Cades Cove Loop: 7 tips including how long it takes, best time to go

Tipton Place Barn in Cades Cove

The Tipton Place Barn in Cades Cove at the Smoky Mountain National Park (stock photo)

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The Cades Cove Loop, located a few miles beyond the Townsend Park entrance, is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

And it’s a great way to experience the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains – drive-thru style.

But when it comes to navigating Cades Cove like a pro, there are a few things you should know before you go.

Below you will find some of the most commonly asked questions about Cades Cove, answered by yours truly, a local who grew up in the shadow of the park.

Read Also: Meet the Caughrons: The last family to have actually lived in Cades Cove

Black bear in the Smoky Mountains
Black bears are generally not dangerous in the Smoky Mountains, but please practice safe wildlife viewing (stock photo by Don Grall/DanitaDelimont.com)

7. What is the best time to see bears at Cades Cove?

Cades Cove offers an excellent chance to spot wildlife in their natural environment.

Bear, deer and elk, as well as raccoons, turkeys and coyotes, inhabit the mountains surrounding the valley. And they 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. Black bears 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.

The vistas are breathtaking 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.

Traffic in Cades Cove
Traffic can be thick on the Cades Cove Loop (photo by Daniel Munson/thesmokies.com)

6. How far is Cades Cove from Gatlinburg?

There are two ways to get to Cades Cove, coming in from Gatlinburg or from the Townsend entrance.

If you’re coming from Gatlinburg it might be a while before you get the chance to gas up.

If your gas tank is anywhere close to empty, take the right turn at the Wye and go into Townsend for gas. The 10-minute detour will be well worth your effort.

There are few worse feelings in the world than coming into the back half of the Loop and seeing that needle approaching “empty” 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.

The Cades Cove Loop does not have an “address” per see.

But Cades Cove can also be found by plugging in “Cades Cove Loop Rd” into your GPS or Google Maps.

However, it is crucial to note that you will lose cell service on your way up the mountain. Consider printing or taking a screenshot of those directions before you leave town.

Read Also: This is what the Cades Cove Loop looks like without vehicle traffic

Cades Cove visitors center
The Cades Cove Visitor Center near the entrance of the Loop (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

5. Can you picnic at Cades Cove?

Cades Cove is a great place to have 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 and climb over the barbed wire fence.

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.

Cades Cove hidden gems
There is no cell service in Cades Cove (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

4. Is there cell service in Cades Cove?

There is no cell service in the Cove, on the way to the cove, or in the picnic area.

I repeat – 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 grazes just off the road and people from all walks of life and around the world act like they’ve spotted a lion on safari.

Cades Cove closes each night at sunset (photo by jonbilous/stock.adobe.com)

3. Is Cades Cove open at night?

The Loop closes at sundown.

But a few lucky souls have experienced the Cove at nightfall, myself included, and it is a sight to behold.

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.

Nearby Cades Cove Campground and Smokemont Campground are open year-round and require a reservation. 

Visiting Cades Cove is a great way to see wildlife and get your selfie game on, just make sure you follow the rules (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)
Traffic can get backed up on the Cades Cove Loop. If you find yourself short on time, consider taking a shortcut (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

2. Are there shortcuts along the Cades Cove Loop?

There are two shortcuts along the Loop.

The first is only a mile or two in and cuts the 11-mile loop 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 shortcut:

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, a grist mill and a wide variety of pioneer cabins to check out.

But if you’re there for the vistas, by the time you get to the second shortcut, you’ve already 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 destinations in the world and there are days when all of those tourists decide it’s a perfect day to drive the loop.

I love the beauty and nature and all the cool things to see and do at Cades Cove.

But 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 shortcut and get out. Ain’t no deer in the world worth all that.

Abrams Creek and Abrams Falls are among the most popular destinations in Cades Cove (stock photo)
Abrams Creek and Abrams Falls are among the most popular hikes near Cades Cove (stock photo)

1. What are the best Cades Cove hiking trails?

This one isn’t for everyone.

I can’t do it anymore, but when I was a young man, we used to hike the 5-mile round trip to Abrams Falls. Longer hikes to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top also being at the Cove.

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.

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.

What are YOUR best tips for Cades Cove? Let us know in the comments below.

View the web story version of this article here.

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7 thoughts on “Cades Cove Loop: 7 tips including how long it takes, best time to go”

  1. The slow drivers need to park over on the side so others can move on. 3 hrs. For 11 miles. Yikes.

  2. If you’re rite behind a line that stops, grab your camera and high tail it up to the front because they’re looking at something and probably a bear. Honestly, you can’t get around them anyway, so atleast try to get a pic.. Get ur pics and get back the car, maybe you’ll be the first one to see a bear the next time. Be patient and you’ll see animals. O, try not to rear end someone, it happens.

  3. I have found that the Ranger led loop road tours at the end of the day to be one of the best ways to see the park. You can arrange this at the office near the stables. It costs a few dollars and you ride in a farm wagon and sit on hay. The wagon is pulled by a truck. The Ranger is in the wagon with you and will narrate the points of interest along the road as well as answer any questions you may have. They will also explain how to best spot wildlife that most people pass by and never see. These tours are limited in capacity and if you wish to participate, you need to sign up early in the day. We usually sign up for these tours each time we go. I have also walked and ridden a bike around the loop during those times when cars are not allowed. There are several ways to enjoy the Cades Cove Loop. It takes time, and you won’t see everything on one trip.

  4. My husband, my father and myself were there 12/19/2021 and the scenery was absolutely beautiful! We saw some wildlife ( deer and turkey ) but no elk or bears which was what we were really hoping to see but we just lived the creek running along side the road and the beautiful views ! Can’t wait to revisit !

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