Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves over 800 square miles of pristine southern Appalachian wilderness. Here misty valleys are nestled within the highest mountains in eastern North America, with sixteen peaks reaching over 6,000 feet of elevation. Formed by repeated mountain-building events starting around 480 million years ago, continental collision, folding, thrust-faulting, and erosion have shaped the land here as it is today.
In addition to its scenic beauty this park harbors an immense diversity of life. Over 17,000 species have been documented including scores of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Over 100 species of native trees are found here, more than in any other national park. About a quarter of the forest is old-growth, protected from the aggressive logging that took place here until the park was established in 1934.
The appeal of this location is unparalleled. It’s by far the most-visited national park in the United States, welcoming over nine million guests annually. For that reason I had reservations about traveling to this wonder of nature. I hate traffic and crowds, and I had heard some real horror stories about the tourists that plague the main areas of the park. Around Gatlinburg traffic is often bumper-to-bumper, parking lots are often full, and people often congregate en masse to see some of the more accessible features. Clingmans Dome, Cades Cove, and the areas in between are especially busy.
In order to avoid the crowds I set my sights on the fringes of the park. A number of quiet hideaways are nestled into the margins of the park boundary, and few people are adventurous enough to visit them. I found my ideal destination in the Cataloochee Valley. Tucked into the Balsam Mountains near the eastern edge of the park, Cataloochee can perhaps be described as “like a smaller version of Cades Cove with far fewer people.” My wife and I camped here for three days and had an amazing experience.
Two routes lead into Cataloochee and both are narrow, winding, gravel mountain roads unfit for large vehicles like RVs and camper trailers. We took exit 451 from I-40 and ventured down the northerly approach past Big Creek. We saw only one other car while enjoying the quiet mountain forest, streams, and waterfall along the way.
The Cataloochee campground has 27 sites but during our stay we never saw more than about ten of them occupied.
We camped at site 8 and had a nice little path down to Cataloochee Creek. The sound of water rushing over the rocks was a nice lullaby each night.
We drove through Catloochee Valley at dawn and dusk every day to see wildlife and we never passed more than a handful of other cars. On each trip we saw this location’s most notable feature, the elk herd that was reintroduced in 2001.
Although native to the southern Appalachians, elk (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Cervus canadensis) had been eradicated here by overhunting and habitat loss early in our nation’s history.
The reintroduced elk are an attempt to reestablish the population that existed here prior to European settlement.
The bulls were most impressive, but we also saw a cow with her calf:
Other cows were a common sight in the valley, browsing the foliage while their own calves likely hid nearby:
There were also a number of wild turkeys (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Meleagris gallopavo) in the meadows:
Perhaps the most exciting wildlife we saw were a black bear sow and her cub (Carnivora: Ursidae: Ursus americanus), mulling around in the forest only about 60 feet from the road:
The distance, foliage, and fading evening twilight made it hard to get a clear photo, but seeing these animals in the wild was very cool. The little cub stayed mostly hidden among the plants and I wasn’t able to get a decent shot of him.
On our last evening I decided to hike up the nearby Caldwell Fork Trail and was surprised by the sign at the trailhead:
Somewhat disheartened I took a look at the first stream crossing. The bridge was completely gone but the creek looked fordable. Although somewhat wide and fast, the knee-deep water didn’t present too much trouble.
Beyond the first creek I came across a number of notable plants including mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia, Ericaceae)…
…mountain maple (Acer spicatum, Aceraceae) near the southern end of its range…
…and this unique trillium (Trillium sp., Liliaceae) with huge leaves and a nodding purple flower:
…a millipede (Diplopoda)…
…and a nice toadstool fungus:
Before long I came to the second creek crossing and here the bridge was still present. It was knocked loose by storm-washed logs, however, and was very unstable. Between the damaged bridge, the tangled mess of logs, and lack of a clear approach to the creek to ford it, I decided to turn back.
The next day we had to leave Cataloochee but were very satisfied with our visit. In spite of the crowds that plague Great Smoky Mountains National Park we were able to find peace and solitude in this amazing mountain wilderness. Although I suspect Cataloochee may be a bit busier on weekends, especially in the summer and autumn, it seems as if most people stick to the well-known and gridlocked areas of the park. While I expect the sights around Clingmans Dome and Cades Cove must be lovely, the crowds would certainly ruin the experience for me. Cataloochee provided an equally incredible experience without all of the people. All we had to do was venture off the beaten path.