Some of the sights of the Smokies are quite easy to see.
The trees don’t move.
The mountains, though occasionally obscured by clouds or wispy mists, are always exactly where you expect them to be.
Well, that’s another kettle of fish altogether.
There’s no guarantee of seeing much more than a squirrel on your trip to the Smokies, but that doesn’t stop visitors from coming with certain expectations.
Bears are the most commonly sought after wildlife encounter followed by elk and then deer and turkey.
First of all, we should take a moment to issue the following warning:
Wild animals can be unpredictable and dangerous. Do not approach them, feed them, pet them or try to ride them. Leave them be.
We encourage visitors to the Smoky Mountains to exercise responsible stewardship and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.
In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is illegal to be within 50 yards of wildlife, or within any distance that disturbs them.
Lock up your trash, and whatever you pack in, pack it back out.
The best place to see wildlife in the Smokies
Ok. With that out of the way, one of the most common questions visitors to the Smokies ask is, “Where can I see wild animals in the Smoky Mountains?”
It’s a bit like asking to pinpoint when a shooting star will streak across the sky. But there are ways to maximize your opportunities.
Below, we will offer the best places we know of to see wild animals but before we get into the list, there is one place to rule them all: Cades Cove.
If you want to see wild animals, the best chance you have is in the Cove.
With the ability to see across the wide open valley and the abundance of deer, your highest wild animal viewing success rate is in the Cove.
Watch along the tree lines early in the morning and at dusk as the deer and turkey will step out of the trees to feed in the gloaming.
Animal sightings are less frequent over the summer during the middle of the day when the heat is high. During hot weather, the animals tend to bed down.
Bear sightings in the Cove are slightly more random. I’ve seen a black bear high up in a tree, and momma bears are often seen while shepherding their little ones across the loop road.
One of the best ways to spot animals in the Cove is to people watch. Whenever you see visitors pulling off to the side and/or backing up traffic, it usually means an animal has been spotted.
Where are the best places to see deer in the Smoky Mountains?
1. The Cataloochee
Deer are in wide abundance in the Smokies.
As I said above, watch the tree lines early in the morning or later in the evening, but deer are seen throughout the day as well.
One of the best places to see deer are open areas like Cataloochee, a wide valley on the North Carolina side of the mountains.
Getting there isn’t easy and involves traveling on a gravel road that has some sphincter-tightening steep drops with no guard rails.
The reward, however, is worth it. The valley features spectacular views and several historic buildings that include a pair of churches, a school and a handful of homes.
It’s North Carolina’s answer to Cades Cove.
Any place along the main road in Townsend where you have a long view across a field to the forest. I grew up 20 minutes from here and got so used to seeing deer, it was hardly worth noting.
It was like seeing cows in a cattle field.
3. Any of the state parks
In Hamblen County, about an hour from Sevierville, is Panther Creek State Park, a small but scenic beauty with a mountain overlook that offers fantastic views of Cherokee Lake.
While you won’t see any panthers at the park, you have an excellent chance of seeing deer – and turkey. The park is teeming with them.
Where are the best places to see bears in the Smoky Mountains?
In some ways, bears are probably the least predictable wildlife sighting in the Smokies, and the most sought after.
In the spring, the yearlings will stretch their legs to find their place in the world – preferably one with a lot of food.
That can lead to sightings in inauspicious places – occasionally even the streets of Gatlinburg or the back alleys of communities across East Tennessee.
The less fruitful the season in the mountains, the more likely you are to see bears at lower elevations. They are hungry.
1. This guy’s cabin (aka Bear-Foot Lodge)
No place can guarantee a bear sighting, but this spot has a pretty good track record. Located on a ridge in Chalet Village, bears are frequently seen about the property at Bear-Foot Lodge, including a trio that took a dip in the hot tub, James Brown style.
Bears live at the bottom of the ridge and frequently pass the new cabin as they cross to the other side.
2. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Motorists on the nature trail, located just inside the park above Gatlinburg, are encouraged to go slow, soak in the sights and view the wildlife.
The five and a half mile loop is a one-way trek that takes travelers past mountain streams, ancient forests and settlements like log cabins and grist mills.
There’s even a self-guided nature trail and the trailhead for the popular Rainbow Falls.
3. Newfound Gap Road
Accessible either from Cherokee, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, via U.S. 441, The Newfound Gap Road isn’t far from Clingman’s Dome, the state line and is crossed by the Appalachian Trail.
The gap is the lowest drivable pass through the park and the Newfound Gap Road climbs dramatically to within a half mile of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies.
Where are the best places to see elk in the Smoky Mountains?
Reintroduced to the park 20 years ago, elk are now frequently seen in the park.
Though the elk know no borders, I’ve never seen one on the Tennessee side of the Smokies.
This is the spot where they were reintroduced to the Smokies.
While they have spread far and wide, they are most frequently spotted in this region of the park.
2. Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Located on U.S. 441 on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, the visitor center offers local history, a nice place to stretch your legs after crossing the mountains and a great chance to see elk.
There’s a wide field to the right as you leave the center, heading back toward Gatlinburg. I have seen elk in that field many times and I frequently see others posting pictures of the same.
3. Bryson City, North Carolina
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad runs along the Tuckasegee River in Western North Carolina and, at dusk, elk will sometimes come out and graze in the fields near the river.
Seeing the elk, which were gone from the mountains for so long, from a historic mountain train was especially moving.
Bonus: Zoo Knoxville
Almost every post promising wildlife in the Smokies offers a cheeky reference to some commercial business that might have a couple of bears for public viewing. I hate those places.
While not ideal, the zoo offers the black bears a more friendly enclosure with some room to run and play.
There have been significant expansions and improvements to Zoo Knoxville and it remains one of the best places in the world to see Red Pandas, which makes the trip from Pigeon Forge to Knoxville well worth it.
You will see a bear and a lot more.
What do you think of these tips? Let us know in the comments!