Historical and natural attractions lie side-by-side in Cades Cove, a flat mountain valley on the Townsend side of the park. It was a population center before the park was established.
Access to Cades Cove is along an 11-mile one-way loop road. Traffic moves slowly through this pastoral landscape, so plan on spending at least two hours on the loop. Two two-way lanes cross the cove and allow you to shorten or lengthen your drive.
The roads in Cades Cove are closed to vehicular traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 a.m. from May to September. Exploring on foot or bike is a lovely way to experience the cove.
You can leave Cades Cove (but not enter it) along the one-way Rich Mountain Road, which climbs up and over Rich Mountain and deposits you in Tuckaleechee Cove, near Townsend. The road is steep and curvy, offering lovely views of the cove below. It is closed in winter, from mid-November through mid-March.
Another exit from Cades Cove is Parsons Branch Road, a one-way seasonal road that departs the cove near the Cable Mill and heads through unspoiled mountains. After joining with Forge Creek Road, this route ends at Highway 129 and Calderwood Lake. It is 10 miles from Cades Cove to Highway 129.
From 129 you can drive east into North Carolina or west to Chilhowee and the Foothills Parkway in Blount County.
There are indications that Cherokee and other native Americans used Cades Cove for hunting and as a way to travel through the rough mountain terrain. But it is believed that whites were the first people to settle permanently in this fertile yet remote place. Early homesteaders came in the 1820s, and by 1850 the population was nearly 700.
Families—with names like Jobe, Oliver, Tipton, Shields, Burchfield, Cable, Sparkes, and Gregory—farmed, raised cattle, collected wild chestnuts, and hunted. They built churches, a school, gristmill, and homes. Theirs was the hard yet happy life of the mountains.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the government came to buy up Cades Cove land for the park. Some of the remaining 600 residents agreed to the financial settlement and left the cove. Others took less money, but retained the right to live in Cades Cove until they died.
One man, John W. Oliver, took Tennessee to court, but he lost and moved out in 1937. During the 1940s, the population of Cades Cove dropped quickly. The school closed in 1944 and the post office shuttered in 1947. By the end of the decade it was a ghost town, left to the imaginations of visitors yet to come.
Cades Cove is home to more than 70 historic buildings, which makes it the best place in the park to learn about human inhabitation of the Smokies. Along the 11-mile loop you will have the opportunity to explore various homesteads, including the John Oliver Place, the Henry Whitehead Place, and Carter Shields Cabin. Historic churches include the 1902 Methodist Church, the 1887 Primitive Baptist Church, and the 1915 Missionary Baptist Church.
At the extreme western end of the loop is the Cable Mill area, which you should explore on foot. The gristmill here is original; it was built by John P. Cable in the 1870s. Outbuildings around the mill were moved here from other parts of the park. They include a cantilever barn, blacksmith shop, smokehouse, and the Gregg-Cable House, believed to be the first frame house built in the cove.
There is a parking lot, visitors center, and restrooms at the Cable Mill.
Deer are a common sight in Cades Cove. You may also see bears, river otters, elk, woodchuck, wild turkeys, rabbits, and squirrels. Elusive animals of the cove include bobcat, raccoons, and gray and red foxes.
Over the years, the park service has debated how to manage the Cades Cove environment. Since it is a “historical district,” the objective is not to return the cove to nature but to preserve its open spaces and historic buildings. In the early years, the park service issued grazing permits, built large drainage ditches, and introduced non-native fescue grass.
More recently, they have rethought these policies. They are phasing out grazing and haying, resorting instead to prescribed burns to keep the cove open. Native grasses and wildflowers are being reintroduced, and drainage ditches are being plugged so that low-lying areas will return to being wetlands.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition