Looking for an affordable and breathtaking place to spend a vacation? Look no further than Cades Cove in Townsend, Tennessee. Located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove is a 6,800-acre valley surrounded on all sides by mountains. Rich in wildlife, history and activities, it’s free to visit and open year-round. Whether visiting for a week, a weekend or a day, visitors are sure to create memories that will last a lifetime.
TOURING THE COVE
An 11-mile, one-way road completely encircles Cades Cove. Appropriately called the Loop Road, it’s paved and can be navigated by automobile, motorcycle, bicycle, horse or foot, making this an attraction for everyone, including people with disabilities. Didn’t bring a bicycle? Don’t own a horse? No problem. For $7.50 an hour you can rent bicycles and helmets at the Campground Store and, if you have children under 10, you can get their bikes for $4.50 per hour. For $30 an hour you can visit the Riding Stables and take a guided horseback tour. Motorized hayrides are also available for $12.00 a person.
If you’re considering a bicycle tour but are worried about safety on the road, Cades Cove has you covered. The Loop Road is closed to vehicular traffic until 10 A.M. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This allows for safe and peaceful biking or strolling and is a great way for a family to spend the morning together. If an 11-mile ride is too grueling, you can reduce the distance by taking one of two shortcuts. The first is located at Sparks Lane and represents a mere fraction of the entire eleven miles. The second is at Hyatt Lane and reduces the ride by several miles. If you elect to take one of the shortcuts, you can return later and complete the entire tour by vehicle, enjoying all that Cades Cove has to offer in comfort.
Once a hunting ground for the Cherokee Indians, Cades Cove now serves as a sanctuary for many species of wildlife, some of them endangered. While alert visitors can view deer, wild turkeys and snakes, the majority of them flock to the cove to see the king of the mountain: the majestic black bear. Over 1,500 wild bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and many of them consider Cades Cove their home, making the cove the best place in the park to view bears in their natural habitat. Many cove visitors are treated to multiple bear sightings in a single visit and you can increase your odds by visiting in the early morning hours or later in the evening.
There are more than seventy historic buildings in Cades Cove. These include Carter Shields Cabin, Primitive Baptist Church and Cable Mill, all of which can be explored at your leisure. You will be transported back to a time when Native Americans roamed the cove and settlers first began to arrive. You will stand where they stood as they built cabins, farmed the land and put their dead to rest—and you can learn more about them by visiting the cemeteries and reading the epitaphs on the tombstones. This is history in its unadulterated form. Among other things, you will learn that John Oliver and his wife, Lurena Frazier, were the first white settlers of Cade’s Cove and that they arrived between 1817 and 1818.
ACTIVITIES IN THE COVE
There are plenty activities for the whole family in Cades Cove. Over a dozen hiking trails can be accessed from the Loop Road, including Cooper Road Trail, Cades Cove Nature Trail, and Gregory Bald Hiking Trail. Trout streams are located in the cove and fishing is permitted year-round. A fishing license can be purchased from nearby towns for about ten dollars. Children under the age of 13 are not required to have a fishing license, but they are subject to the same regulations as adults, such as a limit on rainbow trout and a prohibition against possessing brook trout, a threatened species. Cable Mill, a fully operable water-powered grist mill, is located near the halfway point along Loop Road and children are often allowed to operate it and make corn meal. A visitors’ center complete with restrooms is nearby, and postcards, books, stuffed black bears, and other souvenirs can be purchased there. Friendly park rangers are on hand and they offer activities for children and guided tours of the area.
Abrams Falls—a 25-foot waterfall named after Chief Abram of the Cherokee Indians—is located at the end of a 2.5-mile scenic hike. Small children routinely make this hike and it is well worth the minimal effort to behold the tremendous volume of water thundering over the rocky crest and crashing into the spacious pool below, all against the breathtaking backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest. Strong undercurrents and deep water make swimming at the base of Abrams Falls dangerous, but the majority of the large pool is gentle and shallow, offering a great place for the family to cool off after a summer hike.
NOTE: This area holds a special place in my heart…it’s where I dropped down on one knee and proposed to Amanda.
WHERE TO STAY
Cades Cove Campground, open year round, has 159 tent and RV sites. Each site has picnic tables and fire rings. Flushing toilets, running water, a store and wheelchair-accessible sites are available (sites cost $20 per night/day; 877-444-6777; www.recreation.gov).
Mountain Laurel Chalets, located 27 miles away at 440 Ski Mountain Road in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, has over 150 chalets and cabins for rent. Special discounts are available, as well as access to clubhouses with outdoor swimming pools (1- to 3-bedroom chalets from $99; amenities; 800-315-4965; http://www.mtnlaurelchalets.com/).
NOTE: I have used Mountain Laurel Chalets nearly every time I’ve visited and I highly recommend them. They have chalets that can fit anyone’s needs and budget, and the folks there are fantastic and friendly.
WHERE TO EAT
Gatlinburg is home to dozens of excellent restaurants, including Hard Rock Café (515 Parkway; 865-430-7625), the Peddler’s Steakhouse (820 River Rd; 865-436-5794) and Smoky Mountain Brewery (1004 Parkway #501; 865-436-4200).
If you’re looking to save money on food, Cades Cove has a beautiful picnic area equipped with picnic tables and grills, allowing the affordable option of packing and preparing your own food. Additionally, nearly all chalets and cabins from Mountain Laurel Chalets have kitchens and a barbeque pit.
But remember, you’re in bear country and there are laws against feeding bears and—equally important—there are rules regarding the proper disposal and storage of food. Allowing a bear access to human food causes it to start expecting food from humans. This creates a dangerous situation for any humans who will later come into contact with that bear and it places the bear’s life in jeopardy. Brochures on bear safety are available at the visitors’ center and elsewhere in Cades Cove. To ensure you have a safe and memorable experience, be sure to educate yourself and your family before setting off into bear country.
There are plenty of things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but a trip to the area is not complete without a visit to Cades Cove. If you decide to pay a visit to the Cove, load up the family, pack a lunch and bring a camera…you won’t be sorry you did.