The second side of Touristy Gatlinburg is as the Gateway to the majestic Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Camping, hiking, fishing, and picnicking are just a few of the activities that the park offers. There are even opportunities to enjoy nature for those who want to stay in the car to take in the beauty and history of the area.
Cades Cove is an 11-mile, one-way loop drive through a scenic valley used by Native Americans as early as 8000 B.C. (Archaeologists have found no signs that these early Native Americans or the Cherokee that followed lived in the valley, but they travelled through it frequently.) Settlers came to the area between 1818 and 1821. The drive takes you by several homes, three churches, barns, a working grist mill, and many trailheads. Some of the buildings can be viewed from the road, while others, such as the John Oliver house, require walking. The John Oliver house was constructed using notched corners for fitting with no pegs or nails. Three churches follow closely afterwards. The history of Primitive Baptist Church, Methodist Church, and Missionary Baptist Church tell intriguing stories of opinion differences.
Halfway through the drive is the Cable Mill Historic Area and Visitor Center where visitors can see a working grist mill on its original site in addition to a blacksmith shop, a cantilever barn, a dam, and other buildings that played important roles in the lives of settlers. The self-guided tour booklet that visitors can pick up at the beginning of the Cades Cove road also includes a walking tour of this area.
At 11 miles, the road may sound quick, but be prepared. The road is busy. Drivers are encouraged to pull over and allow faster traffic to pass, but “faster” is relevant. The loop is scenic, and many people pull over to take pictures of the wildlife or of family members out standing in the fields. (If you must shorten your visit, there are several cut-throughs.)
We chose to visit Cades Cove and hike during our visit to the park. A few important pieces of advice if you are planning to hike. Make certain you check which areas are open (and if restrooms are open). Trails may be closed until April 1 due to snow and ice. For example, Clingmans Dome Observation Tower is open year-round; however, since the road is closed from December to April 1, a 2-mile hike becomes a daunting 14 miles. Also, trail maps are not as easily accessible online or at the National Park Service Visitors Centers as they are at Texas and Oklahoma State Parks. There are many books available that give you maps, and some individual trail maps can be purchased at the NPS Visitors Centers.
We took the Abrams Fall Trail that is midway through the Cades Cove loop. The five-mile round-trip trail, which was busy with visitors of all ages, followed Abrams Creek making the hike even more beautiful. This hike ends in a thundering waterfall that provides great photo ops. The foot of the waterfall is also a great place for relaxing before returning to the trailhead. Many people were skipping rocks while some were skipping over rocks to reach the opposite side of the creek.
Another day we hiked the Alum Cave Trail, a 5-mile roundtrip hike to the cave. Many hikers keep going to Mt. Le Conte, but we were too late in the day to start a 10-mile roundtrip hike. This hike was very peaceful and quiet. The woods and the creeks, Walker Camp Prong and Alum Cave Creek, gurgling nearby quickly absorbed noises that all of us made. The simple log bridges over each of these creeks made me feel as though I had stepped back in time. The climb to the Alum Cave Bluff was relatively easy until the many rough-hewn steps at the end. (I lost count around 68, but I was not going back to count again.) We visited with other hikers as we sat in the shelter of the bluff and enjoyed the panoramic view of the “smoke” rolling in before heading back down the stairs and trail. (The Smokies gained their name from the bluish fog given off by the vegetation.)
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, with its 500,000 plus acres offers something for almost everyone. Its size also means that we could not do everything we wanted in just the few days that we had which means that we have plenty on our list for another trip to the area. To read more, visit their website here.
– Candace Ahlfinger has loved traveling since she was little and has always been on the go whenever possible. Now she is retired and gets to do what she loves best… TRAVEL! Whether it’s traveling with her wonderful husband, or our children and grandchildren, traveling is a great experience that enriches her life. Because she always enjoys reading and hearing about others’ travel experiences, she wants to share her travels with the Ellis DownHome readers.