It is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A 6,800-acre valley roughly 31 miles from Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Cades Cove is known for its rich history, picturesque landscape and plenty of opportunity for adventure – provided visitors are willing to get off the beaten path and explore.
“Cades Cove is beautiful,” said Zan Larner of Indianapolis, Ind. “Most people never get out of their car, though. They drive the 11-mile loop through the park, view it from their dashboard and drive on to Gatlinburg. Just getting out of the car will improve the experience of Cades Cove by about 100 percent.”
A trip through time
Although there is evidence to suggest that people lived in the Cades Cove area as early as 6500 BC, prior to 1797 the valley was home to Cherokee Indians. They called the fertile land “Tsiyahi,” which means “land of the river otter.”
In 1818, John Oliver and Lurena Fraizer became the first Europeans to settle in the Rich Mountain Loop. The two struggled to survive the difficult winters and often relied on the generosity of their indigenous neighbors to keep from starving.
Oliver and Frazier were not alone for long. By the 1820s, more settlers arrived and began installing the infrastructure necessary to create a thriving agricultural community.
In 1927, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina began purchasing the land that would eventually become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While some of Cades Cove readily sold their property, others fought to remain
on-site for the rest of their lives.
By the mid-1940s, the last of the Cades Cove residents had moved on or passed away, clearing the way for the National Parks Service to assume the land at last. They immediately got to work preserving and restoring the historic buildings to their 19th-century aesthetic so that future generations could appreciate them.
“There are some amazing historical buildings to tour in Cades Cove,” said Angela Richard, who recently spent a long weekend in the area. “John Oliver’s cabin is there, as well as the Primitive Baptist Church, the blacksmith shop, a grist mill and more.”
While the main loop is accessible by car daily, on Wednesdays from May through September, the loop is closed so hikers and cyclists can explore at their leisure. Jennifer Hudspeth said this is one of the best ways to get the full experience of Cades Cove and enjoy two separate bear stops along the way. There are also several hiking trails that are perfect off-the-beaten-path options for every level of adventurer.
The 4.2-mile Abrams Falls and the shorter Cades Cove Nature Trail are perfect for beginners, while the Anthony Creek Trail is a moderate 3.5 miles that can be combined with connecting trails to reach Rocky Top on Thunder Mountain, Spence Field and Russell Field. For those looking for an extra challenge, the Rich Mountain Loop, combined with the Indian Grave Gap and Crooked Arm Ridge, makes for an 8.7-mile trek that offers sweeping mountain views and fragrant wildflowers in the spring and summer.
Looking for something a little different? Enjoy Cades Cove on horseback. The Cades Cove Riding Stables offers guided horseback tours from mid-March to November. Trail rides range from 45 minutes to several hours and are conducted at an easy pace. Hayrides around the loop are also available.
When it’s time to take a break, the Cades Cove picnic area offers 80 sites to sit and enjoy a bite to eat. It even has flushable toilet facilities.
Ready to bed down for the night? The Cades Cove campground has tent and RV camping for $25. These spaces fill up fast, though so be sure to book a spot well in advance.
“My go-to place in the Smokies is the top of Mount LeConte,” Hudspeth said. “There is a lodge up there where you can spend the night after hiking. It is amazing.”
Communing with nature
The open nature of Cades Cove makes it a perfect place to see Smoky Mountain wildlife, including white-tailed deer, black bears, raccoons, turkeys and woodchucks. Naturally, all of the animals should be observed from a distance, and although it may be tempting to interact with some of the seemingly docile creatures, visitors are strongly encouraged to leave the animals in peace and to maintain a respectful distance.
“The last time I was there, I sat at the base of a tree for about 10 minutes just taking in the water, mountains and essentially ‘forest bathing.’ A small doe walked within 15 feet of me: It was a magical moment I will remember forever,” Larner said.
Richard said Cades Cove is the perfect place to visit for those who like to be physically active as well as those with mobility issues. Visitors can even have an amazing experience from the comfort of their car. “I make this trip annually and do a lot of hiking. Cades Cove is always on my to-do list,” she said.