Great Smoky Mountains National Park
3 Hour, 11 Mile Bicycle Ride - First Half
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the country (with more than twice as many visitors in 2005 as the Grand Canyon). And the most popular part of the park is Cades Cove, a wide, somewhat flat expanse of land nestled in between the mountains.
From the Gatlinburg side of the park, enter at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, and turn on Little River Road. Follow the road until it becomes Laurel Creek Road, and eventually ends at the Cades Cove Loop. The curvy route between the park entrance and the loop drive will probably take at least an hour, maybe more, depending on how many inconsiderate drivers end up in front of you. Try not to be one of them: if traffic builds up behind you, pull off and let others pass.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings (from May through September), until 10 a.m., the Cades Cove loop is closed to motorized vehicles. If you arrive early, you'll either need to a) park and wait for the road to open, b) rent a bicycle, c) walk, or d) hop aboard a hayride, if one is available.
My visit to Cades Cove happened to fall on a Wednesday, and since I wanted to see this portion of the park early in the day, I decided to rent a bicycle and put my legs to the test.
Bicycles are rented at the Cades Cove campground and concession stand. Hang a left just before you reach the loop drive. You should arrive early, since the supply of bicycles could run out. Also, it can be tough to find a parking spot near the bike rental stand (I had to park about 1/4 mile away, in a picnic area). All bicycles are single-gear cruisers, with pedal brakes (not handlebar breaks like you're probably used to--it can be hard to adjust). Rentals cost $4 per hour, and helmets and baskets are also available on a limited basis. For information, you can call the rental stand at: (865) 448-9034.
When you rent your bike, you'll be given a map of the cove, which not only shows landmarks, but also explains the loop road's elevation changes. Be prepared to lose several hundred feet as you head to the bottom of the cove, and then re-gain it on the return. You won't go downhill all at once, though. The road goes up and down small dips and short, steep grades that can quickly kill your momentum.
The loop itself is 11 miles, and paved the entire way. That said, the pavement is broken and potholed in many places, and at its best, it's only 1 lane wide, which is why the entire loop is one-way (even for bikes). There are two dirt roads which cut across the middle of the loop. Take the first one, and your loop will be 4 miles long; take the second, and you'll have traveled 8 miles when you finish the loop; ignore the shortcuts, and you'll travel the full 11 miles.
Over the first half of your ride around the Cades Cove loop, you'll pass one church after another. The first one is about 1/4 mile down a gravel side road: the Primitive Baptist Church.
This old white church provided all the Sunday morning basics for worshippers in Cades Cove. This building dates back to the late 1880's, before then, the church met in a log building.†
Just a few minutes after I arrived at the Primitive Baptist Church, two park workers joined me inside. They propped open the windows with boards, and played a tape of traditional hymns, performed with a distinctive mountain tone. At first, it was interesting to hear the music and imagine the congregation singing those same songs, a century or more ago. But after a few minutes, it was just plain annoying.
If the music gets to you, too, step outside and wander through the cemetery. Each church here in Cades Cove has one, and the rules are the same: stay on the path, stay off the graves.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to go on a brief rant. I promise it will be short. When you visit this park, and these buildings, keep in mind that you're not only entering an historic building, you're also setting foot inside what is (or at least was) a house of God. I don't know if anyone still feels the desire to pause and pray inside, but they might--and it would be darned near impossible to enjoy a poignant spiritual moment the way people were behaving during my visit. Kids were yelling and running around, people were banging the keys on an old piano (in the Methodist Church), and it seemed most people didn't think twice about their lack of reverence. It's a church, for cryin' out loud, grant it a little respect!
Whew! Now we can continue...
The next church you'll encounter as you pedal around Cades Cove is the Methodist Church. Traditional Methodist churches had two doors so that ladies and children could enter on the left, while men entered on the right. The Cades Cove congregation was much more relaxed, when it came to those rules, and anyone could sit where they pleased.
The church was built in 1902 by its future pastor, John D. McCampbell, who (as the story goes) constructed the building in 115 days, for $115. †
Behind the Methodist Church is another cemetery.
This is Hyatt Lane, one of the two roads that cuts across the Cove.
The third church you'll pass is the Missionary Baptist church. By the time I arrived here, I was already hot and tired. I decided I had seen enough churches, snapped a picture, and moved on.
It's quite likely you'll encounter some kind of wildlife along the Cades Cove loop road. I spotted several deer by the side of the road. These creatures are so accustomed to tourists, that they patiently waited for me to pull out my camera, change lenses, then take a dozen or so pictures, all the while standing no more than three feet away.
As I circled the cove, I stopped a number of times to catch my breath. One of those times I talked with another bicyclist, who started his trip just after dawn. He said he saw dozens of deer in the field--perhaps hundreds. Also, he told me he encountered several bears.
You just can't beat the views in this part of the park.
At the bottom of the Cove, the road turns south, and heads to the visitor's center, our next stop.
Cades Cove is a great place to watch lightning bugs in summer. 14 species live here, including the rare synchronous fireflies, which coordinate their flashing, so that they all blink at once. Read up on firefly etiquette here.
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I don't know the firefly forecast, but the park rangers probably do.
You can contact them through the NPS website:
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