Great Smoky Mountains National Park | CADES COVE REGION

Cades Cove

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most popular region in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and because of its popularity it is probably the most congested area of any park in the United States, especially during the busiest time of year, the fall. The cove is an enormous meadow where you have clear views of the surrounding mountains, an abundance of wildlife, trails, and the largest concentration of historical buildings in the park, most all of which are original to the area.

An 11-mile loop road takes visitors around the cove. Parking areas are located at each point of interest, plus along stretches of the road where the views are the best. The road is closed to vehicles on Wednesdays from May through the end of September. Hikers and bikers may use the road at this time.

The busiest times at Cades Cove are on summer weekends in July and August and any time during the fall once the leaves start changing color (the fall is the absolute most busiest time of year). Those visiting at these times will find the traffic overwhelming. All roads into the park are two lanes wide, and when thousands of people come to visit, traffic is going to be a mess. However, to say that you shouldn’t visit Cades Cove in the fall is like saying you shouldn’t visit a beach in the summer. If you want to enjoy the area at the best time of the year, you just have to accept that it may take you four to eight hours to travel the 11-mile loop, depending on how many of the attractions you stop to see.

To make things a little better, visit first thing in the morning—you can never go wrong at any National Park by arriving first thing in the morning. However, don’t expect to have the road to yourself. When I was leaving Cades Cove for the Twentymile region, I decided to sneak out on Parsons Branch Road, which is accessed about halfway around the loop. I left on a Monday at 8 AM in late October figuring who in the world would be up and driving around the loop at this time? I was stuck in traffic for about an hour, which isn’t bad considering the wait would have been around three hours had I left at noon.

Thursday morning traffic on the Cades Cove Loop Road in late October

Thursday morning traffic on the Cades Cove Loop Road in late October

Not only is the influx of tourists a problem, but the shear selfishness of some tourists makes matters even worse. The road is one-way and only one lane wide. I sat in traffic when only 500 yards up ahead there were no cars for as far as I could see. All it takes is for one idiot to decide he is going to drive no faster than 5 MPH, and cars get backed up for miles. However, worse than that are the people who stop in the middle of the road to take a photo, despite constant signs asking that you use the pullouts. All of this adds to what is already a serious traffic problem. But as I said, what are you going to do? Not visit in the fall? Just resign yourself to the fact that a trip to Cades Cove may be an all day event, fill up your car with gas, put on some good music, and have patience.

The cove on a foggy morning

The cove on a foggy morning

Though you can exit the Cades Cove Loop Road on two dirt roads, the Rich Mountain Road and Forge Creek / Parson Branch Road, you can only enter from the east on Laurel Creek Road. All roads are original to Cades Cove except the new entrance on Laurel Creek Road. This was built specifically for the National Park. Another original Cove road is the Cooper Road, which is now a hiking trail. There are also two roads that cut through the middle of the loop, Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Cars are allowed to travel in either direction on both roads. These allow you to cut your visit short or quickly get back to a point you would like to see again.

I did not travel on Rich Mountain Road, but did exit the park on Forge Creek/Parsons Branch Road. The exit starts off on Forge Creek Road, and there is even a historical homestead along this section. This road is a two-way road, so you can return back to the loop road after visiting the homestead. However, once the road becomes Parsons Branch it is one-way. Furthermore, a sign at the start states that only 4-Wheel Drive vehicles are recommended. Yes, there are sections where you must drive slowly due to deteriorated road surfaces. Yes, the road is a little bumpy and there are a few bumps that will jostle you around pretty good if you are going too fast. I wouldn’t take a Corvette or other low clearance sports car, but a typical passenger vehicle can make it without problem. Keep in mind that you can’t go much faster than 15 MPH. It took me a little over an hour to make it from Cades Cove to Hwy 129. (I would not take a passenger vehicle if it has been raining because the road will be muddy and very slick).

Parsons Branch Road

Parsons Branch Road


CAMPGROUNDS

Cades Cove Campground and Anthony Creek Horse Camp
Year round camping at 159 sites. A separate camp for those with their own horses i also available.

Cades Cove Group Campground
4-site group campground hosts up to 30 campers per site


HIKING TRAILS

There are many hiking trails in the Cades Cove Region, and over 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is not possible for me to hike all of them, but I did hike a few in each region. Here is a suggestion for a long day-hike at Cades Cove.

Abrams Falls Trail – Hannah Mountain Trail – Rabbit Creek Trail Loop Hike
12-mile hike that passes Abrams Falls


HISTORICAL AREAS

All historical sites are located on the Cades Cove Loop Road. Most are right next to the road, but a few require some hiking, anywhere from a quarter to one mile, one-way. A booklet about the area can be purchased at the Orientation Shelter located at the very start of the drive. It is only a buck or two and highly recommended. Volunteers at the Orientation Shelter are on hand to answer questions, give suggestions, and sell the booklets.

You will find that as you progress around the loop that the historical buildings become less and less popular because people burn out on them. For most tourists, once they’ve seen one or two empty log cabins they’ve seen them all. If you are not dead set on seeing everything, picking one or two homesteads and at least one of the three churches should give you a good overview of the area’s human history.

John Oliver Place
Cabin from the 1820s

Primitive Baptist Church
1887 church building and cemetery

Methodist Church
1902 church building and cemetery

Missionary Baptist Church
1915 church building and cemetery

Elijah Oliver Place
Cabin and out buildings (1800s) and a barn from the early 1930s

Cable Mill Historic Area
Collection of authentic mountain farm buildings from the mid- to late-1800s, including a working grist mill

Henry Whitehead Place
Two cabins and an out building

Dan Lawson Place
1856 cabin, barn, smokehouse, and granary

Tipton Place
Early 1870s cabin, barn, double-pen corn crib, smokehouse, shed, and bee bum shelter

Carter Shields Cabin
Lone cabin from early 1830s


PICNIC AREAS

Cades Cove Picnic Area


VISITOR CENTERS

Cades Cove Visitor Center


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Last updated on July 21, 2022
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