We stop on the Cataloochee Road and stare at two elk grazing, so close that I can read the tag on one (No. 68). Jean, on the passenger side, is busy snapping pictures as fast as she can. Suddenly, the second elk — I never got her tag number — raises her head.
“I don’t like this,” Jean says. “Let’s get moving.”
The Cherokee called the area Gadalutsi, which means “standing up in a row” or “wave after wave,” referring to the successive mountain ridges extending as far as the eye can see. I first heard about Cataloochee during a course at UNCA on the culture of the Southern Appalachians. The instructor, Dr. Dan Pierce, had written his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He loved this area; “RemoteCataloochee,” in fact, is how he described it (one word).
I wondered though: Cataloochee is part of a national park; how remote could it be? My introduction to the Smokies had been Gatlinburg, with its 20,000 motel rooms, fast food and T-shirt shops. In contrast, Cataloochee, on the North Carolina side, is a pristine, secluded entry point without so much as a soda machine.
Still, it’s not an untouched wilderness; nothing in the Smokies is. In truth, the valley exudes human history. The first settlers arrived here in 1836, attracted by the rich farmland and abundant forests. Cataloochee grew to become the largest settlement in the Smokies, supporting about 1,200 people at its height, with churches, schools and a post office.
Like other communities in the area, the people sold their land to the National Park Service and moved out when the park was established in the 1930s. The Cataloochee Valley went from wilderness to community and back to a modified wilderness in less than 100 years. After taking possession of the area, the Park Service burned down most of the buildings to prevent former residents from returning to their homes. Several churches, houses and barns were saved, but they’re not not laid out neatly in a circle like the ones at Cades Cove — you have to search for them.
To get a good feel for Cataloochee, hike the Boogerman Trail Loop, an easy 7.4 miles with 1,300 feet of elevation change. Take the Caldwell Fork Trail, which starts on the left side of Cataloochee Road past the campground. Cross the Cataloochee stream at its confluence with Caldwell Fork over the longest log bridge in the park.
At 0.8 miles, cross a second bridge and turn left on the Boogerman Trail. A Cataloochee resident named Robert Palmer was “Boogerman,” a nickname he got in school. As the legend goes, Palmer was a very shy child. When the teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said the first thing that came into his head: “the boogerman.” The name stuck. As an adult, his full beard and gruff demeanor scared children, and he really did become a bogeyman of sorts.
Boogerman must have had a soft spot for nature, though, because he didn’t let anyone cut trees on his property. Today, the old-growth hemlocks, tulip trees and oaks tower overhead, long after the owner’s departure. The trail climbs gently but steadily up Den Ridge. A lugged metal wheel leans against a tree on the right. It may have belonged to Palmer, who finally sold his land in 1929.
On the way down, look for a long stone wall to the right, and farther along, take a moment to stand in the hollowed trunk of a giant tulip tree. After two more stone walls, look to your left for two pieces of timber that lead to an old springhouse, now dried up.
At the intersection with the Caldwell Fork Trail, turn right and go another 3.2 miles back to the Cataloochee Road. The trail is lush and wet, filled with galax, ferns, rhododendrons and dog hobble — the archetypal Smokies trail, with more shades of green than a paint chart. You’ll cross Caldwell Fork 10 times on split-log bridges before getting back to your car.
If you get to Cataloochee early (say, before 9 a.m.), you might see some elk, undisturbed by a gaggle of tourists. Elk are big animals; a male can weigh more than 700 pounds, a female more than 500 pounds. The fact that these placid grazing machines are wild is posted on warning signs along the road.
By the time of the Civil War, elk had disappeared from the eastern U.S., victims of overhunting and habitat loss. Now they’ve been reintroduced in Cataloochee, and the number of tourists in the valley has doubled. But most come at midday and perch at the edge of the fields with binoculars.
According to Russ Morton, N.C. volunteer chair of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, there are currently about 50 elk, and the park is negotiating to bring in 25 more as soon as possible. Although the animals are free to wander where they please, most have stayed in or around the Cataloochee Valley.
It’s an expensive undertaking, all done with private donations — none of your tax dollars were used. In fact, the elk might actually be saving the park a little money. When the settlers moved out of Cataloochee and took their cattle with them, trees began to fill in the former fields. The Park Service used to mow them to preserve visitors’ views of the mountains and wildlife. Now the elk are doing it for free.
[Asheville resident Danny Bernstein is an outdoors writer and hike leader for the Carolina Mountain Club.]
To the trailhead
From Asheville, take Interstate 40 to exit 20 (U.S. 276 south). Turn right onto Cove Creek Road, and follow it up to Cove Creek Gap and down into the valley. At the four-way intersection, turn left. Go 3.4 miles, pass the campground and park after the Caldwell Fork trailhead on the left.