Cades Cove, Smoky Mountain National Park – There’s Wild In Them Thar’ Hills

Tucked into the northwest corner of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Cades Cove is one of very few places in the entire national park system where nature and human history mingle. Cherokees were the first to discover this relatively flat valley between mountains; they camped in the Cove for weeks or months at a time, hunting deer, elk, bison and bears. By 1821 white settlers had discovered the idyllic site. They cleared the land, building log homes, barns, corncribs, smokehouses, and grist mills. The bottom land was rich and fertile and produced abundant crops, while the surrounding forest provided plentiful game; life was hard but good. Although the occasional Cherokee was spotted, aside from one reported incident of a hunter being killed by an Indian, the settlers and Cherokees co-existed peacefully, perhaps because the Cherokee had never built permanent villages in Cades Cove.

Cades Cove is an idyllic valley between mountain ridges in the northwest corner of Great Smoky Mountain National Park

My intended route between Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina took me up and over the Smokies and past the road leading to Cades Cove. I was on no specific schedule and had never investigated the Tennessee side of the park, so I detoured twenty-some miles on a serpentine road, following a sparkling creek tripping its way over stone ledges and giant boulders as it rushed down the mountainside. At the end of the road, cars, hikers, and cyclists shared a narrow one-way eleven-mile road that loops around the valley. Although Cades Cove is no longer inhabited, the historic structures have all been restored and are open to the public without admission. Primitive cabins, clapboard churches, and a fully restored mill provide a fascinating glimpse into hardships endured by early residents.

John Oliver Place, early settler log cabin
Cades Cove historic Methodist Church
Grist mill was used to grind corn
Early cantilevered barn stored crops

More fascinating was the abundant wildlife. Bears hung from tree limbs in the midday summer heat and shuffled across the road at will, ignoring drivers who stomped on brakes and created mini-traffic jams as they whipped out cameras, hoping to capture a good photo before the bear lumbered back into the forest. A giant Pileated Woodpecker worried an insect-ridden post for 15 minutes while I gradually crept closer to take photos. In one of the log cabins, baby swallows cheeped from a mud nest their mother had built on a low interior rafter. Bears, deer, bats, elk, wild hogs, rattlesnakes, raccoons, woodchucks, red fox…wildlife was everywhere, in plain sight, and seemingly indifferent to human visitors. Somehow, the animals in Cades Cove know that humans are no threat. But it hasn’t always been so.

Young bear sleeps in a tree in during the hottest part of the day
Pileated Woodpecker seemed oblivious to my presence
Adult Swallow (or Swift?) buzzed visitors inside this cabin where she built her nest, trying to get us to leave so she could feed her young
Hidden in dark recesses of the rafters, bats were easily discovered hanging above the droppings lining the cabin floor
At the end of the day, I was treated to one final bear sighting as this adult lumbered back and forth across the road, indifferent to the traffic jam he created

Unlike other national parks that were established on lands already owned by the Federal government, land in the Smokies was privately owned before it was purchased for the park. Lumber and pulpwood companies had owned more than 85% of what is now park land, and two-thirds to three-fourth of the old growth timber had been clear-cut. Only an estimated 30 deer remained in the Great Smoky Mountains the year the park was created – all 30 of them were in Cades Cove.

Under the protection of the park service, the wildlife once again proliferated and the forests recovered, although the behemoth trees that once dominated the landscape are forever gone. Visiting Cades Cove was a thrilling, near spiritual experience for me. And although I learned a great deal during my brief stay, I drove out of the valley at day’s end, amidst a landscape painted golden-green by the lowering sun, thinking, “If these hills could talk, the stories they would tell!”

Author’s note: I was delighted to learn from fellow travel blogger Cory Lee, who doesn’t let his disability keep him from traveling extensively, that the Great Smoky Mountains are wheelchair accessible as well. 

13 thoughts on “Cades Cove, Smoky Mountain National Park – There’s Wild In Them Thar’ Hills”

  1. This is a wonderful article. Thanks for sharing your adventure with everyone.I am a native of the area and also a great, great grand daughter of John Oliver. I live very near to the cove now. As a Matter of fact, my grandmother was born in the cove. My mother is still alive and has lots of great stories to tell. I experience a vast amount of wildlife here and to me it is the greatest place on earth. But after all, I call it home.

    • Hello Angelena! Thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a lovely comment. I try very hard to research my writing to make sure the facts are correct so I love hearing from locals who provide that confirmation. Cades Cove is definitely one of the special places in the US and I really hope I will have an opportunity to return someday and spend more than a day there.

  2. If you think your experience was cool, imagine visiting many many times throughout your life and then finding that your great grandfather from five generations past is Peter Cable. My family built the baptist church, the mill was a my great aunts, and of course there’s the homestead. It’s awesome being able to look back on my family history in such a tangible way. Glad you enjoyed it and I’m glad the state park has preserved it so long.

    • Wow Annie – that’s so cool. Not many people can point to a pioneer history like you have. Love to know how you finally discovered it.

  3. Cade’s Cove was an unexpexted surprise dor Nana and I when we ventured into the Park, in September 2009. We just happened upon the place, and absolutely loved it.. Seeing the pioneer farm, though some od the buildings had been moved there, was educational, informative, as well as enjoyable..
    We seen flocks (is that what you call it for Turkeys?lol) several deer, but no bears..
    Traavelling down the one lane road, was really nice, with plenty of pullover spots, so others could get around.. We didnt like being hurried, so we pulled over often. one day, on another adventure, we took off on the primitive road, one lane one way 7 miles, the same as the pioneers travelled to take their goods to market.. 3 day trip,, one there, one day to trade and sell their goods and visit with folks, and one day back.. Cades Cove also let you look back and imagine, what life would have been like back then.. I got to where I was calling my vehicle, The Wayback Machine, as it would take us back in time to these pioneer places of adventure. lol

    Another place not to miss, is heading east, towards Cherokee. Just before you get to Cherokee, in North Carolina, they have another pioneer farm set up, with many buildings, and a hiking trail through the farm.. another place, I would firmly recommend to visit..
    Thanks for your article and pics,, (the pics, are identical to mine, lol)


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  5. I went there last fall and loved it. I wish I had seen a bear that close up.
    .-= Rhea´s last blog ..American Place Names Desperately Need Updating =-.

  6. Gorgeous! How did you get so close to the birds or do you have a sooper dooper zoom?

    Great trip – some of these sights I remember from my trip, others totally new. Love your composition…
    .-= Paula G´s last blog ..Inspiring Image of the Week – Smoky Mountain National Park =-.

    • Hi Paula:
      I do use a telephoto, but it’s not a super dooper – the Woodpecker was literally 15 feet away and stayed there for a quarter hour!


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