Driving the Cades Cove Loop Road is a popular activity for visitors to the Smoky Mountains National Park. The road is an 11-mile one-way drive that allows visitors to see mountain views and watch for possible wildlife sightings. Some potential wildlife that are present in the park are turkeys, deer, elk, and black bears. If you are looking to spot some bears, they can best be found in the early morning or evening hours during the late summer and fall. You can often spot them on rainy days. There are also many old homesteads, churches, and trailheads on the drive that you can stop and explore also.
You can expect to spend at least 2-3 hours driving this loop, especially if you plan to explore some of the sites. It can be a very crowded area and traffic is often stop and go, so patience is important. If you are in a rush, you do not want to take this drive. Most people understand that before they go and plan to take their time to enjoy the drive, but some people are impatient and can ruin the experience for others by trying to rush them through. There are many pull-offs for you to let others around you, but if traffic is that heavy, it’s not going to matter anyway.
I had an experience like this during my last trip. Traffic was stop and go and I was slow to move forward because I was taking a picture. The man in the truck behind me screamed at me to “go”. I pulled forward the entire two-car lengths that were available for me to move, but it did upset me because he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere any faster anyway. As I said, traffic was stopped about two car lengths ahead of me. I’m not sure what his problem was with that. If traffic had actually been moving along, I would have pulled over and let him by, but as it was, there was no moving anywhere and there was no pull-off at that exact spot. I did drive the loop several other times on my trip and had enjoyable experiences the other times, which made up for that one bad one.
The Cades Cove Loop Road is easy to find. Take the Little River Road that runs beside the Sugarlands Visitors Center and follow it all the way to Cades Cove Loop Road. The drive on Little River Road towards Cades Cove is a treasure itself. It is a beautiful drive with the river running beside it and has many spots of its own to pull over and take a photograph or two.
Once you start your tour on the Cades Cove Loop Road, there are plenty of stops to make on the route.
John Oliver Cabin
The Oliver cabin is the first stop along the route for visitors to get to explore. The Olivers were the first settlers in the Cades Cove area. No nails hold the structure in place, rather it relies on notches and gravity. John Oliver’s original cabin stool about 50 yards behind this one. This cabin was built for John’s son when he married.
Primitive Baptist Church
John Oliver was one of the original founders of this church. This is the first church you will come across on the Cades Cove Loop Road. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was originally a log structure and was established in 1827. The church that currently stands was built in 1887.
John D. McCampbell built this unique two-door church. He copied the design from other churches that provided one door for men and one door for women so that they would sit on separate sides of the church, sometimes even with a wall dividing the two sides. However, in this church parishioners sat wherever they chose. John built the church in 1820, but it was replaced in 1902.
Missionary Baptist Church
Some of the original members of the Primitive Baptist Church left to create their own place of worship and created this congregation. The rift came because some members believed that the religion allowed for missionary work, while others did not. Therefore, those who believed in the missionary principles left that church and created this one. Although founded in 1839, the original church wasn’t built until 1894. Until that time, members had to meet at each other’s houses or make arrangements to meet at one of the other churches in the area. The current church was built in 1915.
Elijah Oliver Place
Elijah was the son of John Oliver. He moved away from the area before the civil war started. After the war ended, he returned to the Cades Cove area and built his home here. Many of the people in the area would often allow traveling strangers to spend the night for free. Elijah Oliver actually built a “strangers room” onto his front porch so visitors would have a room of their own to stay in when passing through.
Abrams Falls Trailhead
This is a very popular trail that leads to a 20-foot tall waterfall. Although it is not the tallest waterfall in the park, it is wider than many and the rapid flow of water makes it a beautiful sight to behold. The trail itself is about 5 miles round trip. It is a moderate trail, especially for beginning hikers.
Cades Cove Visitors Center and Cable Mill
This is an official visitors center for the Smoky Mountains National Park. You can find any number of souvenirs here, including a bag of flour from the only working gristmill in the Smoky Mountains. If you’re looking for history books on the area, this is the place to find them. Just left of the visitors center are modern bathroom facilities. You can also walk around the mill area that includes several other historic buildings. There are barns, homes, a smokehouse, and a blacksmith shop on the premises that you can walkthrough. This is one of the most popular spots to stop in Cades Cove.
Henry Whitehead Place
Considered a “transition home” because the style combined that of log cabins with a more modern frame style home built out of sawed lumber. This is the only home of this style that is still standing in the Smoky Mountains. It is also one of the first homes to have a brick chimney due to the difficulty of having to make the bricks themselves.
Cades Cove Nature Trail
This is a short nature trail that leads to a former chestnut tree grove. In the springtime, you can see beautiful blooming dogwood trees. Later in the fall, you can see some beautiful red leaves as the sourwoods and maples turn for the season. The trail is a short walk that can provide a nice quick break for visitors to get out of their cars for a few minutes.
Dan Lawson Place
Originally constructed as a log cabin, Dan Lawson added later additions to the building using sawed lumber to add a second story and porch. The chimney bricks were made in Cades Cove.
Dan’s father-in-law, Peter Cable, helped build the cabin since he was a carpenter by trade. The land itself also used to belong to his father-in-law.
The Tipton place is unique in the fact that Colonel Hamp Tipton himself did not live on the property. His daughters, Lucy and Lizzie actually lived in the home. They were both teachers at the local schoolhouse in the Cove. A cantilever barn sits across the road from the main house, although it is not the original, only a replica.
Carter Shields Cabin
This cabin was home to Civil War veteran George Washington ‘Carter’ Shields. Shields returned to the area to retire after an injury in the battle of Shiloh. He lived in this cabin for 11 years.
Hyatt Lane and Sparks Lane
There are two roads that cut through the middle of Cades Cove. They are two-way roads that can be used if you want to skip a part of the loop, or if you want to repeat a section you have already been through. If you just want a different view than that of the main road, you can take one of these roads. Since they are two-way, you can go down the road and turn around and come back to where you entered it.
As you exit the Cades Cove Loop Road, if you turn right, you will run directly into the campground area. Cades Cove Campground is open year-round and does offer reservable sites. Peak season is from May through October. The campground offers modern amenities like drinking water and flush toilets. They also have a campground store open during peak season. The campground offers non-electric sites only. There are no showers or electric, water or sewer hook-ups in the park. You cannot use generators between 8PM-8AM. Some accessible sites have 5 amp electric hookups for medical equipment use only. They do have accessible sites and accessible toilets for people with disabilities. For information about the campground or to reserve a site, you can visit here.
This was one of my favorite spots to visit. I will definitely return to see what beauty can be found in the springtime.