The broad basin of Cades Cove is the most popular destination in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a year-round one offering a full spectrum of activities: from laidback R&R and touring to exhilarating backcountry adventure.
If you’re new to the most-visited national park in the country and making a first-time visit to Cades Cove, here’s a helpful rundown of 10 classic things to do in this pastoral wonderland—steeped in history and, yes, drenched in loads of fun!
Before we plunge in, we’ll emphasize that the primary way the majority of people see Cades Cove is by taking the 11-mile scenic loop drive, which means auto touring ought to be on the list as well. But your average park visitor will experience most of the following by taking that drive, so we’re going to sort of treat it as a given. (You can learn more about the drive itself here at our guide.)
Cades Cove makes a fantastic springboard for hiking into the sylvan fabulousness of the Great Smoky Mountains. Footpaths here range from the short and easy—such as the Cades Cove Nature Trail, a self-guided interpretive route less than a half-mile long—to strenuous, full-day treks into the roadless wilds.
A super-popular hike in the middle ground of that spectrum is the five-mile roundtrip trail to Abrams Falls, a mighty, 20-foot-tall plunge of Abrams Creek, which rises and flows through Cades Cove, lying downstream of the Cove.
Then there’s the 8.5-mile Rich Mountain Loop climbing to the north rim of Cades Cove and dropping back down, and the demanding but spectacular 13.9-mile Rocky Top Trail. That route embarks from the Anthony Creek Trailhead in the Cades Cove Picnic Area and climbs up to the main Great Smokies divide to Rocky Top, one of three peaks along mighty Thunderhead Mountain. The views extend from Cades Cove to Fontana Lake and take in a full platter of mountains and ridges. The hike out of Cades Cove up to Gregory Bald is another stone-cold classic.
Pleasant as driving the Cades Coop Loop Road most certainly is, there may be no better way to experience it than for those who can pedal it. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long made an effort to provide safe, dedicated opportunities for bicyclists (and pedestrians) to explore the loop without worrying about car traffic. Traditionally that’s come on Wednesday and Saturday mornings when the Loop Road’s closed to traffic. In 2020 the park tried a new setup: vehicle-free Wednesdays, when, for the summer, the road was open only to non-motorized travel all day that day of the week.
We’re a little biased, but we’d suggest cycling the 11 miles of the Cades Cove Loop Road ranks among the best pedal-powered experiences in any national park—give ‘er a go!
Cades Cove—which the Cherokee traditionally called Tsiyahi, or “Otter Place”—harbors the most significant concentration of historic buildings in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Loop Road (as well as some short walks off it) provides an unparalleled portal into these highlands’ early Euro-American heritage.
Give yourself plenty of time for a full day or two taking in these relics, including the John Oliver Cabin (1818)—the oldest human-made structure still standing in the park—the Primitive Baptist Church (1827), the Tipton Place (early 1870s), and the Rebecca Cable House (1879), among numerous others.
From chickadees up in a ridgetop forest to a rare glimpse of a bobcat along with creekside rhododendrons, you can see wildlife anywhere in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But Cades Cove is just about the premier place to do so, given the open, parkland sightlines and the foraging its lush meadows and groves offer critters. Especially if you time your drive (or bike ride) for the early morning or evening, you’ve got great chances to see everything from white-tailed deer and groundhogs to red foxes, coyotes—quite possibly even one of the Great Smokies’ famous black bears.
Birders also treasure Cades Cove. Roadside birdwatching in the fields might turn up goldfinches, barn swallows, quail, meadowlarks, wild turkeys, and short-eared owls. Creekside explorations could yield great blue herons or wood ducks, and rambles along the fringing forest paths might rustle up a pileated woodpecker or a red-shouldered hawk.
The Great Smoky Mountains are a widely celebrated destination for fall colors, and Cades Cove is one of the go-to spots for “leaf-peeping.” Though you’ve generally got a long window from late September into early November to catch some of the fiery hues, October’s prime time. From the maples, dogwoods, beeches, oaks, and other hardwoods of the basin floor to distant views of autumnal canopies on the surrounding mountainsides, a drive, bike ride, or hike in Cades Cove this time of year delivers unforgettable vistas.
Fall colors aren’t the only botanical attraction Cades Cove serves up. From spring through fall, its glades and groves come alive with blooming groundcover and shrubbery. From butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan, lady slippers, bluebells, goldenrod, daffodil, and other showstoppers in the basin itself to the stunning azalea displays up at Gregory Bald, this is a great place for wildflower appreciation!
It sort of goes without saying after what we’ve covered so far, but Cades Cove is easily one of the best places in the park for photography. Weathered cabins and barns amid spring blooms, a dappled whitetail fawn in sunset glow, babbling brooks and fall-blazing dogwoods and snow-dusted skyline ridges—the possibilities are endless and year-round.
An official National Park Service concessionaire, Cades Cove Riding Stables, offers guided horseback rides in Cades Cove: another incredible alternative to a car for immersing yourself in the landscape. These hourlong hoof-thumping outings include awesome traverses of old-growth timber.
Wrapping up the Cades Cove Loop Road around lunchtime? Set yourself up for a creekside meal at the lovely Cades Cove Picnic Area, which is open all year-round and offers 81 spots.
As you can gather, there’s a lot to do in and around Cades Cove. If you want to extend your explorations, consider overnighting it at the Cades Cove Campground. It’s one of only two campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that’s open all year round and offers both individual and group sites.
The Perfect Great Smoky Mountains Odyssey in Cades Cove
From shady picnics and quiet forest moseys to a memory-sealed sighting of a black bear sow and her two or three cubs, Cades Cove is a magical place whenever you visit, whether you can spare but an afternoon’s drive or a whole week’s worth of fun!