Cades Cove, an isolated valley surrounded by mountain peaks, is burrowed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 11-mile-long Cades Cove Loop that circles the basin is an iconic masterpiece in the Smokies.
Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park shouldn’t miss this historic, scenic area. What was once a two-lane road home to nearly 100 settlers is now a one-lane road teeming with tourists itching to glimpse these historic cabins, grand panoramic scenes, and spectacular wildlife.
In this ultimate Cades Cove travel guide, you will learn how to get to Cades Cove, what vehicles need a parking tag to drive through the loop, what to do while you’re there, a step-by-step driving guide, insider tips, the best time to visit, and more!
Cades Cove Travel Guide
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How to Get to Cades Cove
The Cades Cove Loop Road is located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The entrance to the loop is at the end of Laurel Creek Road. This is the only way to enter Cades Cove, but you can exit Cades Cove through two other seasonal roads: Parson Branch Road and Rich Mountain Road.
Distances to Cades Cove
- From Cherokee, NC – 57 miles
- From Knoxville, TN – 44 miles
- From Gatlinburg, TN – 27 miles
- From Townsend, TN – 9 miles
Cades Cove Fees
Cades Cove is free to enter, but if you are going to be stopping for 15 minutes or longer, you’ll need to purchase and display a parking tag on your vehicle.
What to Do in Cades Cove
There is so much to do in Cades Cove! You can use the paved, 11-mile one-way road to leisurely sightsee, view wildlife and historical buildings, hike one of the trails that branch off the road, cycle, take a horseback ride, camp, and make stops at any of the pull-offs to draw in the breathtaking landscape.
You can expect to see some sort of wildlife on your journey around Cades Cove. Wild turkeys and white-tailed deer are quite commonly spotted prancing and meandering across the roads and in the fields and meadows, but if you’re lucky, you may spy a black bear or coyote. Keep your eyes peeled!
Cades Cove isn’t all about driving. You can get out and hike, too! Meander around a casual nature trail, hike to waterfalls, or venture onto the AT and along mountain ridges for some serious legwork.
Best Hikes in Cades Cove
- Cades Cove Nature Trail – an easy, 0.8-mile loop perfect for families, small children, and casual visitors.
- Abrams Falls – a moderate, 5-mile out & back that is quite popular among visitors who aren’t shy about dipping their toes in the Smokies.
- Rich Mountain – a difficult, 8.3-mile loop that is ideal for a longer day hike.
- Gregory Ridge – a strenuous, 11.6-mile out & back best suited for adventurous and experienced hikers.
Many people have heard of Abrams Falls (located about halfway through the loop), but did you know there are two other waterfalls that can be accessed off the Cades Cove Loop Road?
Crooked Arm Cascades is located off the Rich Mountain trail, and is fairly easy to access.
And if you’re up for the challenge, take the adventurous, unmaintained Mill Creek Trail to the elusive Mill Creek Falls.
Cades Cove Campground is open year-round and has 159 sites that accommodate tents and RVs up to 35 feet.
Visit recreation.gov to book your stay at Cades Cove Campground! Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance.
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Bring your bike, or rent one from Cades Trading Company, located by the campground.
Cycle the 11 miles that have just the right amount of curves and dramatic scenery to keep you enthralled throughout the duration of your ride. Here’s everything you need to know to bike Cades Cove.
PRO TIP: On Wednesdays in the summer, bicyclists can enjoy a vehicle-free experience since there are no cars allowed on the loop road.
Ride a Horse
Enjoy the loop in a unique way by taking a one-hour guided horseback tour with Cades Cove Riding Stables.
Step-By-Step Guide to Cades Cove Loop Road
I’ve compiled a step-by-step Cades Cove travel guide that highlights each of the stops along the entire loop. I’ve sprinkled in some history, fun facts, and additional points of interest so that you’ll have all of the insider tips on how to make the most of this leisurely journey!
Cades Cove Loop Road begins at the end of Laurel Creek Road. If you arrive before sunrise, you will be waiting in line to enter the area. Once you begin moving, you’ll see the Cades Cove information kiosk. Ask a park ranger any questions you may have before joining the train of vehicles down Cades Cove.
📍Point of Interest: Rich Mountain Loop Trailhead is located almost immediately off the entrance. Stop here for a nice day hike!
Sparks Lane is the first of two two-way roads that cut through Cades Cove. If you’re short on time, you can use either of these routes to cut the one-way, 11-mile loop short. Taking Sparks Lane would turn the 11-mile loop into just a 4-mile loop.
Insider Tip: If you have time, I’d encourage you to take the shortcut roads as well as cruise the full 11-mile loop. These two-lane roads that slice through the loop are usually less busy, are more wide open, and allow you to see the valley and peaks from a unique perspective. These roads also make fantastic foregrounds and backdrops for landscape and portrait photography!
Oliver Cabin is the first historical structure visitors will observe on the Cades Cove Loop. John Oliver was one of the first pioneers to move into The Cove, and this home stayed in his family for over 100 years before it was taken over by the NPS. It is now the oldest remaining structure in the National Park.
Primitive Baptist Church
Down a little spur road, the Primitive Baptist Church is the second historical building visitors will come upon. This was the second church to be built in The Cove.
The third stop along the Cades Cove Loop Road is the Methodist Church. This historical building was built in the early 1820s by J.D. McCampbell, who also became the church’s minister.
Hyatt Lane is the second two-way road that cuts through the Cades Cove Loop Road. If you turn around here, you will be about three miles from the entrance of Cades Cove. You’d cut the 11-mile loop down to 8 miles by taking this shortcut.
Taking this shortcut would make you miss trails like Abrams Falls, Cooper Road, and Cades Cove Nature Trail, the visitor center and cable mill, Oliver Place, and Henry Whitehead Place.
Missionary Baptist Church
The next stop along the loop is the Missionary Baptist Church. When some members of the Primitive Baptist Church decided to split off to focus on missionary work, the Missionary Baptist Church was formed.
FUN FACT: During the springtime, visitors can faintly see “Co. 5427” spelled out in daffodils to the right of the church. These flowers were planted by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) when they were building trails inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Cooper Road Trail
Cooper Road Trailhead is the next stop along The Cove. This moderate trail is 10.9 miles roundtrip and connects with other trails like Wet Bottom and Abrams Falls. If you take the trail far enough, you’ll eventually hike your way to several backcountry campsites and even the Abrams Creek Campground!
FUN FACT: Cooper Road was once a wagon road used by early settlers. The road was also a direct route to Maryville, Tennessee!
Elijah Oliver Place
The next highlight on the Cades Loop Road is Elijah Oliver Place. Sound familiar? That’s because the very first cabin on the road was his father John’s house!
Next up is the access road to the Abrams Falls trailhead! This 5-mile out & back trail is moderately difficult and leads to a 20-foot waterfall, Abrams Falls. This is one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies due to its accessibility, scenic views, and doable length. Arrive as early as you can to snag a parking spot and a front-row view of one of the most beautiful falls in the Smokies!
FUN FACT: While it may not be the tallest, Abrams Falls contains the largest volume of water than any other waterfall within the National Park boundaries!
Cable Mill Visitor Center
The official NPS visitor center is next! Here you’ll find restrooms, souvenirs, history books, information, and a grist mill. Walk the grounds and pick out a T-shirt before you continue on the road.
Henry Whitehead Place
The first stop after the visitor center will be Henry Whitehead Place. Considered a “transition home,” this is one of the most unique homes found in Cades Cove. Its style is part traditional log home and part “frame home,” or sawed lumber. It is the only home built this way that is still standing in the Smokies!
Cades Cove Nature Trail
If you want to stretch your legs and get out of the car for a while, consider walking the short, easy Cades Cove Nature Trail. Enjoy the landscape and wildlife as you saunter along the 0.8-mile trail.
Dan Lawson Place
Just after the Nature Trail, you will find the next historical building, Dan Lawson Place. This building also served as the post office for Cades Cove. The brick used for the chimney was all locally made in The Cove!
Next up is the Tipton Place. Two schoolteachers, Lizzie and Lucy, lived in their father’s house. The barn that you’ll see across the road is actually a replica of the original structure that stood in the Tipton’s initial place.
Carter Shields Cabin
The Carter Shields Cabin is the last historic building on the loop. This cabin was home to Civil War veteran George Washington ‘Carter’ Shields.
Stop by the ranger station to speak with a park ranger or check in to the campground.
The Cades Cove Campground is open year-round. There are 159 campsites that can accommodate tents and RVs up to 35 feet. It has a primitive feel but contains some modern amenities, like flush toilets.
Congratulations on completing the Cades Cove Loop! You have now joined 2 million other visitors who traverse this road each year.
When and How Long to Visit Cades Cove
Allow yourself two to four hours to drive the loop road, stop at all of the highlights, explore the buildings, and glimpse the wildlife. If you are going to add hiking to your list, consider making Cades Cove an all-day (or at least, a half-day) event!
The park is open year-round, so you can visit any day or season. Peak visitation is from April through October. Fall is especially beautiful during peak color week, and spring is a great time to view wildflowers. Summer comes with crowds but brings great weather to hike, camp, and enjoy outdoor picnics, horseback riding, and bike rides. Winter could be risky depending on road closures, but you’d surely have the road almost to yourself, especially on a weekday. You might even see some snow dusting the peaks!
REMEMBER: Cades Cove is closed to vehicles on Wednesdays from May through September.
Know Before You Go
Enjoy some helpful insider tips to make the most of your journey along Cades Cove!
- Cades Cove Loop Road hours are sunrise to sunset.
- Cades Cove Loop Road is open year-round, weather permitting.
- Tourist season is summer, fall, and weekends. Prepare for major delays during these days.
- Restrooms are available at the visitor center, ranger station, and campground.
- Drones are prohibited anywhere in the park, including Cades Cove and surrounding trails and campgrounds.
- Do not stop in the middle of the road to take photos. Pull over at one of the designated overlooks if you wish to take in the views or snap some photos.
- Wildlife has been known to frequent Cades Cove. This could cause wildlife traffic jams, more commonly referred to as “bear jams” or “deer jams.” Be prepared to stop if wildlife enters the roadway.
- Black bears are most commonly spotted in the early morning and early evening hours during the late summer and fall.
- While the 11-mile looped road is one-way only, there are two two-way roads that cut through the loop for those who are short on time. Sparks Lane is located near the beginning around Oliver Cabin on the north end and just before the loop’s conclusion on the south end. Hyatt Lane is located between two churches on the north end and just after the nature trail on the south end.
- Vehicles are prohibited every Wednesday from May through September. This allows bikers and pedestrians to be able to enjoy the road without worrying about vehicles.
Cades Cove is beautiful any time of the year, and no matter what you decide to do, you’ll love the wildlife, mountain views, and activities that are available on the loop road.
If you only have time to do one thing in Cades Cove, bike the road on a vehicle-free Wednesday in the summer. Draw in the beautiful sights without the hindrance of vehicle traffic. It’s the best way to get the most out of your visit to Cades Cove. Enjoy!