When it comes to mountains, my entire frame of reference is the Rocky Mountains. I do realize that the Ozark Mountains are in my own home state and I have visited them before and they are amazing. But the Rocky Mountains were my first mountains and will always be my frame of reference to all others. (Maybe this is why I gloss over the Ozark Mountains?)
The Smoky Mountains may not be as tall and towering as the Rocky’s but the first time I saw the clouds hanging low on the trees it took my breath away. The temperature in the area was warmer and more humid than I remember the mountains in Colorado being but once we got under the canopy of the trees the temp did drop.
We spent one week in the Smoky Mountains and visited the National Park five separate occasions. We hiked. We fished. We drove through Cades Cove. We visited the highest point. And yes, we had bear sightings. I hope you enjoy this series of post as I walk you through our visit to Smoky Mountain National Park.
One of the perks of staying in Townsend is the close proximity to Cades Cove, so on our first full day we headed to the national park and straight to Cades Cove. We should start by defining “cove.” Where we come from a cove is part of a lake. It is a smaller section of water close to land that you ancher down in. That is the not the case here. Here a cove is a flat valley between mountains or ridges. Cades Cove is an 11 mile one-way loop through the national park. It was settled in the early 1800’s and for over a century people called the cove their home. Industry soon followed in the means of mills, blacksmiths, wood working, orchards, and even a few distilleries but farming was the main occupation in the cove. The population of Cades Cove reached 685 people with around 135 families right around 1850. Churches and school were built.
Tennessee and North Carolina began buying land that is now part of the national park and gave it to the government for park use. Cades Cove residents were given the option of selling and leaving. Some sold quickly and others resisted. Not everyone left Cades Cove. Some agreed to less money for their land if they could remain on it until they died. The last school closed in 1944 and the post office closed in 1947.
Before visiting The Smoky Mountain National Park I knew a little of the parks history. The land was all privately owned and lumber companies owned 85% of the land and were logging it. Besides depleting the trees the changing forest also impacted the deer and animal populations. Thankfully conservation efforts have been successful as we were able to see many deer and bears during our visits to the park.
It took us a few hours to make the 11 mile loop.The view is very scenic and you never know when an animal will appear which will stop all traffic. The buildings former residents used/lived in are still available so it is worth it to stop and hike around. Every time we found a large group of cars stopped, we stopped. It served us well. We ended up seeing a total of 6 bears that first day in Cades Cove. Sometimes we found out people were stopped to see deer and to be honest that thrilled us less because we have them at home. Either way, when you see a large buck with velvet on his antlers, you still stop in awe.
We stopped at the Visitor Center and Cable Mill area and walked around. The cable mill was still running and grinding cornmeal the day we visited. It was a pleasure talking to the mill operator as he explained how fast the mill could run and course or fine the former operates could make the cornmeal or flour.
It was hot during our visit and there were warning signs everywhere cautioning us to be aware of snakes. They like to find cool places to hide during the heat of the day and that can include many of the old buildings. Thankfully we did not find any slithering creatures during our visit. We did find access to the stream that runs along the mill. The Short Chic asked permission to put her feet in it. Being accustomed to the mountain streams in the Rockies I told her yes but the water would be freezing cold. Little did I know, the Smoky Mountain streams are not ice cold but actually enjoyable to be in.
There are two gravel roads in Cades Cove that provide short cuts in the loop. Hyatt Lane and Sparks Lane are two way gravel roads that help you navigate the park if you want to repeat or skip parts. I think these roads are excellent for adding to the adventure of visiting Cades Cove. We traveled Hyatt Lane late in the afternoon and were greeted by some serious photographers looking for wild life and if I had to be specific I would guess bears. As we found out, bears like blackberries and like to come to the meadows that are full of wild berry bushes.
On our way out of Cades Cove, we decided to take Rich Mountain Road back to Townsend. This road is closed during the winter but open in the summer. It is one of the original gravel roads used to enter Cades Cove before the national park was opened. It is full of switchbacks as you make your way up, down, over, and off the mountain to Townsend. As our luck would be with this vacation, storms found us as we were making our way over. The sky darkened, the rains came and visibility went away. What a memorable trip down the mountain!
Want to see more? You can, check out our Cades Cove family movie: