Cades Cove Loop is an 11-mile, one-way road that circles one of the most beautiful valleys in the Great Smoky National Park. Whether your biking Cades Cove or driving, it’s the perfect place to see historic cabins or watchable wildlife. Just off the Loop, you’ll find day hikes and waterfalls.
While visiting, you’ll also have the opportunity for camping and horseback riding. You’ll find all these adventures and more in our complete guide to Cades Cove.
Cades Cove Loop Road
Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile circuit that slowly, leisurely travels around the valley, which offers visitors a chance to explore without leaving the comfort and safety of their cars. Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove Loop and visit some of the historic cabins. Plan to stay longer if you want to go hiking or experience trail riding.
Traffic is heavy during the summer and fall and on weekends year-round so drive nice, relax, and enjoy the experience. Also, don’t be ‘that guy’ and use pullouts when stopping to enjoy the scenery or view wildlife. You will want to arrive early to enjoy the lightest traffic, wildlife viewing along Cades Cove Loop, and the gorgeous valley draped in a blanket of mist.
Brief History of Cades Cove
Cherokee Indians hunted in Cades Cove for hundreds of years before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1820s. In fact, the valley is named for a Tsiya’hi leader known as Chief Kade, and its largest waterfall is named after another local chief, Abraham of Chilhowee.
The early settlers cleared the land for farming and built their homesteads, primarily growing corn in the fertile valley. The temperance movement and Civil War caused some division, which spawned new churches from the original Primitive Baptist Church founded by the first permanent resident, John Oliver.
Cades Cove was a tight-knit community where neighbors gathered for corn husking, corn milling, molasses making, and gathering chestnuts. It was these communal events that fostered courtships and marriages. The entire valley came together for funerals, with the church bells tolling once for each year of the deceased life. The settlement was small enough that the sounds would typically allow the community to know precisely who passed.
The National Park Service began acquiring land in 1927. Some villagers willingly moved or accepted a life-long lease for their property. Others, like John W. Oliver, fought a prolonged court battle to keep their home. Kermit Caughron was the last of the permanent Cove residents who lived in Cades Cove until shortly before his death in 1999 at age 86. Today his home, a former one-room schoolhouse, and a collection of other historic buildings are preserved for visitors along Cades Cove Loop.
Historic Cabins at Cades Cove
Historic structures dot Cades Cove from almost 200 years of continuous habitation. From John Oliver’s first cabin in 1820 to Kermit Caughron’s house, where he sold honey to travelers on Cades Cove Loop well into the 1990s, you’ll see the thriving and entrepreneurial spirit of the Appalachian homesteaders. No wonder the National Register of Historic Places lists the Cades Cove Historic District.
Photographers love the John Cable grist mill with its idiomatic overshot wheel and the picturesque split rail fences, the idiomatic Tipton Barn, and dogwoods surrounding the Carter Shields Cabin. History buffs enjoy visiting Elijah Oliver’s homestead and the Visitor Center’s living museums at the back of the Cades Cove loop. Below is a table that briefly describes the historic structures we’ve placed on our interactive Cades Cove map.
|John Oliver Place||1820||First settlers of Cades Cove. No pegs or nails in building. Last building occupied.|
|Primitive Baptist Church||1887||Look for the handprint on the ceiling in the sap|
|Methodist Church||1902||The building has two front doors so men and women could attend separately|
|Missionary Baptist Church||1915||The congregation formed in 1841 and had no church for 50 years|
|Elijah Oliver Place||1865||The complex is a well preserved 1800s Appalachian pioneer homestead|
|Cable Mill||1867||Still a working grist mill 150 years later|
|Becky Cable House||1879||Home of a remarkable pioneer woman who lived to be 96|
|Henry Whitehead Place||1881||The only square-sawed log home that remains in Cades Cove|
|Lawson Place||1856||Also served as the Cades Cove post office|
|Tipton Barn||1968||double-cantilever barn; based on original design|
|Tipton Cabin||1870||Connstructed by Colonel Hamp Tipton, a Cades Cove land prospector|
|Carter Shields Cabin||1880||Perfect photo op with split rail fence and a stand of dogwoods|
Biking Cades Cove Loop
Slow speeds, beautiful pavement, and just the right amount of turns make Cades Cove a fun place to ride. The beautiful scenery makes it epic. The availability of water at the visitor center at the back of the loop and only 600′ of rolling hills makes Cades Cove accessible to even the casual cyclist, especially on Wednesdays, when the entire Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to motorized vehicles. Even on regular days, rangers will often allow cyclists to head out on the Loop before the gates open.
If you didn’t bring your bike, rent one from the Cades Trading Company, located right next to the campground. Biking Cades Cove Loop is one of the best ways to enjoy the park and a must-do for riders and cycling enthusiasts. While you’re there, pick up a sandwich or a drink from their deli.
Cades Coves Trails
Cades Cove trails offer some of the best hiking in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Trails range from easy walks to the Elijah Oliver Place to lung-busting treks to the Appalachian Trail that run the ridgeline from Gregory Bald to Rocky Top. Yes, that Rocky Top, whose summit ironically isn’t in Tennessee but actually in neighboring North Carolina.
Some of the classic hikes in Cades Cove include going to Abrams Falls, the biggest waterfall (by volume) in the park. Most hikes opt for the five-mile out-and-back, but there are two loop options available if you’re looking for a challenge. If you like loop hikes, you’ll love the Rich Mountain Loop, which also you can start by parking outside the entrance to the driving loop. You can drive the park first thing in the morning and hike Rich Mountain (or Anthony Creek) after the Loop gets clogged up by looky-loos. We’ve included the eight best hikes in Cades Cove in the following table sorted by difficulty and placed the trailheads and highlights on our interactive Cades Cove Map. All that’s left is to pack for a day hike and hit the trail 😉
|Trail||Trail Type||Distance (miles)||Elevation gain (ft)|
|Cades Cove Nature Trail (Pin Oak)||Loop||0.8||200|
|Elijah Oliver Place||Out and back||1.2||100|
|Abrams Falls||Out and back||4.9||630|
|Abrams Falls / McCully Ridge||Loop||11.1||1825|
|Abrams Falls / Copper Road||Loop||12.9||2100|
|Gregory Ridge||out and back||11.6||3360|
|Anthony Creek / Leadbetter Ridge||Loop||12.9||3250|
Cades Cove Waterfalls
Everybody knows that Abrams Falls is one of the best waterfalls in the Smokies, but there are three Cades Cove waterfalls for hikers to enjoy. The next waterfall to visit is Crooked Arm Cascades off the Rich Mountain Loop. It’s only a mile away from the trailhead, but you’ll have to go off-trail at the end for the best views of the falls. The relative ease of this hike and the fact that you park outside the Cades Cove Loop makes this a perfect little adventure to close out a day at the park.
If you want more of a challenge, try locating the elusive Mill Creek Falls. From the visitor center, head upstream on Mill Creek (away from Abrams Falls) for about 4-miles until you find the falls. This is one of the hikes where it’s not the distance but the trail condition that makes it so difficult. The Mill Creek Trail hasn’t been maintained for some time, so you’re in for a bushwhacking adventure. Some say Mill Creek Falls are the prettiest waterfalls in Cades Cove, but you have to be an experienced hiker to attempt this trail.
One thing is certain, Cades Cove has some of the best hiking trails in the Smokies. Bring your boots and bug spray and find a little adventure off Cades Cove Loop.
Cades Cove Horseback Riding
Cades Cove Riding Stables offer hour-long guided trail rides or 45-minute guided carriage rides from their stables located within Cades Cove. They also offer popular guided hay-rides that are fun for the whole family.
If you have your own horse, there’s a drive-in horse camp located near the Anthony Creek Trailhead. Horses are allowed only on trails specifically designated for horse use, but there are more than 550-miles of horse trails in Great Smoky National Park. Off-trail or cross-country riding is prohibited. Horse riders may use designated campsites. However, some backcountry campsites require reservations. Check with the park’s horse riding page for more details.
Camping in Cades Cove
Cades Cove Campground is open year-round with the peak season from May through October. During this time, rangers offer interpretive programs at the nearby amphitheater, and the camp store is open. During the winter months, there is limited service and reduced campsites.
The main Cades Cove campground has 164 sites situated in three loops. Loop A has five sites reserved for disabled visitors. There are 31 tent-only sites on loops B and C. Be aware that Loop C doesn’t allow generators during the night, which is perfect for tent camping. Even with all the sites, you’ll need a reservation available on a six-month advance rolling basis from the park website.
Towns Near Cades Cove
Cades Cove is near many of the top tourist destinations in Eastern Tennessee. Below are the Cades Cove gateway towns with the approximate mileage to the entrance gate and a short description of the local scene:
- Townsend (11 miles) – AKA ‘The quiet side of the Smokies’. The closest town to Cades Cove with surprisingly good restaurants and cabin rentals.
- Pigeon Forge (26 miles) – Family fun with Dollywood and more.
- Sevierville (30 miles) – A touch of outdoor romance with a dash of Pigeon Forge fun and heaping helpings of hometown hospitality.
- Gatlinburg (30 miles) – Imagine the Los Vegas Strip in the Smoky Mountains. Hike in the morning and play in the evening.
- Knoxville (45 mile) – Cades Cove is a perfect getaway from the big city.
Final Thoughts on Cades Cove Loop
Cades Cove Loop is an 11-mile one-way road through one of the most beautiful valleys in Great Smoky National Park. It allows cars and cyclists, hikers and horses to access the expansive trails and historic buildings of Cades Cove.
Springtime brings wildflowers while summer provides a canopy of crisp green leaves and the blue swimming holes of Abrams Creek. Perhaps the most magical time of year is autumn when the hills blaze with brilliant fall color. No matter when you visit, we hope that you enjoy Cades Cove safely and responsibly.
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