I had an outing this weekend with a great group of folks in Cataloochee Valley and up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our goals were to observe the elk during the mating season ritual called the rut and experience the beauty of the mountains during the fall leaf season. I’d say mission accomplished on both. It was overcast and cool on Saturday morning as we drove into the valley. We were greeted at the entrance by one lone bull elk and a little farther down the road a large crowd of visitors at the first elk herd.
One large bull was busy herding his harem of cows and occasionally chasing off a small spike bull that was feeding some distance from the herd of cows (but apparently not far enough away for the big bull). Early morning is one of the best times to see the elk as they tend to be feeding and, during the rut in September and October, interacting with one another.
Each year at this time males in their prime (usually 5 to 8 years of age) gather small herds of cows and calves and aggressively defend them from other bulls. This is done by a series of displays: bugling, a hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly high-pitched call; thrashing bushes and other vegetation with their antlers; and occasionally engaging in sparring matches with other large bulls by locking antlers and shoving in a show of strength.
When the cows come into estrus, the mating begins. A cow is receptive for mating less than 24 hours. She won’t be willing to mate again until her second estrus cycle arrives in 20 days so bulls are constantly checking on the cows in their herd. Bulls can be quite aggressive toward cows as they herd them, but then during courtship their behavior is decidedly more gentle. He may approach her and lick her to check her receptiveness and, if she is ready and willing, mount her to mate. This day had no actual mating or fights with other males, but the bull stayed busy, bugled often, and looked exhausted at times (bulls may lose 20% of their weight during the rut).
The rest of the day we explored the woods and stream sides and walked around some of the many historic structures in the valley. Several houses and barns, a one room school, cemeteries and a church are all that remain of a once thriving community that had to leave when the land became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. There are auto tour brochures available for a nominal fee at the information kiosk near the valley entrance that give a detailed history of the valley and some of its notable inhabitants.
Late in the day we found ourselves (along with hundreds of other visitors in often car-clogged roads) watching the elk as they returned to the fields after being in the shade of the forest much of the day.
The next morning most of the group wanted to head up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for some fall color so we headed out and started heading north from Balsam Gap. The cool night and humid atmosphere had created ideal conditions for mist and low hanging clouds, a photographers dream for this time of year on the Parkway.
At first, we saw only patches of mist hugging some ridges. As we climbed in elevation and the road shifted to the other side of the mountains, an ocean of clouds spread out above the valley floor with isolated peaks popping through the gray sea. This type of scene has given rise to the name, Islands in the Sky, for these mountaintops protruding above the misty sea of clouds. It also refers to the unique ecological communities that are adapted to the cold conditions atop our highest mountains.
As we continued north, the warmth of the sun caused the sea of clouds to recede leaving us with an unobstructed view of row upon row of ridges speckled with fall colors.
Our final stop was a short hike down to Yellowstone Falls, one of the more popular hikes along this section of the Parkway. After winding through a thicket of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel, you come out on a beautiful series of waterfalls. The hike is well worth the steep climb back out. And here’s something to consider next time you visit a popular waterfall. If you are at the top of the falls and look down and see a group of people with cameras looking up at you, try not to stay too long out in the open…they may be waiting for a chance to get a photo or two of the scene without people in the picture. As we parted ways, I think we all were appreciative of the sights and sounds we had experienced on this magnificent fall weekend. I look forward to the cooler weather and changing landscape and wildlife that the new season will bring.
Here are a few more photos from the trip.