Are you planning on visiting Cades Cove in the fall? We’re sharing our experiences to help you best navigate the Cades Cove Loop. Use this guide if you want to spend less time sitting in traffic and more time experiencing Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s incredible beauty.
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 by far the peak season. 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 short the loop along the way
Peak season: Popular year around but fall is peak season
Cost of admission: Free
How to get to Cades Cove
The only ways to get to Cades Cove are by car, bike, or motorcycle.Those from farther out of town can fly into Knoxville (McGhee Tyson Airport) and rent a car from there.
Maryville, TN to Cades Cove: 33 miles / 1 hr 6 min
Knoxville, TN to Cades Cove: 50.2 miles / 1 hr 26 min
Chattanooga, TN to Cades Cove: 148 miles / 2 hr 49 min
Asheville, NC to Cades Cove: 126 miles / 3 hr 4 min
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 just in case.
Bear canister - If you plan to do any 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 in the fall) 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
- Pullover jacket/sweatshirt
- Warm socks good for hiking
- Moisture wicking long sleeve t-shirt
- Moisture wicking short sleeve t-shirt
- Active shorts
- Wide brim hat for ultimate sun protection
- Ball cap
- Hiking boots
Beware of Crowds in Cades Cove Loop
Does Cades Cove get really busy in the fall? YES. I heard someone once call it “Cove Rage” (instead of Road Rage) because people can get irate driving in standstill traffic around the loop road for 11 miles. 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. :)
Best Ways to Experience 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.
It is important to note that during Cades Cove in the fall all of the trails are 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!
Arrive prepared for crowds and be sure to use the bathrooms at the front of the loop or at the visitor center halfway around the loop. Pack snacks, bring water, and maybe a good fall inspired playlist to make the road trip complete.
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 from $7.50 per hour for adult bikes and $4.50 per hour for childrens’ bikes. More information regarding bike rentals in Cades Cove can be found here.
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 and is open year around. Reservations can be made here at recreation.gov.
Specific things to see when visiting Cades Cove in the fall
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.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of hiking trails and some of the best can be found in Cades Cove. Do keep in mind that because Cades Cove is one of the most popular places in the park, the hiking trails there are usually busier than some of the more remote trails throughout the park. For specific hike recommendations in the park check out this article.
Like the churches located through the cove, restoried 18th and 19th century homes and cabins can be found. These homes offer a chance to step back in time and see what life in Cades Cove may have looked like for those who once called it home.
Cades Cove is home to 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.
Happy travels, y’all!