Tucked away in an obscure section of the National Park, is a lovely little valley called Cataloochee. The name is derived from the Cherokee word ” Gadalutsi” and means ” Fringe standing erect” which is believed to refer to the tall trees bordering the ridges around the valley. It is really a bit of a misstatement to say valley when it is really a series of 3 valleys that run parallel to one another – Little Cataloochee, Big Cataloochee and Caldwell Fork. The Cataloochee Turnpike, which was completed in 1860’s, was the very first wagon road in the Smokies – it followed an old Cherokee Trail. The Old Trail went from Cove Creek to Cosby, TN and was used in 1810 by Bishop Francis Asbury (UMC) to cross the mountain in TN from the North Carolina side.
The Treaty of Holston which was signed in 1791 saw the Cherokee tribe giving up much of their rights to the land. The first land purchase was by Henry Colwell (later pronounced Caldwell) in 1814. The Cherokee people were mostly a peaceful, friendly tribe, but some raiding parties would steal livestock from the valley settlers. Bear and panther used to stalk the pioneers and were common sights in the area. The majestic Elk was another native species and they were wiped out due to overhunting and loss of habitat.
In one of the most successful species reintroduction ever, the Elk were returned to the valley. In 2001, 25 elk were brought in from Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area that saddles the Tennessee/Kentucky border. In 2002, another 27 elk were also brought in. Today, you can find healthy concentrations of Elk in Cataloochee and Cherokee, N.C. It cost 1.1 million dollars to bring the Elk back and relocate them. The mating season or ” Rut” begins in September and continues through the month of October. This can be a thrilling time to observe them as the males clash for dominance, but it is also when the most caution needs to be observed. As always when viewing wildlife, give them ample space, giving them a buffer of at least 50 yards. This is for their safety and yours.
The Cataloochee area was highly prosperous and had about 1,200 families living in it as late as 1910. Most of the settlers were farmers, but many were involved in the commercial Apple growing business. There was also a budding tourist industry as people came to visit and fish in the mountains.
To get to the valley from interstate I-40, exit at North Carolina exit #20 and travel 0.2 miles on route 276. Turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs 11 miles into the Cataloochee Valley.
To get there from Oconaluftee or Cherokee, take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Highway 19. Follow 19 (toward Asheville) through Maggie Valley. Turn left onto Highway 276 N. Just before the entrance ramp to I-40 (but past gas station), turn left and follow the signs 11 more miles to Cataloochee. Using the Cove Creek Road route, motorists will be traveling on a gravel road for approximately 15 minutes.