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The Ultimate Cades Cove Travel Guide: Top Things to Know Before Visiting

Are you thinking about visiting Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains?

Cades Cove has been one of our top travel destinations in Tennessee — and for good reason! Once you visit yourself, you’ll see why.

For one, it’s an absolutely beautiful area with sweeping smoky mountain views, especially during the spring for the blooming meadows or the fall season for the beautiful fall foliage views.

Also, one of the best highlights is the abundance of wildlife — from bears to foxes to deer and much more!

the silhouette of a deer at cades cove in the smoky mountains with early morning fog
Deer on Cades Cove Loop

There are also a few hiking trails and waterfalls to visit in Cades Cove, as well as a few camping spots.

And if you’re spending a few days in the Smoky Mountains, it’s on our list of best things to do!

We think there are some important key points to remember before visiting Cades Cove that will make your experience more enjoyable. We’ll cover important information, like:

  • When is the best time to visit Cades Cove?
  • Should I drive, bike, or walk the Cades Cove Loop?
  • Where should I stay near Cades Cove?
  • Top Things to See in Cades Cove

Ready? Let’s talk about visiting the beautiful Cades Cove in the Smokies!

Top Things to Know When Visiting Cades Cove

More About Cades Cove

Deer in the road on Hyatt Lane on Cades Cove Loop in the Smoky MOuntains
A deer in the road on Hyatt Lane

Admission is Free!

Please note: If you are visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and plan on parking for more than 15 minutes, a parking pass is required.

Cades Cove is a 6,800-acre valley known for its sweeping beauty and is the most-visited area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The best way to explore Cades Cove is by traveling along the Loop Road.

Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile paved one-way loop road through the park making it very easy to leisurely drive, bike, or walk to spot wildlife, visit the historic structures, or enjoy the picturesque views.

Settlers from Europe settled in Cades Cove in the 1800s, now leaving behind historic structures such as old churches, log cabins, and grist mills.

Some wildlife that is frequently spotted in the valley include black bears, coyotes, foxes, turkeys, white-tailed deer, and a variety of bird species. When we visited during May, we were fortunate to see 3 black bears, many white-tailed deer, turkeys, and even a fox!

Please DO NOT approach wildlife!

When is The Best Time to Visit?

sun rays coming through the trees at cades cove loop in the smoky mountains of tennessee
Cades Cove Loop Road in the morning in September

It may come as a surprise to many to know that Cades Cove is open year-round (weather permitting).

The loop road opens to vehicle traffic from sunrise to sunset, with the weekends being the busiest times to visit.

Note that vehicle traffic is not permitted on Wednesdays from May to September as this time is reserved for bicycles and foot traffic only.

We visited Cades Cove on a weekend in September. Although the weekends tend to be the busiest times to visit, we started the loop road right at sunrise and were able to enjoy the loop road and wildlife on our bikes before it began to fill up with vehicle traffic.

See more on how to avoid traffic in Cades Cove below.

Black bear cub climbing a tree in the smoky mountains
Black bear cub at Cades Cove on the trail to Abrams Falls

The best times to visit Cades Cove depends on what YOU want to do or see!

  • Spring — Beautiful blooming meadows with warm afternoons and cool mornings, great for hiking.
  • Summer — Greenery and hotter weather that is better for swimming and visiting waterfalls. The best months to bike on Wednesdays (closed to vehicle traffic).
  • Fall — Fall foliage trees provide beautiful landscape views. Cooler weather for hiking and biking.
  • Winter — Not as much foliage, easier to spot wildlife.

Should I Drive, Bike, or Walk along Cades Cove Loop?

Cades Cove Loop Road Map from Smoky Mountains


Man biking along Cades Cove Loop early in the morning in the Smoky Mountains with fog in the background
Biking Cades Cove early in the morning

Again, this depends on what time of year you are visiting Cades Cove. However, we think one of the best ways to see Cades Cove is by biking!

We stayed at the Cades Cove Campground (see more about this below) and were able to enter Cades Cove Loop Road by bike as soon as the sun started to rise, allowing us to avoid most of the traffic.

If you want to be one of the first ones on the loop road, we HIGHLY recommend bringing your own bike. Otherwise, you will have to wait until 9 am to rent a bike (except on Wednesdays from May to September).

If you are looking to rent a bike on a Wednesday (May-September) bike rentals begin at 7 am and are first-come first served!

If you are only wanting to bike part of the way, you can do that too! The entire loop is 11 miles but two shortcuts cut through the park — Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Keep in mind that these shortcuts are gravel and are two-way roads, allowing visitors to reduce (or maximize) their time on Loop Road.

We took the Hyatt Lane shortcut and were happy that we did as we came across a bear and a few deer! Also, it avoids most of the hilly parts of Loop Road, so we were happy we ended up taking the shortcut.

We still biked approximately 9 miles and it took us about 3-4 hours to complete, making many stops along the way.


Driving through Cades Cove Loop in the Smoky Mountains in a Volkswagon van
Driving the Cades Cove Loop on a sunny day

If you’re not up for biking or you want to view the loop from a different perspective, then you should drive!

We actually biked first and then came back to the loop in the evening in our van. We were happy that we ended up doing both and seeing the loop from a different perspective.

Driving the Loop Road has both its pros and cons.

  • Still able to enjoy the Loop Road if the weather is sub-par such as if it’s raining or if the temperature is too cold or hot.
  • No strenuous activity is required. If you don’t want to work up a sweat, then driving is your best bet.
  • Safer. If you run into a bear or wildlife along the road, you won’t be in fear of them approaching you (which is highly unlikely by the way).
  • More than likely, you will be in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The speed limit along the Loop Road is only 20mph and if you’re like us, you’ll end up focusing more on the meadows and valleys around you trying to spot wildlife, so we didn’t mind the traffic as much as we thought we would.
  • More difficult to pull off or stop when spotting wildlife. As you’ll have cars in front and behind you, you aren’t able to stop and spend your time viewing the wildlife like you would be able to if you were biking or walking.


Historic structure in cades cove
Carter Shields cabin on Cades Cove Loop

Last but not least is walking (or running) the Loop Road!

Walking allows you to start the Loop Road as early as you’d like (like biking) and is the best way to be present, really soaking in the views, plants, and wildlife you’ll spot along the way.

It’s also the easiest way to explore the historic structures, as you won’t have to worry about parking your vehicle or bike.

So, do you think you want to drive, bike, or walk Cades Cove Loop? If you’re staying in the area, you could do all three!

Where to Stay Near Cades Cove

a fox spotted on the side of the road in Cades Cove
A fox appeared on the side of the road on Cades Cove Loop

We think one of the best ways to explore Cades Cove is by staying nearby in one of the campgrounds.

We spent a weekend in September camping in our van at Cades Cove Campground and thoroughly enjoyed it.

As the campground is right near the entrance of the loop, you’re able to drive, walk, or bike the loop within minutes. As I said before, we did driving and biking and were able to make one last loop as a last-minute decision right at sunset, spotting even more wildlife and beautiful sunset views.

  1. Cades Cove Campground
    • $30 per night
    • Right at the entrance of the Cades Cove Loop Road
    • Open year-round
    • Tents and RVs up to 35 feet
    • No Hookups / No Showers
  2. Anthony Creek Horse Camp
    • $30 per night
    • Near entrance of Cades Cove Loop Road
    • Open March 29, 2024 – November 11, 2024
    • Primitive Camping
    • Must have a horse to camp here
    • 6 people and 4 horses allotted per camp site
  3. BackCountry Camping
    • Reservations required
    • Permit required
    • Contact (865) 436-1297

Cades Cove Campground was fantastic. There is a camping store located across the main road where you can purchase camping essentials and approved firewood.

If you’re not up for camping, there are some cabins and motels close to Cades Cove but driving will be required. Here are some recommendations:

1. Dancing Bear Lodge

  • Sleeps 2-3 people
  • Pets allowed
  • 30 minute drive to Cades Cove Loop Road
Front view of Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend TN near Cades Cove Loop Road
Credit: Dancing Bear Lodge via Booking

2. Dreamy Cabin & Outdoor Oasis

  • Sleeps up to 7 people
  • Pets NOT allowed
  • 25 minutes to Cades Cove Loop Road
photo of a hot tub overlooking tree foliage at dreamy cabin in townsend tn
Credit: Dreamy Cabin via Booking

Top Things to See in Cades Cove

Okay, so now that you’re visiting Cades Cove you may be asking yourself what should you do or see.

Hike to Abrams Falls

abrams falls at cades cove in the smoky mountains national park
The hike to Abrams Falls is worth it!

Hiking to Abrams Falls was definitely a highlight of our trip to Cades Cove.

For one, we came across a bear and her two cubs climbing a tree near the trail! We were cautious and provided them their space, and left before they climbed back down.

Abrams Fall Trail is a 5-mile round trip and would be considered a moderately challenging hike with some elevation changes. The hike itself is beautiful as most of it lies along the river and is surrounded by beautiful flora.

It is not recommended to swim near the base of Abrams Falls as some people have sadly succumbed to the strength of the current. However, I was able to take a dip to cool down away from the falls (the water was a little chilly in September!).

Go Horseback Riding

What better way to explore the Smoky Mountains than on horseback?

These guided trail rides are a perfect way to see Cades Cove’s beauty and wildlife.

Cades Cove Riding Stables provide different riding styles such as guided trail rides, carriage rides, and even hayrides!

Rides are available from March 6th – November 30th from 9 am to 4:30 pm. Reservations are not accepted unless you have a group of 15 or more people for hayrides.

Unfortunately, due to safety reasons, riders are not allowed cameras and phones on the guided horseback rides. If you’d prefer to be able to take photos, the guided carriage ride or hayride may be the best option.

Visit the Historic Structures

Methodist church and cemetery  in cades cove in the early morning surrounded by fog
Cades Cove Methodist Church

There are many historic structures scattered throughout the park, from old churches to log cabins and more — some dating back to the 1820s!

We didn’t visit all of the historic structures, but the ones we did see were pretty neat. Especially the Methodist Church is seen in the photo above, taken in the early hours while it was still foggy.

Other interesting structures we stopped to see were the Cable Grist Mill, the Elijah Oliver Cabin, and the Henry M. Whitehead house.

If you can, stop and see them all!

We hope we’ve answered some questions that you had about visiting Cades Cove. If you have any questions that we haven’t answered, post them in the comments below!