(UPDATED ON May 15, 2020) 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.
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.
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.
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.
READ MORE: 8 Fun Things to Do in Cades Cove
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Native Plant Overlook
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.
Early Days Parking
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.
Cooper Trail Parking Area
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.
Elijah Oliver Overlook
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.
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.
Abrams Falls Parking Area
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tipton Oliver House
Tipton Oliver House 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.
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.
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.
Lone Grove Overlook
The aptly-named Lone Grove Overlook has a view of a small grove of towering trees in the middle of a field several hundred feet from the parking area. A path is kept mowed through the field to the grove throughout the year.
The Ike Lequire Cemetery is located beneath the trees. A scattering of about a dozen unmarked stones is all that remains of the cemetery.
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.
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 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.
Where to Stay
The best way to enjoy Cades Cove is to make it a weekend adventure and come back several times. It’s a good 45-minute drive from Gatlinburg so I actually recommend staying in Townsend. Here are some of my top recommendations.
The Cades Cove Campground is the obvious choice for where to stay. It has long been on my bucket list. But it’s also one of the most popular campgrounds in the national park and frequently booked solid. Plan ahead, or come in the off season when the campground is offered first come, first served.
My favorite place to stay in Townsend is the Little Arrow Outdoor Resort. It’s located literally at the edge of the national park so it’s only about twenty minutes from Cades Cove. With a nice campground, glamping tents, tiny homes, and cabins, there is definitely something you’ll want.
The Townsend River Breeze Inn doesn’t look like much on the outside, but on the inside you’ll find recently updated rooms with modern furnishings. The swimming pool is surrounded by a chain link fence but on the plus side you can admire the mountains while floating in the water. The motel has King Rooms with a sleeper sofa and Double Rooms with two queen beds.
The Highland Manor Inn is a wonderfully nostalgic place to spend a few nights in Townsend. The motel is located in an old building but the furnishings and bedding are relatively new and in good condition. They have a fantastic outdoor swimming pool and the lounge is a great place to hang out. They have a Standard Room with two queen beds, Deluxe Queen and Deluxe King Rooms, and a King Room with a private balcony.
The Tremont Lodge and Resort is located in an older building but after the property changed hands in 2017 the new owners have been updating the furnishings. The free breakfast in the morning leaves a lot to be desired, but otherwise this is a comfortable place to spend the night and enjoy the outdoor swimming pool. The hotel has King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a pet-friendly Family Suite with two queen beds and a sleeper sofa.
The Best Western is the budget-friendly go-to in Townsend. The hotel has King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. With an outdoor swimming pool and moderately nice free breakfast it’s a great place if all you’re looking for is a bed and shower.
The premiere overnight destination in Townsend is the Dancing Bear Lodge. The lodge features rustic mountain decor, rooms with wood burning fireplaces and full kitchens, and outdoor recreation in the 36-acre property. The lodge features rooms in the villa and cabins with one or two bedrooms, and some of them are pet friendly!