Complete Travel Guide to Visiting Cades Cove, Tennessee
Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far the most visited national park in the USA. While the park is popular year around, fall is peak season to visit because of the beautiful falls colors found in Cades Cove. Every year people hop in the car and drive to Cades Cove to catch a glimpse of this iconic valley when it’s drenched in fall color.
While Cades Cove in the fall is breathtaking, it’s not just the mountain and colorful leaves people are after. Wildlife and the historical significance of Cades Cove also attracts many people every year.
No matter what it is that attracts you to Cades Cove, you won’t be disappointed with your visit! We had so much fun visiting Cades Cove in the fall recently and experienced one of the most perfect autumn days!
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Loop length: 11 miles with 2 options to shorten the loop along the way
Peak season: Popular year around, but fall is peak season
Cost of admission: Free
Time zone: Eastern Standard (EST)
Location: Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Directions to Cades Cove
The only ways to get to Cades Cove are by vehicle, bike, or motorcycle. Those from farther away can fly into Knoxville, TN (TYS) or Asheville, NC (AVL) and rent a car from there. To reach Cades Cove you'll need to enter Great Smoky National Park since the Cove lies within the park's boundaries.
Maryville, TN to Cades Cove: 32.7 miles | 1 hr 6 min | Google Maps
Knoxville Airport (TYS) to Cades Cove: 36.8 miles | 1 hr 6 min | Google Maps
Chattanooga, TN to Cades Cove: 148 miles | 2 hr 49 min | Google Maps
Asheville, NC to Cades Cove: 126 miles | 2 hr 55 min | Google Maps
Nashville, TN to Cades Cove: 217 miles | 3 hr 53 min | Google Maps
Charlotte, NC to Cades Cove: 229 miles | 4 hr 46 min | Google Maps
We always recommend using Google Maps while traveling in the USA because you can download their maps and still navigate when you don't have cell signal. Because Cades Cove is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, cell service is very spotty and unreliable.
Best time of year to visit Cades Cove
While Cades Cove is beautiful all year, fall is by far the most popular time to visit. The Cove is famous for its beautiful fall colors when the leave start to turn. When this happens, thousands of tourists will flock to drive the Cades Cove Loop Road.
Spring is my favorite season in Tennessee! The days are warmer and the world comes alive with color once again. Visiting Cades Cove in the spring will offer similar temperatures and the more popular fall season, but with lesser crowds. Visit the Cove in spring to see the green valleys and mountains come alive and witness the wildflowers springing up along trails. Do note that weather in the spring can vary greatly so pack prepared.
Summer in Cades Cove can get hot! If you're not familiar with a southern summer, they're hot and humid. Sort of like a sauna. Summer brings lots of vacationers on break from school and work which will make it feel busier. While I personally love the hot summer days, they can be exhausting and dangerous if you don't visit prepared. Pack lots of water, sunscreen, and bug spray. Trust me, you'll need all three.
I know I've said it but I'll say it again: Cades Cove is busiest in the fall. For good reason, just know that you'll be surrounded by thousands of other people who had the same idea of visiting Cades Cove to see the fall color. Days will be a bit unpredictable with temperatures, but generally speaking the days are mild and the nights cool or cold. If you visit later in the fall you'll like be blessed with no mosquitos or other bugs.
Winter in Cades Cove is definitely the quietest time of year. The days are shorter and cold. Snow isn't terribly common in Cades Cove, but it's not it foreign either. Tennessee weather can be unpredictable so always check the weather before visiting. Either way you'll want to pack lots of layers. The trees will be dead in the winter but the winter sunrises and sunsets are pretty hard to beat! If you can tough out the cold, you'll be rewarded with no bugs and lighter crowds.
What to Pack for Cades Cove
Binoculars - We purchased these binoculars right before we visited Alaska and have loved taking them with us to all the national parks since. If you haven’t already, invest in binoculars! Obviously they’re not required and they’re a bit expensive, but if you have the money and/or want to invest in a pair to watch wildlife, we highly recommend these.
Hiking boots - Good shoes for walking and/or hiking are a must. If you head off to look at the cabins, trails, or churches in Cades Cove you’ll be walking on grass and dirt, many of the surfaces uneven. While the terrain isn’t particularly, rocky, something comfortable with closed toes is always recommended.
Water bottle - No matter when you visit Cades Cove, bring water! Services can sometimes be far away and it's always best to carry water with you.
Bear canister - If you plan to do any wilderness camping at all, you must have a bear canister to store your food.
Clothing Layers - The best way to travel (especially Great Smoky Mountains National Park) is by wearing layers. This way you can easily add or subtract clothing as the temperature rises or falls. Here are a few of our favorite clothings items we always bring with us on adventures:
Synthetic down jacket that packs small
Warm socks good for hiking
Moisture wicking long sleeve t-shirt
Moisture wicking short sleeve t-shirt
Wide brim hat for ultimate sun protection
Beware of Crowds on the Cades Cove Loop
Does Cades Cove get really busy? YES. I heard someone once call it “Cove Rage” (instead of road rage) because people can get irate in the standstill traffic around the loop road for 11 miles. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far the most busy national park in the USA. This is partially due to its close proximity to so many midsize and major cities in the USA. The other reason is because the national park is directly next to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg which are towns made almost entirely of tourist attractions and those tourists spill into the national park and visit the two most famous places in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Clingman's Dome and Cades Cove. Even with the crowds, it's a worthwhile place to visit. Don't let traffic and crowds keep you from seeing the Cove's beauty and learning its history.
That's all I really have to say about it, but it's important enough to know that it warranted its own section in this article. :)
What to do in Cades Cove
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of wonderful hiking trails of all lengths and for all skill levels. There are several hikes that start from Cades Cove including Abrams Fall and Gregory Bald. Be sure to pack the appropriate gear for a hike, know your limits, and head off for a little adventure. We always recommend traveling with an emergency satellite communication devicejust in case. National parks rarely have cell coverage and having an alternative way to get help if you need it is important.
It is important to note that f you visit Cades Cover in the fall, be aware that all the trails get pretty busy. If you’re planning on hiking in Cades Cove as a way to get away from others and enjoy the park in silence, this might not be the case. If it's serenity you’re after, consider saving hiking for outside of Cades Cove and on a less popular trail.
The simplest and most popular way to see Cades Cove is by driving the Cades Cove Scenic Loop Road. While driving might sound less interactive, due to the way the road runs through the park, driving offers some of the best views and plenty of places to pull off and explore the historical sites and trails along the way.
While the Cades Cove Scenic Loop Road is only 11 miles around, it can take 4 hours to drive the 11 miles during peak fall season. With thousands of people daily flocking to the drive, it can be bumper to bumper standstill traffic for hours. Don’t let the crazy crowds keep you from driving the loop though!
Cycling the Cades Cove Scenic Loop Road is a quintessential Great Smoky Mountain National Park activity. While this blogpost is focused primarily on visiting Cades Cove in the fall peak season, the best time to bike the Cades Cove Scenic Loop Road is mid June to through September. Every Wednesday between June 17th and September 30th the Cades Cove Scenic Loop Road is closed to vehicles and is open only to cyclist and pedestrians.
If you don’t own your own bike, bike rentals for Cades Cove Scenic Loop Road are available. Bike rentals begin at 7:00 am and the last rental will be at 3:00 pm.
Bike rental rates
Ages 15 and under: $10/hour
Ages 16+: $15/hour
24 hour rentals are $60 per bike.
Group discounts are offered on bike rentals: 4-6 people = 5%, 7+ people = 10%
Camping in Cades Cove is a wonderful way to experience the area with lighter crowds and a guaranteed way to experience sunrise and/or sunset in the cove. The campground is located at the front of the Cove where the Loop Road begins. Cades Cove Campground is open year around and campsite reservations are highly recommended.
The campground offers both electric and non-electric RV/camper sites and tent sites. Prices for all camp spots regardless of season or type of camp site is $30.
A few of the amenities featured at the campground include fire rings, flush toilets, firewood vendor, RV dump station, picnic tables, drinking water, and a general store. The restrooms are handicap accessible and dogs are allowed to camp at the Cades Cove Campground.
What to see in Cades Cove
In the Cades Cove area there are three historic churches that are open for visitors to walk through. The churches are located not far off the loop and are easily accessible by vehicle. Take a walk through the buildings and the cemeteries out back. Many of the tombstones in the cemetery are marked with years and even information about some of the people buried there. The churches located in the Cove were a huge part of the culture and lifestyle of the Cove's inhabitants. We'd recommend learning more about the churches history and significance before visiting.
I know we mentioned hiking under the things to do in Cades Cove section of this travel guide, but considering hiking is one of the best ways to see all that Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer, we're mentioning it again. Do keep in mind that because Cades Cove is one of the most popular places in the park and the hiking trails are generally busier than some of the more remote trails throughout the park. We'd recommend doing research and finding hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains that best fit your fitness level and interest.
Houses and Cabins
Like the churches located through the Cove, restored 18th and 19th century homes and cabins can be found all around the Cades Cove Loop Road. These homes offer a chance to step back in time and see what life in Cades Cove looked like for those who once called it home. The history of the people who inhabited the Cove is interesting and well worth the read before visiting.
Cades Cove is home to all sort of wildlife including bears, elk, deer, and more. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife along the way. Deer and bear are very common, but the elk heard that calls the area home are a bit newer and are spotted a little less frequently than other wildlife. Be sure to bring binoculars and keep an eye out on the ground and in the air for birds and mammals found in Cades Cove.
Visiting Cades Cove in the fall is an incredible experience. Don’t let the crowds keep you from visiting. If something is popular, most of the time it’s for a good reason. Plan ahead, be prepared, and enjoy your visit through one of the most popular national park drives in the country!
Have you had the chance to visit Cades Cove in the fall before? We’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!