Great place to take children to see authentic uncaged, unbridled wildlife, if you don’t mind a little driving on some “forest service roads” and about 90 minutes or so from Asheville.
The valley is known for the wild elk, which were reintroduced back into nature in 2001. Trust me, you will see plenty, unless the weather is atrocious.
To get to Cataloochee Valley, from Asheville, take I-40 west past Waynesville to exit 20 (Maggie Valley). As you exit the ramp, stay to the right onto US 276 about .20 miles, and taking a right (follow Cove Creek Road). Then, prepare for a back country ride. The road is decent but steep, with some pretty scary drop-offs (for back east) and tight curves. Be constantly prepared for oncoming traffic.
The Smoky Mountain website has very clear instructions on getting here, so I refer you to them.
When you get to the actual valley, you have two choices (except for rutting season from mid September-end of October). You can turn right and follow the river to the Palmer House area, where the male elk gather around sunrise and again at dusk, or
you can stay on the main paved road and head towards the ranger station and the Caldwell house and barn where the female elk and young herd. Either way, its a beautiful area with plenty to see and keep children well occupied trying to see the elk.
You might even catch a vey young bull elk playing in the water, just like all kids do!
A disclaimer, with an embarrassed grin, these pictures were some of my earliest attempts, so the quality is not the best, but you get the gist of Cataloochee Valley.
A Happy Hiker!