The Ultimate Guide to Cades Cove

Here’s everything you need to know about Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most visited place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with millions of visitors annually. But what is it specifically about this place that attracts so many people?

One of the most tranquil and pastoral locations in America is Cades Cove. There is nothing like the stunning views of pastureland, majestic trees, rolling hills, sunsets, and roving animals. The 11-mile loop surrounds this lovely valley with several spots where you can see wildlife and take in the surrounding landscape. To help you get in touch with nature, Cades Cove has a vast network of hiking trails. Continue reading to find out more about Cades Cove.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Cades Cove?

Cades Cove is located just south of Gatlinburg. To get to the Loop Road, follow the Parkway through downtown Gatlinburg and enter the national park. You will pass the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the right and then you will make a right turn onto Little River Road. Stay on Little River Road for about 25 miles and you will reach the end where you will find the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most popular tourist destination in the Great Smoky Mountains receiving more than two million people annually. The soft sandstone that previously filled the Cove was eroded over millions of years creating the valley. The result of erosion was a vast, fertile valley perfect for farming and flanked by stunning Smoky Mountains.

Cade’s Cove boasts the greatest diversity of historic structures in the national park due to the early 1800s settlement of European settlers. You can visit historic buildings along the Loop Road including restored churches, former gristmills, and pioneer log homes. Its rich past has left a lasting impression that may still be felt today. A visit to Cades Cove offers the chance to travel back in time and become engrossed in the culture and history of early Appalachia.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are Cades Cove hours?

The Loop Road is open from sunrise to sunset all year with the weather permitting.

 Cades Cove is open to cyclists and pedestrians on Wednesdays from May to September. No vehicle traffic is permitted on Wednesdays from 8 am to 10 am so people can enjoy the loop by bike or foot.

Related article: Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Cades Cove

You want to know the best times to visit given how popular this region of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is. Let’s categorize this based on the time of day, week, and season.

Best time of day to visit

Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to visit Cades Cove during the day. During certain periods traffic slows down reducing congestion. Also, it is the best time of the day for wildlife viewing.

Best days of the week to visit

Avoid weekends since you will find the place crowded. Wednesdays and Saturdays are ideal days if you want to go biking.

Cable Mill Historic Area, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best seasons to visit

Cades Cove is idyllic all year round. You can always expect to see stunning scenery when you visit. Each season from snow-covered trees in the winter to wildflowers in the spring adds unique beauty to the region.

April to November is Cades Cove’s peak season. People are booking holidays in Cades Cove during the summer break from school when wildflowers and wildlife emerge from slumber in the spring. Due to the vibrant leaves, fall is perhaps the most popular year for tourists visiting Cades Cove. But if you want to avoid traffic the winter slowdown begins in December and continues through March.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife viewing at Cades Cove

Millions of photographers visit Cades Cove each year attracted by the picturesque surroundings and an abundance of wildlife. While driving around the loop you may spot black bears, white-tailed deer, turkeys, squirrels, red foxes, groundhogs, salamanders, birds, bugs, and more.

Visitors are often more enthusiastic about bears since for many it’s their first time seeing a black bear in the wild. They typically are active in the morning, evening, and night. While in Cades Cove you can frequently see black bear mothers with young cubs. But visitors should be careful to maintain a proper distance and avoid feeding them.

Related article: Cades Cove: A Pioneer Paradise

Keep reading to learn more about these creatures.

John Oliver Place, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black bear

Although black bears can be active any time of day, they are more active during early morning and late evening. In the Smoky Mountains bears seem to prefer 6 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm as these times are cooler and more peaceful during the spring and summer. Black bears have a dense population in the park with about 1,500 living in the area. Being omnivores their diet is primarily plants, berries, nuts, and fish.


Elk can grow up to 700 pounds making them one of the largest creatures in the national park. They are most active early in the morning and evening.

White-tailed deer

Similar to elk, deer are usually active early in the morning or late in the evening. They are known for grazing in open fields which makes them easier to spot compared to in the woods. Fawns are usually born sometime in June.

Wild Turkey

Since wild turkeys travel in flocks, if you spot one, you’ll most likely spot an entire group. They spend most of their time searching the ground for nuts, berries, and insects. You’ll likely not see them in the evenings as they roost in the trees.


There are more than 30 species of salamanders in the national park which is the most of any place in the world. There are several lungless salamanders in the area. They enjoy dark, moist areas, and many of them live in water.

Cades Cove Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other animals in the Smokies

There are hundreds of animal species that live in the area. You’ll find fish, turtles, and snakes in and around the water. Small mammals include raccoons, groundhogs, and squirrels. There are hundreds of bird species including owls, eagles, wrens, and finches. Plus, you’ll find all kinds of bugs.

Wildlife Safety

It is important to remember a few safety tips while viewing wildlife. The key element to keeping park guests and wildlife safe is to keep a safe distance. Always use caution when wildlife is in sight because they are wild animals.

John Oliver Cabin, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do in Cades Cove

It might take several days if you plan to enjoy everything Cades Cove has to offer. However, all you need for a pleasant and rewarding trip is one action-packed day. Plan to arrive early in the morning and depart in the late afternoon to get the most out of your visit. Bring a bag of lunch, snacks, and drinks. Choose your favorite activities from the list below to create the ideal fun day.

Drive Through Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are the must-see things in Cades Cove?

As you drive along the 11-mile loop you will find a variety of historic buildings, scenic views, and sights you’ll want to see. The first stop along the Loop requires you to hike a short distance to the John Oliver Cabin. Then you will come to the three churches with cemeteries which are popular places to stop and stretch your legs. Other major stops include the grist mill, the cantilever barn, and Carter Shields cabin.

Related article: National Park Fees: Great Smoky Mountains Introduces Parking Fees

Gregg-Cable House, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What can I do in Cades Cove?

While driving the loop road is one of the best reasons for visiting Cades Cove it isn’t the only thing you can do. As enter the Loop there is a picnic area with over 80 sites. A creek runs through the area and you can enjoy a lunch or snack before exploring the beautiful valley.

The wide open spaces beckon you to take to the wind and run. Horseback rides in the Cove are fantastic whether you’re an experienced rider or a novice. From places like Cades Cove Riding Stables and Davy Crockett Riding Stables, guides lead horseback excursions.

Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove Riding Stables is near the start of the Cove Loop. To learn more about the nature and wildlife of the Smokies you can go on several guided horseback trail rides. They also provide seasonal hayrides and carriage rides. Children love the fully narrated hay rides which are among the most entertaining activities in Cades Cove.

Several hiking trails start along the Cades Cove Loop. A difficult trail near the beginning of the road is Rich Mountain Loop which is 8.5 miles roundtrip. Spring is a great time to explore this trail because of the wildflowers along the path. A more moderate trail that’s about halfway around the Loop is Abrams Falls, a 5-mile roundtrip hike with a waterfall at the end. If you want to hike a trail that’s short and sweet, stop at the Cades Cove Nature Trail.

Cantilever Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving or bicycling the Cades Cove Loop Road

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is accessible every day from sunrise to sunset although from early May to late September, Wednesday and Saturday mornings are closed to motorized vehicles until 10 am. These days the route is only open to bicycle and foot traffic up to 10:00 a.m. The good news is that tourists can ride or walk on the road at this time without worrying about sharing it with cars.

To complete the entire loop on a bicycle on these weekdays it is best to start early. Use pullouts when stopping to see wildlife and take in the landscape because traffic is frequently high during the busiest travel season and on weekends all year long. To drive or bike to the loop will take at least two to four hours depending on the number of stops and the flow of traffic.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Driving the Cades Cove Loop Road alone will provide you with scenic views of the most popular destination of the national park: Cades Cove!

Millrace and Mill, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore Cades Cove Nature Trail

Visitors can enjoy a stroll through some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most breathtaking terrain on the Cades Cove Nature Trail. About 7 miles into Loop Road and one mile past the visitor center is where you’ll find the trail. Given that it is only a few miles long and is considered easy, hikers of all ages should be able to complete this hike. The stroll should take visitors an hour or so assuming a fairly moderate pace. The trail and potential sights you might view while hiking is described in brochures that are available at the visitor center.

The Nature Trail generally provides an excellent opportunity to view Cades Cove’s native plant life and there is a good possibility that you may also spot some of the cove’s wildlife. During their hikes along the path, visitors observed everything from raccoons to black bears. The nature walk is rarely busy so it won’t negatively impact your experience.

Cades Cove Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover the history of Cades Cove

The Smoky Mountains have a compelling narrative to share. You can explore various historical places including several old cabins, churches, and structures. The Cades Cove Visitor Center is a great resource for learning about Cades Cove’s history.

At the start of the loop, there are materials you may access to learn more about the structures you’ll see in the cove. Following is the list of historical buildings in Cades Cove to explore while driving the Loop Road:

  • Dan Lawson Place
  • John Oliver Cabin
  • Primitive Baptist Church
  • Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church
  • Elijah Oliver Place
  • Tipton Place
  • John Cable Grist Mill
  • Carter Shields Cabin
  • Becky Cable House

Though the list may seem a bit longer these are some historical places one should make some time to visit. Make sure to have your camera ready to capture these incredible historic buildings.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

One of the things that attract visitors to Cades Cove is the number of adventurous hiking trails.

One of the most popular is Abram Falls. It descends to the enormous Abrams Creek Gore through areas of mountain laurel and pine forest. The walk will lead you to the impressive Abrams Falls waterfall which has a significant water flow. There is a beach area where you may unwind at the bottom of the fall.

Take Cades Cove Loop Road to get to this trail. You’ll come across an Abrams Falls sign while driving. Drive until you notice a parking lot as you approach this sign. It is a challenging trail. Hike it if you are up for an adventure.

Another favorite is the Crib Gap Trail. The route is ideal for first-timers to hiking.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gregory’s Bald is another trail that leads to a mountain covered in wildflowers. You may take in the picturesque vistas of Cades Cove and the mountains that surround it while climbing this mountain. Additionally, if you visit this location in June you will delight in the picturesque views of the wildflowers that grow on this mountain.

The thunderhead hiking trail and Rocky Top which lead to two mountain peaks and offer stunning views of the Smoky Mountains are another favorite Cades Cove hiking trail. This trek is challenging, though, so you should only go it if you have previous hiking expertise.

Millrace and Mill, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping at Cades Cove

Cades Cove Campground (elevation: 1,713 feet) is open year-round and combines the feel of primitive camping with the modern convenience of flush toilets and drinking water. Both Loop B and C are open from mid-April through the Thanksgiving weekend. During the off-season (December-mid April) only sites C1-12 and C26-61 are open to camping by reservation only. Once B Loop closes for the season generators are allowed in Loop C with restricted hours UNTIL Loop B reopens for camping. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet in length.

Are There Hidden Gems?

Cades Cove is the most popular area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it’s not hard to see why. From gorgeous views to an abundance of wildlife and fascinating historic structures, Cades Cove has it all. There are a ton of cool stops along the scenic loop drive such as the cantilever barn, John Oliver cabin, and Cable grist mill. These stops are right along the road but there are some hidden gems in Cades Cove too.

The Pearl Harbor Tree serves as a reminder of what happened in 1941 and to honor those who died. It was planted on the day of the attack by a man named Golman Myers to mark the mournful moment. He found a small sapling tree the size of a limb and planted it in his family’s front yard. Myers passed in 1945 but his son Bernard returned to Cades Cove in the mid-1970s and chained a metal tag to the tree that reads, “Golman Myers transplanted this tree Dec. 7, 1941.”

To get to the tree, use the parking area about 3.6 miles along the Cades Cove Loop Road. Then, walk west for 0.1 miles until you see a small clearing on the north side of the road. Where the tree line on the western edge of the field meets the road is the hill you climb to get to the tree. You’ll recognize it because of the metal tag and the many American flags visitors have placed on the tree!

Related article: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Gourley’s Pond is another hidden gem in Cades Cove. It’s often overlooked by visitors but after significant rainfall, it’s a great sight to see. This pond takes some exploring to get to because it can’t be seen from the loop. To get to Gourley’s Pond, park your car at the LeQuire Cemetery parking area past the south end of Sparks Lane. From there, walk along the loop road for about 200 feet until you see a path on your right. Follow the trail for about 100 feet, then head southwest until you see the pond.

Primitive Baptist Church, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is home to 14 cemeteries although only 11 of them have been found. If you love learning about Cades Cove’s history and the people who called Cades Cove home then you should take the time to explore one of the cemeteries on your visit. The Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery has the graves of familiar names like John and Lucretia Oliver, the first white settlers of Cades Cove, and William Howell Oliver, the church’s pastor for almost 60 years. While you’re there step inside the Primitive Baptist Church itself and explore.

Millrace, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a less crowded way to exit Cades Cove, use Rich Mountain Road. It’s a 7-mile journey that winds through the forest and provides an excellent opportunity to see bears and other wildlife. Rich Mountain Road offers a quiet drive and it takes you to Townsend. Along Rich Mountain Road there’s an overlook that provides one of the best views of the Primitive Baptist Church and the valley below. Rich Mountain Road is typically only open from April through mid-November.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away once in awhile and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir