Last fall we had a unique (for us) experience in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the most visited national park in America. We have been there numerous times either to visit or just to pass through. We thought we knew the place fairly well, but …
On the far eastern edge of the park, near exit 20 on I-40 is Cove Creek Road. It borders the southeastern edge of the park for a while before cutting north into the park. Take it sometime. But be prepared for a narrow hilly winding road that is only paved part of the way.
As friend Doug drove, the road seemed familiar. Indeed, I soon realized we had been there before. With our normal penchant to avoid Interstate highways, we had seen the road on the National Park map. It appeared to go through the park, so at some time in the past, we tried to take it only to discover the main road was closed back a long valley. While there were dirt trails going in the direction we wanted to go, they were not well marked and we did not have a detailed map, so we abandoned the effort that day. Now in the fall of 2015, Doug and Pat said they wanted us to see something special.
Our first visit was probably in the spring, and we saw very few cars in that part of the most-visited park. That was part of its appeal. But in the fall, there were many other cars on the road. Doug had to be careful approaching curves and in particularly narrow spots. When we passed the campground along the way, it looked crowded.
Then we entered the Cataloochee Valley and spotted an elk with antlers so big they seemed to drag his head to the ground. Further along, there were more elk grazing among a flock of wild turkeys.
Elk come out of the woods near dawn and dusk to graze on the grasses in the meadow. Tourists come out of tents and cars to stare at them. Both are there in large numbers in the fall because it was rutting/mating season.
Near that same spot where we had found the road closed, a big male stood guard over his harem. Two young bucks strolled near the edge of the woods, probably wondering if had the courage to challenge the big guy or perhaps if they just could get one of the women to stray. Not up to it, they would occasionally butt heads but not really fight.
Occasionally the big guy would trot toward the young bucks and they would move away. Finally he chased them back into the woods. All this was accompanied by the elk’s distinctive bugling call that was surely heard for miles around.
We had seen elk in western United States and Canada. On our first visit to Banff, they were walking on the main street. But we had never seen them during rut. We had never seen a bull raise his head and call to one and all — he was the boss, this was his territory, and these cows were his.
Click on photos to enlarge.