Over on the Tennessee side of the mountains, you may see some bears but on the North Carolina side, you could see some elk. Park rangers are reminding people to be cautious though if they see them while you’re out and about.
Patrick Stewart is from Huntsville, Alabama, and comes to the Smoky Mountains every year to shoot photos of the elk.
“[It’s] purely a hobby,” he said. “We have the big equipment but it’s purely a hobby. We do some work on the side, call it freelancing if you want to call it that but it’s not my profession at all.”
He’s been coming up to the Smoky Mountains for more than two decades to get the perfect pictures of elk herds.
“It’s a pretty good feeling when they come remotely close to where you think they are but when you see them and when you have good light and when you have the streams and the water, any kind of color, which most of it is gone, but it’s pretty breathtaking to watch these guys in the wild,” Stewart added.
Fall is the breeding season for these animals. Therefore, they’re more active and visible in the Smokies.
“This time of year during the fall rut, you’ll see a lot of different behaviors out of the elk that you might not see during other times of the year. The bull elk are just full of testosterone. Their testosterone levels spike this time of year and they really don’t know how to back down from a challenge. So, you see a lot more defensive behavior this time of year that you wouldn’t see at other times of the year,” said Joe Yarkovich, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Wildlife Biologist.
This means that visitors need to be extra cautious.
“If you do come to the park and you happen to see elk, we ask that you follow a few basic safety tips,” Yarkovich said. “We ask that you pull your vehicle off to the side of the road and you remain in or near your vehicle when viewing the animals.”
It is illegal to approach or feed animals within the national park.
Your best bet for getting a good view is by taking binoculars or a camera, like Stewart, with you to the park. It’s a sight to see for Stewart and for many others in the Smokies.
“They don’t do this for us, this is what they do. And to be able to visually see this is what got me into this,” said Steward.
According to park rangers, elk were native and abundant throughout North Carolina and Tennessee up until the late 1700s or early 1800s.
They then were completely removed from the area and weren’t reintroduced into the park until 2001. The best time to see the elk is early in the morning or late in the afternoon.