Perhaps the most popular feature in all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove is a throwback to 19th century living. Cades Cove is a wide, verdant valley surrounded by mountains that today is teeming with wildlife and spring floral beauty. The 11-mile Loop Road around the valley provides an opportunity for motorists, bicyclists, even walkers like me to sight-see at a leisurely pace. Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park, including churches, cabins, mills and barns. Numerous other hiking trails originate in Cades Cove, so it affords the opportunity to explore the stunning beauty of the Smokies for days. I walked around the Loop Road on Monday, April 18, 2016 from 7:00AM to 12:15PM. My plan was as simple as it sounds… walk the Cades Cove Loop Road, enjoying every single step.
Hike Length: 11 miles Hike Duration: 5.25 hours
Hike Configuration: Loop Blaze: None needed, paved road
Hike Rating: Moderate for length, not for difficulty.
Elevation Change: 305 feet Elevation Start: 1,935 feet
Trail Condition: Asphalt road all the way around the loop.
Starting Point: Parking area along entrance to Cades Cove.
Trail Traffic: A hundred cars, about a dozen bicycles, but I was the only walker.
How to Get There: Take Laurel Creek Road all the way to the far western end of the national park. The parking area for the Cades Cove Loop will be located on your left.
I’ve been wanting to do this walk around Cades Cove Loop ever since the first time I drove it some seven years ago. I knew then that I yearned to spend more time relishing each moment. With limited pullouts for motorists, it’s sometimes difficult to give each highlight justice. When you’re on foot you are free to roam about and stay for an hour in one spot if you like.
Cades Cove is just far enough away from where I live to make it hard to do a single-day visit. Since I can’t go as often as I would perhaps like, it makes the infrequent trips to Cades Cove that much more special. On this most recent venture I setup a bed in the back of my Subaru so I could stay at the Cades Cove Campground overnight, and make it a two day excursion. The first day I hiked the fervently anticipated Whiteoak Sink.
Waking at the campground with the roosters on the 2nd day, I was lined up with all the other eager beavers waiting for the Park Service to open the loop gate. That would signal the mad dash of vehicles for the first light of the new day. They all wanted to find that optimum photo spot to capture the dawn. I would pass nearly every one of them in the first half mile just walking at my own leisurely pace. There was a method to my madness.
Dawn is the best time to catch wildlife in the Cove. There were deer grazing in the meadow by the riding stables and plenty of tom turkeys displaying their feathered finery and chasing the ladies in that time-tested mating ritual that is as old as the mountains. The first couple miles of the loop road is also home to a herd of horses, some of the massive work variety, and others that are as athletic as the most nimble Kentucky thoroughbred.
I seemed to time the dogwood quite well. Most of the trees were at least 50% in bloom, with some near peak. Particularly those that surround the John Oliver Place had an abundance of flowers. No matter the season at Cades Cove, there is always something of beauty.
Should you decide to walk this loop yourself sometime, there are a couple of bail out points along the way to shorten the 11-mile trek. The first is Sparks Lane. This north-south gravel road at the 2-mile mark connects at each end of the Loop Road enabling you to do a shorter 5-mile loop. Sparks Lane has been a part of the Cove road system since all the way back in the 1840’s.
Nearing mile four are a trio of restored churches. The first, on the left, is known as Primitive Baptist Church, named so because it dates all the way to 1827. The others (Methodist Church and Missionary Baptist) are quite new by comparison, each built in the first decade of the 20th century, but still more than a hundred years ago. The Park Service does a very nice job of keeping the cemeteries and white clapboard structures in pristine condition.
The second cut-through, Hyatt Lane, located at the four-mile mark is also in this popular church neighborhood. Choosing Hyatt Lane can reduce the length of your loop hike to nine miles, but by now you should still have plenty of energy to go for the whole shebang. Not far past Hyatt Lane, Rich Mountain Road takes off to the right, a means of escaping the Cove via twisty gravel road. This is an alternate way to get to Townsend, TN, but don’t try it in winter.
The Loop Road occasionally dives into a small forest along the way, offering a bit of shade to sun-baked hikers every half mile or so. It is enjoyable to suddenly hear the songbirds tweeting from the canopy. I think of how fortunate they are to have Cades Cove for their home. It’s like the avian high rent district.
Between each of these small wooded areas are thousands and thousands of acres of lush fields and meadows that are loved by the critters who are also blessed to inhabit this protected national park. This to me is the best reason to leave your car back at the parking area and either walk or bike the Loop Road. You are bound to see deer throughout, but also keep your eyes peeled for coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and of course, the famous Cades Cove black bears.
The best place to look for the bears is in the tops of trees. It keeps them hidden from the hustle and bustle of the traffic on the Cove Road, enabling them to spy on the stupid humans down below. You are most likely to see bear in Cades Cove May through October, but please keep your distance, and never, never, ever feed any of the wildlife. Black bears may seem cute and cuddly, but if provoked they will defend themselves.
The morning sun warmed my back and cast a golden glow on the entire valley. There are so many things to see, I couldn’t decide which direction to look. Was it the beautiful fields and pastures, likely to be home to roving wildlife? Perhaps the historic old churches and cabins would share their secrets of centuries gone by. The forest groves held their own mysteries, with hidden nature trails and a myriad of songbirds. The wildflowers were everywhere… along a fence post or hillock. Sensory splendor!
Between Hyatt Lane and the Visitor Center at mile six, are several opportunities to take side hikes off the main Loop Road. The first you will encounter is Cooper Road Trail, followed by a half mile spur to the Elijah Oliver Place. Soon after, the Loop Road crosses Abrams Creek then reaches a gravel road that will take you to the trailhead for the extremely popular Abrams Falls. If you plan to go there, be sure to arrive very early because it does get quite crowded.
The Cades Cove Visitor Center, just past the half way point, is a great place to take a break no matter your means of transportation. There are rest room facilities, a gift shop, and several historic structures that offer excellent representations of 19th century living. The Historic Cable Mill area includes an 1870-era grist mill and flume, a smokehouse and sorghum furnace. Look too for a cantilever barn and blacksmith shop nearby.
I took this opportunity to shed some layers as the mid-morning sun was warming the day quite nicely. Down to shorts and a t-shirt, I covered my now exposed skin with sunscreen and bug repellent, and enjoyed a protein bar sitting on a wooden bench beneath a giant willow tree. I was doing pretty good… not tired yet, or sore. It looked like the 11 miles would be no problem.
There is also another opportunity to escape Cades Cove here. Forge Creek Road meets Parson Branch Road which will take you to Hwy 129 near the Fontana area at the southern boundary of the national park.
The south side of the Loop Road is quite a bit different from the north side. There is more forest here, and rolling hills. The terrain assumes more of an up and down nature than the nearly level path on the other side. There are also more old homesteads over on the south side, including the Dan Lawson Place built in 1856, the Tipton Place, and homes for several members of the Shields family.
The uphill and downhill was obviously more tiring, but the frequent shade offered by the hardwood and evergreen forest helped to offset the extra exertion. There are many old, old trees on this side of the Cove, including one I called the Rip van Winkle tree. It looked to be a mighty oak with a ginormous wingspan that would make a wonderful place for a 20 year nap. I’ve yet to see it with its leaves on. I imagine it to be a quite noble tree.
There are more creeks and mountain streams on this side of the Cove, tumbling down from Ross Ridge and the other mountains high above. It helps explain the propensity to build homes and farms on the south side. Sure the pastoral serenity was appealing, but water was just as important to 19th century living as it is today. Much of the western end of Cades Cove is an inviting wetland.
The Cherokee also have a history in Cades Cove where they hunted deer, elk, bison and black bears. Their trails criss-cross the mountains that surround the Cove, but they never did setup permanent villages. They would camp for months at a time, but the first permanent settlers didn’t arrive until the 1820’s.
By the time I reached the Carter Shields cabin near mile 9 I was beginning to feel some fatigue. Upon seeing the delightful porch in the shade of the tall trees, I decided it was time for a break… and a sandwich. I had the place all to myself while I munched on my lunch and envisioned old Carter himself sitting in his favorite chair propped up against the sideboard, smoking his corncob pipe, perhaps whittling a dogwood branch, with his coon hound at his feet.
They say those were the good ol’ days. Perhaps life was quieter then, but I can’t imagine it being simpler. The winters would kill you. The work was hard and back breaking. If you didn’t grow, trap or shoot your food… you didn’t eat. There aren’t many places more lovely to live than Cades Cove, but there’s a lot more to living than the view. Adaptation is key.
Renourishment helped somewhat with energy, but the last two miles began to take a toll on my feet. When I finished, the GPS tracker on my phone that produced the map above said that I had taken more than 48,000 steps. No wonder my tootsies were tired. The last mile is a pretty straight shot alongside a creek. It ends up near the campground where I had spent the previous night. I couldn’t have asked for a better day to make this adventure, and am so glad I finally got out there to do it.
I can’t say enough about the job the National Park Service does maintaining the beauty and charm of Cades Cove for all of us to enjoy. The conservation efforts also make it likely that those who walk the Loop Road a hundred years from now will see the same appealing sights that you and I see today. The wetlands are being restored for the benefit of frogs, fish, birds and salamanders. Native wildflowers and grasses are being re-established, reared from nurseries right there in the Cove. The future looks very bright.