Cataloochie Valley and the Smokey Mountains in NC

I’ve been taking a crazy amount of pictures lately. I blame this on the weather and continual outdoor excursions my husband and I have been taking lately every chance we get. We’ve been exploring the Smokey/Blue Ridge Mountains, a good thing seeing as we’ve been in East Tennessee for three years now and have never really made it out that way until recently.

View of the Smokies from one of the Newfoundland Gap Parkway observation spots.

On Easter morning we took off at 4am for Cataloochie Valley, NC, which is about 2 hours away, so that we would arrive just at sunrise when the elk herds (reintroduced to the area in 2001) are most frequently seen. The valley was amazing and we were the only ones there, taking full advantage of the holiday.

Cataloochie Valley, NC, shortly after sunrise on Easter morning 2011.
Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Elk grazing in the dogwoods behind the Beech Grove School House in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Young female elk in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Preening male turkey courting hidden females in Cataloochie Valley, NC.

Having had such a great time on Easter, we returned this past weekend and camped out, taking full advantage of the area’s offerings – trails, historic buildings, rapid-filled rivers, frequent wildlife sittings, and relatively quite and secluded atmosphere. We’d been planning a camping “graduation” camping trip for a while but hadn’t chosen a location – after visiting the Valley once we knew we wanted to return and were lucky enough to find openings on the weekend we’d chosen for our trip.

Cataloochie Valley church, NC.
Beech Grove School House in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Caldwell (?) Homestead in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Caldwell (?) Homestead in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Inside the Caldwell Homestead, Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Barn across from the Caldwell Homestead, Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Inside the Caldwell Barn, Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Sparrow perched outside of Caldwell Homestead, Cataloochie Valley, NC.

We stopped at Big Creek in the afternoon, a beautiful little picnic and hiking area about an hour away from Cataloochie Valley, to cook some veggie dogs over a camp fire. It was mostly abandoned, offering peaceful moments in which to watch butterflies dance over the river and crows hop from rock to rock in search of tiny fish in the still parts of the river.

Big Creek, Blue Ridge Mountains, NC.
Big Creek, Blue Ridge Mountains, NC.

Back at camp we enjoyed the Elk which freely wander among the campsite and lazily sleep in sunny patches in the low-underbrush in the forest surrounding the campers. The tent sites at the back all feature private paths back into the woods, many of which lead to secluded sections of rock outcroppings into the river.

Elk roaming freely in the Cataloochie Valley campsite.
Elk roaming freely in the Cataloochie Valley campsite.
Our campsite in the Cataloochie Valley campground.
Hidden grotto off the trail behind our campsite.

In the primary valley, many visitors are too impatient to wait for the Elk to come down to graze at dawn and dusk. If you don’t mind the wait you’re rewarded with opportunities missed by “drive by outdoors-man.” We’re constantly amazed at how many people speed by, click a few photos out the window, and then circle around and head right back out of the area. This is unfortunately what “nature” has become for far too many people – a road-side attraction “theme park style”.

Elk in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Elk in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Elk in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
Elk in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
This young male elk stopped to munch only feet from our car in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
A happy elk-prance in Cataloochie Valley, NC.

Fortunately, Cataloochie Valley and many of the other little spots along the Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains, have figured out a bit of a balance when it comes to this sort of thing. The campground is reservation only and is filled up for weeks and sometimes months in advanced. Those that camp out there seem to have a bit more respect for the area and in general, the stay is comfortable and rather private depending on the campsite you choose. We got lucky and stayed at a nice site off the back of the campsite without any close neighbors.

In the evenings we spent several hours sketching and painting (I say we because my husband got artsy as well) as we waited for sunset. The herds were always on the smaller side, only about 24-26 Elk. Because we silently watched for a great length of time from the side of the road with binoculars and zoom lenses, the herd must have felt little threat from our presence. Some of the young, recently tagged and collared, were curious and approached our car unexpectedly.

Elk approaching our car in Cataloochie Valley, NC.
This is a snippit from a video I took of a young female elk licking our car in Cataloochie Valley, NC. And no, we were absolutely NOT feeding them – there was no food in the car to even lure them.

The young Elk were, sadly, far more trusting than many of those we’ve seen – perhaps a result of their recent stay with the ranger as they were cataloged. The campground nearby, along with the lack of any predators, has made the Elk rather fearless of humans in general. This is not good. Fortunately, the majority of the herd maintain a healthy distance from humans and timidly startle at the slightest hint of a car door or radio. Perhaps the curious youngsters will begin to stay back more as they grow older.

Right before leaving the Valley on Monday morning we spotted a hidden trail that went up to the Cataloochie Valley cemetery. This quite spot was a perfect farewell to the valley after a very good weekend away.

Beginning of the hidden trail up to the Cataloochie Valley cemetery.
Cataloochie Valley cemetery.
Most of the graves in the Cataloochie Valley cemetery were for women and infants. These 5 infant graves around this tomb stone may have all belonged to the Caldwell family as no other family’s graves are near them.

On the way home we have taken different routes each time so that we can explore different areas of the park. During this time we scout out new places and trails to visit when we return (generally the next day my husband has off work). It’s a beautiful place and I’m sure there will be many more adventures to come… and likewise, many more photos.


  1. Beautiful photos! I’m glad that your weekend went so perfectly. It’s unfortunate that the young elks are so comfortable around people, but hopefully, as you said, they’ll grow out of that before it becomes problematic for them. Someday I’ll have to head over to the valley, too.

    1. I think you’d and Robert would like it and there are a lot of really great trails out in that area too. There is back country camping as well, Ryan and I plan on taking a 5 mile hike out to some waterfalls and camping a couple of nights sometime this summer. 🙂

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