elk in nature

How to Enjoy Elk Viewing Safely

On your next trip to historic Cherokee, there’s one activity we recommend above all else: Elk viewing! While this low-key activity may not ramp up the heart rate like an outdoor tubing day, there’s truly nothing like relaxing in nature and watching one of North America’s most beautiful animals enjoying their day-to-day lives.

And if you have kiddos? This is the perfect, inexpensive activity that you can do as a family – all age groups welcome.

So, before you plan your next trip to Cherokee, North Carolina, keep reading to learn all about the beautiful, furry friends that graze the fields of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center!

What is an Elk

So, let’s start with understanding what an elk actually is. An elk is one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America, with males often weighing up to 730 lbs., alone. They are relatives to deer, but often get confused as moose due to their large antlers and proximity to Canada.

While elk are not native to Cherokee, North Carolina, they can often be found walking down the Oconaluftee river, a relaxing, calming location for these forest-loving animals. Male elk (bulls) tend to use their high-pitched, whistle-like sounds to let others know how fit they are, a common intimidation tactic.

Despite their size, an average wild elk is probably only around six to 10 years old. They can live anywhere from 10 to 15 years, but have been known to grow into their early twenties!

Elk Vs. Moose: What’s the Difference?

Is it a moose or is it an elk? That is the real question!

Well, to settle this age-long debate, the way to tell the difference between these two similar mammals is by their coat, their shape, and their nose. A moose will typically have a darker coat than an elk and be considerably rounder. Elk also have a pointier nose that resembles a deer, whereas a moose will have a more bulbous nose.

Another great feature to look out for is their antlers. Moose antlers are considerably thicker than a bull elk and have a much different, more rounded shape. Elk antlers are pointed – again, more similarly to that of a deer.

elk behind a tree

What to Bring on Your Elk Viewing Adventure

With your elk viewing adventure almost here, there’s only one question left to answer: what should you bring with you? Well, fortunately, you don’t need to bring a lot to be able to enjoy a fun, relaxing elk viewing session.

Here are the four things we recommend bringing on your next elk viewing trip!


If you want to get a good look at the beautiful elk, make sure to pack your binoculars or spotting scope. For safety reasons, you should never be closer than 50 yards away, so be sure to pack anything that will help you get a good look at these majestic creatures from a safe distance.


Elk don’t tend to hang out in areas with great reception, so it’s important to bring an extra guide with you like a map. To learn more about Cherokee, North Carolina, check out our helpful maps and directions page!

Water and Snacks (For Yourself)

It’s always important to stay hydrated and full when adventuring to watch elks. If you bring snacks with, however, please always make sure to dispose of your items in designated trash areas or keep them on you to ensure the safety and cleanliness of their home.


Finally, you will definitely need to be patient while elk watching. These playful and loyal creatures have their own agenda when it comes to their day-to-day activities and don’t always guarantee a lively show.

elk in a field

Elk Viewing Safety Tip

Please remember when visiting Cherokee that elk are wild animals and it’s very important to keep your distance. We recommend staying back at least 50 yards (150 ft.) in order to avoid the possibility of injury and/or fines in both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the tribal lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.