One thing not to do in the Smokies: Cades Cove

Cades Cove appears on most lists of top places to visit in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. So we decided to visit it on our last full day there on our trip in early October. The weather was good and we were certainly up for another scenic drive, as we were fully in love with the scenic beauty of the Park. However, it didn’t meet up to our expectations (except for the lovely drive there) and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone planning a visit there, unless you’re a cyclist. (The loop is closed to cars on Wednesday during the summer.)

First of all, a little background on Cades Cove. It’s about 34 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. The road from Gatlinburg, Hwy. 441, is not one way, but once you get to the loop, it does turn into a one-way road. The 11-mile loop around Cades Cove goes around the perimeter of the valley floor, which was first settled by European settlers between 1818 and 1821. Several of the restored original structures still stand, including three churches, a working grist mill, and cabins. The cove has a campground and a visitor’s center. Along the loop there are pull-outs and places to park (more on this later!)

Cades Cove

According to the National Park Service website, “It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals are also possible.” Quite honestly, after seeing turkeys and a bear elsewhere in the park (like near our cabin) I was okay if I didn’t see anything. I see coyotes and racoons all the time at home, so perhaps we should have thought twice about going here. I know the mention of wildlife tends to draw crowds. Lesson learned!

We knew we wanted to do some hiking first. We decided to do a short, easy hike to Laurel Falls, right off 441. It’s only about 1.5 miles to the falls and the trail is paved the entire way. We got there plenty early, so the foot traffic wasn’t bad and we didn’t have to park far away (by now we were used to the crazy roadside parking situation). The fall colors were very just starting, but still it was a very beautiful hike with great views of the Park, as well.

The beginning of fall colors
Interesting fungi
Majestic views of the Smokies
Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls

After we finished up our hike and continued on our way. I sure loved all the green. Having lived outside my beloved Oregon for nearly 30 years, I forgot how much I crave the forest. But we don’t have cool vines like this in Oregon!

I could never be a monkey!

We had lunch at a nice picnic area at Metcalf Bottoms and then onto to the Sinks, a powerful roadside waterfall before continuing onto to Cades Coves

The Sinks – don’t go rafting or swimming here!
The windy but beautiful road to Cades Cove

We finally made it to Cades Cove, only to be warned by a temporary sign that said due to slow traffic it could take upwards of 4 hours to complete the loop! WHAT!!!! I was ready to turn around but my husband disregarded it and proceeded. As we drove at a snail’s pace around the park with the hundreds of other cars, we saw several of the old structures and places you could pull off. But even the pull offs were packed and seeing old cabins didn’t seem too exciting (we have plenty of those in Colorado.) We did finally find a nice pull off where we took pictures, but we had yet to see any of the elusive wildlife. So we continued on our way with the plan to stop at the visitor’s center at the end. But then traffic literally came to a halt. Seriously. We moved maybe .1 mile in half an hour. So I decided to get out and walk to the visitor’s center. I needed the lady’s room and it was about 1.5 miles away. I had gone about a tenth of a mile when another person came back and told me that traffic stopped because someone had seen a bear. SERIOUSLY? My burst bladder for a bear?

Honestly, I was quite surprised that park personnel allow this to happen. I’ve been to Yellowstone when buffalo are on the roads at times and rangers try to police the traffic as much as possible. In fact, I hardly saw any park rangers here during my entire trip in the Smokies.

While I highly recommend the scenic drive up to Cades Cove, I say skip the loop if it’s busy (pay attention to those signs!). You can exit out toward Townsend before you get to Cades Coves and circle back toward Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg.

Day 2 of our 2020 Great Smoky Mountains Vacation

On our first day in the Smokies we took the scenic, but very busy drive up the Newfound Gap Road. That left us a little exhausted, so we thought we’d start the next day by taking a hike around the neighborhood by our cabin. We spotted a few wild turkeys (there are lots in Tennessee!) Fortunately, we did not have a run-in with the neighborhood bear which we spotted from our car later in the day.

Wild turkeys!
Beautiful reflection
Thankfully, we were in our car when we saw this big bear!

Day 2 also included driving, this time on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It’s a lot shorter than the Newfound Gap Road, only 5.5 miles, but it does take time, as it’s one way and narrow. I have to admit I wasn’t sure what the heck a “motor nature trail” would be, but after a few minutes I really did feel like I was on a trail rather than a road. It was absolutely gorgeous!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Two popular trailheads along this road include Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Rainbow Falls is 5.4 miles round trip and has about 1500 feet elevation gain. By this time it was late morning and was starting to feel warm (it did get up to 80 that day). I normally would not have any issue with that length hike but I hadn’t brought shorts on this trip and from what I read this trail is now a bit more exposed since it does go through some of the burn scar from the 2016 fire. So we opted for the much easier Grotto Falls. It’s only 3 miles roundtrip. With both of these trailheads the parking lots are quite small so roadside parking is the norm. So expect another .25 mile to half a mile walk to get back to the trailhead, especially at Grotto Falls.

The Grotto Falls trail was quite easy for us (we’ve got high elevation Colorado lungs). It was fairly busy, too. But we did find a quiet rock and ate our lunch there, before proceeding back.

Grotto Falls

Before we exited off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, we made a quick stop at Ely’s Mill. The site of a former mill, it now has a few cabins and a wedding venue, as well as a gift shop. Since restrooms there are supposed to be for customers only, we gladly did a little shopping. Lots of cute hand-made items. We picked up a few wonderful smelling locally made soaps.

Photo credit Ely’s Mill FB Page

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Gatlinburg, primarily shopping and then enjoying a beer at Gatlinburg Brewing Company. There are no shortage of shops to pick up souvenirs, as well as places to nosh on yummy smelling food. It took a lot of will power to walk past them but my husband did succumb to some whisky sampling at Ole Smoky Whisky. His favorite was a Mint Chocolate Chip Whisky! Who knew? I enjoyed Byrd’s Cookie Company and came away with more cookies than I needed.

Gatlinburg has a ton of activities – two aerial trams, Ripley’s Museum and aquarium, arcades, mountain coaster ride, a Space Needle – the list goes on. None of these really appeal to us and in this time of COVID, we wanted to be cautious and stay away from crowds. But from what we saw, there were lots of families there, even midweek during the fall.

Despite the busyness, we did enjoy the nice warm fall weather and walking around town. For the most part, people were good about wearing masks indoors and maintaining some degree of social distancing. Now it was time to retreat back to our peaceful cabin and get ready for our final day at the park.

Some bears paid me a visit

I’ve lived in Colorado for 13 years and know all about bears and how to be bear safe. In nearby Boulder many of the people have locking garbage cans and when I camp I’m careful to lock up food (surprisingly there are few bear boxes in campgrounds.) I’ve seen plenty of stories on TV of bears trashing cars with food in them (their favorite cars are Subaru’s) and inviting themselves into people’s houses in the mountains

However, I never thought I’d be a victim. So imagine my surprise the other week when I open the blinds on my rented Lake City cabin and saw two of my car doors open. I dashed out in my pajamas expecting the worst. Fortunately, no damage. Just a lot of dusty footprints. They were small bear footprints to be exact. And some drool on the dash.

A few days later I saw a video from a Colorado Trail hiker who had a midnight visitor by his cabin in the same town: Mama Bear and two cubs. I have to believe they were the same perps who broke into my car.

I was lucky. I actually left my car unlocked (accidentally) after we picked up pizza at Packers Saloon in town. It was delicious pizza. Obviously the beers thought so, too. Too bad they didn’t get any!