Visiting Eastern Tennessee and looking for things to do in Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains?
Here is a detailed guide to driving the Cades Cove Loop Road and exploring its many attractions.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national park in America.
Located in East Tennessee and western North Carolina, the park offers several miles of scenic trails, waterfalls, campgrounds, fishing spots, and auto tours.
Also Read: 18 Best Views of Smoky Mountains
Smoky Mountain park facilities range from hiking to horseback riding trails and picnic sites.
The national park is also famous for its seasonal displays of wildflowers and wildlife.
Most visitors to the Smoky Mountains have Cades Cove on the top of their bucket list.
Also Read: Tennessee Road Trip Itinerary
Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains
Cades Cove is a large grassy valley surrounded by the mountain ranges in the eastern part of the park.
The Cades Cove Loop Road is a 11 mile long loop road that circles the cove and provides access to the attractions in Cades Cove.
The road goes parallel to an old abandoned logging railroad track.
On a leisurely drive along the Cades Cove Loop Road, visitors can see historic buildings, stunning mountain scenery, a beautiful green meadow, and more wildlife than they can ever imagine!
Almost two million visitors come to Cades Cove every year to see the numerous attractions.
Where is Cades Cove located?
Cades Cove is located near the eastern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Townsend, Tennessee.
Follow the Little River Road for 25 miles past the Sugarlands Visitor Center to reach Cades Cove from Gatlinburg.
The drive is 27 miles long and takes about 1.5 hours.
The Cades Cove area is 9 miles from Townsend and 32 miles from Pigeon Forge.
Cades Cove Loop Road Driving FAQs
The scenic Cades Cove Loop Road is one of the most beautiful drives in America.
Here is essential travel information that you need to know before planning to drive the Cades Cover scenic loop.
How long is Cades Cove Loop Road?
The Cades Cove Loop Road is 11 mile long one way scenic loop.
It is paved but very narrow, so be cautious while driving.
Visitors can drive the Cades Cove Loop Road in one direction only and get off only at designated areas.
At what speed can you drive in Cades Cove?
The speed limit on this scenic drive is 20 mph.
You can drive your own car or truck or rent a car in Gatlinburg or nearby towns to explore the area.
You can also get van, ATV, bicycle, and motorcycle rentals near the Smokies.
How much time do you need to drive the route?
Keep aside a minimum of 3 to 4 hours for the Cades Cove tour and see the historic buildings along the road.
If visiting on weekends and during busy summer months, expect traffic delays during peak day hours.
If planning to hike the trails, then we recommend spending a minimum of 6 hours in the area.
For biking the entire 11 mile route, we recommend keeping aside an entire day.
Parking at Cades Cove Loop Road
There is no official parking lot before Cades Cove, but there are various pull-offs and small lots located on the side of the road before the attractions.
The Gristmill Visitor Center has its own parking lot which is large enough to accommodate most visitors.
Always follow the rules of the road and do not block traffic.
Cades Cove Amenities
Cades Cove has only two restrooms.
The first is near the entrance at Cades Cove Campground while the other is at the Visitor Center.
Fill up on gas before you enter the park and carry own food as there are no restaurants in Cades Cove.
You will be able to refill water at the Visitor Center and at the small deli in Campground Store.
When is Cades Cove open?
Cades Cove is open every day of the year from sunrise to sunset.
From June to September, cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicular traffic on Wednesdays.
You can still bike or hike the loop road on this day.
During holidays and winter months, Cades Cove Loop Road may be closed due to weather conditions.
Entry to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is always free and hence, Cades Cove is also free to visit.
Best time to drive Cades Cove
The scenic drive of Cades Cove is just spectacular in the fall.
This is one of our favorite times to go search for colorful fall foliage, bear cubs, and stunning waterfalls.
If coming in peak season, then plan an early morning or late afternoon visit to avoid visitors.
Ways to drive Cades Cove is lesser time
For a shorter loop, you can use Hyatt Lane or Sparks Lane to exit the loop earlier.
However, if you want to see the Grist Mill Visitor Center, then you will need to drive the complete loop.
Best Things to do in Cades Cove
Cades Cove was once home to over 100 settler families.
Did you know that entire Cades Cove area is on the National Register of Historic Places?
This area has a rich and storied history and has been instrumental in settling the Great Smoky Mountains in the 19th century.
On a walk through the structures, you can imagine the life of early settlers.
Learn about the history of Cades Cove
The interpretative signs along the loop road are one of the best ways to understand this area’s history.
Cades Cove was originally a seasonal hunting area for the Cherokee people.
The earliest European settlers and pioneers came here in the 1820s.
Today, you can still see several of the early settler family homes and log cabins on the auto trail.
You can also see churches and a working grist mill, in a beautifully restored condition.
Marvel at the construction of the John Oliver Cabin
The first historic building that you will come across on the Cades Cove road is the John Oliver cabin.
John Oliver was the first settler to live in Cades Cove.
The cabin that he built for his family has been carefully preserved by the National Park Service.
Visitors can walk across the meadow to the cabin and take a look inside to admire its ingenious construction.
The log cabin is held together by gravity without the help of any nails or pegs.
The parking area is immediately after Sparks Lane and the cabin is a 5 minute walk away from the parking lot.
Search for the churches built by settlers
Cades Cove has three churches that were built by the original settlers: Primitive Baptist Church, Methodist Church, and Missionary Baptist Church.
The churches have been beautifully restored and are delightful to see.
The Primitive Baptist Church can be reached via left turn on a small lane past Oliver cabin.
The building was built by hand and you can still see fingerprint marks on the wood ceiling.
The small cemetery behind the Methodist Church is charming and has several interesting grave markers.
Explore the Elijah Oliver Place
Elijah Oliver was the son of John Oliver.
He built a vast homestead complex consisting of the main cabin, a smokehouse, chicken coop, and a corn crib.
Visitors can park along Cades Cove road and walk about 1 mile round trip to the historic pioneer home.
Stop at the Grist Mill Visitor Center
The Grist Mill Visitor Center is midway along the Loop Road in the Cable Mill historic area.
This is the most popular amongst all the historic buildings in Cades Cove.
Here you can see exhibits about the park, explore pioneer buildings, learn about life in Cades Cove in 19th century, buy souvenirs and history books, and talk to park rangers.
See the working Cable Mill
Cable Mill is the only working grist mill in the Smoky Mountains.
It was built in 1867 and has been carefully preserved over the years.
It is fascinating to see the eleven feet tall water wheel drive the millstones and grind the corn into flour!
You can even purchase a fresh ground bag of flour to take home as a souvenir.
The mill is operational in the high season from April to October.
Near the mill, you will find several historic buildings including a barn and a blacksmith.
Admire the architecture of the Henry Whitehead Place
Henry Whitehead Place is one of the grander homes in Cades Cove.
Located on Forge Creek Road, the home has a mixture of log cabin and framed architecture styles.
The frame is built from sawn logs and the fine workmanship is worth the small detour from the scenic drive.
See the brick chimney at Dan Lawson Place
The Dan Lawson Place is one of the few homes in Cades Cove that had a modern brick chimney.
The cabin also served as a post office for Cades Cove.
Marvel at the cantilever barn at Tipton Place
The Tipton Place homestead has many buildings but it is most famous for the cantilever barn.
The current building is a replica of the original built by Billy Tipton, an American Revolution war veteran.
The unique structure makes it one of the popular structures in Cades Cove.
Photograph the charming Carter Shields Cabin
This small one bedroom cabin is just before you exit the loop road.
This is a favorite with photographers during spring and fall.
The rustic porch log cabin looks extremely photogenic surrounded by wildflowers or fall foliage.
Drive the Rich Mountain Road
You can also exit Cades Cove drive via the Rich Mountain Road.
The gravel road is 7 mile long and connects Cades Cove to Townsend.
The winding road offers stunning mountain scenery, views of streams and waterfalls, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
The road is open seasonally from April to November; it is most spectacular during fall.
See Cades Cove on horseback
Cades Cove Riding Stables are located at the beginning of the loop road.
They have has several guided horseback trail rides to explore the nature and wildlife of the Smokies.
They also offer seasonal carriage rides and hayrides.
The fully narrated hay rides are extremely popular with kids and one of the most fun things to do in Cades Cove.
Spot a black bear cub or two
For many visitors, Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains is the first time they encounter a black bear in the wild!
Black bears are a common sight in the Great Smoky Mountains and it is easy to search for them in the park.
They’re generally active at dawn, dusk, and night.
We have often spotted black bear mothers with small cubs while in Cades Cove.
The best time to see the bears is late summer and early fall.
Seeing the bears in Cades Cove is an amazing experience and a favorite with families.
Tip – Keep your distance from the bears and do not feed them.
Enjoy amazing wildlife encounters
Cades Cove, because of its open nature and lack of forested areas, is a favorite spot in the Smokies for wildlife watching.
You can spot several species apart from the black bears on the scenic drive.
Commonly seen animals while driving the loop include deer, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, beavers, wild hogs, squirrels, racoons, turkeys, owls, and even turtles.
However, you won’t see any elk in this area of the Great Smoky Mountains National park.
The best time to spot wildlife along Cades Cove is at dusk and dawn.
We recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars and telephoto zoom lens to see the animals.
Bike the Cades Cove scenic drive
Visitors can also explore the historic buildings and attractions in Cade Cove on a bike ride.
In fact, the Cades Cove is a great place to explore on along and leisurely ride.
You can bring your own bikes for the entire family.
Cades Cove also has bike rentals nearby near the Cades Cove campground store.
On the ride, you can admire the scenery without worrying about traffic jams and parking spots.
Have a delicious meal at the Cades Cove picnic area
Pack a picnic meal in Gatlinburg or Townsend and enjoy it in the picnic area.
Here you will find several picnic tables and gorgeous backdrop of the Smoky Mountains.
After the meal, kids can run free while adults can relax in the beautiful surroundings.
Enjoy the Fall Colors
The Great Smoky Mountains National park is known for its fall foliage and the Cades Cove drive is one of the best places to see the leaves change colors.
While you can generally see some splashes of fall colors anywhere from September end to early November, we recommend planning your trip during last two weeks of October for peak color.
The maples, oaks, and dogwoods turn yellow, orange, and red making Cades Cove a delightful sight.
Hiking in Cades Cove
Several hiking trails begin in Cades Cove including the famous Abrams Falls trail.
Here are favorite hikes to include on your Cades Cove auto tour.
Cades Cove Nature Trail
Cades Cove Nature Trail is a great family friendly hike in Smoky Mountain National Park.
The simple walk follows the loop and allows visitors to explore the nature and wildlife.
Abrams Falls Trail
The Abrams Falls hiking trail takes visitors to Abrams Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Smokies.
The hike is 5 miles long round trip, of moderate difficulty, and takes about fours hours to complete.
The trailhead is just past the Elijah Oliver Place near the wooden bridge.
The trail follows the charming Abrams Creek over steep inclines and through the dense forest.
At the end, you will find the stunning 20 feet tall Abrams Fall roar over the rocky terrain.
The swimming hole at the bottom of the falls looks inviting but is dangerous because of the strong currents.
Gregory Bald Trail
The beautiful Gregory Bald Trail in Cades Cove is a favorite with nature lovers.
This strenuous roundtrip hike is over 11 miles long but totally worth the views!
The hike also has an elevation gain of almost 3000 feet.
In spring and summer, the trail blooms with azaleas while in fall you are treated to the fiery colors on the mountainside.
From the top, you can see stunning bird eye views of Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, and Clingmans Dome.
The hike can be completed as a day hike in 7 to 8 hours or done as an overnight trail.
Rich Mountain Loop Trail
This 8.5 mile strenuous hike takes visitors to the highest point on Rich Mountain Loop.
The trail is popular for wildflowers, mountain scenery, and wildlife.
This trail is also great for horseback riding.
Cooper Road Trail
Cooper Road was used by the settlers to access Cades Cove.
This almost 11 mile round trip trail is of moderate difficulty level.
The trail offers amazing views of the Smokies and Abrams Creek.
The trail takes visitors to Abrams Creek campground.
Where to stay near Cades Cove?
Visitors can either stay in the Cades Cove campground or get one of the charming cabin rentals in the Smokies for your trip.
There are a lot of cabins for all visitors in the region.
Families can rent a large home while couples can stay in charming cabins with a porch and hot tub.
Towns like Gatlinburg or Cherokee make excellent spots to see Cades Cove.
Gatlinburg, especially, is a great place to explore the Smokies because of its wide variety of fun attractions from theme parks and restaurants to festivals and shopping.
Best Time to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The best time to visit Smoky Mountains National Park is during the month of October when the leaves take on their autumn hues of red, orange and yellow.
This is the perfect time to see peak colors in Cades Cove.
Other popular times to visit are late spring and summer.
Winter in Smokies is harsh and cold. It even snows on the higher elevations.
We hope you liked our guide to best things to do in Cades Cove, Smoky Mountains.
Did me miss any exciting activities or attractions? Let us know in the comments.
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