How and when to Photograph the Elk Rut with Video

It’s 7:30AM and an eerie bugling sound echoes through the valley. Mist hovers over the open fields, hardwoods rise sharply toward the first light just edging over the mountain peaks. My heart is racing. More bugling, then another off in the distance. We’re here to catch a glimpse of these wild creatures, racks 4-5 feet across, towering over the massive chestnut body of the Eastern Elk…Cleared fields past the campground, hiking trails and rushing water, the ranger’s house and there they are – the Elk.


Fifty years ago these wild creatures roamed unabated in these areas of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park near Waynesville, NC. Indians hunted them, settlers came and hunted them to extinction. About ten years ago, they were reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley, once a prosperous proud settlement of the 1860s. The test to return Elk to the park and a more natural balance is working.

Elk Today…

Today a thriving herd of Elk lives amongst the restored homes, the old church, school and outbuildings. And they are a photographers’ delight – especially in the fall, the time of the Rut. The velvet on the antlers is gone, replaced by smooth implements of battle. Battle for dominance of harems – the female Elk. A time of breeding. A time of growing the herd, and survival… Facing off with the older dominant bulls, young bulls challenge the right to the herd — but, in skirmishes the dominant bulls do not go quietly. Throughout the valley their bugle echoes the sound of battle, and warning off — ‘this is my territory and my girls – approach only with caution. Don’t test me!’ This is the rut.

How to Photograph the Elk

While viewing the elk it is best to use binoculars or a camera’s telephoto lens. If using an SLR camera, a telephoto lens can help to capture activity in the distance. If planning to be there in early morning, you’ll need a tripod as available light may be as low as 1/15 second and trying to hand hold your camera will most likely result in blurry images. The only recourse for hand holding may be to increase the ISO to 1600 – 6400. In that case any resulting “noise” may need to be modified in a post production program.
The elk often wander around and across the road within range of a Point and Shoot camera.

The best time …

The best time to see the elk is early morning or late afternoon. We usually go in the early morning before 8AM as the Elk often retire to the shelter of the woods by 9:30. There are also fewer people in the morning and, if lucky with the weather, you can have mist which really helps create a great atmosphere for pictures.

If you go …

The road into the Park from the North Carolina side, near Waynesville, begins at Cove Creek off Rt 276 by I-40 – a twisty paved two lane, once the original oxen trail blazed by ancient settlers. It rises more and after about 15 minutes turns to gravel. Some folks freak out and turn back.

Rising upward, crossing the Eastern Continental Divide, we finally enter the gates of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, now descending toward the peaceful Cataloochee Valley and a paved road that extends the length of the former settlement.

If not fortunate to personally get to Cataloochee Valley, below is a video of Elk in Rut.

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