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.

Our first “real” vacation of 2020 – Great Smoky Mountains

Yes, we did a number of road trips this year, but nothing on a plane. We had cancelled our trip to Spain (we were going in October) and our trip to Arizona back in March also had to be axed. However, with some United credits to burn, we decided to go to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) last in early October.

Our flight from Denver to Knoxville was nearly full. I think a few seats in First Class were open. We were on an Embraer 175 – a smaller jet that seats 96 people and has 2-2 seating. Instead of boarding groups, they boarded back to front and deplaned front to back. More efficient if you ask me. Masks were required, of course, but we were packed in. The return flight home was the same. I’ve been home 5 days and so far I appear to be healthy. I actually double masked – 2 surgical masks. On the way there no one talked, but on the return I was a little bit worried. I had one chatty Cathy behind me, but fortunately she quieted down after takeoff. (People, in closed spaces like this, even with a mask, keep idle conversation to a minimum!!)

Flying to Knoxville

After picking up our rental car we took a scenic route to get to our wonderful AirBNB cabin in the woods between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. We were surprised how hilly it was! And green! I was in heaven. I grew up in the very green Pacific Northwest and have lived in rather treeless cities for the last 28 years. So I felt totally in my realm. The weather was also perfect. It was in the mid 70s, cool at night (mid 40s), no rain, and no bugs! Hurricane Delta did bring rain to the area after we left but fortunately did not affect us.

traveling toward the Smokies
Our cabin in the woods
Nestled in the woods. Lots of wonderful birds. And a hot tub on the deck, too!

Know before you go . . . TRAFFIC!!

All national parks have traffic. I’ve been to pretty much all the national parks except one (Glacier) in the western US. But I would have to give the award for the worst traffic to the Smokies. It starts before you get there, in Pigeon Forge and even worse in Gatlinburg. Both these towns are tourist attractions in themselves, which only adds to the problem. In addition, GSMNP has the most tourists of any national park in the US (12.5 million in 2019). One good thing about the park is that it doesn’t have an entrance fee (thank goodness! The line to get in would horrible). But I also wonder if the Pandemic coupled with the beautiful weather we had made it even worse.

So be prepared. It took us an hour the first day just to get Subway in Gatlinburg (traffic on the main drag, finding parking, and waiting in line). So that night we stopped off at the grocery store in Pigeon Forge and stocked up on lunch stuff. There are bypasses through downtown, so utilize Google maps and it will shave off some time.

Day One:

Out plan today was pretty simple: travel up US 441 (Newfound Gap Road) to Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, and continue down into Cherokee, North Carolina so I could get a geocache in that state. The total mileage through the park is only about 35 miles, but this is a super scenic highway so take your time. There are several trailheads, but unless you get there early, expect to park alongside the road a quarter to half a mile back.

In our case, we drove through the Newfound Gap parking lot where everyone wants to get a picture by the North Carolina/Tennessee state line and found it to be packed. So we proceeded up to Clingmans Dome. The last mile traffic slowed to a crawl. We finally saw a roadside spot on the opposite side of the road and with some quick maneuvers grabbed it. It was only about half a mile up to the main parking lot and then a short hike up to the Dome. We then hopped onto the far less crowded Appalachian Trail which follows the ridgeline here, and took a leisurely quiet detour. We found a quiet spot with magnificent views and ate our lunch before making our way back to the car.

Clingmans Dome
Appalachian Trail

We continued on to North Carolina. Cherokee is a small town and far different from the craziness of Gatlinburg. Its biggest attraction is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. We didn’t spend any time there as it was getting late in the day (and I heard a bottle of wine calling my name back at the cabin). When we passed the Newfound Gap on the return around 4 pm, the parking lot had tons of space and we were able to get our picture of the stateline and see the Rockefeller Memorial where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.

Oconoluftee River, North Carolina

I’ll continue my story about the rest of our stay in my next post. Stay tuned! I’ll tell you about wild turkeys and black bears!