Elk at Oconoluftee

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The Oconoluftee Visitor Center is at the south entrance of Smoky Mountain National Park. They boast a re-created farm with a beautiful river on one side and a wide open field on the other. Of course the mountains are off in the distance as well. The park service has gathered farm buildings from all over the park and Southern Appalachian region and put together an historic and interesting farm depicting life as it was before this part of the Smoky Mountains became a park.

DSCN4222We were there on a beautiful fall day, the sun was out and the temperature was comfortable. I was struck by how well the farm was laid out for us tourists. It was very picturesque as you wound your way down the concrete sidewalk to the walkway between the river and the hand-hewn picket fence. The trees were still sporting a good amount of orange and crimson leaves which added to the beauty. There were chickens milling about to entertain us as well.

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Each of the buildings had some kind of placard or wooden label so we knew what it was used for. There is a separate ‘Meat House’, a Blacksmith shop, a large barn, chicken coop, a woodshed and ‘Spring House’ to name just a few. Life in these hills must have been busy, challenging, and rewarding all at the same time. It always amazes me how people were able to live in those days without all of our modern conveniences. The buildings were interesting inside and out. I love to look at the construction and see how they whittled away the corners to dovetail them together so perfectly.

There is also a trail along the river where you can take your dog. I spoke with a man who had just come back from the trail with his dog. He said it was absolutely beautiful, and they had even seen Elk while walking in the middle of the day. This is definitely worth a trip with the dog sometime. There are only two dog-friendly trails in the park. The other is at Sugarland Visitor Center at the north end.

But the best part of our day was yet to come! Once I had my fill of the farm we decided to venture a bit further south to Cherokee, just a few miles away, and on to Bryson City, home to The Smoky Mountain Railroad. We stopped for a late lunch and headed back from Bryson City to Cherokee then on to the park entering at Oconoluftee. When we were just south of the park we noticed a traffic jam ahead. At first it seemed odd but then we realized it was about 4:30pm, nearing dusk on this fall day. And that could only mean one thing; the Elk were in the field. And they were! There were over 25 of them; a very large buck, about 20 assorted females and their calves, and 3 other smaller bucks on the fringes of the herd.

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The first thing we saw was the big buck fighting with a smaller outlier buck. Then I noticed the line of cars on our side of the road, which numbered 25+ as well. People were out of their cars, Rangers were busy keeping the people safe and the Elk in the field. I got out to take pictures and ended up with a video of the activity. The Elk were simply grazing and making their way through the area living life as they do, we were the interlopers.

DSCN4283That big buck wanted one of those females, and he kept after her for a long time. But after a failed attempt at mating he switched his romancing to one of the other ladies in the group. Apparently all the offspring in this group belonged to Mr. Big Buck. The other males stayed far off at the fringes occasionally sparring but with no real outcome. I was told by a Ranger they were former calves that had outgrown their time in the herd and would be going off on their own soon enough.

It was fun and engaging to happen upon this scene, totally unexpected. We did find out the herd comes to this area at dusk and dawn, pretty much every day like clockwork. So if you are up for the adventure take a day trip to Oconoluftee; bring your dog, walk by the river, look at the old buildings, sit on the porch, and stay long enough to see the Elk.

Cherokee

On one of our trips to the Smoky Mountains during the off season we had a rainy, overcast day but felt like getting out into the park to do something.  So we took a drive south on Hwy. 441, all the way through the park to Cherokee, NC.  It was nice to drive south through the park.  We usually go from Gatlinburg to Newfound Gap, then turnaround and come back.

Cherokee, NC has a completely different feel than Gatlinburg, it doesn’t have quite as many shops or tourists.  The day we were there the town was not very busy at all, which was quite nice.  We ended up at Harrah’s Casino and gambled a bit – this might be a fun thing to do with a group of adult friends travelling together.

Cherokee, NC has a deep history.  The Cherokee people have been around for thousands of years and the town boasts a Cherokee museum.  We haven’t been there but I’m told the museum is very interesting.  The story of how the Cherokee people were forced off their land is one of the sadder stories of the Smoky Mountains.

You can also visit the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill near the Oconoluftee Visitor Center.  I do remember some old farm buildings on a drive I did through the park in the 1980’s.  Whew that takes me back!

I think a day in Cherokee when the sun is shining might be in order on our next visit.

Not so common Things to Do in Gatlinburg

Are you the traveler that likes to go off the beaten path?  You’re always looking for things to do that aren’t mainstream, or can be a real challenge?  This is the post for you then.  Here are some things to do in or near the Smoky Mountain Park that are perhaps less popular, and therefore roads less traveled.

  1. Hike to Mt. LeConte  – Like to hike? Want to stay someplace you can only get to on foot?  Go to Mt. LeConte Lodge. If you only have a day you can just do lunch up there, but call ahead for a reservation to make sure they can feed you.
  2. Elk Viewing – See the Elk in Cataloochee Valley in the southeastern area of the park. Make a day of it and plan to travel slow. The only way into the valley is winding gravel roads.
  3. Backpacking – Hike deep into the park and camp. Make sure to get a permit and plan your trip well. Contact the park service before doing any extensive hikes.
  4. Cherokee, NC – When people think of Smoky Mountain National Park they think Gatlinburg, but the entrance at the south end of the park is through Cherokee, NC. A city with a history. Take a day trip to Cherokee and see what they have to offer.
  5. Hikes, Fishing, Scenic Drives – See the park service website for ‘Off the Beaten Path‘ suggestions.