Cades Cove is a broad, lush, green valley surrounded by mountains that is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains. Here, visitors find some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. White-tailed deer are frequently seen, and black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animal sightings also are possible. Along the loop road and the trails that originate in the cove are waterfalls, caverns, monuments, a grist mill and incredible natural life.
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 5, the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road will be closed to all vehicles on Wednesdays through Sept. 1 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.
If you choose to walk the loop on another day, allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove longer if you hike some of the trails. The one-way Cades Cove Loop Road circles the cove, offering motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a leisurely pace. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round.
Several trails originate in the cove, including the short 0.8-mile Cades Cove Nature Trail, a loop hike gaining only 210 feet in elevation.
“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.
Abrams Falls Trail is a five-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls. Longer hikes to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top on the famous Appalachian Trail also begin in the cove.
Abrams Falls Trail
Abrams Falls Trails starts about 5 miles on the loop road. Follow the brown sign pointing you to the right down the gravel road to park. This popular hike gets busy, so make sure to arrive early before 9 a.m. Follow the wide, well-traveled trail out to a 20-foot-high waterfall! The forest surrounding is mostly oaks and evergreens on the ridge serene and peaceful!
At approximately 2.6 miles, hikers will turn left to the footbridge and come out to a beach area where they can observe the falls. 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 incredibly 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.
Note: From May 10, 2021 to November 10, 2021, Abrams Falls Trail and the associated parking area is closed Monday through Thursday from 7a to 5:30p for improvements. The trail is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday all day, as well as federal holidays.
Rich Mountain Loop
Craving a more challenging hike? The 8.5-mile Rich Mountain Loop is a great way to spend the day. Many people choose to hike this loop clockwise. Park at the interpretive pavilion in the large lot on the left BEFORE driving into the loop. You’ll see the trailhead to your right just before the loop begins. At first, you’ll hike at low elevations, but the real climb begins just after the historic Oliver Cabin. Climb for nearly three miles before you reach the junction to the old Rich Mountain fire tower. You will have gained nearly 1800 feet in elevation, or approximately 600 feet per mile, to get here.
The trail opens from footpath to wide wagon road before again winding its way down the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. On your way down, enjoy beautiful views of Cades Cove. This hike requires about 9 hours to enjoy the hike and take breaks throughout the day.
Ace Gap considered one of the most peaceful trails Cades Cove has to offer. It is about 5 1/2 miles in length, without much altitude gain or loss. 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 and may be admired and photographed, not picked or dug.
The trailhead to Ace Gap trail is down Cades Cove loop and up Rich Mountain Road. Near the trailhead, Smokies hikers pass Bull Cave, the largest cave in Cades Cove. The bottom of the cave is 500 feet from the surface almost straight down!
Hikers ascend from the Cades Cove floor past the mouth of the cave. 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.”
Cades Cove Full Moon Walk
You’re in for a real treat if your family is visiting during a full moon. Cades Cove is an incredible place to walk under the stars since the Loop Road is closed at night.
Park at the interpretive pavilion and grab your flashlights. Bonus points to you if you have a headlamp with a red light, or red cellophane for your flashlight. This will help you maintain your night vision. Walk out and back as far as your family desires, observing the stars and the moon without any light pollution. Turn off your headlamp and be guided by the moonlight if you’re feeling brave!
If your crew is feeling ambitious, you can walk down to Sparks Lane, approximately one mile from the parking lot. Turn left onto the gravel road and follow it until you reach pavement again, approximately one mile. Walk back on the paved Loop Road and follow the signs to the parking area for an approximately 3.5-mile walk.
For more Cades Cove area hikes, check out https://www.cadescove.net/hiking/.
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.
Cades Cove Picnic Area
Take advantage of the Cades Cove Picnic Area when you get hungry. If you’re heading out of the loop, the picnic area is directly on your right side before heading back down Laurel Creek Road. This picnic area is first-come, first-serve basis with 81 individual sites, each with a picnic table and grill. There are also bathrooms with potable water. If you’re here on a hot summer
afternoon, make sure to cool off in one of the two mountain streams nearby. Some picnic sites are even adjacent to the water.
Book a Cabin near Cades Cove!
If you’re sold on visiting Cades Cove for your next vacation, booking a cabin in Wears Valley makes perfect sense! Check out our great Wears Valley area cabins and find your perfect vacation destination.
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