud yodel.
Keep your distance, as elk are huge and their massive antlers can do some serious damage if you get too close. That being said, people don’t seem to bother them and they are known for causing traffic jams. The elk pictured in the middle of the road below wouldn’t budge for an hour. He took his time, standing and posing, and pissing off fellow tourists trying to drive past him.
The Best Place To See Bears & Turkey: Cades Cove
Cades Cove consists of a one way, 12-mile loop through a valley on the western Tennessee side of Smoky Mountain National Park. It was home to settlers before being obtained by the National Park Service. This if why you’ll see many different churches and old cabins throughout the valley.
This wildlife viewing spot is best for black bears, deer, turkey, owls, and other birds. There’s also a horse stable here, and you’ll see them roaming the fields near the entrance. Apart from the scenic, backroad drive, Cades Cove offers plentiful hiking opportunities.
Note: Keep in mind that throughout the busy summer season, Cades Cove is CLOSED to vehicles on Wednesdays. It’s open to foot traffic and bike traffic only on hump day. This works out for the better if you’re a photographer who’s okay with long walks, since you‘ll have a higher chance of seeing wildlife without vehicle traffic in the valley!
When To Go
The highest chance you’ll have of seeing bears at Cades Cove is if you visit in the spring. Not to mention spring is baby bear season, and if you’re lucky you’ll see some cubs running around near the tree line, or climbing up in the trees.
Make sure you visit early in the morning, as soon as the gate opens! Apart from having a higher chance of seeing wildlife early in the morning, the one-way road gets crowded mid-day and in the afternoon. Another perk of waking up at the crack of dawn? The morning mist hangs low in the valley and makes for some extraordinary photo ops!
Best Place To See Fireflies: Elkmont
Every spring, synchronous fireflies put on a show for those in the southern Appalachians. As their name suggests, they synchronously light up in order to attract a mate. Although I’ve never seen it (on the bucket list for next year!), my friends over at @andtheytravel describe it below as a surreal experience, and just look at this photo they captured!
You’ll need a permit to be able to witness the spectacular mating display put on by the fireflies near the Elkmont area. The permit lottery can be purchased here at Recreation.gov. Permits go on sale April 30th-May 3rd for the week long viewing event held June 1st – June 8th. You can also visit without a permit if you go a few days before or after these dates.
When To Go
To see this jaw-dropping display of lights, you’ll want to go around the end of May, beginning of June. Luckily, this is the same time to go to see the bears, so those who visit in late spring/early summer get to double their wildlife viewing opportunities! And of course, the best time to see the display itself is at dusk, when the sun is setting.
I hope this post helped you plan your trip, and now you know where to see wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Have you ever been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before? Did you get to see any wildlife there? Did I miss any epic wildlife viewing spots in the Smoky Mountains? Drop a comment below!
Looking for more to do in the American Southeast? Check out these blog posts below:
- Exploring Alabama’s Waterfalls and Caves
- A Photojourney Through Providence Canyon: Georgia’s Hidden Gem
- 10 Things To Do In Savannah, Georgia
- Gloss Mountain: Oklahoma’s Hidden Gem
- Glamping On Little Raccoon Key: Georgia’s Cutest Private Island
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As alwaysafe travels,