There’s no question that the Smoky Mountains are a beautiful place to vacation where you can enjoy stunning views of mountain peaks and the lush green valleys that dot the landscape. Most visitors believe that this can only be done by visiting Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge but what they don’t know could cause them to miss the other areas of the park that aren’t as well-visited, like the Cataloochee valley.
The North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains is definitely the lesser of the traveled areas of the park. Despite this fact, it makes it much more of a desired destination. This is due to the fact it provides fewer distractions. Also people seeking peaceful places for vacation certainly want to take note of the Cataloochee Valley. Here is a detailed guide of things to do while on vacation here. Some of them might even surprise you, and also make you want to start planning today!
Remote Access to Cataloochee Valley
Cataloochee Valley provides for a very serene vacation in the Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina side. There’s one simple reason why many visitors don’t know about it. It’s one of the most remote parts of the Smoky Mountains and not the easiest to travel to. As with all things in life, sometimes you just need to take some back roads in order to reach your destination. Cataloochee Valley is no different.
The best way to get there is by taking 274 North. This is named Jonathan Creek Road—off Highway 19 in Maggie Valley. From there you need to travel another 6 miles until you reach Cove Creek Road. (It’s the last road before reaching I-40, therefore you’ll know if you’ve gone too far). A left turn of Cove Creek Road will lead you there. If you’re coming from I-40, you’ll want to take the Maggie Valley exit (exit 20). After a half-mile you’ll reach Cove Creek Road where you’ll proceed another 13 miles to Cataloochee Valley.
Please note: As you can imagine, this road is not straight, nor is it completely paved. Take your time, be careful, and also enjoy the scenery. The section of the road that’s unpaved is significant. This is because it’s a tribute to the history of the Cataloochee valley and also its builders.
Watch the Elk
The population of the elk was dwindling until the National Park stepped in. They re-introduced them to the area in 2001. Much of the elk were sadly wiped out due in large part to habitat and an overgrowth of hunters. What started out as 52 elk has grown to more than 150. They’ve since migrated to other areas of park which includes Maggie Valley, and also nearby Cherokee.
With all wild animals—including the more prominent black bears—it’s extremely important that you exercise caution when dealing with the elk. Remember: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not a zoo! Therefore without any boundaries you need to legally stay at least 150 feet away from them. This is so you don’t run the risk of disturbing them. This means there should be absolutely no reason whatsoever to feed these wild animals.
As with black bears, they will become way too comfortable with humans, which will lead to uncomfortable interactions with them. The result: they will be tagged, and you will ultimately be responsible for the animals being put down. This is no way to maintain a healthy natural environment for either the bears nor the elk. No one wants to be caught doing this! Whether it’s from law enforcement or onlookers with a camera! You will be prosecuted for your careless actions.
Make Sure You Gas Up
Since Cataloochee Valley is a hotbed for elk activity, there are other preparations that should be followed as well. A quick follow-up: Cataloochee Valley is remote. Therefore there is no food, gas, or other services available to you. Therefore, make sure your vehicle is serviced and gassed-up before doing any elk watching in the area.
Cades Cove is one of the most beautiful areas in the Smokies. However, Cataloochee Valley is great because you don’t need to get there too early. You don't have to worry about the massive amount of traffic that occurs on that loop. In Cataloochee Valley—in addition to not fretting about traffic woes—you’ll find beauty here that may not have expected. Like Cades Cove and many other areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are historic cabins, a school, and churches that were essential to life in the pioneer days of the valley. You’ll also discover miles of hiking trails and camping, and this leads us back to the elk.
Thankfully, the herds are strong, not to mention their newfound prominence in the area. It’s also a good thing that you won’t necessarily need to arrive early in the morning to defeat the other tourists looking to get a good glimpse of these creatures. This is because the best time of the day to view the elk is actually in the evening around sunset. Many animals prefer not to suffer in the heat of the day, and the elk are certainly no different here. Their normal day is mapped out by occasionally coming out in the morning. Therefore, you can come in the morning if you wish. They will graze and then retreat to the cooler areas in the woods during the day. Then they'll return for one last graze before nightfall.
The Different Seasons
So now you are probably now asking what’s the best time to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Here is what you can expect in each season.
Spring and Summer:
This is when the baby calves are born. The female elk (cows) decide to hide the calves in the high grass to protect them. As you can imagine, the cows can be quite over-protective and aggressive. Therefore it’s best that you stay out of the field during this time. In the summer, they can be seen grazing, and this when their antlers become increasingly large. Meanwhile the calves will be growing rapidly as well, getting to near 140 pounds before the end of the year.
This is prime mating season for the elk, and that means they will be at their most aggressive. They will be especially dangerous to tourists. A quick search on the internet will show you just how aggressive these animals can be. Even if you are exhibiting the utmost in safety precautions when viewing them. Their behavior can become quite unnatural and unpredictable. Therefore, it’s advised that you stay on the roadway near your vehicle, if you’re witnessing them during this period. Their bugling, though, is an impressive display of sound from them that you’ll be amazed with!
You’ll be lucky if you see any of the elk during this time, since it’s their quiet time. Once they head into the woods as the temperatures drop on a consistent basis, they may not be seen for weeks. This may not be a time for you to go, especially if you’re looking to see the elk. But if you do go, make sure to check the road conditions and use good judgment. The road can close without much warning from the park service due to snow and ice.
Cataloochee Valley Tours
This is another way in which you can view the elk. However a reservation on one of the Cataloochee Valley Tours doesn’t just let you take a guided journey through elk country. No, there are many other things to see here! This is when you don’t need to do much research on before taking a tour. Actually, you can let one their naturalist educate you on the other beautiful aspects of the Cataloochee Valley. You’ll find that the area offers so much more than just what you can see with your own eyes.
Located in nearby Waynesville, North Carolina, Cataloochee Valley Tours only just started operating in 2010. However, their professionalism in providing high quality nature-based tours has already made them a quite popular way for tourists to experience the area. The company is owned by Master Naturalist, Esther Blakely. Her goal is to provide guests with an in-depth, personal nature experience. Each tour is small by design, featuring no more than 4 persons. They also stress the importance of the Leave No Trace rule in the national parks. Also, responsible wildlife viewing is another vital lesson that is reiterated throughout the tour. As if the tour itself wasn’t nature-driven enough, visitors are transported in a Cadillac Escalade hybrid, which is very eco-friendly.
Morning and Evening Tours
Cataloochee Valley Tours offers morning and evening elk tours. Each one gives you a prime opportunity see elk and also other historic sites on the tour. The valley is 4 miles long. Some of the wildlife that can be seen include wild turkeys, bears, coyotes, white-tailed deer, foxes, and bobcats. Bring your walking shoes as well. You’ll be crossing a creek and meandering through the forest. You'll also be learning in detail about the reintroduction of elk in the park. Don’t worry about bringing food or water. The guide will have plenty of drinks and snacks that are included in the price of the tour. Now that’s a great way to spend a day! Plenty of exercise and education that will be a fascinating look at this wonderful environment!
The Spring Wildflower Hikes are another great method of spending a few days in the Cataloochee Valley during the spring and summer. This particular tour will take you on a hike to view many of the 1500 different species of wildflowers. Also featured are some of the 200 species of birds and 100 species of trees.
Make sure you bring your camera! You’ll have plenty of opportunities of this hike to capture the sheer beauty of the lovely blooming flowers. If that’s not enough awe-inspiring activity of the day, be prepared for lunch at the spectacularly lavish Swag resort where guests are pampered with their seemingly limitless, top-of-the-line amenities. One look at this place will have you thinking this is your Smoky Mountain dream vacation spot.
Firefly Night Walks
What makes Cataloochee Valley Tours even more amazing are their Synchronous Firefly Night Walks. The most sought-after firefly-watching is at Elkmont where they have a lottery system in place. However, here it’s done on a first-come, first-served basis. Also for the sake of leaving as little a footprint as possible for the firefly’s natural habitat, they’ll take you to a remote, “secret” location where you take an oath. This is for the benefit of the fireflies—to not tell anyone of this location. That’s an indication of how seriously they take nature here. However, you’ll quickly learn that it’s not meant to be snobby. Rather, it’s the ultimate respect given to the environment and the planet we share with other living things.
These tours are designed to be an awesome way to take in the outdoors and see something that’s truly breathtaking. Next year’s tours will begin taking reservations as soon as February. The tours will be available the first two weeks in June. Therefore it’s advised to be on the lookout for when they begin as they will certainly sell out fast. Expect to be on this tour for 4 hours. However, it should “fly” by since your enjoyment will definitely be at its peak.
Also a favorite outdoor activity for many people, fishing in the Cataloochee Valley is something that a true hardcore fisherman would love to do. The main reason why is simply the sheer volume of trout that are swimming in the creeks and streams throughout the valley. One notable area is the Cataloochee Basin. It's home to some of the best Rainbow and Brook trout fishing anywhere in the park.
Prior to the designation of the Smoky Mountains as a national park, locals would stock them full of fish, and in turn, they would charge visitors (it was still a burgeoning tourist locale) who wanted to come to the Cataloochee Valley to do some fly fishing. This resulted in a fair amount of wealth for the residents. Today, the same fly fishing can be done here, but you’ll want to make sure you have a state license to do so, and you’ll need to research the regulations since they will be strictly enforced. It’s best to do your fly fishing in the spring, as this is the time when the aquatic insects do their largest hatching.
A true camper will be excited to learn that Cataloochee Campground is a place where not many people decide to pitch their tents. It is considered a primitive campground—primitive meaning, in this case, there are no hookups and showers available. It’s a traditional camping experience, but at least they do have flush toilets and drinking water. The campground is open from March through most of the month of October and is available on a first-come, first-serve basis, but you really don’t need to book in advance as its hardly ever full.
Whether you’re camping here at the Cataloochee Campground, or staying elsewhere but looking for some great hiking trails, there are a few nearby. The Cataloochee Valley is home to a quite substantial range of hiking trails. The 2 main trails are the Caldwell Fork Trail and the Rough Fork Trail. These trails run parallel to each other, and the cool thing about each one is that you can venture a little off the trail to get a great view of the creeks that run beside them.
The Rough Fork Trail is notable, because it offers several wooden footbridges that cross over the creek. This is a nice hike for those that aren’t expert hikers; the trail is just 2 miles round-trip to the Woody home and back, and you’ll walk through a beautiful Smoky Mountain forest before you reach the Woody home site—another benefit of the remote location that is the Cataloochee Valley.
Woody Home Site
The Woody home site is where Steve Woody built it back in 1880—his son, Johnathan lived there with his wife, and both their children were from previous marriages in which ended with their partners’ death. The home was originally a log cabin that had to be expanded to hold the increasing amount of children both Johnathan and his wife brought into the fold. Like many old homes in the park, you can feel free to walk inside to see what kind of fascinating architecture and details that were put into the home.
The Woody’s were smart to take advantage of the added tourism as they too added trout to the creeks to help their finances which undoubtedly aided in taking care of their children as well. The home also featured a barn and the Spring House—the latter of which still stands. These were also used when visitors needed a place to stay when they came to fly fish, which added more income. Today, this is a nice hike to take for its ease, natural beauty, and also its local historical significance.
Caldwell Fork Trail
The Caldwell Fork Trail is a bit more of a challenge and doesn’t offer a historical home as a turnaround point. This is still a nice creekside trail even though it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. You can decide not to do the whole trail by marking where the Boogerman Trail begins and take that back to the trailhead, but the choice is yours based on what you can handle. The Caldwell Fork Trail’s beginning is marked by a long footbridge before meandering about a mile until you reach the first of two junctions with the Boogerman Trail.
If you decide to take the Boogerman Trail, that will bring the total hike to a rough 7 and a half miles. If you’re feeling good enough to tackle it in its entirety, there is one other significant site, and that’s the location of the Messer home and nearby cemetery with just 4 unmarked graves. All that’s left of the home, however, are what was the foundation and the remains of the door frame. It’s places such as this one that evokes a lot emotion and thought—maybe even a little bit of a strange kind of sadness that makes you wonder how rough some of the ordeals the family must have had to fight through just to survive out here.
Magical, Undiscovered Place
The Cataloochee Valley really is a magical, somewhat undiscovered place that many tourists would fall in love with if they ever made the effort to explore. As for those who’ve already made this visit, they may feel like it’s a special place of their own that they don’t want inundated with fellow tourists. If you’d like to make the effort to visit this “secret” area of the Smokies, you’ll be rewarded with an experience you’re sure to remember.