Take the Moonshine Express run of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and I promise you will not be disappointed.
After booking our tickets online, we picked them up at 9:30 the morning of the trip and boarded the Carolina Shine car around 10 AM. Before we even started rolling, we were served three of the seven moonshine flavors we tasted. Starting with the basic White Lightening, we moved quickly on to Apple Pie and Cherry. Our second flight featured Peach, Blueberry, Pina Colada, and Salted Caramel. Peach and Apple Pie were my favs . . . and I did try them all. Heartier souls can order all sorts of shots and/or moonshine-laced cocktails in addition to wine or beer from the well-stocked bar. It was a happy train car.
We rolled out of the Bryson City, NC trainyard under diesel power about half an hour into our five-hour experience, on a route along the beautiful Nantahala Gorge. Our energetic, funny host, Steve, kept us entertained with all sorts of historic facts and trivia as we chugged along about 20 miles per hour through forests, around lakes, and over rivers.
A tasty BBQ lunch was served before our hour-long stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. At the Center, you see some beautiful (and scary-looking) class-5 rapids, as well as a kayak training course used by Olympic athletes. There are ample restrooms, a restaurant/bar, and a shopping area focused on active outdoor clothes and accessories (think wetsuits and paddles).
Late September and early October in the Smoky Mountains offers up some extra special magic – mating season for the Elk.
Entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park at the Cataloochee Ranger Station (near Maggie Valley and Cherokee) you can see the largest herd within North Carolina’s 140 Elk population, and watch the big males “rut”, exhibiting their famous bugling calls. The calls attract females and challenge other Bull Elk. When two Bulls meet they may exhibit a lot of bumping and sparring, but it is a ritualistic display for dominance. The best time for Elk viewing is at dawn and late in the day/evening. This part of the park closes at dark and opens daily at dawn.
Elk-watchers stay near the road and keep their distance from these impressive animals. You can get out of your car, but should stay nearby. Males can be as large as 700 lbs. and display huge racks and females can be aggressive when protecting their young. Visitors are prohibited from getting any closer than 150 feet (50 yards) from Elk (or, BTW, Bears). It is also illegal to collect any of the antlers Elk shed in the spring.
The Elk are very easy to spot since they like to graze in open fields, but they also tend to hang out in the shade and shadows, so even on a sunny day, they will keep themselves in the shaded areas. This is when binoculars and a camera with a telescopic lens prove very useful. Don’t forget to pack a picnic and something to drink, since there are no concessions in this part of the Park. Relax, sit and watch; a little patience can go a long way to having a better experience.
Elk were re-introduced to the area in 2001, after a two-century absence from North Carolina (and 150 years in Tennessee). Females usually have one calf a year, born in June, and the Black Bear is their biggest predator, who have been known to eat Elk newborns.
Originally thought to be a smaller variety than the large Western Elk we are accustomed to seeing on TV, the reintroduced Eastern Elk (primarily from Eastern Canada) have proven to grow every bit as large as their western cousins. This development has led Park Rangers to speculate that their size is most likely determined by their food source (grasses, acorns, bark, leaves and buds), which is very plentiful for the Elk at this point in time.
Getting There & Overnight Accommodations:
From Interstate Highway I-40: Exit at #20. After 0.2 mile, turn right on Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee valley. Allow at least 45 minutes to reach the valley once you exit I-40. Be prepared to drive slowly once you turn into the Park, since much of the road is unpaved. For those coming from the High Country, figure about 2.5 hours.
Hotel accommodations in the neighborhood are pretty basic. You are about 30 minutes from Cherokee and the Harrah’s hotel. There are some B&Bs in the vicinity, but remember, you will most likely be leaving at dawn and returning after dark, a timetable that doesn’t always work well with certain B&B schedules.
For more information visit the Smoky Mountain National Park website: http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/elk.htm