One of the volunteers is captured at the grist mill in Cades Cove.

America’s Best Free Attraction – Cades Cove

A trip to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is an opportunity to get back to nature on a grand scale. Our visit required catching breaks between days of showers, which were coming from the remnants of a recent hurricane. By shifting our schedule around, we were able to enjoy a couple of days of exploring one of the most visited parks in the nation. During our planning stage for the trip, we identified Cades Cove as a “must-see” section of the park. With a full day of sunshine being forecasted, we were not going to pass up this opportunity to see America’s best free attraction.

Wide open vistas make for scenic sights at America's best free attraction.

Beautiful Vistas

When you hear the name Great Smoky Mountains, your thoughts are of huge hillsides and scenic peaks. In between those mountains are some beautiful valleys. One of the most picturesque is Cades Cove. We made our way into the park via the entrance from Gatlinburg. A quick stop at the Sugarland Visitor Center allowed us some historical and topographical knowledge of the park. Here, visitors can pick up brochures and maps that will help guide them through America’s best free attraction. With all of the recent rain, we knew the hiking trails would be muddy. It was decided to stick to adventures that kept us closer to the main walkways. As we made our way toward the 11-mile loop road of Cades Cove, we enjoyed the amazing scenery that unfolded before our eyes.

Visitors will see plenty of gentle streams cascading throughout the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Scenic Streams

Where there are hills and mountains you will usually find plenty of streams. The flowing water is inviting to watch and brings a sense of peace. As you make your way through this national park, be sure to watch for pull-offs that signify good viewing spots. If you visit during drier times, you may wish to hike to one or more of the many waterfalls that dot the region. For us, we had to be satisfied with the small rapids that are found in the streams that hug the road along the way through the park.

There are plenty of wild creatures waiting to be seen during a visit to America's best free attraction.

Wildlife Watching

There is something magical about spotting some of the wildlife that calls Cades Cove home. As we passed along the road, we needed to keep a keen eye peeled for the critters that reside in the park. During our visit, we saw a black bear scurry across the road on its way to a new spot to forage. Wild turkeys were prominent fixtures that seemed to enjoy hanging out along the side of the road. Once we passed into the broad valley, it was our turn to watch the elk grazing in an open field. We joined the long line of cars that had pulled off to the shoulder to witness these graceful creatures in action. Before long, a bull elk appeared from the trees to keep an eye on the does.

The authors enjoyed a personalized horseback tour inside Cades Cove.

Trail Rides

While we had decided that hiking in the mud would be off our list, there was still an opportunity to get a little closer to nature. Once we arrived at Cades Cove, our first stop was the Cades Cove Riding Stables. Since our visit was on a weekday, after the Labor Day weekend, we had an opportunity for a personal tour. Crystal rode on Sky and I was on Frank, while our tour guide Sarah, was riding her horse Salem. The sunshine made us forget about the muddy conditions, and it didn’t seem to bother our mounts in the least. Since it was just the three of us, we mostly spent our time discussing life and traveling. We learned more about each other and by the end of our ride, felt a bond with our new friend. This is one of the things we enjoy most about traveling to new destinations.

A working grist mill is one of the sites you can visit during a tour of America's best free attraction.

Historic Homes

After our ride, we started our slow drive around the Cades Cove Loop. This 11-mile journey offers lots of beautiful sights, as well as some of the original structures from days long ago. One of the areas that can be explored is Cable Mills. With buildings dating back to the mid-1800s, this is a bonus at America’s best free attraction. After parking our car, we walked through the area investigating and exploring each of the buildings. The old farmstead includes a house, sheds, a smokehouse, a corn crib, and a working grist mill. Inside the mill, we watched a volunteer preparing to grind a batch of meal, much like it has been done for over a century.

A wild turkey struts along the roadside on the Cades Cove Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Jealous Much?

Many of the visitors to Cades Cove come for a chance to spot wildlife. Throughout our visit to the park, we did see a wide range of animals, but none more than the wild turkeys. Where we come from, these are not a rare sight, so we ignored the small flocks that congregate in various places. As we scanned the horizon for bears, elks, or other large creatures, I would do my best to avoid the birds that refused to move for passing vehicles. After a while, it almost appeared as though the turkeys were doing everything in their power to get noticed. There was even one point that a single bird crossed slowly in front of our car while staring at both of us. He was not willing to accept being overlooked.

The authors pose for a selfie at the entrance to America's best free attraction.

America’s Best Free Attraction

Touring Cades Cove is an opportunity that is not to be missed. Since most people visit during the summer months, the traffic can be extremely heavy. There are a couple of ways to overcome this issue. We chose to visit after the kids had returned to school, but this isn’t always a good option for families. During the summer months, every Saturday and Wednesday morning is reserved for non-automotive traffic. Visitors can walk or bike around the loop-free from vehicle traffic starting at sunrise until 10:00 a.m. They even have bike rentals at the Cades Cove Campground Store. They also have a deli, where you can pick up picnic supplies, in case you forgot to pack them before heading into the park. With all of these sights to see and places to explore, how many of you are thinking of adding a visit to America’s best free attraction?

the authors signatures.

12 thoughts on “America’s Best Free Attraction – Cades Cove”

  1. I loved my visit here. It’s such a relaxing drive through Cade’s Cove with so many gorgeous place to picnic.

  2. Wendy Elliott

    I did not know about Cades Cove and not much about Smokey Mountain National Park. Thanks for the beautiful views. I bookmarked this to review when we plan a trip there. And biking it is a great idea.

  3. Carol Colborn

    You went through Cades Cove better than we did. You even stopped and did the horseback rides! Loved the historic homes and wildlife.

  4. Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    Cade’s Cove sounds like a great place to visit even if it wasn’t free! I’d especially like to explore those old buildings.

  5. I explored Smoky Mountain National Park a couple of years ago. I loved it, especially Cades Cove.

  6. Kristin Henning

    We woul love to add Great Smoky Mountain National Park to our list of parks visited! (I’m writing this from Yellowstone!) Pinned, and looking forward to the wildlife viewing there.

    1. We loved our Yellowstone adventure and hope yours is just as amazing. Thanks for pinning the article. We hope you have a chance to visit Great Smoky Mountain Park, as well.

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