Updated: Dec 10, 2018
An early morning fog had blanketed Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains. In the distance I could barely see the slight outline of a large bull Elk moving through the grass. The morning was strangely silent...until the pulsing roar of an Elk bugle ripped through the valley floor.
When my cousin first announced Asheville as the venue for her early October wedding, I immediately knew I would be driving down a day early to have my first experience with the Great Smoky Mountain Elk. I've spent a decent amount of time out west in Rocky Mountain NP, photographing and observing Elk during the rut and its hard to match the feeling of a bull Elk bugle, reverberating through your body. I had always wanted to visit the reintroduced Elk of Appalachia and this was the perfect opportunity.
Up until the late 1700's, Elk were a common site in southern Appalachia and elsewhere in the mountainous regions of the eastern U.S. Due to overhunting and habitat loss though, the Elk were completely wiped out from this region by 1800. However, all of that changed in 2001/2002 when the National Park Service successfully (for the most part) re-introduced them to the park.
The day before the wedding, I woke up well before the sun and quickly drove the approximate 40 miles to Cataloochee Valley. The first half of the drive is a breeze, with the second half consisting of winding dirt roads as you descend into the valley floor. Finding Elk was relatively easy, as there were roughly 5 other cars that had already arrived before me and photographers were getting out armed with their telephoto lenses. I quickly parked along the road, making sure not to block the path of other vehicles, and stepped out of the car to get a better view of the small herd moving through the fog. It didn't take long for the dominant bull in the field to start bugling and without firing a single shot I knew the trip had been a success. Hell yes!
Over the next three hours, I slowly followed a dominant bull and his harem as they moved between the different meadows throughout the valley to feed. The fog was the perfect backdrop to the photo I had imagined in my head and really gave the morning a very eerie and ghostly feeling. There were times when it was hard to work with, as everything was covered in a white cloud but patience often prevailed when the Elk would move to the front of the fog, allowing for a sharp shot with the foggy backdrop. There were roughly 10 cows in this bulls harem and at times he would come within 25 yards (I was safely behind my car) and chase smaller, satellite bulls away and quickly return to the meadow to feed and follow his cows. Those moments were the perfect photo opportunity as he would often bugle and pose perfectly with steam coming from his mouth. The hair on my neck would stand up almost every time he came that close, such an incredible feeling. Around 10 AM, just as the light was hitting the valley floor and the temperature was starting to increase, all of the Elk disappeared into the shade of the forest just as I anticipated. Overall, it was well worth the early morning trip and in the future I might plan for a long camping weekend in order to spend more time with these incredible animals.
Camera: Canon 7d Mark II
Lens: Canon 70-300mm f4/5.6L
Get there well before the sun is up as the Elk are usually only active in the early mornings and late evenings.
Rut begins in September and goes throughout October.
Allow at least 40 minutes once you get off the highway to reach the valley. The road is in good shape but it is dirt and littered with pot holes.
Don't enter the meadows as it's against the law during the rut.
Stay by your car and never approach the Elk.
Don't forget your wide-angle lens as you can often get high quality shots framing the Elk with the surrounding peaks.
Have fun out there!