2022 Top Cades Cove Hiking Trails – Great Smoky Mountains

Cades Cove is a favorite destination for many people visiting the Smokies with its broad, lush, green valley surround by mountains. More than 11 million people coming through the Smokies each year, and nearly 4 million of them choose a trip to Cades Cove for its beauty, history and wildlife. Many choose to drive, walk or bike the 11-mile, one-way loop road that circles the cove. But there are several terrific hiking trails around Cades Cove as well!

The Best Cades Cove Hiking Trails
Along the trails are waterfalls, caverns, monuments, a grist mill and incredible natural life – hikers might see white-tailed deer, black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk and other animals.

Located 27 miles from Gatlinburg and 9 miles from the lovely Townsend, TN., Cades Cove has plenty of trails – from short and gentle to more challenging. As of May 4, the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road will be closed to all vehicles on Wednesdays through Sept. 28,2022 to provide for pedestrian and bicycle use – so it’s a GREAT day to plan a hike in this incredible place uninterrupted by cars traversing the loop.

Nature Trail

“The Cades Cove Nature Trail is particularly beautiful in the spring when the dogwoods bloom and also in the fall when the sourwoods and maples turn a beautiful red” ­ NPS.gov.

On this trail, visitors can see what remains of what was once a thick chestnut grove in the 1800’s. Almost one third of the forest surrounding Cades Cove’s was made up of Chestnut trees at that time. Today the large trees growing along the Cades Cove Nature Trail are primarily oak, dogwood, sourwood, and pine trees.

Appalachian Trail

Abrams Falls Trail is a five-mile roundtrip challenging hike to Abrams Falls. Longer hikes to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top on the famous Appalachian Trail also begin in the cove.

At approximately 2.6 miles, hikers will turn left to the footbridge and come out to a beach area where they can observe the 20-foot waterfall named for Cherokee Chief, Abram. Make sure to stay close to the beach and avoid the falls if you are tempted to cool off in the water. The unique geologic structure of this waterfall makes the pool too dangerous for swimming. Splash close to the beach or head downstream to enjoy deeper pools. Abrams Falls is approximately 5.2 miles round trip, so give yourself at least 6 hours to enjoy the walk. And if you go on a Wednesday, you’ll walk 5 miles along the loop road as well.

Self-Guided

An inexpensive self-guiding tour booklet available at the entrance to the road provides a map and information about the cove.

Trail map

Rich Mountain Loop is an 8.5-mile hike for more experienced hikers. It starts at the entrance of Cades Cove Loop Road. Walk by the historic John Oliver cabin from the 1820s, pass the 25-foot Crooked Arm Falls, and climb up Cerulean Knob for a view from the highest point on Rich Mountain. At the top, hikers will see the remains of the old Rich Mountain Fire Tower.

Many people choose to hike this loop clockwise – so they park at the interpretive pavilion in the large lot on the left BEFORE driving into the loop. The trailhead is to the right just before the loop begins. Low elevations are first and then the real climb begins just after the historic Oliver Cabin. Climb for nearly three miles to reach the junction to the old Rich Mountain fire tower – it’s a gain of almost 1,800 feet in elevation.

The trail opens from footpath to wide wagon road before again winding its way down the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail overlooking beautiful views of Cades Cove. This hike requires about 9 hours to enjoy the hike and take breaks throughout the day.

Ace Gap

Ace Gap is located 3.5 miles from Townsend, Tennessee, and is considered one of the most peaceful trails in Cades Cove. The 5 ½ miles has little altitude gain or loss. The trailhead is down Cades Cove Loop and up Rich Mountain Road. Near the trailhead, hikers pass Bull Cave, the largest cave in Cades Cove. The bottom of the cave is 500 feet from the surface. Once beyond the cave, the trail meanders five miles along the ridges of Rich Mountain to the place known as Ace Gap. “Ace Gap was so named for card playing loggers that once congregated there. You will know you have come to Ace Gap when you come to an old railroad bed.”

During May, parts of the Ace Gap trail are strewn with pink Lady’s Slippers ­ a large, showy wildflower that belongs to the orchid family. According to the National Park Service, all wildflowers in Cades Cove are protected by law, so no picking or digging, but admire and photograph!

 Secret Waterfall

This “secret waterfall” is a must for any hike around Cades Cove.  Spruce Flats Falls is a local favorite for getting a quick walk in the woods.

On the way to or from Cades Cove, turn off at the Tremont Road. Follow the signs to the Tremont Institute and park here.  From the parking area, wander up the hill on a gravel road and follow the signs for the Buckeye Trail. Pass through parts of the Tremont Institute property before intersecting a second trail.

Take a left and head up a short, but steep hill. At the top, be rewarded with views of the road below and Thunderhead Mountain and the famous Appalachian Trail above. A short downhill will lead to a unique foot log with carved in steps on the way to the waterfall. The trail is a bit more rugged here with rocks and tree roots, but it is easy to follow.

The tiered waterfall makes a few unique places to explore, and the stream isn’t too deep for a quick splash. Return by reversing the trail for a challenging but fun 1.4-mile walk.

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls Trail is arguably the most popular hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  With an 80-foot waterfall as the “payoff” for this hike, it’s easy to see why. This 2-hour hike is best for families in the Smoky Mountains who like to get an early start, or anyone wanting that last-minute activity before heading out to supper. Laurel Falls gets extremely busy during the late morning and afternoon.

Follow the paved trail for approximately 1.2 miles, being sure to pay attention to little ones, as there are a few drop offs along the way. This is one of the few places you’ll find mileage markers on a trail in the park.

The most interesting feature of this waterfall is the fact that a bridge transects the waterfall. You’ll cross at the base of the upper falls, so make sure to see both sets while you’re here. You’ll return to the car the way you came.

This trail was paved to help prevent erosion but make no mistake – it is NOT stroller friendly.

Gregory Bald Trail

Gregory Bald Trail is a strenuous 11.3-mile roundtrip hike near Townsend that will reward hikers with glorious mountain views and beautiful terrain. The hike offers a clear view of Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, Thunderhead Mountain, and Clingmans Dome. Enjoy budding “flaming azaleas” in the summer, wild blueberries in August and beautiful autumn leaves in the Fall.

Take Forge Creek Road to Forge Creek Parking to find the trailhead. The Bald rises 3,000 feet above this north trailhead.

The name “Gregory Bald” was given to the mountain by Cades Cove residents in honor of Russell Gregory (1795–1864), a prominent Cades Cove settler.

Cades Cove Hiking Cont…

Lynn Camp Prong is a short 1.6-mile trail off of Tremont Road near Townsend. It “rushes and tumbles over numerous cascades as it flows down the mountain beside the Middle Prong Trail. The trail follows the route of an old logging railroad, so it offers easy walking on a wide, relatively level path. Wildflowers bloom along the trail from spring through summer” – NPS.gov.

From the Townsend “Wye” take Laurel Creek Road 0.2 miles towards Cades Cove and turn left at the sign for Tremont. Follow the road past the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and continue another 3 miles to the small parking area at the end of the road. The trail begins at a long, high footbridge across the river. After crossing the bridge, come to a fork in the trail. Take the left fork, which follows the river.

After 0.4 mile, a bench beside the trail offers a good view of the large cascade. A second bench sits beside the trail at the middle of the cascade. Several smaller waterfalls can be seen along the next 0.25 mile of trail.

Cades Cove Wildlife

Cades Cove is known by many to be the best place in the Smokies to view wildlife. The loop road circumnavigates the large meadow giving your family incredible views of the creatures inhabiting the area.  With deer, fox, coyote, raccoons and more there’s never a shortage of critters to be seen.

Of course, the Smokies’ most famous animal is the black bear, and everyone wants to see one!  Cades Cove is one of the best places to do just that! Make sure to arrive early on your trip, as black bears are corpuscular animals. This means bears are most active at dawn and and at dusk.  Don’t just look at the meadows for wildlife – make sure you look up at the trees too! Black bears are natural born climbers and are even BORN in trees. They have to learn to climb trees before they ever walk on the ground!

If you do spot wildlife nearby,  the National Park Service recommends a distance of AT LEAST 50 yards (half a football field, or 150 feet) to watch.  Remember – animals in Cades Cove are wild and not domesticated, which means they are unpredictable. Never feed or approach wildlife.

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