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

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.

Salamanders

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

10 Most Beautiful Places to See Fall Foliage in 2022

Plan a weekend escape or an extended getaway to see autumn’s peak foliage

There might be a lot of people out there who are not ready for summer to end but it’s not all bad news. It’s time for sweater weather, hot apple cider, and best of all, seeing the leaves change from the lush greens of summer to the bright golds, oranges, and reds of autumn so we’ve rounded up the best places to see fall foliage around the country.

Whitehall, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over the next few months, each state will experience its unique view of fall. While many people associate watching the leaves change with weekend getaways to the Northeast, there are plenty of places to see the stunning seasonal views throughout the country. Classic leafy views in New Hampshire and Vermont are always a great go-to but you can also find amazing leaf-changing action in states like Virginia and Georgia.

Oak, ash, maple, and hickory trees transform before your very eyes all over the United States. And every landscape looks like a perfect postcard.

Nature lovers can revel in some wonderful scenery and even better activities throughout the fall in national parks and state parks. As the weather gets colder, leaf peepers can enjoy places like the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smoky Mountains, and the White Mountains even more.

Brasstown Bald, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The crisp fall winds are already starting to blow, so it’s no wonder people are itching to get in their cars for some scenic driving. Luckily, peak leaf-peeping season is coming sooner than you might think.

Related article: The Best National Parks for Fall Foliage—and When to Visit Them for Peak Leaf-Peeping

Perhaps it’s time to start packing the binoculars, strapping on the hiking boots, and firing up the Instagram feeds for some autumn adventures.

White Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Mountains of New Hampshire

The White Mountains of New Hampshire are probably the Granite State’s most famous spot for viewing fall foliage—for good reason. The scenic drive along the Kancamagus Highway is among the country’s most gorgeous areas for admiring blankets of bright orange, golden yellow, and fiery red leaves in autumn.

Whitehall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whitehall, New York

With stunning views from land and water, you will definitely need your camera when you visit Whitehall. Located just outside of the Adirondacks, Whitehall sits on the southern end of Lake Champlain. Its strategic location on the New York-Vermont border allowed the town to become the “birthplace of the US Navy”. Take a trip up to The Skene Manor, affectionately known as “Whitehall’s Castle on the Mountain.” This symbol of turn-of-the-century wealth overlooks the harbor and offers additional views of the region that can be missed at lower elevations.

Bibb Graves Bridge at Wetumpka © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wetumpka, Alabama

The name, Wetumpka, is a Creek Indian word meaning “rumbling waters” describing the sound of the nearby Coosa River. The Coosa River flows through the middle of the city dividing the historic business district from its residential counterpart. Bibb Graves Bridge, a focal point of the City was built in 1937. Proceed across the Bridge to the largely residential west side and discover a number of historic and beautiful homes and churches within a five-block area mainly on Tuskeena Street. On the largely historic business district east side, the Wind Creek Casino overlooks the beautiful Coosa River.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina

This winding road covers almost 470 miles to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. While you drive, you’ll pass split-rail fences, old farmsteads, mountain meadows, and scenic overlooks. Stop along the way at the numerous hiking trails in either a national park or visit a local farm to grab some autumnal produce.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga, New York

Fall foliage in Saratoga County is a spectacular sight to see as the trees come alive with vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. This season is the ideal time of year to take a relaxing drive down country roads and to impressive overlooks and colorful forests.

Related article: Plan Your Autumn Getaway around Fall Foliage

Saratoga National Historical Park has public hiking trails and a Driving Tour Road that will take you to unique historic sites and scenic overlooks with wide-sweeping views of the fall foliage.

Blue Ridge Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Charlottesville, Virginia

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia, Charlottesville offers spectacular scenery that’s perfect for viewing fall’s vivid hues. Mid-to-late October is when you’ll usually see the most dazzling red, orange, and yellow leaves but the colors can linger into early November depending on the weather. Some of the best viewing spots with scenic overlooks are along the neighboring Blue Ridge Parkway and the connecting Skyline Drive in nearby Shenandoah National Park.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove, Tennessee

Cades Cove is one of the most popular spots in the Smoky Mountains National Park and it’s not hard to see why. Visitors can explore hiking trails, historic sites, and an auto tour. During the fall season, Cades Cove comes alive with gorgeous colors and becomes an even more magical place to visit. But be aware that the traffic is often bumper-to-bumper, especially on weekends. Late October into November is when the gorgeous fall foliage can best be seen in Cades Cove. Be sure to bring your camera when you visit—there are plenty of picture-perfect opportunities throughout Cades Cove!

Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway, Utah

Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway climbs up Parowan Canyon’s white, gold, red, and yellow rock pillars and cliffs traveling between its two town anchors, Parowan and Panguitch. As you travel this rolling route through varying elevations, note the distinctive combination of colorful scenery and ancient history. For a relaxed afternoon, go fishing in Panguitch Lake from which the byway gets half of its name.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you continue along your way, a section of the route brushes the top of Cedar Breaks National Monument, an amphitheater canyon eroded out of the western edge of the Markagaunt Plateau. Dixie National Forest is home to Brian Head Peak, which reaches 11,315 feet and gives the byway the other half of its namesake.

Related article: Stunning Fall Drives across America

Southern Willamette near Medford © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Willamette Valley of Oregon

Fall colors in the Southern Willamette Valley are a special kind of show when the leaves of maples, magnolias, and oaks turn vivid shades of yellow and red, contrasting against Oregon’s signature evergreens. Use Eugene or Medford as a home base—both are home to quirky shops, restaurants, and stays. Enjoy the foliage with a climb up Spencer Butte, just a quick trip from downtown Eugene, or on a drive to explore the 20 covered bridges in Lane County. Better yet, pay a visit to one of the valley’s wineries—the vines also turn when the weather cools.

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience Jacksonville, dubbed “One of America’s Top 10 Coolest Small Towns” by Frommers.

A short drive from Medford, life slows a pace or two in quaint, historic Jville. Steeped in history, the entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark. Explore the roots of the area from the days of the 1850s gold rush to now through a variety of historical tour options including a self-guided walking tour as well as trolley, haunted history tours, walking tours, and more! A quintessential western town, you’ll find yourself enthralled in how things used to be!

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Georgia

Surrounded by the beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway runs 40 miles from Blairsville to Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest peak, and access points along the Appalachian Trail. This national byway winds through the valleys and mountain gaps of the southern Appalachians. From the vistas atop Brasstown Bald to the cooling mists of waterfalls, scenic wonders fill this region. Hike the Appalachian Trail or fish in a cool mountain stream. Enjoy spectacular views of the mountains and piedmont. Several scenic overlooks and interpretive signs are features of this route.

Worth Pondering…

I love the fall season. I love all the reds, gold, and browns, the slight chill in the air, and watching the geese fly south in a V.

Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

One visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is never enough even when it stretches over a week or two

Some of the wildest terrain the Southern Appalachian region can claim and some of the wildest to be found in the eastern United States can be found in the Smoky Mountains. At their heart is the national park which sprawls across 815 square miles, a swath of land just a little over half the size of Rhode Island.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountain National Park has one of the world’s best-preserved deciduous forests, the oldest mountains in the United States, and more annual visitors than any other national park in the country.

The 33-mile long Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) bisects the park, stretching from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina with incredible views. Clingmans Dome is just past the “gap,” commonly referred to as “pass” in other parts of the country.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

Driving Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With an estimated 900 miles of trails, Great Smoky is a hiker’s haven, one that could occupy you year-round. You could focus on the 70-some miles of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the roof of the park or break Great Smoky into regions and hike them one at a time.

Although there are many national parks that are larger, the Great Smoky Mountains have the greatest diversity of plants anywhere in North America. The Smoky Mountains contain more than 300 rare species of plants with as many as 125 on the protected plant lists of either North Carolina or Tennessee.

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Smoky Mountains have an explosion of wildflowers in spring and summer. More than 1,500 flowering plants can be found in the region, including delicate spring beauties, several types of trillium, trout lilies, wild geranium, and orchids; visit from mid-April to mid-May for the best blooms. The park’s showy flame azaleas and rhododendrons also burst to life starting in April in the low elevations and into June up high.

Related: Springtime in the Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smokies are famous for their colorful trees in fall. Drive or hike to the higher elevations for sweeping views over the park’s 100-plus tree species painting the hills in bright oranges, yellows, and reds. Peak leaf season is impossible to predict since it is dependent on rain, temperature, and other factors. Generally, you can target the second half of October for higher-elevation colors, and late October through the first week of November for lower elevations.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before it became a national park, this landscape was home to many settlers who farmed and milled in its hidden valleys. Today, more than 90 historic buildings remain in the park. In Cades Cove, you’ll find the greatest variety of churches, mills, barns, and cabins dating back to the early 1800s. An 11-mile one-way loop road takes you through a lush valley surrounded by mountains. For a quieter ride, head to the Roaring Forks motor nature trail with views of rushing streams, old log cabins, another mill, and forested wilderness.

Mountain Farm Museum, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Oconaluftee to tour the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of structures from the late 1800s, or nearby Mingus Mill. Other beautiful drives include the 18-mile Little River Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Townsend and the Blue Ridge Parkway (outside of the park).

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

While Cades Cove with its rich collection of homesteading cabins, corn cribs, smokehouses, and churches is arguably the most popular area of the park, much the same history can be discovered without the crowds in Cataloochee (Big and Little Cataloochee). A little over a century ago this was one of the region’s most thriving communities with 1,200 residents in 1910. Today, though, it draws no crowds to its historic buildings, rolling orchards, meadows or forests, which do, however, attract elk, wild turkeys, and black bears. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled near the park’s eastern border, you must negotiate a winding 11-mile gravel road found near Dellwood, North Carolina, to reach Cataloochee. This road will carry you back into a 19th- and early-20th century landscape rimmed by 6,000-foot mountains and some of the park’s best examples of historic frame buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Still standing is the Palmer House, a vintage “dog trot” construction featuring two separate log cabins (that later were planked over) tied together by a covered porch popular with dogs on long, hot summer days. These days the house doubles as a museum of the valley and offers a video that provides an interesting oral history provided by descendants of the valley’s settlers.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you can see, Great Smoky holds more wonders and adventures than one visit can embrace.

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson

The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park of them all

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. Winding through the heart of the Great Smokies is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country and world to learn, practice and play in the whitewater.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long-distance trekkers cross through 71 miles of mountains in the Great Smokies while journeying the epic Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee Indian reservation on the south end of the Park tells the story of the area’s Indian heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, the super-cool hipster community of the south, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the street. And above all, this park is very beautiful. 

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is for all of those good reasons and many others that visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains.

When it was first officially designated as a national park back in 1940, the Great Smoky Mountains instantly became the premier outdoor playground in the eastern United States. Covering more than 522,000 acres of prime wilderness in North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is home to a stunning array of wildlife, hundreds of miles of trails, and some of the highest peaks east of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A subset of the Appalachian Mountain Range, the Smokies feature seemingly endless scenic vistas which have helped make them one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system. Its breathtaking beauty has also made the park incredibly popular drawing more than 12 million visitors annually. To put things into perspective, that’s more than twice as many as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite.

But don’t let those large visitation numbers deter you; there are still plenty of places to escape the crowds and find solitude inside the park. Whether you’re looking to take an amazing hike, set up camp at a remote location, or go on a beautiful drive, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you covered. This is everything you need to know before you go.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you would expect in an outdoor setting like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there are many things to see and do. Visitors enjoy spotting wildlife, taking photos of the mountain landscapes, exploring historic buildings, and just soaking up the sights and sounds of the Smokies. Wildflower-covered meadows make excellent spots for a picnic lunch while the park’s scenic byways make excellent—if challenging—cycling routes as well.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other popular activities inside the park include fishing for trout and bass, horseback riding on many of the trails, and camping in one of the designated campsites. If you’re looking to pitch your tent or park you’re RV, the park has numerous places where you can do just that.

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. It’s kind of a driving safari as is the entire park.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic drives such as the Newfound Gap Road provide a welcome mat to countless brooks, waterfalls, overlooks, and trailheads; along winding roads where we can capture those s-curve-through-nature photographs that we love so much. And during the off-season, you can actually capture an unobstructed shot of the road in the most visited U.S. National Park. Unbelievable!

It’s easy to lose an entire day or many days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window and surpassing views of wildlife, vistas, valleys, rivers, and roads. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains—there seem to be millions and billions and trillions of trees. It’s an odd feeling, being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees.

Hiking Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two popular activities in the park are hiking and backpacking. With more than 850 miles of trail to explore, visitors can spend weeks wandering the backcountry without ever walking on the same path twice. Some routes wander high along the mountain ridges, providing outstanding views as they go. Others meander past open meadows, through thick forests, and around towering waterfalls. Some are short and easy while others are long and difficult but each is unique and satisfying.

Hiking Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the best hikes in the park include the 2.7-mile walk to Rainbow Falls which is short but challenging and rewards travelers with stunning views of an 80-foot waterfall. The 4-mile long Chimney Tops Trail starts steep but provides some of the best views around while the trek to Alum Cave meanders through hardwood forest and under a stone arch on its way to a towering peak.

Sugarlands Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 522,419 acres

Date Established: June 15, 1934

Location: Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a subsection of the Appalachian Mountains

Park Elevation: 876 feet-6,643 feet

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name:  The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Iconic site in the park: The highest peak in any National Park often becomes iconic and Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies is no different. From 6,643 feet, one can see 360-degree views of the National Park and far beyond on a clear day.   

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for Your Visit: The busiest time in the park is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. To avoid large crowds and potential traffic jams, plan your visit for other times of the year. The weather is generally mild and the landscapes are majestic in all four seasons.

Autumn is an especially great time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks especially on weekends and the changing color of the leaves is spectacular.

Entrance into the park is free all year round.

How to Get There: There are three entry points to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with the main entrance located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Visitors will take Interstate Highway I-40 to Exit 407, turning south on TN-60. From there, continue to US-441, which heads straight into the park. Alternative entrances can be found in Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

Approximately 1,500 black bears live in the park.

More than 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year, synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for about two weeks during their annual mating ritual. They are the only beetles in North America with the ability to flash in sync. 

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum

Spending the day at Cades Cove is a must for every visitor to the Smoky Mountains

You won’t want to miss the diverse wildlife, great views of the national park, and all of the history that is found within the old buildings and structures at Cades Cove. 

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a broad valley surrounded by mountains. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the cove.

For most of its history Cades Cove has been a place to visit. But for more than 100 years it also was a great place to live. The first settlers in the cove arrived sometime between 1818 and 1821. By 1830 the population of the area had increased to 271 and by the 1850s the population of Cades Cove peaked at 685, occupying 137 households.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting Cades Cove allows you to take in the quiet beauty that welcomed the early settlers. Around two million visitors come each year. It’s one of Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s most popular places to visit.

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper at times. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings in any area of the national park. Scattered along the loop road are three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored 18th and 19th century structures. Trailheads to seven hiking trails are easily reached from the Loop Road.

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

Our first stop was the John Oliver Place, one of over 80 historic buildings in the park. John Oliver arrived in the cove prior to 1820 and bought this land in 1826. It remained in the family until the park was established more than 100 years later. Large families often lived in such small building.

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

Our next three stops were churches—Primitive Baptist, Methodist, and Missionary Baptist. Some of the earliest settlers established the Primitive Baptist Church in 1827. A log building served their needs until this one was built in 1887. The church closed during the Civil War.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

J.D. McCampbell, a blacksmith and carpenter, built the Methodist Church for $115. He later served many years as the minister. Methodists were not as numerous as Baptists in the Cove, but enough of them got together in the 1820s to establish the church in a log building that lasted until this one replace it in 1902.

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

A group of Baptists expelled from the Primitive Baptist Church because they favored missionary work, formed the Missionary Baptist Church in 1839. The church ceased to meet during the Civil War. It resumed activity after the war. This building dates from 1915.

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

Wandering the Cable Mill Historic Area, we explored the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Drive-through Barn, and Sorghum Mill.

Cades Cove, Cable Hill Historic Area, Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built in 1972, the Visitor Center is a place for visitors to obtain information and buy books, post cards, maps, guides, batteries, and other items.

Cades Cove, Cable Hill Historic Area, Cantilever Barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Large barns were common in the Cove where farmers needed shelter in the cold months for livestock. The overhang in cantilever barns such as the one here provided shelter for animals as well as storage space for farm equipment.

Cades Cove, Cable Hill Historic Area, Drive-through Barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A second barn in the Mill Area with a drive-through in the center and stalls on either side, was more typical in East Tennessee than the cantilever barn. Two men with pitchforks, one on a wagon of hay in the drive-through and the other in the loft, could transfer the hay to the loft in a short time. The drive-through sometimes served as a storage place for farm animals.

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

John P. Cable bought land in the Cove in the late 1860s and built a water-powered grist mill and sawmill in about 1870. Today, Great Smoky Mountains Association operates Cable Mill as an historical exhibit.

Leaving the Cable Mill Area we made brief stops at Dan Lawson Place, Tipton Place, and Carter Shields Cabin.

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

Absorbed in this idyllic setting, we can easily appreciate what drew early pioneers to make this fertile valley their home. Being history buffs as well as nature lovers and photographers, we are drawn to Cades Cove more than any other place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.
—Ashley Monroe

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited National Park of them all

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast. Winding through the heart of it is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country to learn, practice, and play in the whitewater. Long distance trekkers cross through 71 miles of mountains in the Great Smokies while journeying the epic Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee Indian reservation on the southeast side of the park tells the story of the area’s Indian heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the road. There are even caves that worm into the karst formations underlying the Smokies’ extreme western portions.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spend time roaming from the park’s 870-feet-above-sea-level basement to its 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome and you will, in essence, have negotiated diverse vegetative topography akin to what you would find hiking the Appalachian Trail’s 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine. And above all, this park is very beautiful. It is for all of those good reasons and many others that visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Appalachian wonder that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee state line holds many stories. There are stories in the log cabins, plank churches, and architectural wonders that farmers built for their crops and livestock in Cades Cove and Cataloochee, stories of ridge runners and moonshiners in the mountains, Native American stories, and stories of nature.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a valley surrounded by a one lane, 11-mile loop road that puts visitors among wildlife, historic buildings, and trails from where you can head off on foot to explore deeper. The driving road is closed Saturday morning until 10 am during the spring and summer, allowing access to cyclists and people to wander without traffic. Visiting during the week in the off-season, we had the road mostly to ourselves! 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Venture into this park draped over the ridgeline of the Appalachian Range and you’ll discover five different forest types; both grassy balds and heath balds near the mountains’ summits and an undergrowth that abounds with rhododendrons, magnolia, ferns, holly, and mountain laurel.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smokies were settled in the 18th century, logged into the 20th century, and have been flourishing almost as wilderness again since 1934 when this landscape was destined to become a national park. Despite the roughly 9 million visitors who traipse through the park each year, it continues to be a wellspring of biological diversity.

Mountain Farm Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could immerse yourself in Native American and early settler history in Cherokee, North Carolina. Stop in at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and visit the park’s excellent Mountain Farm Museum often the site of hands-on Junior Ranger programs and demonstrations and then walk the 1.5 mile Oconaluftee River Trail to view the wayside exhibits detailing local Cherokee and Native American history.

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highest peak in any National Park often becomes iconic and Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky is no different. From 6,643 feet, one can see 360-degree views of the National Park and far beyond on a clear day. Or avoid the crowds with a hike to the fire towers atop Mt. Cammer or Mt. Sterling. Both are steep hikes (the 2 miles up to Mt. Sterling are rumored to be the steepest in the park) but the views from the crest of the Smoky Mountains are unparalleled.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy to lose an entire day or days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s an odd feeling being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees. Odd and especially awesome when the blue haze that rests upon the tops of those trees is met by a distinct peacefulness that occurs there during the quiet of off-season. 

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird alert! More than 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics. Many other species use the park as an important stopover and foraging area during their semiannual migration.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Every year, synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for about two weeks during their annual spring mating ritual. They are the only beetles in North America with the ability to flash in sync. 

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson

Cades Cove: A Pioneer Paradise

Spending the day at Cades Cove is a must for every visitor to the Smoky Mountains

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the ancient Southern Appalachians, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is almost as renowned for its well-preserved pioneer settlements as for its natural beauty. More than 90 historic structures—homes, barns, churches, and gristmills—have been preserved here, including the largest collection of log structures in the eastern United States.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove, on the beautiful Tennessee side of the park, offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park. Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The valley has a rich history. For hundreds of years Cherokee Indians hunted in Cades Cove but archeologists have found no evidence of major settlements.

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

Settlers came to this area in 1819, migrating here from Virginia. Later they came from North Carolina, enriching their culture from the old world with knowledge gained from the Indians. They cleared the land for farming and set about building log houses, barns, smokehouses, and corncribs. By 1830, the population had already grown to 271 and by the 1850s the population of Cades Cove peaked at 685, occupying 137 households.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With this population growth the soil quality deteriorated. The opening states of the West brought the opportunity of more fertile frontiers and by 1860 only 269 people remained.

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

Largely isolated by the mountains that surrounded them, the residents of Cades Cove were by necessity a close-knit, hardworking, and self-sufficient group. Plentiful game, such as deer and bear, provided meat to accompany garden vegetables. Over the years mills, churches, and schools were built to support the growing community.

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

In 1927, the state governments of North Carolina and Tennessee began buying up land for a national park. Many of the Cove’s families willingly sold their properties, but others initially fought the effort. Members of several families signed life leases that allowed them to remain on the land during their lifetime.

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

Today the National Park Service maintains the location as it looked in the 1800s. An 11-mile Loop Road circles the Cove, with stopping-off areas at several homesteads, three churches, a working gristmill, and a number of trails and overlooks.

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

Halfway through the Loop, make a point to stop at the Visitors Center in the Cable Mill Area. Photo opportunities are ample and restrooms available. Wandering the Cable Mill Historic Area, we explored the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Barn, and Sorghum Mill.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Drive-through barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built in 1972,the Visitor Center is a place for visitors to obtain information and buy books, post cards, maps, guides, batteries, and other items.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, LaQuire Cantilever barn and millrace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Large barns were common in the Cove where farmers needed shelter in the cold months for livestock. The overhang in cantilever barns such as the one here provided shelter for animals as well as storage space for farm equipment.

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

A second barn in the Mill Area with a drive-through in the center and stalls on either side, was more typical in East Tennessee than the cantilever barn. Two men with pitchforks, one on a wagon of hay in the drive-through and the other in the loft, could transfer the hay to the loft in a short time. The drive-through sometimes served as a storage place for farm animals.

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

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper to times. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

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

We’ve been to many frontier museums and exhibits, but Cades Cove is unique in that an entire valley has been preserved, allowing a rare opportunity to see what the pioneers saw generations ago.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From our home base at River Plantation RV Park in Sevierville, we traveled south on US-441 to Pigeon Forge; at Traffic Light #3 we turned southwest on US-321 to Townsend; turned south (left) on SR-73; west on Laurel Creek Road to Cades Cove Loop Road. We returned home via Townsend and Marysville on US-441 to Sevierville.

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe

Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

One of the biggest questions that most travelers to the area ask is, “when is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains?” Like other big questions, people may ask themselves, the answer to this depends heavily on the person asking the question.

What are your plans for this week or next?

Mowing the lawn, playing golf, or shopping.

You can do any of those things most anytime, any day for the rest of your life. Now is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One reason to visit now is that the summer crowds are gone and leaf peeking season is a month away. Stay home during July, August, and October, unless you enjoy bumper to bumper traffic jams. 

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another reason to visit now is nature. Wildflowers are still blooming, trees are displaying their finest greens, and animals are active. Plan to go between now and late-September, if possible.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following is a plan for you to see the most on a long day trip. If time is available, break your tour into two or three more manageable days.

Get an early start on a weekday and head for Townsend, Tennessee.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forget Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Dollywood. They are great but they’re not woods and waters and flowers and wildlife. They are Disneyland.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Interstate 40 and then Highway 321 through Maryville. This is a one hour, 45-minute drive. In Townsend, turn right at the “Y” and head for Cades Cove. 

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An 11-mile one-way loop road circles the Cove, with stopping-off areas at several homesteads, three churches, a working gristmill, and a number of trails and overlooks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the busy months, it can take most of the day to drive the 11 miles. It can be gridlock. You won’t have that traffic problem this time of year if you avoid weekends.

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

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch for animals such as deer, wild turkey, and bear. There are a couple of side roads to the left, part-way around the loop, called Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Take them about a mile to the end and then back. They provide good possibilities for seeing wildlife.

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

Halfway through the Loop, make a point to stop at the Visitors Center in the Cable Mill Area. Photo opportunities are ample and restrooms available. Wander the Cable Mill Historic Area, explore the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Barn, and Sorghum Mill. During our visit we spent considerable time here walking the area, soaking up nature and the history of the area, and talking with docents.

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

On the Cades Cove loop stop at a couple of the well preserved log cabins and churches and imagine your great grandparents or some pioneers living back then. Continue around the loop and then back down towards Townsend.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Drive-through Barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back at the “Y” go straight toward Gatlinburg. The 18 miles will take you 45 minutes to drive on the winding, stream-side road. Definitely stop at Sugarlands visitor center to see the displays, view the short movie, and browse the gift shop. It is well worth the stop.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Sugarlands, turn right toward Cherokee, North Carolina. On the way up the mountain to Newfound Gap, there are a couple of great hikes like Chimney Tops (four miles round-trip) or Alum Cave Bluffs (about four-and-a-half miles roundtrip). But if you take time for these hikes, you will have to complete the rest of the tour another day.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Newfound Gap there is a giant parking lot, restrooms, the Appalachian Trail crossing and the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

Parking lot at Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just past Newfound Gap, turn right and go seven miles to Clingman’s Dome. You will find ample parking, a small gift shop, and a one-and-a-half mile roundtrip paved path to the top of the mountain. Everything is really different up here at 6,643 feet in elevation. The trees, the plants, the views, the air, are all just a different, unique, and refreshing environment.

Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Clingman’s Dome, retrace your route back to the main road through the park (Highway 441) and again head toward Cherokee. Stop at Oconaluftee visitor center. Wander the old time farm that often has folks docents demonstrating soap making ad other pioneer skills. Oconaluftee is also the best place to see elk outside of the Cataloochee Valley, which is a whole other trip.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe