8 Fun Things to Do in Cades Cove

Cades Cove offers beautiful scenery, horseback riding, hiking trails, and historic buildings to explore in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Written by

Jason Barnette


August 11, 2019

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

Cades Cove is tucked away into a little corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a place where time has nearly stopped and only the sounds of nature tickle your ears. That’s probably why it’s one of the most popular places to explore in the national park. Here are eight things to do in Cades Cove when you get there!

A wide gravel road with a rustic fence on either side and mountains in the distance at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane are two-way gravel roads that cut across Cades Cove.

1. Drive the Cades Cove Loop Road

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is exactly that: a loop swinging around Cades Cove. The one-lane, one-way paved road is probably the most popular drive in the park. Two gravel roads cut across the cove that help to either cut a journey short or extend it for another loop through.

Proper driving etiquette is important on the Cades Cove Loop Road. Don’t stop in the middle of the road and hold up traffic. Instead, pull off to the side to enjoy the breathtaking views and frequent wildlife. Roll the windows down and enjoy the scenic drive on the road.

READ MORE: 6 Awesome Auto Touring Routes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

2. Go For a Bike Ride on the Cades Cove Loop Road

Did you know Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicular traffic for a few hours every Wednesday and Saturday? On those days the gate into Cades Cove is left closed and locked until 10am. This allows visitors with their own bicycles or rental bicycles to explore the cove without worrying about cars.

Visitors can rent a bicycle at the Cade Cove Campground Store near the entrance. Rentals are $7.50/hour for adults and $4.50/hour for children under 10.

The one-story Henry Whitehead Place, a wooden clapboard historic house, in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Henry Whitehead Place is one of my favorite historic cabins to photography in Cades Cove.

3. Explore the Historic Buildings in Cades Cove

Built in the early 1820s the John Oliver Cabin is the oldest standing structure in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is just one of the historic buildings to see and explore throughout Cades Cove.

There are three historic church buildings, all of them open to the public. Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church is located down a short spur road. Cades Cove Methodist Church and Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church are both alongside the loop road and offer the easiest access.

READ MORE: 101 Things to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Elijah Oliver Cabin requires a one-mile out-and-back easy hike. Henry Whitehead Place, located just a few minutes down Forge Creek Road, is one of the most-overlooked cabins in Cades Cove. Dan Lawson Place and Carter Shields Cabin are both popular places to visit.

My favorite historic building in Cades Cove is Tipton Place. On one side of the loop road is the ginormous log home with complete kitchen in the back. On the other side of the road is a cantilevered barn frequently used as the backdrop for portraits.

A horse sticks his head through the barbed wire fence to eat some grass in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
After a long day of horseback riding the horses get a chance to relax in a large field beside the loop road.

4. Go Horseback Riding at Cades Cove Riding Stables

Going horseback riding in Cades Cove is an incredible experience. The people at Cades Cove Riding Stables are friendly and know exactly how to work with people who aren’t avid horseback riders. 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 a horse drawn carriage tour? The 45-minute tour in a gorgeous old carriage costs $15 for adults and $10 for children under 13.

5. Enjoy the Hiking Trails in Cades Cove

There are a few hiking trials to enjoy in Cades Cove ranging from easy day hikes to strenuous mountain trekking adventures.

The 8.3-mile Rich Mountain Loop Trail is a strenuous all-day hike. The trail ascends a total of 2,000’ in elevation, reaching the summit of Rich Mountain. The first 1.5 miles of the hike are the easiest, leading to the parking area at the John Oliver Cabin.

READ MORE: Why You Need to Stay at the Little Arrow Outdoor Resort in Townsend, TN

The 10.5-mile Cooper Road Trail is a more moderate hike leading out of Cades Cove to the Abrams Creek parking area. The trail also connects with the 1-mile Wet Bottom Trail and Hatcher Mountain Trail.

The most popular hiking trail in Cades Cove is the 5-mile out-and-back Abrams Falls Trail. The moderate to strenuous trail leads to the 25’ waterfall along Abrams Creek. There is only a 600’ total ascent along the trail but it can be very muddy at times alongside the creek.

The 11.6-mile out-and-back Gregory Bald Trail is the most daring hiking trail in Cades Cove. With a total ascent of nearly 3,400’ it’s not for the faint of heart or weak calf muscles. The views, though, are supposed to be worth every painful mile.

A wheel spins from water power at the John Cable Grist Mill in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The spinning wheel of the John Cable Grist Mill.

6. Visit the John Cable Grist Mill

The John Cable Grist Mill is the only remaining mill in Cades Cove. The iconic grist mill is located beside the Cades Cove Visitor Center at the far end of Cades Cove. The wheel still operates and often times during peak tourism seasons a volunteer will be working inside.

A short, paved trail from the parking lot leads to the grist mill and around the homes at the historic site. The Becky Cable House is often open for exploration and the paved trail ends at the Cable Drive-Thru Barn.

Travel Tip

There are only two locations for restrooms in Cades Cove. The first is at the Cades Cove Campground Store near the entrance. The other is at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Plan accordingly.

7. Enjoy a Picnic in Cades Cove

One of the greatest things about Cades Cove is the peace and quiet. I have only ever seen a helicopter over the cove once and never heard airplanes or trains. There are several great locations around Cades Cove to pull out all the stops for a great family picnic.

The Cades Cove Campground Store has a small deli with typical campground food. They can cook up some fresh hotdogs and hamburgers or you can find some picnicking supplies in the store.

There is a very nice picnic area near the entrance to Cades Cove, but one of my favorite places to go is along Sparks Lane. There is a small parking area where the gravel road crosses Abrams Creek at a levy. I always find it peaceful here as most of the traffic tends to stay on the paved road.

Clouds hang over the lush green landscape and distant mountains at Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
View from Scenic Overlook #1 looking across the cove.

8. Relax at the Scenic Overlooks in Cades Cove

There are two scenic overlooks in Cades Cove where you can really get a feel for the size and scope of the large cove in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The first is just past the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church. There is a large parking lot on the left on a bit of a hill overlooking the cove. I have always called this Scenic Overlook #1 but there is no official name to it. The large field in front is a great place to spread out a blanket or drop some chairs to enjoy the view.

The second scenic overlook I enjoy is called the Valley View Overlook. It’s located between Tipton Place and the Carter Shields Cabin. There is a small parking area on the left on a bit of a hill overlook a small field. In the evening hours I frequently find white-tailed deer in the field at this overlook.

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!

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