Smaller than Cades Cove on the western end of the national park, but similar in many respects, Cataloochee was named “Gadalutsi” by the Cherokee for the row upon row of mountain peaks that surround this picturesque valley. Just as Cades Cove, Cataloochee is home to many old historic structures restored by the National Park Service, as well as a wealth of wildlife and diverse botany. Cataloochee Creek runs through the valley providing fresh water and nourishment to the farmland worked by the 19th century settlers. There are a myriad of hiking trails that take off from Cataloochee Valley into the surrounding mountains that I intend to explore in the future, but on May 20, 2014 I simply wanted to see what the valley itself is all about.
How to Get There: From Asheville, NC take I-40 west to Exit 20, Hwy 276. Turn toward Maggie Valley, then take the first right onto Cove Creek Road. Stay on Cove Creek Rd. to the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Cataloochee Divide. The last mile up on Cove Creek Rd. is gravel. From the Divide it is three more miles of very curvy, downhill gravel road to the junction with Mt. Sterling Rd. and Cataloochee Rd. Turn left to Cataloochee Valley.
I know. This is supposed to be a hiking blog, right? Well, there are six distinct trails that take off from Cataloochee Valley. Does it count if I took pictures of the trailheads? Call this a scouting mission.
Not being a native to Carolina, and having just arrived in the past decade, I’m still trying to get my feet wet sometimes when it comes to exploring the great outdoors. For years and years I heard about how wonderful Max Patch and the Roan Highlands were. Well, last year I made a point of going to each and learned why people rave. So too with Cataloochee Valley. People talk about the natural beauty, the historic significance, the elk rut in the Fall. But I just couldn’t quite figure out how to get there.
This past winter when I visited Purchase Knob in the Smokies a couple times, I learned of the Cataloochee Divide
— and subsequently how to cross the Divide to get into Cataloochee Valley. It’s remote, rugged road, and I see now why they make it difficult. If it was easy to get to Cataloochee it would be bumper to bumper traffic. For all I know, it probably is anyway in the Fall.
Since I’ve had more time in recent weeks, I thought I should finally introduce myself to Cataloochee Valley. Now, I’m delighted that I did. I can see what the fuss is all about. I arrived at 7:30 on a Tuesday morning, the first one into the valley that day, aside from the folks who overnighted at the campground.
I was immediately treated to wild turkey having their breakfast in a field near the side of the road. The first structure I came to, Will Messer barn, was built in 1900 and restored in 1977 next to what is now the Cataloochee Ranger Station. Beyond that point, the valley opens its arms with fields that are hundreds of acres of lush green grass. Surrounded by mountains on every side, it’s easy to see why the early settlers found this valley so inviting. The sun was just peering out from behind the eastern Smokies, casting an amber glow on the grass tops as they waved in the refreshing breeze.
On the left is Palmer Chapel, built in 1898 to house a Methodist Episcopal congregation. Preachers in those days were supplied by the WNC Conference and were circuit riders who visited about one a month. Revivals were held each Fall. Even today, a reunion occurs each year when friends and family return to clean cemeteries, attend services and have dinner on the grounds.
The road changes back to gravel again, crosses Cataloochee Creek, then reaches the former Beech Grove School. This two-room schoolhouse served the Big Cataloochee District and was built in 1901. School days at Beech Grove ended shortly after the national park was chartered in 1934 as families scattered to other nearby communities.
From here until the end of the road another mile further, Cataloochee Creek runs directly beside the road on the left, and the right side is an expanse of luxuriant verdant grassland that is home to the elk of Cataloochee. Reintroduced to the national park in 2001 with 25 animals and an additional 27 in 2002, the elk herd is now totally able to self-sustain with minimal environmental impact.
The best times to view the elk are early in the morning and late in the evening when they come out of the forest to feed. During May, June, September and October the fields in the valley are closed to humans to minimize conflicts with the elk. They are still highly visible from the road.
There are warnings everywhere about approaching wildlife. The Park Service recommends you stay at least 150 feet away from the elk. Photography is suggested with high-power telescopic or zoom lenses. And so it was that I was able to get the shots I did below. I didn’t approach the elk at all, in fact they came towards me. That’s why some of the pictures below seem so close. With the magic of a zoom lens, I was never closer than about 70-80 feet, but still felt like these magnificent creatures had something to say.
Near the end of the road is Hiram Caldwell’s place. This is a modern (for then) frame structure built between 1903-1906 in the Eastlake style. The Caldwell’s raised sheep on their farm for quilting and a loom. A quaint footbridge crosses Cataloochee Creek to get to the front door.
Now that I know how to get to Cataloochee Valley, it’s safe to say I will be returning frequently to try out the trails that start and end there. Treat yourself to a visit as well. It’s a morning of historical significance, beautiful mountain scenery and wildlife to be enjoyed by the entire family.
Updated March 28, 2015: I made another visit to Cataloochee Valley for my participation in the National Park Service’ phenology project. We started with a cold, snowy study on the Cataloochee Divide, then headed down into the valley for the next study plot where it was sunny and near 10 degrees warmer. After finishing the volunteer work, I took a pass through the valley hoping to catch some elk. My wishes were rewarded.
Updated May 8, 2015: Took my brother Dave to Cataloochee for a quick visit on our way west. He was impressed, and we will be back to hike on his next visit. Here are a few more photos from this most recent visit.