Cades Cove, a small valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the single most-visited site in the park - quite an acclaim, considering GSMNP itself is the most visited national park in the country. Of the approximate 11 million people who visit the Smokies every year, about 2 million make a stop in Cades Cove.
Usually I try to steer clear of the tourist hubs, but Cades Cove holds a special place in my heart - I grew up visiting almost every year, and it always felt like a magical place due to the well-preserved cabins, grist mill, and barns. Despite its popularity, you can still visit Cades Cove and feel like you're stepping back in time.
Evident in the cove is a great sense of pioneering spirit and staunch independence. Cades Cove residents weathered decades of raids - from Union and Confederate looting during the Civil War to sheriff-led distillery raids during prohibition. In fact, cove residents remained holdouts throughout the formation of the national park. When the park commission arrived in 1927 to incorporate the cove into the park, residents posted a warning at the valley entrance warning the commissioner to "get gone." John W. Oliver, descendant of John Oliver, first European resident of the valley, repeatedly took the NPS to court, going as high as the Tennessee Supreme Court. Eventually, residents and park services struck a fragile deal, allowing original park inhabitants to remain while the park developed around them. Members of the Primitive Baptist Church continued to hold services in the park until the 1960s, and the cemeteries of the various historic churches serve as final resting grounds for cove inhabitants and descendants up through the end of the 20th century.
While visiting, however, please take a moment to acknowledge the fact that you are visiting stolen land. While the spirit and endurance of the cove's European-descendant settlers is undeniably impressive and important history, they were by no means the original inhabitants of the area. The Cherokee originally used the cove as a seasonal hunting ground, calling it Tsiya'hi, or "place of the otters" (sadly, the referenced otters are now extinct). The cove's name is derived from Tsiya'hi leader Chief Kade. In 1819, the Treaty of Calhoun facilitated the cessation of the land from Cherokee to white control, and remaining Indigenous people were forcibly removed in the 1839 Trail of Tears.
When do I visit? The park is, predictably, most crowded in the summer and during fall foliage season (peak changes a bit each fall - keep an eye on local forecasting if you want to catch the absolute brightest leaves). You can avoid some of the crowds by aiming for a corner season - just before it gets too busy. My personal favorite is spring, when the mountain laurels and beauty berries start to emerge. However, spring can also bring with it unpredictable weather (mainly rain, with an occasional late snow), and one must use extra caution while hiking as the bears have started to come out of hibernation. With empty bellies and cubs in tow, they are extremely food oriented during this time, and while bears typically don't prove a threat to humans, it's safer to steer clear rather than take your chances with a grumpy bear. Winter is also a great time to visit, but keep in mind that many visit the area during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Aim for early December or mid-to late- January to avoid that rush, and keep a close eye on the weather and park alerts, as roads and trails frequently close due to ice.
How do I visit? The most common way to visit Cades Cove is via the 11 mile auto loop, open every day from sunrise to sunset. This, in fact, contributes greatly to the popularity of the site - it's possible to visit, feel like you're getting in a major dose of nature, and never actually leave your car. If you do the loop, please maintain some basic etiquette. Once you start, you're committed - the loop is only one-way. Observe speed limits (no dangling out your car window, driving 5mph, trying to glimpse BigFoot). If you spot wildlife or want to take in a view, utilize the many pull-offs scattered around the park - do not just stop in the middle of the road. Do not agitate the wildlife (need I return to the image of a grumpy, hungry, mama bear?) Deer, wild turkey, and the occasional bear are all mainstays of the park - but you're in their home. Don't piss off the hosts by inching closer and closer with your camera, yelling things, or throwing things to get their attention.
For a more immersive and rewarding experience, bring a bike or rent one. On Wednesdays and Saturdays between May and September, the park is closed to motor vehicles until 10am. There will be some hills to make you sweat, but in general the path is smooth and rolling. Don't forget that summers in Tennessee bring with them a decent amount of humidity - wear loose-fitting clothes and pack plenty of water.
Hiking is another great way to explore the cove. Hikes to Thunderhead Mountain, Rocky Top, and much-loved Abrahms Falls all originate in the park. For the less rustically-inclined, the short Cades Cove Nature Trail is a gentle start. Any local or NPS staff member will be happy to share their favorite hikes, often with fervent loyalty.
What is there to see? Cades Cove is unique in that in addition to exquisite natural beauty, you can explore incredibly well-preserved structures created by frontiersmen and women centuries before. The John Oliver cabin is one of the most notable. Oliver and his wife were the first European settlers in the valley, and their circa 1822 cabin still stands. There are three churches in the cove, which provide a fascinating view of the evolution of religion and community among locals. The Primitive Baptist Church congregation was formed in 1827 and constructed its church in 1887. The "primitive" serves to distinguish it from the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist church, whose congregation formed following a split in 1839 and whose church has been standing since 1915. The Methodist church has been active in the cove since the 1820s, and the church was constructed in 1902.
About half-way through the loop you'll find the visitors center and a collection of historic structures including the historic Cable Grist Mill, Becky Cable House, and various barns, smokehouses, and cabins. The visitor center offers traditional forgery, marksmanship, and other historic demonstrations throughout the year.
However you choose to visit, Cades Cove is one of those rare places that truly makes history come to life. So visit gently, but visit enthusiastically - let your mind wander away to times far beyond you. Try to imagine just how well you would fare with one cow and two neighbors a day's walk away. Would you have been a moonshiner? A miller? Would you have embraced the valley, or dreamed of some day running far beyond its corners? Take the time to let your thoughts run away from you.