Want to meet the Southern Appalachians? The Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks are all great places to do it, but a visit to each or all is an even better way to meet the diverse and distinctive resident wildlife that populates the dense forests of the Southern Appalachians.
Best bet: start with a drive on Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive, then take the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway to Cherokee, North Carolina, and cross over the Smokies on the Newfound Gap Road to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
All these parks are surrounded by large tracts of national forest and animals frequently cross the road. That can be one of your best opportunities to see wildlife, but be extremely cautious driving near dawn and dusk when wildlife of all kinds, including deer, is active. Plan ahead so you’re not “making up time” early or late in the day and tempted to speed. You’re the visitor: please be cautious.
There are also great wildlife watching spots that we recommend below. Here are some iconic national park animals you'll see on a visit to these parks.
A distinctive gargling croak denotes this giant black bird with a bulbous black beak. Often seen at the highest parts of the Parkway, the birds are adept at soaring along rocky crags and brave even bitter winter winds to play acrobat with their peers in the most blustery gusts. These birds live in harsh climates and the highest southern peaks have that in spades. (See Grandfather Mountain below for Raven watching).
It’s not that rare to glimpse the reclusive black bear, especially in Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. The often-sinewy bruins of those parks and the Parkway range from 125 to 250 pounds. Many campgrounds are upgrading their defenses with bear-proof trash receptacles and campers should use caution not to tempt bears with easily accessible food. Never feed bears or approach too closely, especially a mother with cubs.
The Great Smokies has a lot of bears, and a drive on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail often yields views of them (second photo from top at left).
Elk are another species often seen in the Great Smokies where reintroduction is very successful. Elk are often seen along the Newfound Gap Road just west of Cherokee (third photo from top at left) and in the pastoral Cataloochee Valley.
It’s easier than ever to glimpse flocks of wild turkeys—populations of the birds have grown dramatically in Virginia and North Carolina in recent years with successful reintroduction programs. Keep your eyes peeled while motoring or hiking. Clusters of gobblers can often be glimpsed at the edges of fields and forests. The Smokies Cades Cove is a good spot to find them in the morning (fourth photo from top at left)
You’ll often see these furry, puffy-cheeked, roly-poly rodents calmly standing in the grass right beside the Parkway or perched atop stonewalls, munching away on the shoots of a verdant mountain summer. These members of the marmot group are also called woodchucks. They dig impressive burrows and often build a special burrow where they experience a true three or more month hibernation in winter. Groundhogs whistle when alarmed, a trait that led some mountain settlers to call them whistlepigs.
Both Virginia and North Carolina have its own subspecies of northern flying squirrels, but only in North Carolina does the Parkway venture through the squirrel’s high elevation habitat of spruce/fir and mixed deciduous forest reminiscent of the far north. It’s rare to see these nocturnal gliders, but you will see the red squirrel, another species found far to the north that lives in the cool evergreen forests of the southern mountains.
The highest mountains and streams are home to more species of these slithering amphibians than any other place on the planet. Many Parkway area species are found nowhere else. Most salamanders are “lungless” and breathe through their skin, so staying damp is essential. Their preferred habitat of misty forests and streamside sites makes them easy to find. Try looking under rocks and logs (but search gently and don’t harm them).
Every autumn, a great migration of raptors takes place as hawks, eagles, falcons and more head south for the winter. The Appalachians are one of two major flight paths (the other is the Atlantic coast). The birds catch rising columns of hot air called thermals, rise thousands of feet in the air, then coast off on their way south in search of another elevator lift to greater heights. The migration is very active from early September into mid-November.
If you want to see the birds, steer your eyes away from the autumn color and look up with binoculars. Use one of your campground folding chairs as a place to sit. If you’re going south, the birds are following the same ridge you are so the show should be ongoing!
Often preferred spots on the Parkway where you might set up to watch (hawkcount.org) include Virginia locations Rockfish Gap (Milepost 0) and Harvey’s Knob Overlook (Milepost 95.4) where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Parkway. In North Carolina, grab the view from Bullhead Mountain Overlook (Milepost 233.7), Mahogany Rock Overlook (Milepost 235), and Mount Pisgah Parking Area (Milepost 407.6).
Choice Wildlife Viewing Experiences—
Grandfather Mountain International Biosphere Reserve (Parkway Milepost 305.1)——
Any nature study experience should start with Grandfather Mountain, a UN-designated International Biosphere Reserve uniquely partitioned for preservation by a North Carolina State Park and a private non-profit stewardship foundation. It's positioned near the half-way point of the Parkway near Boone, North Carolina.
One of the most significant single mountains in the East, craggy Grandfather has the distinction of being the namesake of it’s own geologic feature: the Grandfather Mountain Window. The biggest part of the peak is a new North Carolina state park. A smaller part of the mountain is a popular “green” travel attraction. Here you can drive up to 5,300 feet where visitors cross the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. This a great place to watch ravens cavort in the wind.
Half-way up the mountain is a top notch nature museum has world-class exhibits—and films—on geology, flora, and fauna. Best of all, there is a tastefully designed and professionally run Environmental Habitats where you can see deer, bears, cougars (which used to roam these mountains), eagles, and otters. This museum and habitats are a wonderful place to pack a lot of wildlife experience into one easy stop. The mountain also has two nature interpretive trails, one toward the lower part of the road, the other in a loftier high elevation forest.
Start at the Grandfather Mountain travel attraction and the trail enters the state park climbing ladders and cables up the cliffs and rocky crags of the mountain’s highest peaks. From those summits, the drop-off to the Carolina Piedmont is almost a vertical mile (more akin to elevation changes in the Rocky Mountains).
Start your hike at the parking lot just below the top of the road where you’ll take the Grandfather Trail Connector. Turn right at the Grandfather Trail and follow the summit ridge through tiny meadows and among boulders clothed in spruce and fir forests. Turn right at the Underwood Trail (your return route), and climb ladders up cliffs to the airy spectacle of MacRae Peak. The summit is a massive boulder perched on the knife-edge ridge—reached by another ladder.
Descend into the next gap and go left on the cool, mossy, and rocky Underwood Trail for a 2-mile hike back at your car (it’ll feel more like 4 miles). Continue out the ridge if you like into the state park lands—the adventure continues all the way to Calloway Peak (a five plus mile roundtrip—yes, that feels like ten!). Please, no sandals or pets on this serious hike (and you must return to your car by gate closing).