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5 Tips To Safely Visit Elk In The Great Smoky Mountains

Photo by National Park Service
Male elk, known as bulls, will lose weight during the rut. But at the start of fall, they can reach over 1000lbs.

Fall colors start to shine in the mountains of Western North Carolina in October.

Tourists aren't the only mamals that are more active this time of year, explains wildlife biologist Joe Yarkovich, who works in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

September to November is elk mating season, known as the rut. 

“All of the large mature bulls that spend most of the year off by themselves return to some of the common areas where all of the females are. While they are there you will notice a marked change in their behavior,” says Yarkovich. “Their testosterone levels are really high. They are fighting with other a lot and chasing the females around.”

It’s illegal to get within 50 yards of elk.  It’s even more dangerous to get that close during mating season. Females weigh as much as 600 pounds while the bulls can weigh over a thousand this time of year.

“So if they see anything approaching their harem of cows whether it be a person or an automobile or a pet, they will take that as a challenge to their dominance and they are likely to charge to defend their territory,” says Yarkovich.  

A unique sound is also heard this time of year throughout the Oconaluftee and Cataloochee areas of the park where elk are common. It’s known as a bugle.

Yarkovich says the best way to get close to the elk is with a zoom lens, and that a few hours before sunset - when the air is cool enough for elk to venture out of the forest - is the best time to see them.

Here are the top 5 tips to safely view the elk

  1. Do not feed the animals. (Hint: Feeding the animals is illegal.)
  2. Keep pets in the car.
  3. Stay near your vehicle.
  4. Use common sense.
  5. If the elk moves toward you, back up and keep a 50 yard distance. (Hint: It’s illegal to be closer than 50 yards to the elk.)

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.