If you’re visiting Pigeon Forge for a family cabin vacation, you must drive along Cades Cove Loop road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This 11-mile, circular roadway offers a scenic one-way trip amidst a picturesque backdrop of stunning mountain views, a verdant landscape, abundant wildlife, and well-preserved historical structures.
Although it’s a single-lane road, there are several turn-outs and parking lots to pull over, park, and take photos or stretch your legs while you take in the scenery.
Below we have outlined a few things you need to know in advance if you want to explore Cades Cove like a pro.
Cades Cove was once home to early European settlers
The first European residents arrived in the area between 1818 and 1821. By the time the National Parks movement started in the 1920s, more than a hundred people had built their homes in the Cove.
However, in 1927, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill authorizing the Park Commission to use eminent domain and confiscate properties within the proposed park boundaries.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which included the Cove, was officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in September 1940.
Thankfully, some of these early settlers' homesites and buildings have been restored and are now open to the public.
These structures include log cabins, homesteads, churches, double cantilever barns, and a water-powered grist mill.
Simply put, a drive around the Cades Cove Loop gives curious sightseers the unique opportunity to learn more about the area's fascinating past and German, Swedish, and Irish architectural influences that the European settlers brought with them.
You can reach Cades Cove from Gatlinburg or Townsend entrance
Depending on your point of departure, there are multiple routes that can take you to Cades Cove. If you’re traveling from Gatlinburg, take the main Parkway leading to the National Park.
Keep going straight until you reach the Sugarland Visitor Center, and then turn right onto Little River Road. Continue along this gorgeous route for about 25 kilometers. Cades Cove is at the end of the drive.
If you're already in the Pigeon Forge area, take the Wears Valley Road to Townsend. Enter the park via Lyon Springs Road and continue down Little River Road until you get to Laurel Creek Road.
The route from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove is longer, and it could take a while before you can refill your gas if you’re coming in from Gatlinburg. Therefore, if your gas gauge is near empty, turn right at the Wye and head into Townsend. Whichever route you choose, the mountain scenery, wildflower meadows, and diverse wildlife on your way to Cades Cove make the journey well worth it.
Also, because there is no postal service along the Cades Cove Loop, there is no specific address for it. If you have a GPS or Google Maps, you may get directions for Cades Cove by searching for "Cades Cove Loop Rd." However, remember that you’ll lose cell service as you ascend the mountain. You might want to save a copy of those directions or take a screenshot of the map before you leave town.
Cades Cove is accessible year-round
Visitors can explore Cades Cove from sunrise to sunset throughout the year if the weather permits. The Cades Cove Visitor Center is halfway around the Loop.
The store sells souvenirs, maps, and local goods. Make sure to drop by and get some keepsakes on your way out. Please do not obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic, though.
As most visitors prefer to take their time to enjoy the expansive panoramic views, the Cades Cove Loop road can get extremely busy at peak hours. Be courteous to other drivers on the Loop.
Pull to the side in a turn-out area and let cars behind you pass.
However, from May to September, the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed for maintenance before 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Thus, pedestrians and bikers can enjoy the Cove for some hours without worrying about being around vehicles.
While the views are spectacular regardless of the time of day or night, they are most stunning as the sun sets in the west and casts its orange, yellow, and crimson colors across the valley into the eastern mountains. It's an unforgettable sight!
Cades Cove is a great spot to have a picnic
There is no pavilion, but there are more than eighty picnic spots with plenty of trees for shade and a brook flowing along two sides.
If you’re looking for a more intimate experience in Cades Cove, you should bring a picnic lunch and a blanket, choose a spot on the first half of the Loop and sit down for a delicious meal with an expansive panorama before you.
Some people might be okay with occasional alfresco pee sightings. But luckily, there are quite a few restrooms available nearby. So, you don’t have to worry about outdoor poop etiquette.
Cades Cove is a wonderful place to observe wildlife in its natural habitat
Compared to other parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where dense trees obscure views, Cades Cove's open wide space makes catching various wildlife species out and about easier. The mountains in the valley are home to many animals, including bears, deer, elk, raccoons, turkeys, and coyotes.
Although it’s possible to spot wild creatures at any hour of the day in the park, early mornings and late evenings are when they are most active. These are the times when wild animals travel across the vast meadows to graze or bask in the warm sunlight. They tend to lie down to rest during the hottest parts of the day.
Thus, arriving early in the morning to observe wildlife is best—just a friendly reminder to take your trash with you when you leave the park. Also, when witnessing wildlife, you should always maintain a distance of at least 50 yards from the animals.
The Cades Cove Riding Stables offer guided horseback rides through the Great Smokys
Lastly, we recommend visiting the Cades Cove Riding Stables if you're looking for a truly one-of-a-kind way to explore the area. The kind employees here are happy to give you a leisurely guided tour of the scenic Smoky Mountains, much like the old American pioneers did.
The Cades Cove Riding Stables is open all week from the beginning of March until the end of November, between 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. However, there is usually an hour allotted for the trail rides. If horseback riding isn't your thing, you can always go for a hayride or carriage ride instead. But they are available on specific dates and hours, so reserve your spot ahead of time.
Cades Cove is beautiful, no matter when you visit it
You may be wondering when to visit Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains. The place is gorgeous no matter when you see it. But the best time to visit may vary according to your interests and the available activities.
That said, it’s ideal to drive the Loop in the morning, lunchtime, or late afternoon, as these are the slowest hours of the day. Weekends are the busiest periods of the week, so avoid them.
Like other tourist destinations in the country, it is common for Cades Cove to be crowded during summer and fall. Spring is a fantastic time to visit when wildflowers blossom and animals wake up from their long winter naps.
The Cades Cove Loop is a popular place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and rightfully so. As it’s an 11-mile paved loop road, you can enjoy the breathtaking views of the valley at a leisurely pace in a drive-through style.
Hopefully, the above-mentioned points will help you make the most of your drive through the park.