Smoky Mountain Elk Rut is heating up in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.The fall mating season begins each year around mid-September and is known as the rut. And it’s during this time that male elk, or bulls, are energized and ready for action. They make bugle calls to attract the females, or cows, and to challenge other males.
Elk are the largest animals in GSM National Park. Yes, they are larger than black bears! Bulls can weigh between 600 to 700 pounds and up to 10 feet long. Cows weigh around 500 pounds.
One of the best places to see elk in the Smokies are on the North Carolina side of the National Park in the Cataloochee Valley. The elk regularly cross the mountains out of Cataloochee and are often seen in Big Creek, and in the fields near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center just outside of Cherokee.
The best time of day to see the elk is usually at sunrise or the last hour before sunset. During the fall rut, visitors are not allowed to walk in the fields even when the elk aren’t present. The fields are the gathering place for the bulls and their harems of cows to breed, so the males are quite agressive and can mistake you or your vehicle as a threat. They will charge and it can get ugly. Be aware and be sure to keep a distance of at least 50 yards at all times for your safety and theirs. Stay on the roadside and be sure to bring binoculars or a spotting scope and use your telephoto lens on your camera.
Elk once flourished in the Smokies and the rest of the southern Appalachian Mountains but were hunted to extinction by the mid-1800’s in Tennessee. The reintroduction of the majestic animals began in 2001 with 25 elk imported from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area on the Kentucky/Tennessee line. In 2002, another 27 elk were brought into Cataloochee Valley. Reports say there may be up to 200 elk in park currently. A success story indeed!
Elk are vegetarians and love the grasses found in the bottom land of the valleys. With winter coming on, elk grow a second coat of fur with long hairs on top to repel snow and water to stay dry. They have a plush underfur to stay warm. For more information on elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit GSMNP.