How Many Elk Does it Take to Make a Jam?

(Top photo) Rangers managed to keep traffic moving while visitors enjoyed the view. (Bottom photo): two of the younger bulls engaged in a brief, low-key jousting match. Photos by Jim Burnett.

It would be reasonable to expect a bit of traffic on a beautiful October afternoon in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—especially if the road in question is U.S. Highway 441 through the center of the popular park. So…how many elk does it take to jam up the works?

As any seasoned park traveler knows, one elk (or bear) is enough, so when we rounded a curve on the busy road just south of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and saw a string of brake lights and a line of vehicles on the road shoulder, I suspected either a wildlife sighting or an accident.

The good news: this tie-up was of the four-legged variety, and ironically it started just past a bright yellow "elk crossing" sign. This bull elk with an impressive rack wasn't interested in crossing the road, but was grazing calmly about 200 feet off the road, in a large meadow just south of the new visitor center.

The park staff was doing a fine job convincing people to stay a safe distance from the animal—although a few erstwhile nature photographers bent on getting a close-up without benefit of a good lens required a little polite but firm admonition.

The one ranger and a volunteer also managed to keep traffic moving in both directions, albeit slowly at times—but it was an uphill battle. The elk-gawkers' vehicles stretched for nearly a quarter-mile down the road shoulder, and when there wasn't any more room to pull off the pavement, some drivers decided to just stop in the road to get some photos.

We found a place to park in the nearby visitor center lot and strolled back to watch the action for a bit … and to see if the elk or our fellow tourists would provide the most entertainment.

It was nice to see that most of the crowd seemed genuinely interested in the wildlife, and excited by the chance to see and photograph the impressive specimen. The viewing improved over the next 20 minutes when two more bulls wandered out of the nearby forest and a small herd of cows and what seemed to be the dominant bull in the area took up station in the meadow several hundred yards away.

Not everyone was quite so impressed, however, and it didn't take long for another question to occur to me: "What does it take to break up an elk jam?"

In the case of at least one carload of visitors, the answer was… "a cell phone and a tourist attraction down the road in the town of Cherokee."

A man standing on the edge of the road, busily photographing the elk, paused and turned to a 40-something lady standing nearby. He asked what had happened to the rest of their group, and the lady responded by whipping out her cell phone and tapping out a quick text message.

It didn't take long to get an electronic answer. She glanced at the screen on her phone and said, "They're all waiting for us, back at the car."

"The car?" the man asked in surprise. "We just got here!"

"Yeah," his companion replied, "but they're in a hurry to get to the gold and ruby mine!"

Variety is clearly the spice of vacations as well as life in general!

Comments

Been there and done that. We were camped in Gatlinburg but it was well worth the trip to go see these magnificiant animals. And our grandchildren got to hold antlers that were bigger then they were. We had a great time. Oh and thanks to the volunteers that were there to tell us about the herd.

It is a wonderful sight. I love the rut every year.
Danny Bernstein
www.hikertohiker.com

Great article. Had a good laugh at the end of the story. Whenever we have gone to the Smokies, we have stayed in Gatlinburg. It seems like 99% of visitors have no interest in the park or animals, just miniature golf and buckets of ice cream!

Jim, thanks for the great write up! I'm the Ranger that was out in the parking lot and in the top picture standing with the crowd. It certainly was an "uphill battle." That was one of the craziest jams we'd had in awhile!

Let's see, last night (18 Oct) it took only 10 elk in the middle of the field, well away from the road and the Visitors Center. My traveling partner, who had never seen an elk before, was mesmerized. This time traffic was not blocked and the humans were all behaving very nicely. A great evening!