Our time in the Great Smoky Mountains was a mix of awe and inspiration. The authorities take immense pains to make sure that the roads, facilities and tourist amenities are perfect, but don’t interfere with the natural residents of the region. Roads are built around mountains, rocks are covered in protective layers when repair work is on, visitors are warned about littering and feeding animals and even bringing firewood from one area to another.
But nothing compared to the wild majesty of Cataloochee National Park, where we landed one evening to find elk. The Park Ranger at the Visitor Centre told us that if we had limited time and wanted to see elk in their natural habitat, Cataloochee was the place to go. We drove up, navigated an hour of unpaved winding forest paths on a steep mountain-side, and finally reached the rolling meadows at Cataloochee. The meadows are off-limits for humans, so small groups of silent visitors dot the edges. Compared to all the tourist-friendly spots in the Park, this location is so wild and untamed that it seems almost wrong for us to be there, with our cameras and tripods and cars.
And there in the meadows are the royal elk stags, big and shaggy and dark and horned, standing taller than some of the SUVs around us. They keep a safe distance, watch over their herds and babies, and graze the green grass in the glow of the sunset.
And here’s some more.