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Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most accessible national parks for many people in the United States since it sits in Tennessee and North Carolina, and Cades Cove Loop is one of the park’s most popular areas.
We’ve spent the most time in this national park ourselves since it’s often on our path to other destinations. Who can resist a quick stop? We certainly can’t. And then there’s this: this park will always hold a special place in our hearts because it’s the area we chose as one of our first vacations together. My youngest child wasn’t even an idea yet!
We’ve made some stops since then, but one thing remains true: Cades Cove is simply a Great Smoky Mountains National Park must-do. And, it just so happens to be easy to access by car as you drive the historic loop!
Where We Stayed
You can enter the park from the edge of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Gatlinburg is a fun, quirky little town with a lot of personality and fun things to do. There are several lodging and food options in town, and you’ll have a good time browsing the shops. We happened to stay in nearby Pigeon Forge during this trip to be near Dollywood and other attractions there. We spent some time in Gatlinburg, though, and we’d recommend staying in either location.
If you drive from Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg, you’ll see gorgeous scenery like this tunnel above.
After you drive through Gatlinburg, you’ll come across this sign.
Sugarlands Visitor Center
One of the first places we stopped was Sugarlands Visitor Center. They have a nice gift shop and information about the places you’ll want to explore in the Smokies. Cades Cove is a longer drive than you may guess; it took us about an hour and ten minutes over winding roads to get to the entrance of the loop. You’ll be in the forest, and for a lot of the drive, you’ll be next to a mountain stream in the early summer.
But the views are beautiful!
Cades Cove actually sits in a valley, but the mountains are all around. This valley allows for meadows, and it will be easier to spot wildlife as opposed to looking in the forest. Once you are at the entrance of the loop, you can purchase inexpensive pamphlets about Cades Cove or ask a ranger if you have questions.
Cades Cove Loop
The loop is a one-way paved auto tour or bike path. I like roads like this–you can’t get too lost if there’s only one way to go. You’ll have several opportunities to stop along the way. The loop is 11 miles long, so it’s nice to know that you’ll be able to hop out and explore every once in a while.
Click here to access the map provided by the National Park Service.
The history of the area is remarkable, and that history is what makes Cades Cove such an amazing place to visit. According to the National Park Service, European settlers moved to the area in the 1820s. They build homes, farms, churches, and other community buildings as they made their lives there. In 1927, Tennessee and North Carolina began purchasing the land for a national park.
While some residents were happy to sell, others fought battles in courtrooms to prevent losing their land, though these battles were eventually lost. In 1945, Cades Cove was made a historic area, and the park service began work to preserve the buildings and stories of the families who lived there. Along the route, you’ll see these structures and learn about the families who made Cades Cove home. I’ve shared some pictures of some of those buildings below.
This is the first structure on the loop. This cabin really captures the imagination and helps you visualize what life was like in Cades Cove. I love the chimney! It also seems lovely to have a front porch and a back porch.
Here is the front view.
This church with separate entrances is fascinating. Most of the time, if a church had two doors, it meant that men and women entered the church through separate doorways. Some sources say that this church followed the practice while other sources state that this church was built merely using the plans of a church that did. In either case, this church did not build the physical divider inside. The Methodist Church in Cades Cove allowed for people to sit wherever they chose.
Apparently, as the country inched toward civil war, the people of the congregation disagreed on the issue of slavery. Again, I find history so fascinating!
Below is the interior of the church.
Cable Mill/ Becky Cable House/ Visitor’s Center
Here is a black snake in the corn crib. He’s poking out his head to say hello!
Cades Cove Nature Trail
Dan Lawson Place
This cabin is unique because it is made with both logs and sawed boards. It also features a brick chimney instead of the more common stone. This residence also served as a post office.
The most notable structure at the Tipton Place is the cantilever barn. This style of barn seems to be mostly found in Tennessee, especially Sevier and Blount counties. This cantilever is believed to be influenced by settlers from Europe, especially German settlers.
The overhang kept crib areas from getting wet, and the slats helped move air through to dry what dampness did occur. The cribs may be used for hay, livestock, or workspaces. Cattle could also get out of the rain under the overhang. A story suggests that this barn was also a way to minimize taxes since the taxes were assessed by square footage on the ground.
Cades Cove Picnic Area
After working our way around Cades Cove Loop, we were ready to eat! We packed a picnic lunch since we knew it took over an hour of driving in the Smokies to get to Cades Cove. There happens to be a lovely picnic area not too far from Cades Cove.
This is just a small taste of the Cades Cove Loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s such a gorgeous area to explore, and the auto tour is perfect for families or others who may find long hikes difficult to navigate. The auto tours allow the park to be much more accessible to people who may not be able to enjoy it otherwise. If you love nature mixed with a little history, you’ll love your visit to Cades Cove.
Planning a trip to Tennessee? Click here to learn more about Memphis.
Exploring National Parks? Consider visiting Arches National Park or Petrified Forest National Park.