An insider’s guide to Cades Cove in 8 easy tips

Double- Cantilever Barn at the Tipton Place in Cades Cove at the Smoky Mountain National Park

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Experience drive thru wonder and awe, all the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with walking and hiking optional.

The Cades Cove Loop, located a few miles beyond the Townsend  Park Entrance is one of the magnificent sights in the park. With the added bonus of being easily accessible – even for those with mobility issues – the loop offers something for everyone. But growing up in the shadow of the loop, there are a few things that locals learn to maximize the Cades Cove experience.

Deer in Cades Cove. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo by John Gullion/

#8 — Want to see animals? Go early or stay late.

For many, Cades Cove offers the best chance to see wildlife in their natural environs. Bear, deer, and now elk, inhabit the mountains surrounding the valley and often traverse the wide fields in an effort to get from one side to the other, to graze or just enjoy the sun on their fur. Deer sightings are frequent. Bear are more common than they were 20 years ago and the elk are still a relatively recent reintroduction to the park and are rare. If you see an elk, count yourself among the lucky. There’s a chance you can see wild animals any time of the day in the park but in the heat of the day, they tend to bed down and rest. They are more active in the mornings and evenings and you’ll have a better chance of seeing something truly special at those times. You also get the added bonus of seeing the park at dusk. The vistas are breath-taking all the time, but when the sun begins to set in the west and cast its hues of oranges, yellows and reds across the valley onto the eastern mountains, it’s a sight you won’t forget.

#7 — Don’t try and be a hero with a gas tank.

There are two ways to get to Cades Cove, coming in from Gatlinburg or from the Townsend entrance. If you’re coming from Gatlinburg you’ll go a decent ways without a chance to gas up. If you’re anywhere close to E, take the right turn at the Wye and go into Townsend for gas. It won’t take 10 or 15 extra minutes and it could save a lot of anxiety. There are few worse feelings in the world then coming into the back half of the loop and seeing that needle approaching E as you’re stuck behind a line of tourists excitedly snapping pictures of a groundhog. Cades Cove Loop road rage is a real thing… and it is ugly.

A Creek in Cades Cove, Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Photo by John Gullion/

#6 — Take a picnic.

There’s a fantastic picnic area just outside the entrance to the park with plenty of shade and a creek running along either side. But if you want the romantic Cades Cove experience – pack a picnic lunch and blanket, pick a spot on the first half of the loop, get out of the car, climb over the barbed wire fence and lay your blanket down for an old fashioned style picnic. If you’re a little shy, maybe hike a bit and pick a spot out of the line of sight of the passing motorists, who will gawk.  Let’s face it. They’re there to see animals and if the deer and bear are in the hills, you’re the next best thing they’ve got. But, if you can get past the feeling of being on display, there are few more truly tranquil things in life, than finding a beautiful spot and just soaking in the beauty around you. If you have kids this is a terrible option. Take them to the picnic ground and let them play in the water. But if you’re looking for some tranquility, there are few better spots.

#5 — Coordinate your meet-ups beforehand.

There is no cell service in the Cove. There is no cell service on the way to the cove. There is no cell service in the picnic area. There. Is. No. Cell. Service. In Cades Cove your cell phone is nothing more than a camera – and possibly a device to entertain yourself in the inevitable traffic jam that occurs when a family of deer graze just off the road and people from all walks of life and around the world act like they’ve spotted a lion on safari.

#4— Figure out a way to see it at night.

The Loop closes at sundown so seeing the park at night isn’t exactly easy. But in high school, my friend’s 15-year-old Volkswagen Cabriolet broke down at the entrance to Abrams Falls. It was a long wait for the Park Ranger to come, contact a tow truck and get the tow truck to us. (Thank God for AAA.) We spent much of the time lying on the VW’s hood and staring up at the stars. I’ve lived in some rural places, far away from the lights of humanity but I have never been closer to the stars than I was that night. Of course, there are many places in the mountains where you can look up and see the sky, but I think it was that wide view, across the empty fields, unencumbered by trees or even the mountains. I would have given anything for a telescope that night. But, then again, I’m not sure I really needed it.

#3 — Keep the shortcut in play.

There are two shortcuts along the loop. The first is only a mile or two in and cuts the loop from 11 to 4 miles. Don’t take that one unless you’re hiking or biking and have decided the full thing is just too much. The second shortcut, however, is a vital escape tool. There are two main factors to consider when assessing your need for the short cut:

a. What do you want out of this trip?

If it’s sweeping views and magnificent vistas, the shortcut may be for you. The first half of the loop is by far the more visually impressive. The view to the East is significantly better than the view to the West and much of the back half of the loop is spent in the woods. It’s cool, if you like that sort of thing, and there are plenty of things like the Cades Cove Nature Trail, the hike to Abrams Falls and a wide variety of cabins to check out. But if you’re there for the vistas, by the time you get to the second shortcut, you’ve seen the best the loop has to offer.

b. Cades Cove traffic

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited tourist destination in the world and there are days when all of those tourists – every damn one – decide it’s a perfect day to drive the loop. I love Cades Cove. I love the beauty and the nature and all the cool things to see and do. But the when you see a line of brake lights stretching off into the distance like it’s rush hour in Atlanta, it’s time to cut bait and get the hell out. I’ve come close to exiting the family car and hiking back, promising to see my family if they ever make it through. If the traffic is terrible and the cars are crawling, save yourself. Take the short cut and get out. Ain’t no deer in the world worth all that.

Hiking Along Abrams Creek In Cades Cove

#2 — Experiece the Cades Cove Loop on a vehicle-free day

Speaking of traffic, if enjoying nature with a side of taillights isn’t your jam, you have options.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials recently announced the implementation of vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road each Wednesday, from June 17 through September 30 2020, as part of a pilot study to improve the visitor experience. Whether or not this change will be permanent remains to be seen.

#1 — Hike to Abrams Falls

Look. This one isn’t for everyone. I can’t do it anymore. But when I was a young man, we used to make the hike. It’s just hard enough to make it an accomplishment and the reward is a beautiful waterfall and ice cold water to cool off. Be careful. Don’t get your shoes, pants or socks wet because the hike back is real and chafing is the devil’s work. But if you can do it, Abrams Falls is a highlight of any trip to the Cove and it’s one that can’t be seen from the backseat of a Hyundai.

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Location: Cades Cove Loop Road, Townsend, TN 37882

Hours: Varies by season

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