Cades Cove is one of Tennessee’s most special places. Located in a mountain-rimmed bowl within the confines of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the cove presents spectacular leaf-peeping opportunities, as well as hiking, camping, and bicycling in a splendor as good as it gets here in the Southern Appalachians.
In the early 1800s, long before it was part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove was wildland belonging to the Cherokees. However, a treaty in 1819 opened this mountain- circled vale to settlement. It wasn’t long after — and maybe even before 1819 — when John Oliver settled in Cades Cove. Oliver had migrated south from our own northeast Tennessee, up Elizabethton way, long before Johnson City existed. Settlers were already pouring over the mountains from North Carolina.
The former soldier, who had fought under fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, decided to stay a spell here in the shadow of the Smokies. John Oliver and his descendants ended up being one of two families that resided in Cades Cove from this point until the land was bought out as a national park in the 1930s, more than a century.
Their simple agrarian way of life seems idyllic compared to the daily rush we face today. It was a time when families worked together, following the seasons to reap what they had sown, whether it be corn — the staple of the people of Cades Cove — butchering a pig when the first frost lay down, gathering wild blueberries and blackberries from the land or harvesting apples from planted orchards.
Today, slow yourself down and explore Cades Cove. Take the stroll along the foot of Rich Mountain, visiting Oliver’s Cabin, or many of the other historic homesteads and churches preserved in the national park. Camp in Cades Cove Campground. Hike to Gregory Bald. Bicycle the 10-mile Cades Cove Loop Road. Gain views of the stateline crest that loomed over Oliver and his fellow Cades Cove residents. In the foreground, enjoy the fields of Cades Cove. They are still kept open today, preserving this pastoral backwater.
And when you reach the wooden cabins of yesterday’s settlers, walk inside, stroll around and imagine yourself in their shoes, carving out a homestead and raising a family in a land that was to become a national park. It is these historic cabins that give a tangible link to a past way of life that has left us forever.
As you begin Cades Cove Loop Road, an excellent scenic drive, Crooked Arm Ridge rises to your right. White pines, oaks and tulip trees rise between fields. Gain bucolic views through the trees of waving grasses with wooded mountains beyond, perhaps deer foraging in the fields. Cross-seasonal branches emerge from hilly terrain heavy with shortleaf pines, indicating this was likely pasture or cropland in Cades Cove’s heyday.
You’ll find the parking for John Oliver Cabin early in the loop. It’s a short walk to reach the homestead. One legend has it that Oliver wandered into Cades Cove while hunting and then spent the night in an Indian hut. He found the area already beautiful and potentially productive, then built his home here. This is one of many impressive log cabins within the cove. They serve as a link to East Tennessee’s rural past. John Oliver and his offspring populated the cove and never left. Other visitors will be accessing the cabin from Cades Cove Loop Road.
The loop continues through woods and field. Trails aplenty spur from the road. Head to Abrams Falls, or climb to Gregory Bald. The important thing is to get out there and enjoy our national park. The loop road can be busy on fall weekends. Don’t even get in the auto parade then. Instead, go during the week. If you must go on a fall weekend try to do it at dawn or late in the afternoon — the road is gated at sunset, though. If bicycling Cades Cove Loop Road, you will be sharing the road with autos. Another option is to pedal the road under a full moon. Leave a little while before dusk and enjoy sunset and moonrise. You are required to have a flashlight if pedaling at night.
Overnighting at Cades Cove Campground will help you execute your morning and evening adventures. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/grsm. Cades Cove is located near Townsend, a little way outside Knoxville.