Smoky Mountains Fall Colors
Cataloochee Valley Elk Herd
Our favorite little-known autumn drive to see Smoky Mountains fall colors is into the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Cataloochee elk herd is found here, and in early October the bulls are still in rut, with trumpeting calls echoing across the valley.
Bring your binoculars and camera along on this short, adventurous smoky mountains fall foliage scenic drive that leads into a lovely but less visited valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The beautiful, peaceful Cataloochee Valley is closer to Asheville and mountain towns like Burnsville, Spruce Pine and Blowing Rock than the highly visited main section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Our route begins in downtown Waynesville, which has one of the prettiest Main Streets in the mountains, with many fine shops and art galleries to explore. If its lunch or dinner time, check out the Waynesville restaurant Sweet Onion, which serves up clever takes on hearty pub food, all crafted with organic and locally grown produce when available.
Drive north along US 276 out of Waynesville, jogging for a while along commercial US 19 before US 276 turns north again to go through the increasingly lovely Jonathan Creek region. When you turn right onto Cove Creek Road, NC 1395, you'll follow the road, which turns to a well maintained gravel road, for about 5 miles over a high mountain pass and down into the Cataloochee Valley.
The Smoky Mountains fall colors scenic look off that is halfway down the mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a panoramic view of the mountains that seems untouched by the hand of man. In fall these mountains explode with fall colors, vibrant reds of oaks and maples, bright yellow birch, golden tulip poplars and a hundred other autumn hues.
The Cataloochee Valley was once home to over a thousand residents who were moved out to neighboring valleys when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created. Today only a small number of original buildings still exist. One of the prettiest is the Victorian Caldwell House, where the soft grassy front yard beside a sparkling creek makes a perfect picnic spot nestled beneath fall foliage and surrounded by Smoky Mountains fall colors.
As you enter the valley there is a pull off where you can obtain a self-guided auto tour booklet of the valley. There are excellent hiking trails here, but the main attraction is the herd of Cataloochee Elk that call this lovely valley home. Reintroduced to the park in 2001 the Cataloochee elk heard has grown to over 100 animals.
One of the best times to see the elk is in late afternoon when they move down from the wooded mountainsides and out into the open fields. In early October the males are still rutting and their bugling calls ring out as they challenge other males during the largely ritualistic, horn locking battles that are a true spectacle of nature.
Smoky Mountains fall foliage season during October is also a good time to watch for other wild animals as well, with the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoon, turkeys and woodchucks occurring in the evening or early morning hours.
Smoky Mountains fall colors scenic driving Route. This trip into the Cataloochee valley is about 23 miles one way. Leave Waynesville via Russ Avenue, US 276, and go about 2.2 miles. Turn left onto US 19/276 and take it for 2.3 miles, turn right on Jonathan Creek, US 276, and follow the highway for about 5 miles. Bear left on Cove Creek Road, NC 1395, just before the I-40 entrance ramp. Stay on Cove Creek Road for 4.7 miles, and then it becomes Cove Creek Mountain Road, NC 1395, for another 1.1 miles before it becomes National Park Road. Continue into the Cataloochee Valley and enjoy the Smoky Mountain fall colors as you drive through the mountains.
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