It would have been spring of 1990. I was a 14-year-old freshman about to leave his friends and family in Southern Indiana to follow his stepdad down to East Tennessee.
Mom and Joe hadn’t been married long. Joe’s job transferred him in the middle of the school year down to Maryville. It was our second major move in three years. I’m sure I didn’t think about it then, but today I’m old now enough that I can imagine the stress he faced.
The anxiety of a new job? Check.
Separation from a new family you’re really just getting to know? Check.
Worry about how the new family is going to adjust to another major life change? Check.
Therefore Joe really wanted to impress us when we came down on spring break for a visit to scope out the area.
My first experience at Cades Cove
So we found ourselves on a beautiful spring day going to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We set off to drive the Cades Cove Loop and took the Abrams Falls Trail to see a waterfall.
I was wearing a brand new, gray University of Tennessee T-shirt for the occasion. I expertly blended in with the locals. That is until a fellow traveler seeking natural beauty and possessing a little too much of an inquisitive mind asked me where the University of Tennessee was located.
“Man, I don’t know,” I told him between panting breaths. “They just gave me a T-shirt.”
I remember a lot of that hike, partially because we were a tad underprepared. I was ready to drink directly out of Abrams Creek on the way back – which is not recommended, by the way.
But I also remember the wildflowers and the way the pine trees nestled along the side of the mountain. But the pine trees in particular because I was keeping a keen eye out for black bears hiding amongst them.
I can also recall the gravel road and the parking lot. And certainly the up and down hike back to the falls. I remember striking out confidently.
But despite the relative hardships – the falls and Cades Cove made quite an impression.
Does Cades Cove have waterfalls?
When we finally moved to Tennessee, we found a home near the Porter community. It was not terribly far away from Townsend and the Cove.
We returned many times over the years to drive the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, explore the historic buildings and the historic cabins. And yes, take the popular hikes back to the falls near the Cove.
There are two waterfalls in relatively close proximity to Cades Cove.
As you might imagine over the years, we’ve learned a lot about these waterfalls from first-hand experience. And we’ve managed to learn from others’ mistakes, too.
And so, in this article, we will talk about these two waterfalls – Abrams Falls and Laurel Falls – and how to find them.
We will also tell you everything you need to know before you go so you’re a bit more prepared than we were on our inaugural journey.
1. Abrams Falls
Abrams Falls is beautiful but powerful.
Unlike some of the other Cades Cove waterfalls or other waterfalls in the Smokies, Abrams Falls is a relatively short 20-feet high. But it moves a massive amount of water.
The falls themselves, named for a Cherokee chief whose village was several miles downstream, are impressive and powerful.
Abrams Creek is referred to as a creek. But I’ve seen mountain streams and rivers that are not as wide or moving such a large volume of water.
Over the years, I’ve been to several of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Specifically, places like Mingo Falls, Grotto Falls or the Ramsey Cascades. I’m not sure where I’d rank Abrams Falls amongst the most gorgeous waterfalls in the park, but they are certainly among the best waterfalls or at least the most memorable.
Like the vast majority of trails in the Smokies, neither pets nor bicycles are allowed. The trail can be rocky. And proper hiking shoes are recommended.
The trail does run along some ridges with steep drops, so it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on small children.
And you should always be prepared for black bears and other wildlife in the area.
The turnoff for the trailhead is located past stop #10 on the Cades Cove Loop Road.
How long does it take to hike Abrams Falls?
It’s a five-mile round trip hike to the falls and back. When you’re an active 14-year-old, a few miles doesn’t sound especially daunting.
However, if you wish to be better informed than my poor, ignorant former self, you should know the five-mile hike is considered moderate in difficulty.
Certainly, if you’re a regular hiker, you should be able to handle it just fine. Conversely, if you’re a cocky teen in a pair of British Knight high tops who drank all his water before you even reached the falls, you might consider it to be a difficult trail.
The hike to the falls takes a good three to four hours.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about people not allowing enough time to beat dusk. Remember that it gets dark earlier when you’re in the Cove because the surrounding mountains mean the fading sun can’t cast its light down into the crevices.
I promise you, hiking out of that trail in the dark is not fun.
But if you plan well, the Abrams Fall Trail is a great hike. You travel through a pine-oak forest up on the ridges and along hemlock and rhododendron down by the creek.
It is a place of exceptional beauty.
Can you swim in Abrams Falls?
You’re not supposed to swim at Abrams Falls.
The long, deep pool at the base of the falls is, again, unlike most of the others in the park. And would be perfect for swimming and cooling off if not for the strong currents and undertow.
We’ve seen people climbing around the falls and swimming in the deep pool, but the National Park Service stresses that it’s very dangerous to do so.
Several people have gotten too close to the falls and been pulled back under. Some of them have drowned. Others have tried to climb the slippery rocks above the falls and fallen suffering serious injuries or even death.
2. Laurel Falls
Another popular waterfall in the cove is Laurel Falls. The 80-foot waterfall is named after mountain laurel.
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center and driving toward Cades Cove, it is 3.5 miles to the trailhead. There is parking available on both sides of the road.
How long does it take to walk to Laurel Falls?
The hike to the Laurel Falls is 2.6 miles and takes around two hours to walk.
The trail is paved at the trailhead, but the pavement is uneven and rough. The park service grades Laurel Falls as moderate in difficulty.
Pets and bicycles are prohibited.
Can you swim at Laurel Falls?
You cannot swim at Laurel Falls due to the shallow water. As a general rule of thumb, park policy warns against swimming near any waterfall as it’s far too easy to be pulled under by currents.
What else can you do at Cades Cove?
Above all, what I like about coming to Cades Cove is there are so many options.
You can do a waterfall hike, visit Elijah Oliver Place or the Grist Mill or just soak in the spectacular mountain views in the lower section of the 11-mile Loop Road. You could even do one of the longer hikes in the area if you feel so inclined.
It’s like a Smoky Mountain choose your own adventure. And no matter what you choose, you’re going to have the best time.
There are so many things to do outside the Cades Cove area, but there’s a good reason so many people come to the Cove each year. It’s like a microcosm of all the best things the park has to offer, all conveniently located along a one-way loop road.
Have you ever been to the Cove? Have you seen either of the above-mentioned waterfalls? Let us know in the comments.