Smoky Mountain Adventures – Elk, Indians and Waterfalls

May, 2015 – The Smoky Mountains in North Carolina are filled with beautiful streams and rivers, and late one afternoon, we caught the Oconaluftee River glinting orange in the afternoon sun.

River at dusk Smoky Mountains North Carolina

Golden light on the river.

The rhododendrons had begun blooming, and their little purple faces peeked out from the edge of the glowing river water.

Rhododendrons and river reflections Smoky Mountains

Rhododendrons at dusk.

We didn’t have to stray far from the town of Cherokee to become swept up in the vivid green forests of the Smoky Mountains. The Oconaluftee River Trail goes for about 1.5 miles from the Cherokee Welcome Center in town out to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Oconaluftee Visitors Center. When we tipped our heads back anywhere along this path we saw trees reaching right up to the sky.

Green treetops

The Smoky Mountains woods are very green!!

The Oconaluftee River Trail is ideal for walking, running or biking, and we took a run or rode our bikes on it most mornings during our stay. The ground is soft, and the path is wide, and no one is out there early in the morning.

Biking Oconaluftee River Trail Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Oconaluftee River Trail is a lovely woodsy path for walking, jogging or biking.

There are signs on the trail that say elk are in the area, but who believes signs like that?

Elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina

Hey, it’s an elk!

Well, believe it! One morning Mark stopped dead in his tracks ahead of me when he saw a bull elk and his harem of females standing hoof deep in the river getting a morning drink. He could practically reach out and touch them!

Elk in Oconaluftee River Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A female elk walks downriver

Where was the camera? Neither one of us had taken a camera on our run. But when we went back on our bikes one morning a few days later, we saw the elk again, and this time I had my trusty pocket camera with me.

Elk and mountain bike on hiking trail

Another elk stands in the trees by the trail (left)

A female elk came right to the edge of the River Trail and hung out for a while, not seeming to be the least bit concerned about me as I laid my bike down and walked over towards her. She nibbled the greenery around her and kept a close eye on me, turning her head this way and that to get a better look.

Elk on Oconaluftee River hiking trail Smoky Mountains

This collared female elk keeps an eye on me.

The elk in the Smoky Mountains were reintroduced in 2001-02, and this one had a collar on her so the rangers could keep track of her movements. The herd has done well, growing from 52 elk back then to 150 elk now.

The elk herd isn’t the only attraction in this part of the park. The Mingus Mill, dating to 1886, is an old grist mill that makes for some fun photo ops. A flume of water flows down to a water-powered turbine to power all the tools in the mill.

Mingus Mill Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Mingus Mill is a nice spot for artsy photography.

More interesting to us was finding ways to get a creative photo of this aging building. When we heard that Nikon had put on a Smoky Mountains photography workshop and spent some time at this mill, we just had to give this place a try too!

09b 721 Mingus Mill Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina

Art and nature aside, back in town we had fun watching the local Cherokee Indians perform some dances and music on the streets in town. They did an Eagle Dance and a Warrior Dance that delighted everyone watching.

Indian Eagle Dance in Cherokee North Carolina

The Eagle Dance

This was a fun roadside show, and all around town we saw Indians dressed in special warrior and ceremonial outfits, eager to share their history with the tourists.

Cherokee Indians North Carolina

Just don’t scalp me!!

We were really loving the greenery and waterfalls here in the Smokies, and at Deep Creek in the southern part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we discovered there are three waterfalls you can see in just one easy hike. The first is Juney Whank Falls. It has a park bench set up right in front of it. Better than watching TV!

Deep Creek Juney Whank Waterfall Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina

Juney Whank Falls at Deep Creek – the woman to the right is on the park bench

The second is Tom Branch Falls, a long skinny waterfall that snakes down out of the woods. There are park benches here too, and we had lunch and watched folks in tubes floating by on the river!

Tom Branch Waterfall Deep Creek Trail Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tom Branch Waterfall at Deep Creek

Wildflowers were blooming here and there, and we saw lots of Mountain Laurel which are really dainty little flowers that grow in lovely clusters on trees. As I was getting ready to take some pics of the mountain laurel, a couple approached us and said, “Do you write a blog?”

Huh?! Well, yes, I do, I thought, but not that many people know about it!

Mountain Laurel flowers Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Delicate Mountain Laurel flowers

As it turned out, this couple, Dale and Linda, were vacationing in the Smokies and, with plans for more far-flung travel adventures when they retire soon, they had been reading this blog and had just seen my post about the unnamed waterfall we found on the Oconaluftee River, so they knew we were in the area. What are the chances?!! We were totally, blushingly flattered to be recognized out on the trail. Good luck, you two, and thanks for coming over to chat!

Indian Creek Waterfall Deep Creek Hiking Trail Great Smoky Mountains National Park N. Carolina

Indian Creek Falls

A little further down the trail we found Indian Creek Falls, and in looking back at the pics now, it is neat to see that each of these waterfalls is quite different than the others.

Spring flowers

As our travels took us up the Blue Ridge Parkway in the coming weeks, we decided to make waterfalls be our travel theme, and we hiked to quite a few. Every waterfall and every hike was unique, and each was special in its own way — as you’ll see!

RV in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This is a great area for an RV roadtrip

This first trip we took to Great Smoky Mountains National park was brief and very one-sided, since we stayed on the North Carolina side and didn’t explore the Tennessee side at all. Dale and Linda told us they saw lots and lots of bears and bear cubs on the Tennessee side, especially on the Cades Cove loop, so that is on our bucket list for the next time we point our RV towards the Smokies!!

Never miss a post — it’s free!

Our most recent posts:

More of our Latest Posts and Quick Pics are in the top MENU above.

Here’s more info about this area:

Our blog posts from the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway:

<-Previous || Next->

4 thoughts on “Smoky Mountain Adventures – Elk, Indians and Waterfalls

  1. Such a beautiful area…particularly this time of the year with all the rainfall they’ve enjoyed! Reading this (and others) I wondered if you have heard of the “lily camera”? Not affiliated whatsoever, just thought you might consider it as a nice addition to the photographic ensemble used to document your journey(s). Thanks again Mark & Emily for sharing!!

  2. Hi – glad you are enjoying the Smokies – my hubby and I and three other couples were part of the throng of motorcycles you saw over Memorial Day weekend. We stayed in Bryson City – a cute little town just over the border into South Carolina if you want to take a fun day trip. We are also going fulltime in a little over a year – maybe we will run into you down the road!

    • We LOVED Bryson City, Connie, and we spent a very happy afternoon there hanging with the folks at the bike shop. The waterfalls along the Deep Creek trail are very close by. How fun that you were out with a group on motorcycles — such a great way to enjoy those beautiful roads — and have fun in your RV adventures down the road!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *