A friend was recently posting photos of majestic elk he saw in the Great Smoky Mountains and I was reminded of the herd Sweetums and I saw on a trip last year. I realized I had never posted the photos of one of the most incredible sights we’ve been lucky enough to witness.
We were driving through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from North Carolina to Gatlinburg when we noticed cars pulling over to the side of the road near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Then we saw dozens of people standing alongside the road with cameras and then we saw the attraction: a large herd of elk had wandered into a field and were lazing, grazing and rolling around in trenches, apparently having a grand time.
They were beautiful animals. The elk are protected and dozens of park rangers were onsite to ensure that none of us human-types encroached on the elks’ peaceful play time.
I didn’t realize at the time what a rare sight the herd would have been just a few short years ago. Here’s a brief history from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website: “Elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the eastern United States. They were eliminated from the region by over-hunting and loss of habitat. The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s. In Tennessee, the last elk was killed in the mid-1800s. By 1900, the population of elk in North America dropped to the point that hunting groups and other conservation organizations became concerned the species was headed for extinction.”
In 2001, 25 elk were brought to the area by the National Park Service from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, another 27 animals were brought to the park. I’m not sure how many there are now but the herd we saw had well over 30 animals, including babies.
The website also outlines rules. People are not allowed to interact with the elk. At all. It says:
“Willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces elk, is illegal in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Do not enter fields to view elk—remain by the roadside and use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view the animals.”
Here are our photos from that day. The buildings are part of the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center.