Photographing Elk in the Cataloochee Valley

It doesn’t take long before the sun casts a warm yellow light on the meadow, revealing a glimmering frost on the grasses. As the fog begins to lift, the shadowy outlines of solitary trees begin to take shape. 

Lone male elk, one of the lesser males in the valley heading towards the herd around the corner. The dominant male did not let it get very close, there was no fight this morning just a lot of noise.

The unmistakable trumpeting sound of a bull elk in the woods announces the herd. They scatter from out of the woods, casually rubbing their antlers on a tree branch, and with heads down, graze their way toward the meadow.

We are in the Cataloochee Valley, a corner of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina. To get there, you drive past a few ramshackle homes and seemingly abandoned trailer homes to where the paved road gives way to a heavily rutted single-track dirt road. The descent into the valley is not for the faint of heart, and with each corner there is a high probability of encountering a caravan of pickup trucks hauling horse trailers barreling up the valley, reluctant to break their momentum. 

Frosty morning in the valley, this herd came down out of the woods as the sun was coming up and stayed active for a good 2 hours before finding warmer spots in the field to settle down. You can see the line where the sun hasn’t yet burned off the frost.

Capturing wildlife is a combination of luck, persistence, and observation. After making several trips to the valley the elk’s habits began to reveal themselves. We can anticipate which paths they will follow, predict their penchant for a mid-morning nap, and of course, expect their commanding displays of dominance and aggression during the rut.  We have also found what we think is the best timings to avoid any crowds.  It is pretty rare that we have seen many people at all in the early morning which we have found to be the best time for shooting. Week days are the best, however due to the 2 major religions in the South, Saturday and Sunday are not as busy as you would expect. The other religion, by the way, is college football.

Dominant male elk sounding the horn as another male approaches across the valley floor.

Best Timing

If you really want to see the elk at their most active you need to be in the valley as the sun starts to rise over the mountains.  In the fall as the rut starts and the temperature starts to drop you can get some of the most interesting shots.  Active males keeping close eye on their harem with younger males looking to challenge or just for a quick foray to see if they can get in for a few minutes of fun.  If you can, pick a day when the temperature has gone below freezing over night.  The frost in the valley is an amazing scene and seeing an elk bellowing with heated breath can make for a stunning shot.

Dominant male elk continuously testing the air, warm breath fogging up on a relatively cold and frosty morning in Cataloochee Valley.

Technically Speaking

On the technical side of things, I have found that the best setup for me is with two cameras.  I carry the Canon 5DS with the 500 f4 and have available the 1.4x and 2x teleconverters on a tripod with a good (in my case Jobu) gimbal head.  I also have the Sony A7RII or A7III with the 100-400 f4.5-5.6 hanging from my neck for when the action gets a little closer and less predictable.  The park has limitations on how close you should be to the elk (and bear) and these rules are good guidelines from a photography perspective, allowing you to capture natural behavior as much as possible.  Keep a wider angle lens available for some good environment shots as the sun comes over the mountains and into the valley.  Salwa (WanderingPhocus) will usually carry the 100-400 on her Canon 5D III and have a wide angle or macro lens available.

Due to the constantly changing light conditions while shooting we tend to shoot in aperture mode, adjusting the iris for the depth of field we need to get enough of the subject in focus and then getting a good feel for what ISO will ensure that we don’t go below 1/500 second in the darkest areas. Exposure compensation becomes your friend if you are using anything other than spot metering. I tend to shoot nearly 100% of the time in Ai servo mode with the 9 point box that I move around for composition on the Canon 5DS. On the Sony cameras I usually use all points and continuous tracking since in these cases the algorithms are excellent for picking out the subject and staying with it. I will change to single point or small group if there are many subjects and I want to focus on one in particular. At the longer distances we are shooting at, you can usually shoot close to wide open and get the full subject in focus. You can get a feeling for the depth by distance using something like the photopills app.

There are no gas stations, stores or cell phone service in the valley.  Preparation for us usually means bringing a cooler full of food and a little camp stove or a big thermos.  Hot coffee is a necessity for us on the drive in and while watching and waiting before the sun is fully up.  Come with many layers of cloths as well, you will need them early and can peel them off as the day progresses.

Once the elk have settled for the morning there are many hikes in the valley. Some of these hikes lead to old cabins and cemeteries, others follow creeks up into the mountains. Keep your camera ready as the trails are also used by elk and bear.

As the sun rises higher in the valley the elk become less energetic and tend to either lay in the grass or retreat to the edge of the woods. At which point we trade our telephoto lens for a wide angle and hit the trails.  Although not as predictable, you will still often come across wildlife on the trails, and the creeks and valleys make for some beautiful images under the dappled light in the forests.

A lunch by the creek, top off more coffee and sit and watch the steam which on a prior visit, we saw a herd crossing.  This is a typical day for us in the Cataloochee Valley.  As with all nature photography your luck will vary on any given day in the valley, but if you follow our timings above you can up your odds and avoid crowds 

Picnic lunch after a cool morning with the elk herd. This stream is a relaxing point with the bonus that the elk often cross just downstream.

Compared to other parts of the Smokies, Cataloochee Valley is a relatively little known gem and well worth a visit or two to get shots of some wildlife that you will not often see in the south east.