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Oconaluftee River Trail: Spy Elk & Gorgeous Blooms

Hoping to see some elk and wildflowers? Stroll the easy Oconaluftee River Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Where should you start in the Smokies? I always feel like a good answer is at the beginning.

We are not Smoky Mountains pros yet, but #goals as AVL residents. If you want to dive into Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Asheville, start with Mingo Falls and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Trail.

Technically, Mingo Falls is right outside of the entrance, but you cannot miss this beauty as part of your Cherokee, NC experience.

Then, head toward the educational Oconaluftee Visitor Center to refresh, grab information, and say hi to some…elk! Immediately behind the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, walk or bike the mostly flat Oconaluftee River Trail, which is technically in Charleston, NC.

In the spring, nothing beats those mountain wildflowers next to the Oconaluftee River.

So, are you ready to enjoy an easy nature walk? Keep reading to discover all that you need to know about the Oconaluftee River Trail.

Plus, we’ll help you explore even more of Cherokee, Maggie Valley, and the Great Smoky Mountains. Let’s get started!

Read more about Western North Carolina’s Gorgeous Hiking Trails Near Asheville.

Oconaluftee River Trail North Carolina with small river rapids
Keep reading for our guide to exploring the Oconaluftee River Trail in the Smokies.

This post may contain affiliate links for products and services I recommend. If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission. Read the full disclosure here.


Oconaluftee River Trail Quick Stats

Oconaluftee River Trail Great Smoky Mountains National Park with white brunette male wearing hat and green backpack walking down dirt trail by the river
If you love easy nature walks, this 3-mile out and back will speak to you. Along the trail, find educational Cherokee exhibits about artwork, traditions, and spiritual beliefs. Nature has never felt so alive.

Distance From Asheville, North Carolina: Slightly under 1.5 hours; 57 miles

AddressOconaluftee Visitor Center 1194 Newfound Gap Rd, Cherokee, NC 28719

Parking: Paved parking lot and facilities

Hike Difficulty: Easy

Length: 3 miles

Duration Of Hike: One hour

Type Of Hike: Mostly flat out and back; pet, bike, and kid friendly

Don’t miss these inns, hotels, cottages, and cabins around Cherokee. Or, stay in our area in Asheville, NC.

Why Hike The Oconaluftee River Trail?

Purple wildflowers on Oconaluftee River Trail
One of the best parts about walking the Oconaluftee River Trail in spring is the 40 species of wildflowers you’ll encounter. I hadn’t even noticed that some of the flowers on my camera were slightly different until I compared them at home.

The Oconaluftee River Trail is one of two trails in the Smoky Mountains where visitors can walk their dogs on a leash and/or ride bikes. The Gatlinburg Trail in TN is the second.

A flat and easy 3-mile out and back, walk along the scenic Oconaluftee River. Along the trail, view Cherokee exhibits about artwork, traditions, and spiritual beliefs.

The trail consists of hard-packed dirt. April into early May is one of the best times to see over 40 species of wildflowers.

We are not flower experts, but we saw violets, crested dwarf iris, and wild geraniums. You can also see trillium, purple phacelia, and phlox — to name a few. Think purple.

Oconaluftee River Trail NC with bridge and river
On our way back, we ran into a few elk and pulled over to give them space. This scenic trail is soul soothing.

You’ll find geese chilling out in the river and sometimes even elk. In fact, the elk may suddenly walk out in front of you. Just stay back and leave them be — it’s the law*.

We also enjoy the Oconaluftee River Trail because you’ll pass the open-air Mountain Farm Museum. Freely explore a collection of log buildings dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

You’ll see the Davis House, which is constructed from American Chestnut wood. Get a feel for how Smoky Mountain farmers lived back in the day.

*Please remember that it is illegal to come within 50 yards of the wildlife, feed the wildlife, or take and pick rocks or plants. I suggest reading the NPS’s Laws & Policies before heading into the Smokies.


You may also want to check out nearby Mingo Falls.


When Is The Best Time To Hike The Oconaluftee River Trail?

Mountain Farm Museum Great Smoky Mountains Cherokee, NC with green grass filled with yellow flowers and blue sky
This area of the Smokies is gorgeous in the spring if you want to see the wildflowers. May and June are elk calving season and September and October are elk rutting season.

If you want to catch both the spring blooms and elk, head to the Oconaluftee River Trail and Visitor Center in the spring.

Plus, the Smokies will grow busier deeper into the spring and summer. We always recommend arriving as early as possible to beat the crowds.

Don’t forget that if you are accessing certain parts of this area in the winter via the Blue Ridge Parkway, most sections of the BRP close for weather. Double-check both the BRP and Smokies for road and gate closures.

How Do You Get To The Oconaluftee Visitor Center From Asheville?

14 Elk in Oconaluftee River
The elk are known to cool off in the Oconaluftee River.

There are three ways from Asheville to access the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance in Cherokee, NC.

Typically the shortest from AVL, take I-240 West to I-26 East. Take exit 31B for I-40 West. Then, take exit 27 toward US-74 West. Get off at exit 103 toward Maggie Valley/Cherokee for US-19 South. 

You could then either take the Blue Ridge Parkway to US-441 North, follow the BRP straight to the park, or use the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway from US-74 West (US-441 North) to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

We usually follow our GPS for the quickest route. Of course, the BRP — when open — is the longest but most scenic.

What Can You Do After The Oconaluftee River Trail Hike?

Mingus Mill Oconaluftee Visitor Center with mill during the fall
Head back in time at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Head to Mingus Mill or walk by the free Mountain Farm Museum on your way to the Oconaluftee River Trail.

Immerse Yourself In History At The Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Since you are parking at the main entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t miss the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Here, you’ll find restrooms, maps, and even a few Park Rangers to answer your questions.

Drop into the local gift shop if you forgot snacks, want to stock up on more water, or if you want to grab local literature and souvenirs. That big field to the right? That’s where you’ll see those famous elk at certain hours of the day.

At the Visitor Center, you can tour the free Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill. Don’t miss the log farmhouse, barn, and apple house. This area is perfect for younger children. See how families lived and worked in the Appalachian Mountains years ago.

Mingo Falls In Cherokee North Carolina NC
On your way into the Great Smoky Mountains from this part of North Carolina, don’t miss Mingo Falls.

Hike 160 Steps To Mingo Falls

Just a little further down the road, don’t miss one of the tallest waterfalls in Southern Appalachia. At 120-feet, Mingo Falls is sure to take away your breath.

Although the hike is under half a mile total, it’s labeled as moderate. Navigate stairs, a steeper incline, and rocks and roots. Grab our Full Guide To Beautiful Mingo Falls.

Explore The Smokies, Cherokee, & Maggie Valley

Of course, the Smoky Mountains are filled with endless areas for camping, hiking, waterfall chasing, and elk and firefly spying. You can grab this free downloadable travel guide from Visit Smokies. The National Park Service website will also help you plan your visit.

Cherokee, NC is home to the Qualla Boundary — 57,000 acres of land kept in trust by the federal government and owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. In Cherokee, you can tour the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, shop for pottery and souvenirs, or gamble at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino.

On your way back to Asheville, don’t miss Soco Falls and Bearwaters Brewing Company – Creek Side in Maggie Valley.

Where To Stay Around Mingo Falls, Cherokee, & Asheville

Be sure to check out these inns, hotels, cottages, and cabins around Cherokee.

Of course, since we are an Asheville travel blog, don’t miss our Master List Of Places To Stay In Asheville.

Save This Post For Later

Oconaluftee River Trail Smoky Mountains NC Pinterest Pin with purple wildflowers and white male hiking on dirt trail by the river
Headed to Asheville? Save this post for later to add the Oconaluftee River Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains to your list. Witness nature like a local with Uncorked Asheville.

Have you walked the Oconaluftee River Trail?

Have you been to Cherokee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or Mingo Falls? Did you walk along the river on the Oconaluftee River Trail? Did you see any elk? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Looking For More Adventures?

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