The scenic drives in the Smokies can introduce you to plenty of wildlife, rushing streams, colorful flowers, lush forests, mountain vistas, and historic buildings—all from the seat of your car. To get the full flavor of the Smokies, be sure to park in plenty of the many pull-offs so you can get out and explore on foot as well.
This is the second in a series of blog posts describing the park’s best scenic drives.
Photos by Bruce Day
Cades Cove is where Mother Nature and Father Time meet. This 11-mile, one-way loop road winds through forest and wide-open fields, making it the best place in the park for wildlife viewing. It also boasts log homes, barns, churches, a gristmill, and other settler structures dating back to the 1800s. In fact, you’ll find more historic buildings here than in any other area of the park, and you’re free to explore them all.
The loop generally takes two to four hours to tour, depending on how many times you want to get out of the car and on how many “bear jams” you encounter. Please be courteous and use the pull-offs if you want to stop to view wildlife—stopping in the road causes long backups that can prevent emergency traffic from getting through.
|Fun Fact: More than two million people each year drive the Cades Cove loop.|
Note that the loop road is closed from sunset to sunrise. From early May through early September, it’s also closed to motor vehicles on Wednesdays so that pedestrians and bicyclists can explore the cove. You can rent bikes (with helmets) from the Cades Cove Campground located just before the start of the loop.
Another option is to take one of the Cades Cove Heritage Tours, sponsored by a private non-profit organization that partners with the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend. The best part of these tours (which last three to four hours, longer in busy seasons) is the guide who tells stories about the cove and its settlers along the way. The fuel-efficient busses hold 18 passengers, and trips leave from the depot next to the Heritage Center. Contact the company for schedules via cadescoveheritagetours.org. Discounts are available for kids, and tickets for all include admission to the Heritage Center.
Here’s a brief description of what you’re sure to find along the loop drive, but keep your eyes peeled at all times for wildlife, more plentiful near dawn and dusk. You might encourage your kids to keep a count of how many of each type of animal they see. Chances are they’ll lose count of the white-tailed deer. Other favorite sightings here include black bear, groundhogs, wild turkey, raccoon, and even an occasional coyote dashing across the road.
If you don’t want to drive around the entire loop, you can take either of two shortcuts (Sparks Lane or Hyatt Lane) that cut across to the other side of the loop, shortening your drive. Be careful, though, because traffic is two-way on each of them.
The only year-round restroom facilities in this area are at the Cades Cove picnic area and campground before the entrance to the loop road and at the Cades Cove Visitor Center at about the halfway point. You’ll also find a small camp store and snack bar at the campground.
At the orientation shelter at the entrance to the loop road, rangers and GSMA staff are on hand during the summer to answer questions, supply park maps, and sell various books about the cove.
|The Missionary Baptist Church dates back to 1915.|
The first stop you encounter is also one of the most notable. The John Oliver Place (a quarter-mile walk from the parking area) is the oldest log home in Cades Cove, dating from the early 1820s. Oliver and his wife, who had ten children, were the first white settlers in the cove. In all, five generations of Olivers lived here for more than 100 years before the park was established. You can read more about how the Olivers survived their first winter in the cove thanks to the Cherokee here.
Several small churches come next. The Primitive Baptist Church was constructed in 1887, the Methodist Church was built in 1902, and the Missionary Baptist Church dates back to 1915. Feel free to explore the graveyards, too, although take care not to walk on the graves themselves. You’ll see graves from as early as the 1700s, as well as some from modern times—those who can prove they are descended from a family with Smokies roots can be buried here.
Fun Fact: The Methodist Church was built in 115 days for $115 by a blacksmith and carpenter named J.D. McCampbell.
At the Primitive Baptist Church (down a gravel turn-off on the left that takes you a quarter of a mile from the loop road), you can find the grave of William Hamby, who was in the North Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War.
The Elijah Oliver Place is next, but you cannot see it from the road. There are two routes you can take to walk to this cabin. For most visitors, the easier path is likely the first. You will see a small sign announcing the trail to the cabin before coming to the parking area on the left. The trail is located on the right side of the road.
If you miss this point, you can also access a trail to the cabin by taking the turn-off to the Abrams Falls Trail (5 miles round trip), down a half-mile gravel path from the main road. The son of John Oliver, whose home was the first stop on the drive, built this house, part of which dates from 1930. This is one of the most intact 19th-century farmsteads in the park. The springhouse was not only a water source, but it also did double duty as a refrigerator, keeping food cold. The smokehouse was for preserving and storing meat. The corncrib held corn until it could be ground into cornmeal. The barn sheltered both animals (milk cows, horses, and mules) and farm equipment.
Fun Fact: The Cherokee called Cades Cove Tsiya’hi, or “Otter Place.” The name “Cades Cove” comes from a Cherokee Tsiya’hi leader Chief Kade.
|The historic Cable Mill is adjacent to the Cades Cove Visitor Center.|
The Cades Cove Visitor Center comes next, with its adjacent historic Cable Mill area. As you leave the visitor center parking lot, if you wish to visit the Henry Whitehead Place, make a sharp right-hand turn onto the gravel road (Forge Creek Road) leading away from the loop drive. Note that this road closes each winter.
The Dan Lawson Place is next, built in 1856. Look at the chimney, built with handmade bricks. At the Tipton Place, dating from 1870, you’ll find a number of outbuildings including a blacksmith shop, a carpentry shop, a bee gum shelter (once housing honeybees), and a cantilevered barn, among others.
The last building is the relatively tiny (and quite cute) Carter Shields Cabin, once owned by a veteran of the Battle of Shiloh.
Fun Fact: Early pioneer families in Cades Cove often had ten or 12 children! School was only in session during the winter months when they weren’t needed to help on the farms raising corn, wheat, oats, rye, sorghum, and vegetables and tending to pigs and cattle.
Fun Factivity: If you visit in March or April, look for bunches of daffodils. That’s a sure sign that a house once stood nearby, since the cove residents often planted them in their gardens. At the Missionary Baptist Church, see if they can identify the letters and numbers spelled out by the daffodils planted between the church and Tater Branch. A company of the Civilian Conservation Corps planted bulbs so that the blooms would form “Co. 5427.”
Katy Koontz is an award-winning freelance writer, author, and editor whose work has appeared in numerous publications. She has served as a freelance editor for several best-selling authors and is herself the author of several works, including Family Fun in the Smokies: A Family-Friendly Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, Smoky Mountain Travel Guide, and The Banana Police.