Once a year, revelers flock to the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds for a day filled with live music, tasty food, and a host of seasonal activities. But this isn’t an ordinary festival. People aren’t here to peep foliage or pick apples—they’re here to celebrate elk.
An abundance of elk once wandered the mountains of Western North Carolina. But as the early United States grew, overhunting and habitat loss decimated the population. It’s believed the last elk to roam the state died in the late 1700s.
That is, until 2001. That’s the year 52 elk were reintroduced into the Cataloochee Valley, part of a joint research effort by Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The initial herd, and their offspring, thrived. Not two decades later, more than 150 elk call the area home.
The Smoky Mountain Elk Fest celebrates this successful reintroduction. You won’t find captive elk at the festival, but there are elk-themed events. Attendees can put their communication skills to the test at the elk bugling contest, or take a guided hike and learn about elk habitats. There’s also live music and storytelling, wildlife demonstrations, performances by dancers from the Cherokee Indian Reservation, and crafts for sale.
Proceeds from the festival go toward programs that protect and maintain the local elk population’s habitats. Some unruly North Carolina ungulates have been known to wander into farmer’s fields or munch on apple trees located on private property. By making sure the mountains have enough cleared areas and proper vegetation, conservationists are better able to ensure elk stick to target territories and minimize human-wildlife conflicts. Strong, sustainable changes mean that these efforts will also have benefits for the region’s other plants and animals.
Know Before You Go
Admission to the festival is $5. It's a family-friendly annual event, and visitors of all ages are welcome. The festival is typically scheduled on a weekend in late August or early September. See the festival's website for information.