Two hours from Greenville and an hour west of Asheville, past the ski resorts, rv parks, and motels in Maggie Valley, there is a special section of Great Smoky Mountain National Park that is tucked in-between the mountains: Cataloochee Valley. Every time we visit Cataloochee Valley I feel like I am being transported into another world. It starts with the long, windy, dirt road over the mountains with no obvious destination, then suddenly, after making it down the other side, the road opens up to the valley floor where elk and turkey are roaming among historic buildings.
Before becoming a national park in 1938, Cataloochee Valley was a successful farming community with over 1,000 citizens. Some of the community’s buildings, such as a church, school house, and cemetery, still remain as forest regrows in the valley. The historic buildings add to the valley’s distinctly Appalachian and mysterious feel. In the 1700’s, North Carolina and Tennessee also used to be home to wild elk, which is why elk have been reintroduced to the valley. Cataloochee helps to provide a fairly contained area where the National Park Service can monitor the health and growth of the herd.
The elk are most active in the valley during the fall and spring. There are three major fields in the valley where the elk spend most of their time. This also where elk tailgaters spend their time. The tailgaters park their cars on the edge the field, set up their chairs, spread out food, and watch the elk. I know that this is not what you have in mind when you imagine a visiting a national park, but the spectacle of the elk makes it worth while. This is also why I suggest camping at Cataloochee, so you can view the animals without the crowds.
There are a handful of options for backcountry camping at Catalooche. All of the campsites are above the valley floor and require getting a permit ahead of time. On your permit you will need to specify the number of campers and stock (you can bring your llama!). This fall, we camped at the Pretty Hollow campsite, which is a large group camp site. The trail to the campsite followed Palmer Creek making it a beautiful and relatively easy hike. When I booked our permit, I did not realize it was a group campsite, so I was a bit disappointed when we arrived, but overall it was a great spot. There were multiple pulleys for bear bags, level campsites, and easy access to water. There was not much privacy, but that is to be expected at a group site. In the morning we were able to make it back down to the valley to view the elk before the crowds arrived.
If you live in Greenville and haven’t visited Cataloochee Valley, then you need to go. It is a picturesque valley, rich with history and nature. Every time we visit I am amazed with the elks’ majestic antlers, their high-pitch mating call, and the valley’s peaceful scenery.
Oh, and don’t forget to pack the binoculars for your tailgate.