Day Trip on the Cades Cove Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This travel guide to the Cades Cove Loop includes a map, directions for getting there, and what to do once you arrive.

Written by

Jason Barnette


April 21, 2019

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.

A warm sunset across the sky with a long tree in a large grassy field at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee
This sunset view was brought to you by the large field in front Dan Lawson Place overlooking Hyatt Lane.

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.

READ MORE: 8 Fun Things to Do in Cades Cove

A horse sticks his head through the barbed wire fence in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee
You’ll see lots of horses in a field near the beginning of Cades Cove; these are not wild, but rather used by the Cades Cove Riding Stables. This is the one time you can get close to an animal in the national park.

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.
A lone tree in a large field in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee
When I pulled over on the side of the road to capture a photo of this lone tree in a field dozens of people stopped in the road behind me, expecting to see wildlife.

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.

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1. Information Kiosk

As you enter Cades Cove and stay straight, you’ll see a long parking area on the left. There is a covered shelter with information about Cades Cove. If you have arrived too early the gate at the end of the parking area may still be locked so this is where you would wait.

2. Rich Mountain Loop Trail

Use the parking area in front of the information kiosk to access this trail. The 8.3-mile Rich Mountain Loop Trail is a pretty strenuous all-day hike across the summit of Rich Mountain. With a total combined 2,000’ ascent it’s a strenuous trail. The first 1.5 miles of the hike is pretty easy, though, and leads from the parking area to John Oliver Place.

3. Sparks Lane North

Sparks Lane is one of two roads that cuts across Cades Cove and has two-way traffic. This end of Sparks Lane is 1.1 miles from the entrance into Cades Cove. Taking Sparks Lane now would make the entire loop just 3.7 miles. The narrow gravel road is a frequent destination for portrait photography. You might also catch some wildlife in the fields or crossing the road around sunrise and sunset. Near the north end of the road there is a neat place where a ford crosses Abrams Creek; there is parking beside the ford where you can get out of your car.

4. John Oliver Place Parking

There are two places to park for accessing the trail to John Oliver Place. The first is at the end of Sparks Lane in a small parking lot. The second is around the next curve with pull-in parking spots along the Cades Cove Loop Road. Both of these parking areas tend to be full on pretty days so you may need to drive a bit further to find a safe place to park on the side of the road. It is a very easy 0.3-mile hike across an open field from the parking areas to John Oliver Place.

John Oliver Place

John Oliver Place is the oldest remaining structure in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a magnificent cabin to explore considering it was built in the 1820s before the first mills in the area. The cabin is often left unlocked and open to explore during daylight hours.

5. Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church

Getting to Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church, and getting back out again, can be tricky. The short spur road on the left leading to the church is a one-lane road with two-way traffic. There are a couple of places to pull over and allow vehicles to pass. But I once got stuck in one of those pull offs trying to leave the church with one car after another turning off the Cades Cove Loop without giving me a chance to leave. Once you get to the church it’s a rather beautiful thing to see. The doors are left open during the day and you can walk through the church. There is a short trail leading around behind the church through the graveyard.

6. Cades Cove Methodist Church

The Cades Cove Methodist Church is located on a little hill directly beside the Cades Cove Loop Road. One time when I visited musicians were set up inside playing music, but I never did find out if that was a regular thing or even allowed.

7. Hyatt Lane North

Hyatt Lane is the second two-way road cutting across Cades Cove. From here it is about 3 miles from the entrance into Cades Cove. Turning around here would make the entire loop about 8 miles. This is the last place to cut the entire 11-mile loop short.

8. Rich Mountain Road

There is only one way into Cades Cove, but there are actually three ways out. One of those is the 7-mile Rich Mountain Loop Road. This one-lane, one-way gravel road crosses over Rich Mountain toward Townsend. Along the way are dozens of sharp switchbacks and one very bumpy ride. At the other side of Rich Mountain it is just 2.7 miles back to Lamar Alexander Parkway in Townsend. This is a seasonal road only open from around April – October each year.

9. Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church

This is my favorite of the three historical churches in Cades Cove to visit. The church is located directly beside the Cades Cove Loop Road (across from Rich Mountain Road). There are a few parking spaces on either side of the road. The interior is sparse, but gorgeous in a simplistic kind of way. Walk through the church to the back door and then around the graveyard. It’s a short and easy walk.

10. Scenic Overlook #1

This scenic overlook sits on a hill near the end of Cades Cove with a commanding view looking along the mountain ranges surrounding the cove. This is probably the biggest parking lot in the cove besides the one at the visitor center.

11. Scenic Overlook #2

Just down the hill from the previous overlook, this one has a much smaller parking lot and not much of a view. It’s a good overflow parking area, though, and a great place to get out and wander.

12. Cooper Road Trail

There is a very small pull-off here for access to the Cooper Road Trail. I actually recommend going just a bit further around the corner to park. The 10.5-mile Cooper Road Trail is a moderate hike leading out of Cades Cove to the Abrams Creek parking area. Along the way the trail connects to the 1-mile Wet Bottom Trail to the Abrams Falls Parking Area and the Hatcher Mountain Trail that leads to Abrams Falls.

13. Elijah Oliver Cabin Parking

This long parking area on the left side of the Cades Cove Loop Road actually has a pretty nice view from the bottom of the cove. Across the road is a short spur trail leading to the Wet Bottom Trail and eventually another spur trail to the Elijah Oliver Cabin. Note About Abrams Falls: If you ever arrive at the Abrams Falls Parking Area and find it just overwhelmed with vehicles, use the Elijah Oliver Cabin Parking as an alternative. You will have to get back on the Cades Cove Loop Road, drive around to Hyatt Lane, and then loop back around again. Then, hike the 0.5-mile Wet Bottom Trail back to the Abrams Falls Parking Area.

Elijah Oliver Cabin

This is the only cabin in Cades Cove I have not yet visited but it’s not from a lack of trying. Twice it started raining (pouring) on me within minutes of leaving the van and the third time I met this wonderful couple, got distracted with amazing conversation, and lost the last two hours of light! This rustic cabin was built in 1865 after the Oliver family returned to Cades Cove following the end of the Civil War. It’s the most remote cabin in Cades Cove along a 1-mile roundtrip hike.

14. Abrams Falls Trail

Abrams Falls is the most popular waterfall in Cades Cove and one of the most popular in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Getting there is a fairly easy hike, but it’ll take a few hours. The primitive parking area at the end of a short spur road will often fill up before noon. There is ample parking, so you’ll probably find a place there. The 4.9-mile roundtrip hike follows alongside Abrams Creek most of the way. There is about a 600’ ascent on the trail as you cross a couple of short peaks and then climb down to the base of the waterfall. The trail can get very muddy at times so be sure to wear really good footwear for this trail.

15. Cades Cove Visitor Center

It almost seems kinda silly for the Cades Cove Visitor Center to be at the far end of Cades Cove. But I have to admit it is a good location. The one-room visitor center doubles as a rather nice gift shop with all sorts of books and souvenirs. It’s a small gift shop, but still worth browsing through. The restrooms are located in a separate building beside the parking lot. The parking lot has plenty of spaces but it does tend to get crowded on popular days.

16. Cable Mill

Beside the Cades Cove Visitor Center is the John Cable Mill. This iconic grist mill is one of the most-photographed locations in the entire national park (I have quite a few photos myself like the one above). The paved trail from the visitor center passes the Cable Mill, Becky Cable House, a small barn, and ends at the Cable Drive-Thru Barn (I don’t know if that is the official name but that’s what I’ve heard people call it). At the Cable Mill you can follow another trail along the aqueduct feeding water to the grist mill.

17. Forge Creek Road

The road that begins as Forge Creek Road eventually becomes Parsons Branch Road. This is another one-way route leaving out of Cades Cove. The 10-mile gravel road takes quite a while to drive and leads to Highway 129 near Fontana Dam, North Carolina. Forge Creek Road starts as a two-way road as far as the Gregory Ridge Trail Parking, where it becomes the one-way Parsons Branch Road leading out of Cades Cove.

18. Henry Whitehead Place

This is one of the most-overlooked historic cabins in Cades Cove because most people don’t know it’s there. This beautiful cabin has a much older cabin directly behind it, each with a stone/brick fireplace. It’s a fascinating comparison between old notched timber and milled plank construction side-by-side. But it’s also the result of a very sad story. The cabin was built after a man abandoned his wife and son in the cove.

19. Cable Cemetery

This small cemetery is located on the right side of Cades Cove Loop Road just past the visitor center. The parking lot is beside a large open field that actually makes a great place to let the children and dogs roam freely.

20. Hyatt Lane South

If you have missed anything between Missionary Baptist Church and this point you can drive up Hyatt Lane to loop around again.

21. Dan Lawson Place

If I were to have settled in Cades Cove almost two hundred years ago this is where I would have built a house. The Dan Lawson Place is a collection of a few buildings in a little cove surrounded by trees with a magnificent view across Cades Cove. For some reason (or maybe the view is the reason) the parking spaces always seem to be taken. A little further down Cades Cove Loop Road are a couple of pull-offs on the right side with enough room for a couple of vehicles. It would be a five-minute walk back to the rustic cabins.

22. Tipton Place

Tipton Place is the location of the iconic cantilevered barn that is a popular photographic subject. I’ve never been able to capture a photo, however, because each time I have visited I have found a photographer there with couples and families and brides capturing portraits. Across the road from the barn is the beautiful Tipton family home. The two-story home with a kitchen addition in the back is the biggest historic home in Cades Cove. There are a couple of smaller outbuildings surrounding the house.

23. Valley View Overlook

The parking area along the left side of the Cades Cove Loop Road overlooks the valley across the cove. This is one of the best spots to see deer grazing in the fields just before sunset each day.

24. Carter Shields Cabin

Just when you think you’ve seen enough historic cabins you come across this one. It’s located back from the Cades Cove Loop Road on a gravel path. The small log home is in a beautiful setting and one of my favorites to walk around.

25. Sparks Lane South

If you want to see anything (or everything) in Cades Cove again you could use Sparks Lane to turn around here and bypass a lot of traffic congestion at the exit. If you use Sparks Lane here you will miss returning to the Information Kiosk, parking for the Rich Mountain Loop Trail, and the first parking area for the John Oliver Place.

Cades Cove Picnic Area

As you enter the Cades Cove area turn left into a road leading toward the campground. Take an immediate second left into the Cades Cove Picnic Area. This nice, secluded picnic area has lots of tables and offers a great place to enjoy a packed lunch before or after your adventure on the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Cades Cove Campground Store

The Cades Cove Campground Store is a great place to start a day on the Cades Cove Loop Road. The store has a very nice gift shop with clothing, drinkware, photography, and lots of souvenir items. If you are camping, they also have a good selection of groceries just in case you need a thing or two. The deli has some pretty good food like burgers, hotdogs, and ice cream. It’s not a bad place to grab something to eat but it’s pricey and the meats are usually frozen so the quality isn’t the greatest.

Bicycle Rentals

Next door to the store is the bicycle rental office. Seeing Cades Cove from the perspective of slowly pedaling around the loop is a real treat. Rentals are first-come, first-served so again you will want to come as early as possible. Rentals are $7.50/hour for adults and $4.50/hour for children under 10.

Did you know? The Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to automobile traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings before 10am (May – September). This allows visitors with their own bicycles or rental bicycles a couple hours of early morning sunlight to enjoy a peaceful ride around the loop road.

Cades Cove Campground

The Cades Cove Campground is one of the largest and nicest in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The campground features 159 sites and can accommodate RVs up to 40’. The campground is built around two loops and almost all the sites are back-in. There are six restrooms facilities located throughout the campground but no showers. There is a dump station as well. The Cades Cove Campground is one of only two campgrounds in the park open year-round (the other is Smokemont in North Carolina).

Cades Cove Riding Stables

Going horseback riding in Cades Cove is an incredible experience. The people at Cades Cove Stables are friendly and know exactly what they are doing to help people who don’t normally ride horses to enjoy this experience. Each guided horseback ride lasts about an hour and costs $35 for adults and $25 for children under 13. If horseback riding isn’t your thing what about horse drawn carriage rides? They have a beautiful old carriage to whisk visitors away for a 45-minute tour through the forest. Carriage rides are $15 for adults and $10 for children under 13.

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One Response

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