Four-thirty in the morning sure isn't as easy on an old body as it was back in my working days, but that's when Judy and I struggled out of our warm beds and prepared for an all-day road trip to Cataloochee Valley, North Carolina; one hundred and thirty-six miles east of Harriman, TN.
First stop heading east was the Sevierville, TN exit off I-40 for some coffee, eggs, grits, bacon, gravy, and biscuits! That's a must if you are going to last most of the day in the wilderness. Incidentally, that Cracker Barrel was very friendly and the wait was minimal; unlike the week before at the Strawberry Plains exit where we waited and waited until even the later arrivals had been served, before leaving; walking right past the waitress who had apparently forgot to turn in our order. I told her, "Thanks for the coffee," and we left, stopping at a Hardee's across the street!
Anyway, at around 7AM we arrived in Cataloochee Valley. The sun was just peeping over the eastern mountains and illuminating the hillsides on the opposite side of the valley. At the first field we stopped and waited in the "magic hour" light, but there was no elk to be photographed. "Where are they," we both thought?
The Cataloochee Valley consist of about three fields in an almost straight line about two to three miles long. We ventured further west up the valley, passing things I wanted to shoot later when the light was better.
Finally, we came into the last field, which is much larger than the others. It's stretches for about three-quarters to a mile and is about three to five hundred yards wide. That's when we saw the parked vehicles along the last two hundred yards of the field, and across the field, were the elk. I was amazed at the number, maybe two or three dozen, consisting of mostly cows with three or four bulls.
There was one obviously dominate bull standing tall against a backdrop of fall leaves right in the upper most part of the last field. We quickly parked and I got out; grabbing my monopole; which turned out to be a minor mistake. I got some decent shots, but all were, at least to me, sub-par due to "long lens shake". In retrospect, I should have set up my tripod, but I was excited and was afraid all the elk would scamper away any moment.
They don't scamper away, like the deer all did, because they just aren't afraid of "man"! They stood proudly and grazed unconcerned; even venturing up to smell the hoods of a couple of trucks parked along the road.
The main road into Cataloochee ends at the far end of this field. So you have to exit the way you came in, or take a long route back toward Cosby and eventually Gatlinburg in Tennessee. The road winds forever, at least that's how my wife described it, and is a bumpy gravel road. However, the views in fall made it bearable, and we even stopped along the way, in one of the many curves where the road widens out, to have a "pickup picnic"!
To me it was worth the early rising and the winding and bumpy roads. The light, the frost on the grass, the fall colors, and the rising fog in the valleys made for a great adventure. It's one I won't soon forget, and at least one of us will go back one day.
1. Return the way you entered (unless you go in from Cosby). Get off Exit 20 on I-40, which is about fifty miles west of Asheville.
2. Take the time to use a tripod...the elk aren't going anywhere!
3. Arrived at or near first light. The elk seem to know you're coming and enter the field right on the sun's cue!
4. Oh yeah, be sure you have a large memory card or two in your camera. I heard a couple of people who were having to delete frames in order to continue shooting. Shoot lots and delete later. You never know which snap is the frame you will want to sell or frame!
You can see a pictorial tour of my trip by clicking HERE!