Part of the magnificent Appalachian Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses land on either side of the Tennessee and North Carolina border of which 25 percent remains old growth forestland. The United States created this national park in response to the substantial loss of ancient forest due to logging in the early 20th century. With over 11 million visitors in 2018, the Smoky Mountains has the highest visitation of all the national parks in the US.
Cades Cove Scenic 11-Mile Loop
During our time at Cades Cove Campground, we drove the 11-mile, one-way picturesque Cades Cove Loop Road three times: morning, afternoon, and evening. Two times were driving with an occasional stop for wildlife and one time, we stopped at each of the historic buildings to explore.
Things to Know:
- Drive Time Needed (with occasional stop): 1.5-2 hours.
- Drive Time Needed (with exploring each stop): 3-4 hours, minimum
- If you need to shorten the drive, you can turn left onto Sparks Lane for 4 mile loop or turn left onto Hyatt Lane for a 8 mile loop.
- Purchase the Cades Cove Tour Booklet ($1) before touring; available at the kiosks at the loop road entrance or at the visitor centers.
- Wednesdays & Saturdays (early May to late September): only bicyclists and pedestrians on loop road until 10am; no motorists allowed.
- Narrow road: watch for bicyclists and pedestrians
- Use pullouts to stop and observe wildlife.
John Oliver Place
Take a short stroll down the 1/4-mile shaded, well-groomed path to the John Oliver Cabin. Following the zig-zag of the split rail, you'll arrive at one of the oldest structures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Built around 1820, the Oliver family lived in the 1 ½-story hand built home for 100 years. Make sure to look at the fine examples of craftsmanship of these early settlers: half dovetail notches, handmade shakes or wooden shingles, and the mud chinking.
Cable Mill Visitor Center
Near the midpoint of this scenic drive, this is an excellent place to take advantage of the only restrooms available on the Cades Cove Loop Road. The center is open daily throughout the year, except during inclement wintry weather. Here you can purchase books, guides, Junior Ranger booklets, and various other gift shop goods. A stop here also gives you the opportunity to take a walking tour of the Cable Mill Area which includes a grist mill, black shop, corn crib, and various other historic community structures.
Cable Grist Mill
John Cable built this water-powered grist mill in 1868 to provide the meal and flour needed by the locals for their daily bread. The original granite millstones continue to mill corn as a historic exhibition. From April to October, you can watch the operation and purchase a bag fresh cornmeal to take home as a tasty reminder of your time in the Smokies.
Abrams Falls Hike (Located past stop #10 on the loop)
A moderate 5-mile round trip, the Abram Falls hike leads to a powerful 20-foot waterfall named after a Cherokee Indian chief. Arrive early to avoid crowds at this very popular hike. Leave yourself 3-4 hours to complete the trek and remember your water, food, and a sturdy pair of shoes. Look for otters along this trail.
A word of warning - the enticing pool at the base of Abrams Falls hides dangerous currents that have resulted in drownings.
Cades Cove offers plentiful opportunities for wildlife viewing. We kept track of the number of critters we observed on our different times around the loop.
- Morning 6:30am-8am: 30 deer, 12 turkey, 1 bear, 1 pileated woodpecker
- Afternoon 2-5pm: 5 bear (3 adults, 2 cubs), 2 deer, 3 salamanders, 1 snake
- Evening 5-6:30pm: 3 bear, 3 turkeys
Cades Cove Trading Company
Located adjacent to the Cades Cove Campground, the authorized concessioner Cades Cove Trading Company runs a cafe, camp store, and bike rental.
- The cafe menu includes burgers and sandwiches, ice cream, and a grab-n-go items.
- The camp store offers essentials such as ice and firewood plus souvenirs and gifts.
- The bike shop offers first come, first serve rentals. Arrive early to assure a stocked inventory.
Cades Cove Riding Stables
Also near Cades Cove, Cades Cove Riding Stables, a park-authorized vendor, offers a variety of horse-related activities from March through November, depending on weather and trail conditions:
- Guided Trail Rides: One hour length with limit of nine riders per group. No reservations.
- Guided Carriage Rides: 30-45 minutes in length; six passengers. No reservations.
- Guided Hayrides: Last 1 ½-3 hours, depending on loop traffic. 2-65 passengers per hayride.
Cades Cove Campground
Camping at Cades Cove Campground gives you easy access to adventure-rich outdoor experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, most of which is within 15 miles of your campsite.
Tips to Know:
- Open all year
- Loop B: generator use allowed 8am through 8pm
- Loop C: no generators allowed except when Loop B is closed for season.
- Flush toilets; no showers; dishwashing station
- Bear rich habitat - food must be stored in vehicle when not in use; dispose of trash promptly into bear-proof dumpsters!
- Watch for poison ivy!
Check out our blogpost on camping and hiking at Deep Creek Campground on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Nearby Waterfall Trails with Minimal Crowds
Spruce Flat Falls
Not on the official park trail map, Spruce Flat Falls gives you a scenic, tiered waterfall and a chance to cool off in the water, but with minimal crowds. Less than 10 miles from Cades Cove, park at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and get your last chance for a restroom break (flush toilets). If confused about the location of the trailhead, the friendly volunteers in the gift shop will give helpful instructions.
At the back of the parking lot, go up the gravel road and take a left just past the dormitory building. Continue to follow the signs that say "Falls" or "Falls Trail."
Easily under 2 miles roundtrip, the hike difficulty lies in the substantial amount of rocks and roots along the way. It took us about 1.5-2 hours to complete the hike including splash time in the water.
Middle Prong Trail: 3 Waterfalls
Middle Prong Trail, another gorgeous hike in Tremont, features three waterfalls: Lynn Camp Prong Cascades, Lynn Camp Falls, Indian Flat Falls.
If you are looking for an easy stroll, hike this former logging railroad to Lynn Camp Prong Cascades. A wide, smooth path and a total distance of 1.2 miles round trip makes for a leisurely hour stroll. Take time to sit at the bench and watch the cascades.
On the other hand, this hike can be made more substantial. For a total of 8 miles round trip, you gain two more waterfalls plus a small side trail that leads to an old Cadillac.
To get to the Middle Prong Trail, drive past the Great Smoky Mountains Institute and then go another three miles on a gravel road with a few single car bridges. A small parking area, arrive early on peak weekends, as Middle Prong Trail continues to grow in its popularity. Walk across the footbridge and go left at the fork in the path - you'll be following along the river.
Nearest restroom is at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute or Cades Cove Picnic Area.
Things to Know for Hikes:
- No pets or bicycles on either trail; horses allowed on Middle Prong Trail.
- Wear appropriate footwear - flip flops and sandals are not suitable.
- Watch out for poison ivy.
- Bring plenty of drinking water.
- Be bear aware.
- Pack your trash out.
Sugarlands Visitor Center:
Early in your Smokies vacation, stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center for an introduction to this amazing national park. Leave yourself at least an hour since there is quite a lot to do here - which makes it a great rainy day option.
- Watch the fascinating 20-minute film about the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its biodiversity.
- Buy a Junior Ranger booklet or bring back the completed one to earn a badge.
- Get the scavenger hunt for the kids to help get the most out of the extensive natural history exhibits
- Purchase park maps or souvenirs at the well-stocked bookshop.
- Ask questions of the knowledgeable rangers at the information desk who will graciously help you with your hiking itinerary. In fact, there are three trailheads that leave from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
- Be prepared to circle the large parking lot a few times during peak season.
- Vending machines and rest room facilities available.
Visitor Center Hours:
- June-Aug, 8am-7:30pm; Sept-Oct, 8am-6:30pm; Apr-May, 8am-6pm; Mar & Nov 8am-5pm; Dec-Feb, 8am-4:30pm
- Open daily except Christmas Day
Trails from Visitor Center:
- Cataract Falls: Suitable for families with young children; a 3/4-mile round trip to a 25-foot waterfall.
- Fighting Creek Nature Trail: Family-friendly hike, a 1.2-mile loop, takes you past a couple historic cabins.
- Gatlinburg Trail: one of only two trails that allows dogs and bicycles, this 1.9 mile-long shaded path leads to Gatlinburg and follows the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
Townsend Wye Swimming Hole: Picnic Lunch
We needed a convenient place to refuel - the car and supplies - and headed into the quiet town of Townsend and stopped at the IGA Market which has gas, groceries, and picnic items.
Heading back into the Smokies and you'll notice a parking lot on the left to the Townsend Wye swimming hole. We slipped into the last open spot in a rather small parking area. Not only a great lunch setting, but an awesome place for wading, swimming, and tubing.
Warning: We did notice a couple of northern water snakes (non-venomous, but startling). If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.
Located on US 441 on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, the Newfound Gap with an elevation of 5,046 feet, is the lowest drivable pass in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A stop here for a restroom break and a chance to straddle both states at the same time. The weather was significantly cooler than Cades Cove, so out came our fleece jackets.
TIP: Great place to catch a sunrise - either from the parking lot or the nearby viewing area.
Charles Bunion Trailhead (8.1 miles roundtrip) starts at the Newfound Gap parking lot near the restrooms. This trail offers the opportunity to trek a portion of the fabled Appalachian Trail as well as a reward of a spectacular summit view.
Our next stop after Newfound Gap was to drive the 7-mile Clingmans Dome Road to the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet elevation. As we drove we noticed the increasing cloudiness, and by the time we arrived at the Forney Ridge Parking area, we were encased in clouds. Our plan had been to hike the steep half-mile paved path to the famous concrete observation tower, but we weren't willing to invest that much work for obscured views. It just means a return trip to the Great Smokies!
Rest room facilities available at Clingmans Dome parking area.
Andrew Bald Trailhead (3.5 mile roundtrip) originates from the parking area. A popular trail so start early to avoid crowds.