Did you know there are elk in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains? We didn’t! After hearing in passing about the elk herd, we decided to load up the kids and set off on an adventure to see what we could find. And find them we did at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, along with some other great educational gems.
Elk were originally native to the Smoky Mountains, but over 200 years ago the population died off to extinction in the area. However, back in 2001 a project was begun to reintroduce the elk to the Smoky Mountains. Since then, the herd has multiplied. Cherokee, NC offers excellent viewing of these impressive animals in their wild habitat.
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Oconaluftee Visitor Center
One great place to view the elk is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. This spot offers a wealth of opportunities for homeschool students. The field next to the visitor center is known for elk viewing. In addition, the center boasts a small indoor museum about the history of life in the Smoky Mountains and an impressive outdoor museum consisting of original farm buildings built in the early 1900s.
There is no admission fee.
The best time to observe elk
First, observing the elk. We arrived at the center around 10 am, and we were disappointed to hear from the rangers that the best time to view the elk in the field is either first thing in the morning, about 7 am, or in the evening, approximately 6 – 7 pm, as elk prefer the cooler temperatures.
Walk along the Oconaluftee River
However, determined to enjoy our day anyway, we walked on the easy trail along the Oconaluftee River. The river was crystal clear and we enjoyed skipping stones and our leisurely walk. After walking a short while, we turned around to head back to the car to pick up our picnic basket. But our walk was interrupted by a few large park natives, elk. We were treated to a small group of 14 elk. One of them was a large bull with an impressive set of antlers. They were just a few feet off the trail! It was thrilling.
The bugle sound the bulls make to attract the females is unforgettable. This occurs mostly in September and October.
Be careful to view the elk safely
We climbed down the river bank to avoid getting too close to the bull. However, other walkers did not make the same decision. Another walker decided to approach the bull to take a picture and we watched the him rear up and toss his antlers. Fortunately the bull turned and ran, leading small herd away. (Note that especially in mating season, bull elk can be very aggressive. Approaching them closely is NOT recommended. It is actually illegal to approach them willfully within 50 yards. Stay on the trail and be mindful of getting too close. The Smoky Mountains National Park has some information about viewing the elk safely, you can find that here.)
Mountain Farm Museum
While the elk were extremely exciting to see, we also really enjoyed the small museum in the visitor’s center and the Mountain Farm Museum adjacent to the center. Both of these places allowed us to get a glimpse of what living in the mountains in the early 1900s was like. At the entrance to the Mountain Farm Museum (outdoors) look to the right of the opening in the fence and you will find a covered box with self-guided tour booklets. This will give you a lot of information about the individual buildings themselves, as well as their role on mountain farms at this time. We really appreciated that the buildings in the farm museum were original and not replicas, so we were able to examine the construction and see elements like pegs used as nails, and the dovetail construction of the cabin walls. Here we viewed a cabin, chicken coop, meat house, wood shed, pig pen with pigs, apple house and many other buildings utilized by mountain farmers in the 1900s.
Admission to this site is completely free, and the travel time is a little over 2 hours from Greenville, making this a really fantastic day trip.
Homeschool Field Trip Expansion Ideas for Elk
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As a homeschool trip, this site offers both science and history opportunities. If you’d like to augment the trip, check out some books or search the internet for information about elk or mountain farm life in the 1900s. You might also enjoy the following:
Read Little Farm in the Ozarks, by Roger Lea MacBride. This story is a continuation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, focusing on her daughter, Rose. It is set in Laura’s mountain farm in the Ozarks, in the same time frame as the buildings viewed at the Mountain Farm Museum.
Read Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings, by Laura Ingles Wilder. This is a collection essays Laura wrote for a newspaper during the late 1800s and early 1900s about her life as a farm wife on an Ozark Mountain farm. This is NOT a Little House series story and was not written for an audience of children, so parents may wish to read through first and make sure it is accessible and acceptable for their children.
This article from American Forests offers a lot of information about the project to reintroduce elk to the area. It contains a lot of information, but is quite long, so parents may want to go through it with children and select a few points to focus on.
For an alternative view, read this article about the struggle farmers in the area have with damage caused by the elk (you can view an example of this damage on the farm museum’s apple trees). Consider holding a mock debate in your home between siblings, or kids vs parents, about the benefits to the elk and the park vs the viewpoint of the farmers and the damage the animals cause.
Here is a brief minute and a half long video showing the elk at Oconaluftee with a little bit of information about the herd from the wildlife biologist for the Smoky Mountains National Park. You can hear the male elk bugle at the beginning of the video.
Oconalufee Visitor Center
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
1194 Newfound Gap Rd, Cherokee, NC
Open every day except Christmas Day
How do you think your kids would feel about a road trip to visit elk?