Thing to Do

Spot an Elk on the Heintooga Spur Road

A bull elk with antlers crosses a road in front of a stopped car

There are certain animals that, when you see them for the first time, become etched in your memory. You remember where you were, who you were with, and sometimes even very specific details of the moment like the time of day or the weather conditions. Elk are one of those animals. They are impressive, majestic creatures that can be a lasting memory from a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Part of the allure is their scarcity. Elk were eliminated from North Carolina by the late 1700s due to over-hunting and loss of their habitat. After a 200-year extinction from the area, elk were reintroduced in the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001. By almost every measurement, the reintroduction has been very successful and over the years the elk population has grown and migrated beyond the Cataloochee area. The southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway is a beneficiary of this migration. And while elk sightings become more common with each passing year, seeing them is certainly still a special occasion.

At Milepost 458.2, just 11 miles from the southern end of the Parkway, there is a road called the Heintooga Spur Road. This 9-mile paved road travels for 3.5 miles through Blue Ridge Parkway land and then crosses into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the boundary of the two parks there is a memorial that was created by Masonic orders from around the country. This high elevation road has several overlooks and passes the Smoky’s Balsam Mountain Campground before ending at the Heintooga Ridge Picnic Area. After the picnic area, a one-way seasonal gravel road called the Round Bottom Road (also known as the Balsam Mountain Road) continues for 14 miles further into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before connecting to Big Cove Road in Cherokee. (Use caution if you choose to take this route. The road can be rough and is not suitable for all vehicles.)

Because of its proximity to the Smokies and where the elk relocation started, the Heintooga Spur Road has become a good location to see elk. Parkway wildlife cameras have captured many pictures of elk in the woods adjacent to the road. Well established wildlife game trails (decorated with elk scat!) are common near the road. Mornings and evenings are usually the best times to see elk, but they have been spotted at all hours on the Heintooga Spur Road.

Elk are large animals. They weigh between 500-800 pounds and stand up to 5 feet at the shoulder. Their antlers can grow 5 feet wide! They are larger than black bears and can be dangerous. Females with calves have charged people in defense of their young. Males may charge if humans are perceived as a challenge to their territory. Males can be more aggressive during mating season (rut) in the fall. And elk can run up to 45 miles per hour, so you have no chance of outrunning them!

To stay safe around elk, keep your distance (at least 50 yards). Use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view elk. Stay near the roadside and your vehicle. Never feed elk or any wildlife. Taking these common sense precautions will help ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable experience as you travel the Heintooga Spur Road. We hope you are successful in spotting elk, but remember that these are wild animals on their own schedules. For more information about elk, visit https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/elk.htm.

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Blue Ridge Parkway

Last updated: October 22, 2020