17 Favorite Things to Do In Cades Cove Tennessee

17 Best Things to Do In Cades Cove

Cades Cove is one of the most beloved and popular destinations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With 360-degree views of the Great Smoky Mountains, tons of wildlife, waterfalls, historic structures, hiking and biking trails – there are virtually endless things to do in Cades Cove, Tennessee!

As a hiker who also happens to be a big history nerd, I loved exploring Cades Cove when we visited Great Smoky Mountains in 2021.

This guide covers my favorite must-see Cades Cove things to do, including the historic cabins, churches and mills, waterfall hikes to Abrams Falls, strenuous treks to Gregory’s Bald, and how to explore Cades Cove on bike rentals, horseback rides, and guided tours.

I’ve also included must-know travel information to help make planning your trip to Cades Cove a breeze.

Wide Shot of Cades Cove meadow surrounded by Great Smoky Mountains
Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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A Quick Look At the Best Things to Do in Cades Cove

Wondering what to do in Cades Cove? Here are a quick look at my favorite things to do in Cades Cove Tennessee. One of the most beautiful and visited spots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

  • Best Historic Cabins & Churches: John Oliver Place, Henry Whitehead Place, Primitive Baptist Church
  • Best Hiking trails: Pine Oaks Nature Trail (Easy), Abrams Falls (Moderate), Gregory Bald (Strenuous)
  • Cades Cove Visitor Center and Cable Grist Mill
  • Bike rentals, horseback rides, and hay rides

With so many things to do, Cades Cove is not only one of the most popular spots in the Park, but also one of the most crowded.

Planning your trip to Cades Cove ahead of time means you can avoid some of the worst traffic (or at least be prepared for it) and still manage to experience the best this Park has to offer.

Brooke explores the historic Henry Whitehead cabin in Cades Cove
Exploring Whitehead Place in Cades Cove

What is Cades Cove?

The Cades Cove Loop road is an 11 mile scenic drive through the wide Cades Cove valley. Over 5 million visitors a year come to Cades Cove, making it the most popular destination in Great Smoky Mountains. The Valley was formed by millions of years of erosion of the soft sandstone that once filled the Cove. The erosion left a huge, fertile valley, ideal for farming and surrounded by gorgeous mountains now known as the Smokies.

The Cherokee used the Valley as a village and occasional hunting camp starting by the 1700’s. The area was first settled by Europeans in the early 1800s, and several families remained living in the Valley through the Park’s formation in 1926.

Today, over 10 historic structures are preserved along the Cades Cove loop, including settler’s homes, historic barns, churches, and even a working mill.

A trip to Cades Cove is an opportunity to step back in time and immerse yourself in the beauty and history of pioneer-Appalachia.

golden hour in Cades Cove a vast valley in the Smokies

Want to take this itinerary to go? The 3 Day and 2 Day Great Smoky Mountains Itineraries include over 20 pages of daily itineraries, an in-depth Cades Cove guide, a detailed guide to the best hikes in Great Smoky Mountains, plus lodging and dining information, and tips for how to beat the crowds! Get your guide and learn more, here.

17 Best Things to Do in Cades Cove

Map of the Best Cades Cove Things to Do

Use this map to plan your trip and find things to do near Cades Cove.

How to Use This Map: Click the Icons on the map to see more information about each location. Click the star at the top of the map to add the map to your Google Maps account.

the historic Henry Whitehead place, a log and brick cabin from the 1800s in Cades Cove.
Henry Whitehead Place – one of my favorite historic cabins in Cades Cove

Visit Historic Structures and Scenic Overlooks on the Cades Cove Loop Road

Easily the most popular thing to do in Cades Cove is drive the 11-mile scenic loop road to the dozens of historic structures and scenic overlooks.

The Cades Cove Loop preserves over 10 historic structures, including pioneer homesteads, cabins, barns, mills, and churches.

In fact, there are so many historic structures and stops along the Cades Cove Loop that it can get pretty overwhelming. Don’t feel like you need to visit every single structure on this list.  I’m a serious history-nerd and even I reached my limit for how many historic cabins I needed to visit in one day!

Instead, pick a few stops that sound interesting and be prepared to go-with-the-flow once you’re driving the Cades Cove Loop, depending on parking availability and traffic.

There are frequent turn-outs and small parking lots all along the loop. Park where you can and get out and walk to nearby structures.

historic John Oliver place homestead in Cades Cove. An 1800s homestead cabin with stone chimney.
John Oliver Place in Cades Cove

Historic structures preserved in Cades Cove include:

John Oliver Place

John Oliver Place is the first historic building on the Cades Cove Loop Road. John Oliver Place is also the oldest building in Cades Cove, Tennessee – and all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This log cabin was built in the 1820s by the Oliver family who settled in the area.

A small parking lot for visiting the homestead fills quickly. But parking is available along the shoulder of Cades Cove Loop Road a little further down. The cabin is approximately .3 miles from the road and is accessible by a dirt path across a level field.

Historic Churches in Cades Cove

There are 3 historic churches in Cades Cove Tennessee, all located past John Oliver Place. Built between the 1880’s and the early 1900’s the churches reflect the religious movements of the Cove communities over the years.

the Missionary Baptist Church in Cades Cove, a white sided one room historic building with a steeple and graveyard out back.
Missionary Baptist Church / By Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20560891

The Primitive Baptist Church was built in 1887. It is a stately white wooden building with a simple interior, surrounded by a cemetery which houses the remains of many of the Cove’s important families. During busy days, Rangers staff the church and give lectures as well as answer questions about the Cove’s history. The Primitive church is accessible via a dirt side road off the main Cades Cove Loop.

The Methodist Church was built in 1902 to replace an older log cabin meeting house, first established in the 1820’s. Like the Primitive Baptist Church, it is a simple white, wooden building surrounded by a historic cemetery. The Methodist church is located directly on the Loop Road.

simple wooden furnishings inside the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove
Inside the Cades Cove Methodist Church

The Missionary Baptist Church is the third and final church on the Cades Cove Loop Road. Located across from Rich Mountain Road (a one-way gravel off-roading road), there are several parking spots on either side of the road to access the church.

Built in 1839, the Missionary Baptist Church was formed by ex-members of the Primitive Baptist Church over theological differences. (One believed in Missionary work, the other did not. You can guess which was which.)

Elijah Oliver Place

A short 0.6 mile trail leads from Cades Cove Loop to the most “remote” homestead in Cades Cove, the Elijah Oliver cabin. Elijah was the son of John Oliver – who’s cabin you saw at the very beginning of the Cades Cove Loop Raod. In 1866, Elijah settled down and built this cabin.

Between Elijah Oliver Place and the next historic structure, Henry Whitehead Place – is the Cades Cove Visitor Center and Cable Grist Mill area. Learn more about these must-see things to do near Cades Cove in the “Stop by the Visitor’s Center and Cable Grist Mill” section further below.

Henry Whitehead Place

Just past the Visitor Center, Cades Cove Loop Road intersects with the gravel Forge Creek Road. The road is closed from November to March. This road is accessible to all passenger vehicles – but remember to drive carefully on the unpaved roads. You can also walk 15 min from the Cades Cove Visitor Center, which has a large parking lot.

Drive or walk about 0.5 miles past the Visitor Center on Forge Creek Road to Henry Whitehead Place. In the late 1800s, Cove resident Matilda Shields Gregory and her young son were deserted by her husband. Matilda’s brothers quickly built a crude log cabin for them to live. In 1898 Matilda’s second husband, Henry Whitehead, built her a stunning homestead, considered the nicest in Cades Cove.

Explore Whitehead Place before returning to the main Cades Cove Loop Road.

wooden cantilevered barn with a wagon displayed in Cades Cove
Tipton Place cantilever barn

More Historic Cabins in Cades Cove Tennessee

Dan Lawson Place: Located about ¾ of the way around the loop, Dan Lawson Place was once home to the largest landowner in Cades Cove Tennessee. The cabin, built in 1856, is surrounded by a barn, smokehouse and granary.

Tipton Oliver House: This beautiful two-story family log cabin and barn were built in the 1870’s by the Tipton family. The cantilever barn is a 1968 replica of the original.  

Carter Shields Cabin:  The last historical structure on the Cades Cove Loop road is the modest but picturesque Carter Shields Cabin. Civil War veteran George “Carter” Shields retired here from 1910 to 1921. In spring, the Cabin’s blooming dogwood trees make this one of the prettiest spots in the Park.

Visiting these historic structures may be the most popular activity in Cades Cove – but there is so much more to see here! Keep reading for more things to do in Cades Cove Tennessee.  

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Visit Abrams Falls

Abrams Falls Trail in Cades Cove

This 20-foot-high waterfall is considered one of the most beautiful in the Smokies, and the hike to see it is one of the most popular things to do in Cades Cove. This hike is 5.5 miles round trip and generally takes around 2-3 hours to complete and is suitable for most kids who can hike that distance.

The turnoff for the trailhead is located just past stop #10 on the Loop Road. Like all trails in Great Smoky Mountains, the parking lot can fill early in the day, so plan to arrive before 9AM for the best chance of getting a spot.

The base of the falls is a popular swimming hole during summer – so bring a packable towel and water shoes if you plan to get wet!

The Abrams Falls trail can be combined with other hikes in the area, including the Cooper Road and Rabbit Creek trails to form a longer half-day hike.

More Hikes in Cades Cove

While Abrams Falls may be the most popular hike in Cades Cove, but it isn’t the only one!

Getting out of your car and exploring Cades Cove on foot allows you to see the valley from a completely different perspective and is definitely one of our favorite things to do while visiting Cades Cove.

Consider one (or more) of these other hikes while visiting Cades Cove:

Pine Oak Nature Trail (Cades Cove Nature Trail on Google Maps) (0.8 mi / Easy / 30 min) – This easy nature trail starts at the Cades Cove Campground Segment A Road, located at the Entrance to Cades Cove. The beginning of the loop climbs about 200 feet before flattening out. Keep an eye out for wildlife on this trail, especially in early morning!

Rich Mountain Loop Trail (8.3 Miles / 2,000’ Gain / Moderate) – This moderate half-day hike starts at the Cades Cove entrance Kiosk at the beginning of the Loop. The trail is flat until it reaches the John Oliver Cabin. After exploring the Cabin, climb 2,000’ over 2 miles to Cerulean Knob. The trail winds through dense forest, with occasional views of Cades Cove below.

The Loop follows the Rich Mountain Trail, Indian Grave Gap Trail, and descends via the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. Backpackers can explore Great Smoky Mountains’ vast backcountry using the primitive campsites that dot the trail. Make sure to download or carry a reliable topographic map and many trails intersect in this area.

Gregory Bald (11.6 Miles / 3,350’ Gain / Strenuous) –  A strenuous day hike that is also popular for backpacking. The ascent to Gregory’s Bald is densely wooded and a constant incline for 5.5 miles. The summit has stunning views of the surrounding Smokies and Cades Cove. This hike can accessed from unpaved Forge Creek Road when it is open (March – November) or by hiking in from the Visitor Center.  

Cades Cove Visitor Center and Cable Grist Mill

Working Grist Mill at Cades Cove Visitor Center

Located about halfway around the loop, the Cades Cove Visitor Center is the ideal spot to take a break during your drive of the Cades Cove Loop Road.

At the Cades Cove Visitor Center there is a large-ish parking lot, as well as restrooms, a gift shop, and information center.

Walk next door to the historic John Cable Mill, one of the most photographed locations in the Park.

If you’re looking for interactive things to do in Cades Cove Tennessee, stop by the Mill for a demonstration. Afterwards, visit the gift shop next door and take home your own bag of fresh cornmeal ground onsite.

The Grist Mill operates April to October.

Bike, Horseback Rides & More Things to Do in Cades Cove

Bike the Cades Cove Loop Road

See Cades Cove Loop from a whole different perspective! Bike rentals are available March to November from the Cades Cove Trading Bike Rental. Bikers can use the Cades Cove Loop road 7 days a week. Cades Cove Loop Road is vehicle-free and open to hikers and bikers on Wednesdays May to September. Check the NPS website for more information on vehicle-free days

Bike Rentals are located inside the Cades Cove Campground at the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Bike rental hours vary by season, so check the Cades Cove Trading website for up to date details.

Take a Horseback Ride in Cades Cove Tennessee

Get into the pioneer spirit of Cades Cove and discover the Smokies from horseback. The Cades Cove Riding Stables offers guided horseback rides through Cades Cove, one of the most unique things to do in Cades Cove. Trail rides are suited for beginners, and experienced riders alike and last 1 hour.  

The Stables also offer guided horse-drawn carriage rides and tractor-pulled hay rides Spring through Fall.

wooden entrance sign to Cades Cove Scenic Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains

Cades Cove Directions

Cades Cove is located in the Northwest corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Tennessee. The start of Cades Cove Loop Road is located near the eastern end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There are multiple entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Townsend and Gatlinburg Entrances are the closest to Cades Cove.

This chart shows the approximate drive times to Cades Cove from the most popular towns around Great Smoky Mountains:

Town or CityDriving Distance to Cades CoveEst. Drive Time to Cades Cove
Pigeon Forge, TN26 Miles45 Minutes
Gatlinburg, TN28 Miles55 Minutes
Townsend, TN11 Miles21 Minutes
Cherokee, NC57 Miles1.5 Hours

Directions to Cades Cove from Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge, TN:

From the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas in Tennessee, take Highway 441 to the Sugarlands Visitor Center at the entrance to the Park. Turn right on Fighting Creek Gap Road, which becomes Little River Gorge Road.

At the intersection with Townsend Entrance Road, follow the road straight for Laurel Creek Road. Follow Laurel Creek Rd for approximately 7.5 miles until it enters Cades Cove. An Information Kisok Cades Cove Campground mark the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road. From here, the Loop Road is one-way.

Directions to Cades Cove from Townsend, TN:

From Townsend, follow E Lamar Alexander Parkway towards Great Smoky Mountains. Continue onto Townsend Entrance road into the Park. Turn right on Laurel Creek Road. After 7.5 miles, Laurel Creek Road enters Cades Cove. An Information Kisok Cades Cove Campground mark the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road. From here, the Loop Road is one-way.

Directions to Cades Cove from Cherokee, NC:

From Cherokee, drive North on Highway 441, which becomes Newfound Gap Road inside the park. After crossing the Gap, turn left onto Fighting Creek Gap Road shortly before the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Fighting Creek Gap Road becomes Little River Gorge Road.

At the intersection with Townsend Entrance Road, follow the road straight for Laurel Creek Road for approximately 7.5 miles until it enters Cades Cove. An Information Kisok Cades Cove Campground mark the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road. From here, the Loop Road is one-way.

the wide valley of Cades Cove surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance.

Tips for Driving Cades Cove Loop in Great Smoky Mountains

Traffic in Cades Cove lives up to its notorious reputation. Even so, driving the Loop Road is one of the best things to do in Cades Cove, indeed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Make the most out of your drive with these tips:

  • There are no gas stations inside Cades Cove or the National Park. Fill your gas tank at one of the stations outside all major park entrances.
  • There is no cell service in Cades Cove. If you need help, visit the Rangers at the Cades Cove Visitor Center.
  • Prevent traffic jams by using pullouts and parking lots while viewing scenery and wildlife.

There are 2 two-way “shortcut” roads to cross the one-way Cades Cove Loop Road without driving the entire Loop:

  • Sparks Road, is about 1 mile from the start of the Cades Cove Loop Road. Sparks Road reenters the loop near mile 9, just before the Loop exit. Use this road if you need to quickly exit Cades Cove.
  • Hyatt Lane, use this shortcut to skip the back half of Cades Cove scenic drive loop. Visitors who are short on time or simply have had their fill of historic cabins can use this shortcut while still getting the “Cades Cove” experience.

To use the Hyatt Lane shortcut, turn left on Hyatt Lane at mile 3, between the Methodist Church and Missionary Baptist Church. Hyatt Lane rejoins the Loop road near mile 7, shortly before the Dan Lawson and Tipton Place cabins.

Parson Branch and Rich Mountain Roads on Google Maps:

Google Maps users will spot what appears to be two secret exits out of Cades Cove: Rich Mountain Road to Tuckaleechee and Parsons Branch Road to Highway 129. Both roads are primitive, unpaved roads that are one-way out of Cades Cove.

Rich Mountain Road is considered drivable for most passenger vehicles, however a clearance vehicle or 4×4 drive may be required after rainy conditions. Parsons Brach Road is only suitable for experienced off-road drivers in a high-clearance vehicle, preferably four-wheel drive.

Both roads are closed from November to March and the entrance gates are locked at sunset.

We attempted to drive out of the Park using Parsons Road back in 2021, not realizing that it was a primitive road (they aren’t labeled on Google Maps). Thankfully, the gate was locked while the Park was conducting repairs – but don’t make our mistake if you aren’t prepared for an adventure!

Parking Permits and Entrance Fees to Cades Cove

There are no entrance fees or reservations required to enter Cades Cove or Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Beginning March 1, 2023 Great Smoky Mountains National Park will require all visitors to purchase and display a “Parking Tag” while parking inside the National Park. This includes parking along the Cades Cove Loop Road.

All visitors who park for more than 15 minutes in Cades Cove, including at trailheads, historic cabins, Cades Cove Visitor Center, ect. must purchase and display a paid Parking Tag. One Parking Tag is required per vehicle.

Parking Tag fees are $5 per day, $15 per week, and $40 annually.

Parking Tag sales are not limited or capped, meaning you do not need advanced reservations to enter the Park. Parking tags do NOT guarantee a parking spot, so be sure to arrive early to trailheads and popular spots!

Learn more about the Great Smoky Mountains Parking Fee program, where to buy Parking Tags and Parking Tag exceptions here.

Cades Cove Hours

Cades Cove is open year-round. The Cades Cove Loop Road is open daily from sunrise till sunset.

Cades Cove Loop Road may close temporarily after significant snowstorms until roads are safe for travel. Check current conditions for park roads here.

Planning a trip to Cades Cove? Check seasonal hours for Cades Cove visitor center, grist mill, bike rentals, horseback and carriage rides and more at Cades Cove Hours: Everything You Need to Know

Vehicle – Free Wednesdays on Cades Cove Loop Road

There is no vehicle access to Cades Cove Loop Road on Wednesdays, May – September. The Park closes Cades Cove Loop Road to vehicle access every Wednesday during these months to allow pedestrians and bicycles to experience a car-free Cades Cove Loop!

If you want to experience the beauty of Cades Cove without the traffic, consider visiting on a summer Wednesday

Bike Rentals are available March – November at the Cades Cove Campground at the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Fall in Great Smoky Mountains is a colorful and beautiful time to visit!

The Best Time to Visit Cades Cove Tennessee

The best time of day to visit Cades Cove is sunrise. In early morning, mist and clouds blanket the valley, and the crowds haven’t yet arrived. This is also the best time to go to Cades Cove to spot wildlife, including deer, elk, coyote and black bears.

The best seasons to visit Cades Cove are spring and fall. In spring you’ll see plenty of wildlife and blooming flowers. In fall, Cades Cove Tennessee comes alive with bright fall colors.

In Summer, the Smokies are hot, humid, and definitely full of crowds! We first visited Great Smoky Mountains on 4th of July weekend, and it honestly felt like being at Disneyland. Trailhead parking lots often fill by early morning in summer, and Cades Cove Loop Road can be bumper to bumper in the afternoon.

Don’t forget, Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicles, every Wednesday from May 5 to September 1. During this time, the loop road is open to bicyclists and hikers. If you don’t mind the extra effort, consider visiting on these vehicle-free days for a unique experience!

Historic Graveyard in Cades Cove

Where to Stay Near Cades Cove

There are tons of options for camping and lodging near Cades Cove and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Most visitors to the Smokies stay in nearby Gatlinburg, TN There are a variety of chain hotels like Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott and family-friendly mountain resorts like the Greystone Lodge on the River.

Personally, we love to book a vacation home rental with a kitchen – and there are tons of cabins and mountain homes to book nearby.

The smaller town of Townsend is the closest town to Cades Cove, and bills itself as the “quieter side of the Smokies.” There are a few chain hotels, but mostly smaller boutique hotels, vacation rentals, and cabins.

If camping is your style, the Cades Cove Campground is open year-round. The Campground is located just inside the entrance to the Cove.

Cades Cove Campground has cold running water and flush toilets, and campsites have fire rings and picnic tables. Rent bikes, book horseback rides, or grab food from the grill at the Cades Cove Trading Company Campground Store & Deli.

The Store & Deli is usually open March – October. In 2023, the Cades Cove campground Store hours are 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Check here for updated hours and seasonal opening

the small but vibrant tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Gatlinburg, TN is a popular place to stay near the Smokies

Want to take this itinerary to go? The 3 Day and 2 Day Great Smoky Mountains Itineraries include over 20 pages of daily itineraries, an in-depth Cades Cove guide, a detailed guide to the best hikes in Great Smoky Mountains, plus lodging and dining information, and tips for how to beat the crowds! Get your guide and learn more, here.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cades Cove

What Time Does Cades Cove Loop Open?

Cades Cove loop is open sunrise to sunset, 365 days of the year. Visitor center, bike rental, and historic building hours may vary.

How long is Cades Cove Loop?

The Cades Cove scenic loop is an 11 mile long paved road.

How long Does Cades Cove take?

Driving the loop straight through, without traffic, would take about 45 minutes. Most visitors spend 4-6 hours to visit Cades Cove.

The minimum amount of time I would recommend for exploring Cades Cove is 2 hours.

How far is Cades Cove from Gatlinburg?

Cades Cove Loop Road is 28 miles from Gatlinburg. It takes about 55 minutes to arrive at Cades Cove from Gatlinburg.

How far is Cades Cove from Cherokee, NC?

Cades Cove Loop Road is 57 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina. It takes about 1.5 hours to arrive at Cades Cove from Cherokee, North Carolina.