Visit Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Let’s Go to Cataloochee Valley!

I’m always amazed to discover something new about a place I have lived nearby my entire life. It also means that I get to visit someplace fun and exciting while not having to plan out a two-week vacation. For today’s adventure and a recommendation from a friend, we were heading to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Don’t get me wrong. I love long trips, but sometimes getting up without packing a suitcase is nice. Day trips also mean I can skip my pre-travel ritual: cleaning the entire house. I am not sure why I feel the need to do this, but it is always nice to take a trip that prevents me from whipping out Lysol! Does anyone else have a cleaning spree before a vacation?

Cataloochee Valley is roughly 20 miles north of Maggie Valley in North Carolina and not a bad day drive from the North Georgia region. I am incredibly fortunate to live near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. America’s most visited national park is quite large; we’ve been there several times, and I’ve only seen a fourth of the park!

Since we are currently in a pandemic, we thought this would be a great place to explore while getting fresh air and maintaining social distancing. We went on a Tuesday, and it felt like we had the whole valley to ourselves.

Ranger on horseback at Cataloochee Valley
A National Park ranger on horseback on the path that runs along the valley. Image shot on Ektachrome E100.
Flowers growing in Cataloochee Valley
Flowers growing in the valley.

Driving to Cataloochee Valley

Before heading to Cataloochee Valley, you might want to check the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website for any park updates and possible closures.

We left early at 6am in North Metro Atlanta, Georgia, and got to Cataloochee Valley around 9:45am. If you have a GPS, I recommended putting the coordinates in for Cataloochee Valley before leaving; we lost signal several times on our drive.

 The drive from Georgia to Cataloochee is scenic; we drove through the Nantahala National Forest and Maggie Valley, a small town with antique shops and the Wheels Through Time Museum. Nearby is the Cataloochee Ski Resort, which is popular in the wintertime.

Once you reach the surrounding Cataloochee area, the roads get very winding. This is the part I don’t particularly appreciate since I sometimes get motion sickness. If you are like me, I recommend doing whatever you need to prevent or mitigate that. For me, that means no reading or looking at my iPhone, unfortunately.

A woman with her film camera standing on a bridge.
One of the bridges in the valley leads to another trail. iPhone image of myself with Neko (my Canon EOS-1N)!

Cataloochee Valley’s entrance via Cove Creek Road will make it seem like you went the wrong way because it is a residential area, a paved road with sharp turns that take you further uphill. Eventually, this turns into the Cataloochee Turnpike, an even less friendly road that makes you feel like you are on a twisty roller coaster, or maybe it’s just my husband’s bad driving. I am not sure which.

As this road goes up and down, you will want to slow down due to oncoming cars. Don’t worry, though; most people driving are friendly and will make space for you. My car buddy, Horton, had fun sliding up and down my dashboard.

A lovely overlook, the Cataloochee Valley Overlook, is worth a stop as you drive into the Cataloochee Valley. Due to the fog, we didn’t stop when we arrived, but luckily, it cleared when we left so we could take in this gorgeous view of the mountains!

Cataloochee Valley Overlook
Cataloochee Valley Overlook. Image shot on Ektachrome E100.

If anyone’s been to Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I consider Cataloochee Valley the “other Cades Cove.”  I’ve been to Cades Cove, but I appreciate the serenity of Cataloochee Valley and watching the elk that live in this section of the park.

We went to Cades Code during the fall and spent a good portion of our day in traffic. I’ve heard horror stories of people spending 12 hours in traffic jams in Cades Cove. The traffic here at Cataloochee was minimal, but it was also before the peak fall season.

Once we got into the valley and parked, I loaded some Kodak E100 film into my Canon EOS-1N and pulled out my nifty-fifty (50mm f/1.8 STM). I planned on using UltraMax 400 but didn’t notice that the canister was bent in until I tried to load the film! Oh well, it is always good to have extra rolls.

Therefore, all the images in this post are shot on Kodak E100. While the photos are excellent, there is nothing like visiting Cataloochee Valley in person. 

The overlook at Cataloochee Valley.
Another view at the Cataloochee Valley Overlook. Image shot on Ektachrome E100.

Great Location to See Elk

I was really hoping to see some elk, and I didn’t have to wait long! This is your place to see elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Go as early as possible or late evening to see elk; we saw 4 within the first two hours of arriving. As soon as the sun came out and the temperature increased, we saw no additional elk for that day. But as a huge animal lover, I was excited to see just one!

Admittedly, I envisioned getting that National Geographic look of elk grazing or galloping through the valley, but the best I could get was “Bathroom Elk” and “Hide Behind the Trees Elk.” Unfortunately, the bathroom elk was munching on some leaves behind the public restrooms, so this is the only image I could take without risking getting too close.

Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The bathroom elk is hiding slightly behind the tree. Not my best image, but that is ok! Shot on Ektachrome E100.

My 50mm lens is not long enough to get that fantastic elk shot. A telephoto lens will capture closer photos of elk without risking getting attacked. You’d need at least 200mm to get in closer.

Considering we almost ran into a bear on accident in Yellowstone National Park, I wasn’t going to press my luck in getting closer to wildlife.

The most incredible thing we heard in Cataloochee Valley was an elk bugle! While walking, we suddenly heard something that sounded like a terrible trumpet or flute player. Honestly, I thought, who is playing that awful music in the park? But then I quickly realized that it was an elk bugle! I didn’t see the elk, but I heard it. If you haven’t listened to this sound before, search for it on YouTube because it is pretty awesome!

As a side note…I’ve not seen a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but I found evidence of one. Be careful where you sit or place your things; I almost ended the day early by putting my knees in some bear scat. Needless to say, I quickly left that area!

Walking in Cataloochee Valley

There are hiking trails and horse trails in the valley area, with signs indicating the trail mileage. As much as I wanted to take some of the hiking trails, we did not have enough time for that day. If we spend the night up here in the future, we will definitely be hitting some trails.

Moss growing on a tree

Instead, we enjoyed a quiet pathway along the river and passed the Beech Grove School and Caldwell House. I appreciate and love history, so I always enjoy walking in these historical places. 

The Beech Grove School and the Caldwell House were built circa 1903 by early settlers in the region. The rangers were working on chopping trees in this area, so we could not go into the Caldwell House, but we saw it from a distance. It is a beautiful house near a river in the valley. There is also a wooden barn opposite the Caldwell House across the river.

Beech Grove Schoolhouse was open; it is a tiny, quaint school with a few desks and chalkboards. I can only imagine how cold it must have been when school was in session in the winter!

Light from a window casting a shadow on the ground
This image captures the soft, mid-morning light in the Beech Grove Schoolhouse. Image shot on Ektachrome E100.

We walked by the Palmer Chapel Methodist Church but could not enter as the door was locked. Constructed at the turn of the 20th century, it was the only church in this region. Today, weddings can be held here via permits from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Palmer Chapel Methodist Church in Cataloochee Valley
Palmer Chapel Methodist Church. Image shot on Ektachrome E100.

Final Thoughts: The Perfect Day Trip

We planned to stay here just in the morning because we wanted to visit nearby waterfalls, but we stayed for most of the day because the valley was so beautiful and peaceful. You can easily turn this into a relaxing day trip or spend the night here.

There is a campground in Cataloochee. From what we saw, the campground appeared to be clean and inviting. I would love to come back, camp, and get night sky pictures. There is little to no light pollution in the area, and I imagine this will make fantastic Milky Way images. 

There are no places to eat or visitor centers in this proximity, so it is important to pack a lunch or some snacks. We didn’t bring anything and were starving by the time we left. We saw a few smart visitors set up a spot to eat lunch around their car.

Have you been to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Please share your thoughts below!

If you enjoyed this post, please share, and pin it for later!

If you plan to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you'll want to see the beautiful Cataloochee Valley. The valley is a fantastic location to see elk, picnic, visit the historic sites, and hike. Don't forget to stop by the Cataloochee Valley Overlook to see the gorgeous mountains.

Leave a Comment