The most visited valley in the Smoky Mountains
If there is only time in your schedule for one auto tour while you are visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, let it be Cades Cove. Certainly there are other great auto tours in the Smokies (Greenbrier, Newfound Gap Road, Cataloochee), but Cades Cove is the end-all-be-all. Famously full of cars, and beautiful even on a rainy day, this is THE auto tour.
Of course, one of the most interesting things about Cades Cove is the history, the fact that the people that lived here, lived here into the 21st century, many years after the founding of the National Park is amazing, the number of historical buildings, the wildlife that calls this valley home and all of the highlights that you get to visit as you drive around the cove. Here are just a few of the things you will encounter as you make the drive:
- John Oliver Cabin
- Primitive Baptist Church
- Methodist Church
- Missionary Baptist Church
- Rich Mountain Road
- Cooper Road Trail
- Elijah Oliver Place
- Abrams Falls Trailhead
- Cable Mill Area Visitors Center
- Parsons Branch Road
- Henry Whitehead Place
- Cades Cove Nature Trail
- Dan Lawson Place
- Tipton Place
- Carter Shields Cabin
- Ranger Station
- Campground and Campground Store
Obviously this is not all you are going to see as you travel around Cades Cove. You are going to see countless vistas, wildlife, wildflowers and much more. The reason that people flock to Cades Cove is the beauty, the grandeur of this spot that used to be home to a community before the Park Service took over. The sloping sides of the valley rise up to the tops of the mountains. If you make it there early in the morning you could watch the morning fog roll over the mountain, watch as the fog that gave these mountains their name floats down over the mountains and makes it way into the valley. You drive along in peace and solitude watching for the pits that are marked on one of the free guides you can pick up at the front of the loop road and just take in the beauty.
If you go during the height of tourist season, you will encounter traffic. Don’t worry about it. The eleven mile loop can become quite long but you are there to enjoy the view and nature, not to make record time getting out. Drive at a slow pace, keep an eye out for bicyclist and of course keep your other eye peeled for bears. You are apt to see them early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Let the sun slide down toward the horizon and the bears will come out. In fact, make a second or third loop around the cove and just keep scanning the horizon.
If you brought your bike with you into the Smoky Mountains you are in for a treat. Even though bikes are not allowed on any of the trails in the National Park, there are plenty of places to bike while you are visiting.
- Cades Cove – This is possibly the most biked area of the GSMNP. Due to the low elevation and the gentle rise and fall of the roads makes this a great place to bike for the whole family. You don’t have to be an experienced bicycler to enjoy a trip around the 11 mile loop road in the mountains. Also, the park service shuts down motor vehicle traffic in Cades Cove on Wednesday and Saturday morning so that the bicyclists have the area to themselves, until noon.
- Cataloochee – Another great place to take a bike. The roads inside the valley are flat and give you plenty of space to ride around and enjoy the pristine beauty of this location. While you ride you will be able to take in the not only the natural beauty but the wildlife that calls this valley home.
- Newfound Gap Road – Not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced, if you are a serious ‘biker’ this is a grueling uphill climb from the Sugarlands visitors center to the top of the mountain. Be sure to keep the drivers in mind and use the pull-offs to keep traffic flowing.
- Foothills Parkway – The Foothills Parkway has long been a source of consternation to the people of Tennessee, but if you have a bike with you, you will be hard pressed to find a more beautiful place to ride in the mountains. After a brief climb from Townsend, you will hit a nice relatively straight road that doesn’t see a lot of traffic and is a great place to put some miles on your bike.
And if you are looking to do some mountain biking, don’t be sad because you can’t tackle the trails in the GSMNP. The state parks and national forest
on both sides of the mountains provide plenty of trails that you can get on for the adventure of biking on the mountain. These areas are designed for mountain biking and you will have room to enjoy yourself while practicing this extreme sport.
If you didn’t bring a bike, there are places where you can rent a bike while you are in the area. One of the most popular is the Cades Cove Campground Store. Either while you are staying in the campground or while you are visiting Cades Cove for the day, a bike from the campground store will give you a way to cruise around the campground or to tackle the Cades Cove Loop Road. Also, if you are in one of the towns around the Smokies and you need an accessory for your bike or a repair, there are a number of bike shops ranging from small mom and pop stores to mountain bike shops that can help you replace a chain or a set of brakes.