Cades Cove is one of the true wonders of the Smoky Mountains.
Known for sweeping views, wildlife watching and connection to pre-national park history, the Cove is the single most popular destination for Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors.
It sees more than two million people coming to this section of the park annually.
How, you might ask, can there be hidden gems in a place so well visited?
Well, Cades Cove is vast with a history that predates settlers arriving in the valley and carving a life in the wilderness.
It is possible to ride the Loop Road, soak in the sights, get out and explore the cabins, the barns, the churches and graveyards and still not see everything Cades Cove has to offer.
Here are some of the best Cove’s hidden (or under-appreciated) secrets and gems:
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5. The best view in Cades Cove: Mollie’s Butt
I had an opportunity to speak with Rex Caughron a few years back.
The son of the late Kermit and Lois Caughron, Rex was raised in the Cove and maintained a lease there into the 90s. His daddy was born in the Cove in 1910 and was raised up in the days before the park.
Rex’s daughters, a couple of whom I knew in high school and college, were the last generation of the family to be raised in the Cove.
There are few people in this world who know that area better than Rex. One of the things I asked him was for his favorite view in the Cove. He told me about Mollie’s Butt.
You can see it just as you’re entering the loop.
“Look to the left, look right over the stables and you can see it,” he said. “It looks like a horseshoe. They don’t call it a horseshoe, though. They call it Mollie’s Butt.”
“I like to stand there and just look.”
4. Gregory’s Cave
Gregory’s Cave is located in the vicinity of the John Oliver Cabin. It is one of the largest caves in an area known for them.
The cave is gated off to prevent visitors from venturing too far into its depth, but you can see down into the cave fairly well.
There’s a nice picnic area to stop and rest. The cave, which belonged to J.J. Gregory in the days before the park, was the only commercial cave in the park’s history.
Gregory would charge 50 cents for the entrance and had added wooden walkways and electric lights. The cave may have been used for saltpeter mining in the early 1800s.
Entrance to the cave is only permitted by the National Park Service. It’s usually limited to scientific exploration.
3. The Pearl Harbor tree
Several families remained in the Cove in the years after the creation of the national park, residing on five-year leases.
Among them was a man named Golman Myers. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Myers, who had two older sons of draft age, wanted to commemorate the day.
He planted a small sapling and placed an old car rim around it for protection. Over the years, the tree has grown to more than 60 feet tall. It is often recognizable by the American flags that visitors have left in commemoration of service.
There’s a pull-off about three and a half miles into the Loop Road, about a half of a mile from the Missionary Baptist Church.
A short walk to the west, you’ll find a clearing on the left side of the road. The hill you need to climb to reach the tree is right where the tree line meets the road.
2. Henry Whitehead House
This house, built in 1898, is located off the loop and on Forge Creek Road.
While the cabin’s location is well documented, most visitors to the park stay on the loop, seeing the cabins and the sites along the main route.
The Whitehead House, however, is an example of a more higher-end construction than many of the other cabins in the area.
Whitehead was a carpenter by trade. He built the house with its relatively luxurious (for the time) brick chimney for his second wife Matilda Shields Gregory, whose first husband had run off and left her and her son.
The bricks for the chimney were made on site. The home is one of the finer examples of construction in the area with logs that fit tightly together, leaving little room for drafts.
To see the cabin, take the Forge Creek Road, located just beyond the visitor’s center. The road is closed from November to March.
1. Rich Mountain Road
Finally, closed from November to May, Rich Mountain Road isn’t for the faint of heart. Rex Caughron told me about riding a bus over that mountain to get to school when he was young and, having driven the road, I simply can’t imagine it. Rich Mountain Road is a white-knuckler.
It’s got more twists than a Chubby Checker record and leads back through some of the most remote country any visitor to the Smokies is likely to see without going on a back-country hike.
I want to impress upon you, if you’re a nervous driver or prone to nerves, leave this one alone.
The road passes the Indian Grave Gap Trailhead, a trail that does not feature any known Indian Graves but does offer beautiful views and a wildflower known as the flame azalea with bright orange blossoms that peak in June and July.
It’s a serious hike that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.
Continuing on Rich Mountain Road, you’ll eventually leave the park into Townsend. Follow Old Cades Cove Road until it ends at Old Tuckaleechee Road.
Either direction on Old Tuckaleechee will get you to Highway 321 where you can make your way back to the park or on to Wears Valley and Pigeon Forge.
It’s an off-the-beaten-path adventure most tourists never experience. But it offers a taste of what living in the park meant for families who needed to get out to go to town.
Are there any gems we should add to the list? What are your favorite Smoky Mountain secrets? Let us know in the comments below.
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