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Bicycle Ride Through Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains

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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.

Churches in Cades Cove

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.

About 1,600 black bears inhabit Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  You also might be lucky enough to spot an elk: the park re-introduced 25 of the creatures in 2001.

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.

If you don’t get tired, and are able to pedal your way all the way to the loop’s halfway point–the visitor’s center–you’ll find a large collection of historic buildings.  There are other homesteads and barns here-and-there along the route, but there’s definitely more to see here, than at any other stop.

Park your bike at the bike rack in front of the restrooms, and take a few minutes to rest and explore this area.

After you stop in at the small visitor’s center, wander past the old well to the Gregg-Cable house.  It was built in 1879, and is the oldest frame house in the cove.

You can walk inside the old Cable Mill and see how the water-powered mechanisms grind corn.  If the water flow isn’t strong enough, the mill may not be grinding, but you can still buy a sack of corn meal that’s been ground here.

The Cable Mill is named for John Cable, and was built around 1870.†  This entire area of buildings is known as the “Cable Mill area”.

No surprise, split rail fences are everywhere.

This is one of the cove’s cantilever barns.  The counterweighted roof allowed for shelter over a large area, without support posts standing in the way.

Signs warn that old buildings are natural habitats for snakes.  It’s something to think about as you crawl through a tiny door into a dark cabin or barn.

An old wagon sits in the shelter of the cantilever barn, where it’s probably been for decades.  One of the wheels is half-buried in dirt, which doesn’t really matter, since it’s clearly in no shape to roll anywhere, anyhow.

Feel like a hike, in the middle of your bike ride?  The popular Abrams Falls Trail begins just up the road from the visitor’s center parking area.  The falls are relatively short (just 20 feet) but often make up for the small drop with a large volume of gushing water.  The round trip (on foot) is roughly 5 miles.

As you leave the Cades Cove visitor’s center, make sure you have plenty of water.  Keep in mind that from here, you’re gaining altitude, even though the road continues to go up and down small hills.

Dan Lawson Log House

The next place worth stopping (ok, at this point, every place is worth stopping, if you’re as tired as I was!) is the Dan Lawson Log House.  Lawson was a son-in-law of Peter Cable (of the family that owned the grist mill), and probably built the house around 1856.

The small building next to the house served as a granary (a storage place for grain; i.e., a pantry).  There’s also another out building (a smokehouse), and a barn nearby.  You can walk inside any of the buildings.  Inside the house, you can climb a tiny staircase to the dark, spooky attic.

Hamp Tipton’s House & Cantilever Barn

Your next excuse to hop off your bike comes at the old Hamp Tipton homestead.  The house is behind a picket fence on the upper side of the road…

… while the old cantilever barn is on the other side.  This is one of the larger barns in Cades Cove, and you’ll probably see it in pictures many times during your visit.  Ironically, it’s not an original building.  It was constructed sometime in the 1960’s, with a design similar to the original barn.

There’s also a blacksmith shop at this stop.  James McCaulley brought his skills as a blacksmith to Cades Cove in 1878.

Shortly after your stop at the Tipton homesite, you’ll catch another great view of the cove, as you round a corner.  After that, the final mile or two takes you through the forest, with little to see on either side of the road (except for deer and other wildlife, which can pop up anywhere).  In addition to being void of any side attractions, the final couple of miles are relatively flat–that’s uphill flat, meaning the grade steadily climbs, as opposed to a bunch of dips and hills.

When you reach the end of the circle, and after you’ve returned your bike, walk next door to the small store and grab a snack (they serve burgers) or a soft-serve ice cream cone (perfect on a hot day!).

Driving Instead of Biking

If you choose to drive around Cades Cove instead of riding a bike, walking, or taking a hay ride, there are several things you should know.

Be prepared for your trip to take just as long as a bike ride–2 to 4 hours.  It’s only 11 miles, but you will be stuck in traffic for a good portion of that time.  If someone ahead of you sees a deer or a rabbit at the side of the road, they will stop to take a picture.  There are no places to pass, and even if you could, the road is too curvy and narrow to travel more than 10 miles per hour, anyway.

Parking is limited at many stops.  I saw plenty of parking at the visitor’s center, however, smaller roadside attractions may only have room for 3-4 cars.

Remember that on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from May through September, the loop road is closed to motorized vehicles until 10 a.m.  If you get there early, you’ll have to park and wait until they open the gate.

Leaving Cades Cove

Once it’s finally time to leave Cades Cove, you still face that long drive back to Gatlinburg.  At least it’s scenic–passing through tunnels…

… and winding alongside a creek for much of the trip.

There are a few alternative routes that will take you out of Cades Cove.  If your car is up to the challenge, two dirt roads lead out of the cove (Rich Mountain Road will take you to US 321 on the northwest side of the park, while Parson Branch Road heads southwest to US 129).  You can also backtrack to TN Rte. 73, which will also take you back to US 321.  Be sure you grab a park map at the visitor center, to help plan your escape.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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