Smoky Mountain Auto Tour: Cades Cove

Cades Cove historic wooden 19th century log home

Cades Cove is a look into the past. Cades Cove is an open-air museum that preserves some of the material culture of those who last lived there. Preserved homes, churches, and a working mill highlight the 11-mile loop road. Wildlife abounds around the cove and sightings of deer, foxes, wild turkeys, coyotes, woodchucks, raccoons, bears, and red wolves occur. Beautiful mountain vistas climb from the valley floor to the sky. Situated in a limestone window, the result of earthquake activity and erosion, Cades Cove provides fertile habitat. Settlers first came to the cove in 1819, and farmed this land until the Park formed in the 1930s.

The 11-mile loop takes from 1 to 1.5 hours to drive. Traffic is often bumper to bumper, especially in summer months and October. Other opportunities to explore the area include bicycling, walking, hiking, hayrides, horseback riding, and fishing. Rich Mountain Road, a gravel road suitable for 2-wheel drive vehicles, offers a unique perspective of the cove – and a way to escape the traffic. Located near Townsend, this beautiful area receives 2 million visitors each year and is the most crowded park destination.

If you like to tour Cades Cove at a more leisurely pace, bicycles may be rented (April through September) at the Cades Cove Bike Shop. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, starting in May and ending in September, Loop Road is closed to autos – and open to bicycles only from sunrise until 10:00 a.m.

Horses are available for rent in the Cades Cove Riding Stables. The horse back tour is a guided tour along the cool, wooded trails of the mountains, over small streams and up to vistas of trees and wildflowers. The stables are open seasonally from the end of March to the first of November.

A hayride is a unique and fun way to see Cades Cove from April through October. Hayrides are 1.5 hrs from the Cades Cove riding stables and are available daily. Groups of 15 or more may reserve a wagon for day trips as early as 10:00 a.m.

Cades Cove contains more pioneer structures than any other location in the Park. Before the Park was established, the area was extensively cultivated. Today, farming is still permitted there to help maintain the historical scene. Pastures, cattle, and hay combine with old buildings and open vistas to give the cove a pleasing rural aspect.

The homes of John Oliver, Carter Shields, Henry Whitehead and Dan Lawson dot the valley floor and represent a variety of building techniques. The Whitehead home is made from logs sawed square at a nearby mill. Dan Lawson’s home features an unusual chimney made of brick fired on the spot. Other buildings include a smithy, smokehouse, corncribs, and a cantilevered barn.

Three of five original churches remain in Cades Cove today. The oldest among them is the Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1827. These churches and the surrounding cemeteries provide fascination insight into the lives and times of the 19th century. The Baptist Church was forced to close during the height of the Civil War because of its Union sympathies.

Exhibits explain the history of many structures, self-guiding trails interpret the natural scene, and park personnel demonstrate pioneer activities at the Cable Mill on a seasonal basis. Deer and turkey are found in the Cove and woodchucks (groundhogs) are often seen near the road.

For those who enjoy the occasional meal outdoors, Cades Cove is equipped with a picnic area near the campground. Grills and tables are provided, or you may pack a lunch and eat along a trail.