Tucked away in a remote corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National park is the beautiful Cades Cove. It’s one of the most-visited and most-praised sections of the national park. Cades Cove is often spoken about with a glint in the eye and a smile on the face.
A day trip on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is one of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Abundant wildlife, beautiful scenery, historic cabins, and hiking trails are just a few of the things to do. This travel guide will show you how to get there, what to do when you’re there, and give you a few tips for the best trip.
Getting to Cades Cove
The most difficult part, which is also a big part of the allure, is getting to Cades Cove. Other than Cataloochee Valley it is the most remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Getting there can be half the fun or half the pain. Here are some different ways and tips for getting to Cades Cove.
From Townsend, Maryville, Knoxville
Take Highway 321 (Lamar Alexander Parkway) from Maryville into Townsend. It begins as a four lane highway, merges into a two lane for a short stretch, then becomes four lane again through Townsend. Continue through Townsend to The Townsend Wye. Turn right onto Little River Gorge Road. Average time from Townsend to Cades Cove: 30 minutes.
From Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, I-81
Taking the scenic route along Little River Gorge Road would be great once but it’s actually considerably longer, especially when you’re leaving Cades Cove. Instead, take Wears Valley Road (Highway 321) from Pigeon Forge into Townsend. Turn left at a traffic light and continue to The Townsend Wye. Turn right onto Little River Gorge Road. Average time from Pigeon Forge to Cades Cove: 45 minutes.
The most difficult part about getting to Cades Cove from Gatlinburg is getting out of Gatlinburg in the first place. If at all possible from your start point I would suggest getting on either the Gatlinburg Bypass or River Road to skip the congestion on Parkway. Once inside the national park turn right onto Little River Gorge Road at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Stay on this road to Cades Cove. Average time from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove: 60 minutes.
It is possible to day trip into Cades Cove from Cherokee but it would be a long day trip. The problem is always the traffic congestion in front of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. From Cherokee take Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) through the park. Turn left onto Little River Gorge Road at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Stay on this road to Cades Cove. Average time from Cherokee to Cades Cove: 1 hour 45 minutes.
Wildlife in Cades Cove
As with most national parks, and this one in particular, there is abundant wildlife to spot throughout Cades Cove. But first let me reiterate an invaluable rule that should never be broken: always stay at least 50 yards (150’) away from the wildlife.
There are lots of reasons such as safety for both people and the wildlife but it really comes down to one thing. If wildlife gets used to human contact and actually makes contact that animal is put down. Do you want to be responsible for that?
In Cades Cove you are most likely to see deer, especially an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. But there are also wild turkeys and black bear throughout the cove. Black bears are most commonly seen in the periphery outside the Cades Cove Loop Road.
Tips for Visiting Cades Cove
Being the most-visited section of a national park means it is popular and that can be both good and bad. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your day trip on the Cades Cove Loop Road.
- The Cades Cove Loop Road is a one-lane, one-way loop (except for Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane).
- Arrive early. The gates unlock shortly after sunrise (except on Wednesday and Saturday mornings). Usually by 10am-Noon is when the greatest number of vehicles try entering the one-lane, one-way loop road.
- Either leave early or leave late. The great number of vehicles try to leave around 5pm-6pm to get back into town or home for dinner. To avoid the traffic congestion either leave Cades Cove around 3pm or until sunset.
- There is absolutely no cellphone reception anywhere in Cades Cove.
- The only restrooms are located at either end of the cove at the Campground Store and Visitor Center.
- Driving from one end of Cades Cove to the other will typically take about 25 minutes but depending on traffic conditions and wildlife it can take much, much longer.
Driving Etiquette in Cades Cove
There is really only one rule that matters about driving the Cades Cove Loop Road and that rule is broken every single day: don’t stop in the middle of the road.
If you see wildlife in the distance pull off the road. If you can’t pull off the road then you’re just out of luck and you need to keep moving. Stopping in the middle of the road and blocking traffic just so you can look at deer or a bear is selfish and can lead to horrible traffic congestion.
There are plenty of places in Cades Cove to pull off the road and get your vehicle out of the way so traffic can continue to flow. Let it flow. Someone behind you may really need to pee.