The 2008 Elk Rut season is already starting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the best place to see the the elk in the national park is still the Cataloochie Valley near Maggie Valley North Carlina.
While elks make their distinctive calls called bugling throughout the year, now is when it picks up in intensity as well as the male bull elk forming harems of as many females cows as possible.
The bugling sound the elk make can be heard from quite a distance echoing in the Cataloochee Valley and fields. The bugling sound is very distinctive as its call raises in pitch and volume until the almost grunt turns into screech followed by a short series of grunts.
Watching elk grunt and bugling as dawn is breaking and they come out of the fog as it lifts from the Cataloochee Valley. You can see the moisture vapor coming out of the elks mouth as they bugle breaking the morning silence. Moments or minutes later far in the distance you start to hear the other elks bugle as they each call out their territory.
Elk during rut experience ranging hormones and have already shed their velvet from their antlers which from into huge racks. Their mating habit included urinating on the ground and scratching up the ground with their antlers and then rolling in the urine soaked ground to absorb the scent. Standing far from them you can smell their unbelievable pungent odor.
Male bull elk at this time are working on forming a harem of cows herding and gathering them to hopefully mate. Unfortunately for the bull elk at this time the cows are not ready or willing to mate adding to the elk's frustrations and further increasing its aggressiveness as it spars with other male elks for wives and territory.
Watching the elk battle and the individual elk gain and lose members from their harem is fascinating and is like watching members of a professional sport team play and since all of the large elk are tagged with numbers so it's easy to keep score. I can assure you if you watch them for 3 days straight you will be amazed at the conquests and loses - reversals and fumbles - all in the beauty of the Cataloochee valley.
Elk at this time of the year are particularly aggressive and can present far more of a threat to the human visitors of the Great Smoky Mountains national park which should keep their distance - especially when the elk are sparring with each other. Park volunteers called the Bugle Corps patrol up and down the road educating park visitors and trying to have visitors stay the recommended distance away from the elk.
The elk are best viewed early in the day and starting an hour or so before sunset. They can be often seen right from the roadside. It gets packed on weekends with visitors and locals alike so during the week is the best time to come to Cataloochee.
I implore anyone who comes to observe the spectacle to pull to the side of the road and shut off your engines! Not only will you save gas, you will allow other to hear or record the wonderful sound of the elks bugle instead of your car idling.
Since the elk population has doubled since the elk introduction back into the Great Smoky Mountains national park their amazing behavior will soon be able to be observed in other areas of the GSMNP that elk gather, namely in the small fields along Newfound Gap Road just north of the Oconaluftee visitors center and south of Smokemont.
While some see this population and range expansion as a good thing, I see this as a management nightmare brewing. As I have stated before numerous times it would have been best of the elk population was confined to the Cataloochee and Balsam Mountain areas and if the park service let the local black bear help thin the herd rather than capturing and moving black bear in the spring when the elk give birth.
Enjoy the elk in the Great Smoky Mountains national park - but please - from a safe distance!