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: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The narrow, winding, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail invites you to slow down and enjoy the forest and historic buildings of the area

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.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine areas in the East. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching up mountains to the horizon.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No place this size in a temperate climate can match the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s variety of plant and animal species. Here are more tree species than in Northern Europe, 1,500 flowering plants, over 200 species of birds, and 60 of mammals.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 270 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. Most are paved and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars.

During our recent visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park we drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It offers mountain streams, old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From River Plantation, our RV park nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Sevierville, we drove through not one, not two, but three tourist traps (and shopping destinations) with heavy stop-and-go traffic—Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg—in order to reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We turned off the main parkway in Gatlinburg (at traffic light #8) and followed Historic Nature Trail to the Cherokee Orchard Road and entered the national park.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Passing the Noah “Bud” Ogle and Rainbow Falls trailheads, we began the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This narrow, but paved, road twists and turns for 6 miles beside forests, waterfalls, and mountain streams.

Roaring Fork is the name of the stream which the road roughly parallel. It is one of the larger and faster flowing streams in the park. Drive this road after a heavy rain and the name will be apparent.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We passed several historic structures including the old Jim Bales place and the small two-room cabin where Ephraim and Minerva Bales raised nine children. But their situation was not at all unusual, and individual privacy was something these people knew little about. Life for the Bales family was as sparse and hard as the ground around them.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Eph” and “Nervie” owned 70 acres of rocks and cultivated 30 of them. The rest remained in timber for cooking, heating, and construction use. The house was never larger than it is now, except for a missing back porch.

The large cabin was the living room; the smaller one, the kitchen. Building required trees and hard work, so no one built anything larger than necessary.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The corn crib stands beside the house. Small, almost fragile, it is typical of many outbuildings on Roaring Forks. Its size tells us something about life here. Why build a large crib when a large crib was practically impossible. Rocky fields lay all around the house and up the hillside across the creek leaving little land for corn to grow.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road passes by the fence in front of the house, splitting the farm in two. One quickly feels the harshness of travel here. Rocks, rocks, nothing but rocks. Whether clearing fields, trying to farm, or making fence, moving rocks was a way of life.

Life was a difficult struggle for these mountain people.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular scenic drive with continuing traffic with most trailheads at capacity leaving few parking options! It’s an enjoyable scenic area but not the place to find solitude. But, where to go to beat the crowds?

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

The winds will flow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

—John Muir

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

Driving a Road through Beauty

Only the forest, streams, and wildlife occupy this wild country

A Road Through Beauty, the Cherohala Skyway’s 36 miles of scenic mountain views rival any scenic byway in the eastern United States.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountaintops, waterfalls, and waterways adorn this high country of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The average trip over the Skyway takes 2 1/2-hours, if you just want to drive and view scenery. I would recommend setting aside the best part of the day to enjoy some of the bigger than life features the Cherohala Skyway and Unicoi Mountain Wilderness have to offer.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In October 1996, the Cherohala Skyway was opened to the public at a cost of 100-million dollars offering access to the top of the world for far western North Carolina and far southeastern Tennessee.  For the first time Robbinsville, North Carolina and Tellico Plains, Tennessee became sister cities if you can call them that. Both towns are modest in size yet large in local history, newly connected by a ribbon of asphalt over a vast wilderness.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The official scenic Cherohala Skyway is 36-miles in length, with 15-miles in North Carolina and 21-miles in Tennessee, although actual distance between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains is roughly 50 miles of paved road. The 36-mile scenic byway connects TN 68 with NC 143. There are no services over the actual scenic highway except for public restrooms at three locations along the Cherohala Skyway.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From heights nearing 6,000-feet, are views of the rugged rolling mountaintops of the Unaka Mountains with the Great Smoky Mountains to the northeast and the Tennessee River Valley to the west. What you will find along the route are lots of great mountain overlooks, camping areas, and numerous hiking trails leading off from the scenic byway. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mountain-and-valley scenery along the 36-mile stretch is spectacular. Mountain balds as they are called, crown the Unicoi Crest at the pinnacle of the Cherohala Skyway and are without doubt part of the great mystery of mountain creation itself. The Cherohala Skyway scenic overlooks have rightfully been compared to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 29 trails along the Cherohala Skyway covering 150 miles. These trails offer long and short hikes to special locations of natural beauty and mystery. There are also 8 horseback trails totaling 31 miles for equestrians to explore from the saddle. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach the eastern gateway to the Cherohala Skyway, take NC 143 west from Robbinsville, for approximately 12-miles, signs will mark the way. At this point where highway NC 143 becomes the Cherohala Skyway, you can access Joyce Kilmer Road. A two-mile drive along this side-road will take you to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Slickrock Wilderness Area. The memorial forest is named after the poet and American patriot Joyce Kilmer who wrote the famous poem “Trees,” in 1913. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joyce Kilmer, while serving in France during World War I was killed in action and highly decorated for his heroism by the French government. The memorial forest is an old-growth forest of giant trees, some ranging over 100 feet tall, over 20 feet in circumference, and estimated to be over 400 years old. The memorial forest remains isolated deep within a large mountainous cove, unspoiled and preserved for posterity’s sake.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to its remote mountainous location, a logging company’s bankruptcy and just plain good luck, these giants of the mountain forest were saved from destruction, preserving their beauty for our enjoyment as well as the generations to come. 

This 3,800-acre woodland is an awe-inspiring experience that makes the Cherohala Skyway adventure unlike any other. Flowing through the heart of the memorial forest is the Little Santeetlah Creek, which is one of the main watersheds that feed the sky blue waters of Lake Santeetlah. Lake Santeetlah is one of the most beautiful lakes in all the North Carolina Mountains, mostly isolated and pristine.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Isolated in a wilderness land, adventurous souls come to appreciate the mountain country the Cherokee People’s ancestor called, “land of the noon day sun.”

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A journey across the Cherohala Skyway is an experience you’ll want to repeat often.

Cherohala Skyway © 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

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