July 24, 2023

When you think of wildlife in the Smoky Mountains, you probably think of deer, black bears, and turkeys. However, the largest animals that can be found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are elk. Elk in the Smoky Mountains were once hunted to near extinction, but now they are growing in number and are becoming more common to see by those visiting the national park. Here are some of our favorite facts about these amazing animals.


2 elk sparring at visitor center

Elk are the largest animals in the Smoky Mountains. They can weigh over 700 pounds and reach five feet tall at the shoulder. Their antlers can add an additional four feet to their height, meaning they can be a towering nine feet tall! By comparison, black bears are typically only 150 to 300 pounds and usually reach two to three feet in height at the shoulders.


Just like deer, elk in the Smoky Mountains also grow antlers. Only the males of the species have them. The cool fact about elk antlers is they’re made of fast-growing bone that can grow as much as one inch in a day. A major factor that determines the size of an elk’s antlers is the amount of sunlight it gets. Sunlight boosts testosterone levels, which makes the antlers grow. The antlers of a full grown male elk can weigh up to 40 pounds on their own!


elk bugling

The elk in the Smoky Mountains make one of the most unique and haunting sounds you can hear while you’re in the area. These animals are the loudest members of the deer family. During rut, male elk will make mating calls called bugles to call to the females. This high-pitched noise sounds like a mix between a scream and a whistle and is unlike anything else. These calls are so loud they can sometimes be heard up to a couple miles away!


Because of the elk’s large size, you’d probably expect these animals to be fairly slow. However, the truth is quite the opposite. A full-grown male elk can run up to 40 miles per hour! They’ve even been known to outrun horses in short distances. That’s 10 miles per hour faster than the elk’s cousin, the whitetail deer, which you’ll commonly see in the Smoky Mountains. And elk aren’t just fast–they can also jump up to eight feet high!


Male and female elk in field

The best-known form of communication for elk is their bugle since it’s such a loud and distinct sound. However, elk also communicate with one another in other ways. These animals make an audible clicking or popping sound with their ankle joints. This lets other elk know that the large object moving behind them is a friend and not a dangerous predator.

Elk in the Smoky Mountains

Elk used to be abundant in the Smoky Mountains. However, these animals were hunted to near extinction by the 1900s. In the early 2000s, the National Park Service took on the mission of reintroducing elk to the Smoky Mountains. They started by introducing 25 elk in 2001, then introduced another 27 elk in 2002. The elk population is continuing to grow today. There are now as many as 200 elk in the Smoky Mountains! They can primarily be found in the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It’s important to treat these magnificent animals with respect. It is actually illegal to willfully approach an elk–you must stay at least 50 yards away. This helps keep the elk safe so they can continue to thrive in the Smoky Mountains. If you want a chance to see elk, make your way over to Cataloochee Valley and keep your eyes peeled! Before you go, make sure you check out these safety tips on how to view wildlife safely in the Smoky Mountains.