Smoky Mountain Elk WIldlife Viewing
Best Family Adventures, Great Smoky Mountains

Wildlife Viewing In The Smokies

Once Cultivated Valleys (Cades Cove N 35.6064, W -83.7768; Cataloochee Valley N 35.6295, W – 83.0930): Cades Cove and the Cataloochee Valley are both areas of extensive, once cultivated meadows that provide preferred forest edge habitat for many animals. Plentiful deer, bears, and elk are among the most impressive sightings. Consider riding a bike in Cades Cove (see the biking section). Cataloochee Valley is the place to see the park’s growing elk population. The animals were reintroduced beginning in 2001 and have prospered in the park. You’re most likely to see the elegant animals near dawn or dusk.

Directions: Cades Cove is located west of Sugarlands Visitor Center via Little River Rd. and Laurel Creek Rd. To reach Cataloochee Valley, take exit 20 from I-40 and go west toward Maggie Valley on US 276. Take the first right on Cove Creek Rd. and go 7.4 miles to a left turn, from gravel to pavement, on the road to Cataloochee.


Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (N 35.7023, W – 83.5145): From Gatlinburg, don’t miss the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Buy the “Roaring Fork Auto Tour” from the park visitor centers and stop at the pull-offs that include historic structures and spectacular scenery. Don’t miss the huge boulders at the “Place of a Thousand Drips.” Take some hikes on the route (see Grotto Falls under Hiking Adventures page 7). Along the way, you’re very likely to see wildlife, including bears. If you do, pull off the road to avoid blocking traffic and do not get close enough to alter the animal’s behavior in any way. (Open mid-April to mid-November. No trailers, buses, or trucks allowed.)

Directions: From US 441 in Gatlinburg, turn at traffic light # 8 onto Historic Nature Trail-Airport Rd. In 0.6 mile, keep right at the junction then stay straight onto Cherokee Orchard Rd. and then onto the Motor Nature Trail.


Hiking Trails (Twentymile N 35.4669, W – 83.8776; Abrams Creek N 35.6085, W – 83.9357): Pick one of the park’s less popular trails and you might see wildlife. Dress for your hike in forest colored clothing (no problem since hunting is not permitted in the park!). Find a place with an open area of woods, pull out your binoculars and sit quietly for awhile in a hidden location. You’ll be amazed at what might wander by. This advice goes double for forest edge trails adjacent to other known wildlife viewing areas, such as the Cataloochee Valley. Serious hikers might do well to call the park’s Backcountry Information Office (865-436-1297). The ranger advisors know which trails and campsites see the most traffic and can suggest general areas such as trails in the Twentymile and Abrams Creek areas. In addition, backcountry campsites and shelters are often visited by wildlife. Remember, it is illegal to feed the animals.


Campgrounds (Balsam Mtn. N 35.5680 W – 83.1757; Big Creek N 35.7505 W – 83.1089; Cosby N 35.7559 W – 83.2084; Cataloochee N 35.6345 W – 83.0829; Abrams Creek N 35.6085, W – 83.9357): It’s a fact of life, many nocturnal animals wander through campgrounds after dark and in early morning. Choose a Smokies campground for your stay and you might glimpse a variety of animals. Be sure to follow all rules for safely storing your food and remember–view from a distance. Wherever you watch wildlife, be aware that park rules prohibit approaching wildlife closely enough that you alter their behavior (or closer than 150 feet). Best bet choices may be the less popular campgrounds during midweek, or at less-visited times. Recommendations would include Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cosby, Cataloochee, and Abrams Creek.

Smoky Mountain Elk

The Smoky Mountains are a great destination for wildlife viewing. Whether on the lookout for wild animals like deer, black bear or the recently reintroduced elk pictured in this photo By: Carl Wycoff, visitors to the area are sure to experience an adventure.

Ober Gatlinburg Wildlife Encounter (N 35.7029, W -83.5581): Not every wildlife encounter happens in the wild. Zoos and environmentally appropriate habitat exhibitions are part of the mix and may be the first stop for families. We like the family friendly Ober Gatlinburg Wildlife Encounter. The black bear exhibit started in 1975 to provide a home for “rogue” Smokies’ bears about to be euthanized. A nocturnal exhibit permits you to see skunks, raccoons, snakes, river otters, flying squirrels and turtles. A new exhibit features golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and owls that cannot be released into the wild due to injury. Once up at Ober Gatlinburg, there is a separate entrance fee for Wildlife Encounter. $6 ages 12 and up; $4 ages 7-11; free ages 6 and under.

Directions: We suggest taking the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tram from stoplight # 9 in Gatlinburg (reached on the red trolley line). Adults $10.00; kids 7-11 $8.50; age 6 and under are free.

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