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

Famous Trees and Where to Find Them

With their imposing size and universal symbolism, trees are the celebrities of the plant world. But some trees can boast special A-list status.

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.

—Hermann Hesse (1877–1962)

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us a foundation of integrity in his beautiful love letter to trees—how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Trees are remarkable living things. Not only do they provide shade, oxygen, and often fruit, but they can also live remarkably long—the oldest tree in the world is a 4,852-year-old bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) in the White Mountains of California with the appropriate nickname of Methuselah. However, it’s not the only tree to earn well-deserved recognition. Here are five other famous trees and forests you can visit around America.

Giant Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman

Location: Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Age: Roughly 2,000 years

General Sherman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman might possibly be the most famous tree in the world. While the age of the tree is impressive (likely to be around 2,000 years old), it’s actually the size of the tree that brings it fame. General Sherman is 275 feet tall and 36 feet wide in diameter making it the biggest tree in the world. The tree sits in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park in California where thousands of visitors flock every year. Fences around the tree keep visitors from trampling on the shallow roots. General Sherman is still growing so it’s anyone’s guess how big it will eventually get.

The Big Tree before Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Tree

Location: Goose Island State Park, Texas

Age: In excess of 1,000 years

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Tree, as it’s usually known, is one of the oldest, most well known live oak trees in the United States. In its more than 1,000 years, the Big Tree has survived hurricanes, fires, and even an 1864 Civil War battle that razed the rest of the town, Lamar, to the ground. With a height of 44 feet, trunk circumference of 35 feet, and crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017). The tree has its own dark history as well, as it has variously been associated with hangings, cannibalism, or pirates.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Trees

Location: Mojave Desert of southwest California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona at elevations from 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surrounded by twisted, spiky trees straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, you might begin to question your map. Where are we anyway? In wonder, the traveler pulls over for a snapshot of this prickly oddity; the naturalist reaches for a botanical guide to explain this vegetative spectacle; and the rock climber shouts “Yowch!” when poked by dagger-like spines.

Mojave yucca in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, is a member of the Agave family. Don’t confuse the Joshua tree with the Mojave yucca, Yucca schidigera. This close relative can be distinguished by its longer, wider leaves and fibrous threads curling along leaf margins. Both types of yuccas can be seen growing together. The Joshua tree provides a good indicator that you are in the Mojave Desert but you may also find it growing next to a saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert in western Arizona or mixed with pines in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Legend has it that Mormon pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure, Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward. Today we enjoy this yucca for its grotesque appearance, a surprising sight in this arid landscape.

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

Great Smoky Mountains

Location: North Carolina and Tennessee

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

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique because it has over 130 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species that grow in five major forest types: Cove Hardwood, Spruce-fir, Northern Hardwood, Hemlok, and Pine-and-Oak. Other national parks have fewer than 15 native trees. Oak trees are one of the most important parts of the national park. There are 12 species of oak trees in the Smoky Mountains.

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

The oldest tree in the Great Smoky Mountains is a blackgum that still stands at 562 years old. One of the tallest trees in the Smoky Mountains is a white pine tree that reaches 186 feet tall. The Smoky Mountains have a large population of tulip trees, including some that measure over 20 feet wide.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, North Carolina

Location: 15 miles from Robbinsville off Cherohala Skyway (NC-143)

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A walk through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a journey back in time. This forest is one of the Nation’s most impressive remnants of old-growth forest. The forest contains magnificent examples of more than 100 tree species, many over 450-years-old and some enormous tulip poplars more than 20 feet in circumference and 100 feet tall.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 3,800-acre forest was set aside in 1936 as a memorial to the author of the poem “Trees,” Joyce Kilmer, who was killed in action in France during World War I (See poem below). The floor is carpeted with wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs from fallen giants. This forest, part of the Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness, is maintained in its primitive state.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only way to see the memorial forest is on foot. The figure-eight Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail covers two miles and has two loops: the 1.25-mile lower loop passes the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque and the upper 0.75-mile loop swings through Poplar Cove—a grove of the forest’s largest trees. The trailhead parking area has a flush toilet and picnic tables.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer