So you’re staying in Gatlinburg for your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you’re thinking about going to Cades Cove!
Well, of course you can drive directly to Cades Cove. But there are also a few things you might want to see along the way if you want to make time for it!
Below is a list of stops you can make along the way on your drive from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove. This includes some small roadside waterfalls.
Or, if you’re really mostly interested in spending time in Cades Cove and worried about running out of time, you can make some stops on the way back to Gatlinburg depending on how much time you have left in the day.
What’s there to do in Cades Cove?
1. You can visit historic cabins
2. You can hike to the famous Cades Cove waterfalls
3. You can visit a historic mill
4. If it’s Wednesday, you can bike around the Cades Cove loop road without any cars
In 2020, the Cades Cove road was closed to cars ALL DAY on Wednesdays, so be sure to check the updates for 2021 if it’ll be the same. In previous years, it was only closed to cars in the mornings.
Cades Cove hours
It is officially listed that you can get started driving the loop at 8am, and ideally you’ll want to be off of the loop road shortly after sunset.
Morning fog in Cades Cove!
How long will it take to drive to Cades Cove?
If you were to drive direct from Gatlinburg to the start of the Cades Cove scenic loop road, it will take 1-1.5 hours if you were to include likely traffic. The more scenic route is by driving the Little River Road, so be sure to take that route… if you’re looking for the more scenic route! If you see google maps suggesting 2 routes, Little River Road is the southern route. There is not much of a difference in drive time whether you take Little River Road or go the northern route bypassing this road.
Explore the map.
For something easy to remember, you can make the “Cades Cove Visitor Center” your destination for google maps. This is actually about halfway along the Cades Cove loop road.
The beginning of the one way loop road would be closer to the spot marked on google maps as the “Cades Cove information kiosk.”
Stop at the information kiosk to get a $1 self-guided auto tour guidebook, and bring cash, more specifically dollar bills!
You can also find them at a Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor center. If you still have time before your Smoky Mountains vacation, you can order the Smokies starter kit of tour booklets online that includes the Cades Cove book too.
How long do you need in Cades Cove?
So how much time you need will entirely depend on what you want to do in Cades Cove!
The loop road itself is around 11 miles. But it is a slow going one way road!
Some people are there to “only” drive the loop road.
Some people only stop at 1 or 2 of the historic sites. Some people may only stop for the waterfall hike.
Others may stop at everything! And then, there are the people who bike the loop. See more about biking Cades Cove.
You can also walk part of it too. It would be a bit much to walk the whole thing since it would be 11 miles of walking without any of the sides trips aka Cades Cove stops. But you can make it into a 4-5 mile half loop. (There’s a road that cuts across to split it.) And then you can also do an out-and-back from the parking area at the beginning for a shorter hike. See more about walking Cades Cove.
And so, at minimum, you will probably want to give yourself 1.5-2 hours.
If you were to drive the Cades Cove loop road straight without ANY traffic, you could drive it in less than an hour.
But it’s very likely that you will encounter slow vehicles in front of you.
Cars will practically come to a stop if they see a deer.
If someone sees a bear, you can almost definitely expect to come to a complete halt! And you might be one of those cars coming to a stop and holding up traffic too. 😉 (Seeing bears in Cades Cove is not unusual.)
On the day you drive Cades Cove… it’s important that you bring PATIENCE!
So when you consider that driving to and from Gatlinburg may take 1.5 hours each way, and you will probably need at least 2-3 hours on the Cades Cove loop road, it will probably be best to think of a day trip to Cades Cove as at least a 5 hour day. And you can definitely make it an all day thing!
Side note! See the more of the Smoky Mountains:
- Best shoes for hiking in the Smoky Mountains
- Best hikes with VIEWS in the Smoky Mountains
- Best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains
- Driving the scenic route from Gatlinburg to Clingman's Dome
- Driving the slow scenic route from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove
- The big list of things to do in the Smoky Mountains
And with that…
What’s on the way to Cades Cove?!
Or on the way back!
This will generally go in the order you can make the stops if you are driving from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove by taking the scenic route (aka the southern route). Many of these things are close to Gatlinburg, so if there’s a lot you want to do, you might want to save some of these for another day, too!
As you start driving from Gatlinburg town and heading towards Cades Cove, you will pass the turnoff for the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
This is another scenic road where you can simply drive the loop road to make it a quicker drive, or you could easily spend half a day or more in the area too.
Similar to Cades Cove, Roaring Fork is a one way road that has waterfalls, historic cabins, and a historic mill to explore too.
It would be reasonable to make it a day of something like the Cades Cove loop road in the morning and the Roaring Fork loop road in the afternoon.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: See more to decide if you want to do this drive on the same day as your drive to Cades Cove
2. Cataract Falls
This can be a relatively quick stop of around 15-20 minutes. It’s located near the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There is a nature trail that starts from behind the visitor center. If you want to make it a quicker stop, then you can park closer. There’s a small little parking area right near the Cove Mountain trailhead.
3. Sugarlands Visitor Center
You’ll be driving right past the visitor center. If you want to pick up some self-guided tour books (remember bring cash) then this would be a convenient stop.
4. John Ownby Cabin
The John Ownby Cabin is a historic cabin that you’ll pass along the way that you can reach by taking a short trail from the visitor center.
5. Laurel Falls
When you’re driving the southern route (the scenic route) from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove, you will drive right past the trailhead parking for the Laurel Falls Trail. You’ll want to give yourself around 2 hours if you want to stop here.
Laurel Falls: See more to decide if you want to make the stop on the way to Cades Cove
Well of course a campground isn’t really something that you make a “stop” at.
If you want to spend a full day in Cades Cove and a full day in Roaring Fork for example, you might might like this location.
This campground is around 20 minutes from Gatlinburg town. It’s possible to reserve campsites that are directly along the river.
There is a small camp store at this campground that is generally open in the late afternoon and evening.
Elkmont Campground: See more to decide if you want to stay at this camping spot between Gatlinburg and Cades Cove
And then you will naturally end up on Little River Road, where you will be driving right along Little River.
The “main event” of your drive from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove! This is more about the “journey” and the scenic drive, rather than any specific things to do.
But, there are many stops you can make along the side of the road if you want to sit and enjoy the sounds of the river. There are people who bring along chairs to sit by the river. Maybe you want to bring a picnic lunch or dinner to eat by the river on your way to Cades Cove or on the way back.
There are a number of small parking areas along the side of the road.
There are also some small roadside waterfalls that you can see along the road.
These can be cute little waterfalls to see along the river. These are easy access waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains, as pretty much all you need to do is get of the car and you will be able to spot them!
These are coming up next on the list. The waterfalls are on google maps so you can follow along there with GPS. It’s a good idea to download offline google maps before you go since you probably won’t have data driving through here. GPS will still generally work.
8. Mannis Branch Falls
These are small waterfalls you can see flowing into the river. You can pull over and see them from the road once you get out of the car.
For a little bit more “formal” spot to eat the food you bring (aka at picnic tables), you can stop by the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area where you can eat right along the river.
10. The Sinks
These are popular waterfalls to stop off at.
There is a small parking area that might be full.
11. Meigs Falls
These are more waterfalls that you can see from the side of the road across the river. There’s a pullover area right in front of Meigs Falls.
More small waterfalls that you can see flowing into the river from the side of the road are the Cane Creek Twin Falls.
13. White Oak Flats Falls
Some more small waterfalls on the side of the road.
14. Townsend Wye
If you’re driving in from Townsend, then here’s a nice little river access spot.
15. Laurel Creek Road
And then you’ll end up on Laurel Creek Road which has more pullover spots along the side of the road, and this road will take you directly to the Cades Cove loop road!
Cades Cove campground
There is also a campground in Cades Cove if you want to spend a night or more in the area. This is good for both tent camping and RV camping.
There is also a small camp store at Cades Cove where you can go to load up on snacks even if you’re not camping here.
See more about Cades Cove camping.
And that’s a bit of how you can spend your time driving from Gatlinburg!
Are you headed to the Clingman’s Dome observation tower too?! Also see what’s on the drive from Gatlinburg to Clingman’s Dome!
HAPPY DRIVING TO CADES COVE!
Best shoes for hiking in the Smoky MountainsYou will want good shoes for hiking in the Smoky Mountains.
In general, the best shoes for hiking in the Smoky Mountains will be hiking boots (more ideal) or trail running shoes (more versatile for everyday activities compared to hiking boots but still will give you advantages compared to regular shoes).
I liked wearing my hiking boots for the thicker soles (good on rocky trails) and the waterproof (water resistant) nature of them.
They were especially helpful on rainy day hikes to keep my shoes (and socks!) dry! They are also better to be walking on mud compared to regular shoes.
On rougher terrain (like the trails that are a bit rougher with more rocks), hiking boots are more ideal so you won't feel it on the bottoms of your feet as much.
If you want shoes that can work out better as everyday "out and about" kind of shoes, then you might like trail running shoes better! Trail running shoes are a little more durable than regular shoes, so they can also work out as good hiking shoes. Trail running shoes are a bit lighter weight and less bulky compared to hiking boots.
Shoe fit is very important for your feet! Be sure to break in your new shoes by walking around the neighborhood and/or at the grocery store before you go on your "big hike" in the Smoky Mountains!