|Bugling bull elk at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.|
Photo courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains NPS.
|Topo map, Big Fork Ridge Trail.|
in NC part of park
Day hikers can see a rare herd of elk on the Big Fork Ridge Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The 3.6-miles round trip segment of this popular trail sits in the Cataloochee Valley of the park’s North Carolina section. Early morning and dusk during autumn marks the best time to catch the elk and their antics.
To reach the trailhead, from Interstate 40, take Exit 20 onto U.S. Hwy. 276 south. Next, turn right/west onto Cove Creek Road/Hwy. 1395 (in the park, it becomes Old Cataloochee Turnpike). Then go left/west onto Cataloochee Entrance Road; follow that road to its end, where there’s a parking lot for the Big Fork Ridge Trailhead.
The parking lot faces large meadows where you usually can spot elk. Once a common sight in the southern Appalachian mountains, over-hunting and habitat doomed them. North Carolina has not had any native elk since the late 1700s – until reintroduction efforts began in the park during the early 2000s.
Adult male elk weigh about 600-700 pounds and stand up to 4 feet at the shoulder, easily making them the largest animals in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Female elk average 500 pounds. Be sure to bring binoculars, as the meadow is off limits to people.
September often marks the best time to hike the trail, as the bull elk gather females and the newborns have lost their spots so are easier to see. You may even get to hear a male elk bugling. If you don’t see any elk, they’re probably hanging out in the nearby forest.
After taking in the view of the elk, carefully cross the road, following the trail roughly southeast. The trail immediately crosses the Rough Fork and begins its ascent. Though gradual at first, you’ll gain about 750 feet over the next couple of miles.
The trail heads through a mixed hardwood forest of maples, pine and mountain laurel with rhododendron in the understory, making for a beautiful autumn walk of yellow and red leaves. Along the walk, you may notice a number of dead giant gray trees; these are hemlocks, some standing a hundred feet tall, robbed of life by the hemlock woolly adelgid blight.
About 0.8 miles in, the trail crosses a stream that flows into Rough Fork.
At 1.8 miles, you’ll reach the summit of Big Fork Ridge at about 3600 feet elevation. There are no views unless hiking late in autumn when the leaves have fallen. The summit marks a good spot to turn back.
You can continue on, however, and many backpackers do as part of a large loop that includes connecting trails. The Big Ridge Trail itself goes down the highlands’ southside through a forest of sassafras and mountain laurel. Along the way, there are good views of Caldwell Fork Valley’s northern end then a crossing of Caldwell Fork. The trail ends at 3.2 miles when it junctions with the Caldwell Fork Trail.
The Big Fork Ridge Trail often is used by horse riders and following a rain can be muddy.
Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.