His tiny, fuzzy black face peered out between the weeds. Our eyes met as I yelled to stop the car. By the time we pulled over, it was too late. His cute fluffy bottom was already making its way back to the tree line, and probably back to mama bear. Darn, I missed my chance at what would have been the best photo of my Cades Cove wildlife safari adventure.
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What is Cades Cove?
One of the most remote areas in the Great Smoky Mountains is also one of the most visited. Surrounded by gorgeous mountain views, the valley of Cades Cove is historically significant to the Cherokees as a hunting ground. Though, no settlements existed until the early 1800’s, when European settlers came.
Within an 11-mile loop road, Cades Cove is home to ten historical building sites. Actually, it has the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park.
However, it’s not the historical houses, churches, mills, and barns that bring crowds flocking to this area of the Smokies, it’s the wildlife safari feel of Cades Cove. As you creep along the road, scan the tree line for bear, deer, and if you’re really lucky, a coyote or bobcat.
Cades Cove is home to one of the largest populations of black bears and one of the easiest places to see them. In addition to bears, it’s common to see horses, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and other forest critters.
Traffic Issues at Cades Cove
Cades Cove’s popularity comes with a price. Traffic! The route is an 11-mile one-way road, with one entrance and only one paved exit.
We tried to visit Cades Cove a few years ago. After about an hour of waiting in traffic near the entrance, we took the first turn-around to leave the loop.
Traffic was better this time, even though it was summer. First off, we went during a weekday. Plus, with Covid, summer crowds were noticeably less. However, even with lesser crowds we still got stuck in long traffic jams, but it helped us learn why these jams happen.
A lack of parking definitely causes some backups, especially around the John Oliver Place. However, the main issues occur from wildlife sightings. Like a traffic accident, even if the first cars pull off the road, everyone else wants a good look. Who wouldn’t want to see a bear? It’s certainly why most of us are here!
The best way to avoid these backups is to go early in the morning, when the animals are active, but most people are not. Or go on one of the car free days. Typically, every Wednesday from early May until the end of August is vehicle-free.
Going late in the afternoons does not avoid the traffic. Lots of folks only come at this time for wildlife spotting. They go round and round Cades Cove, like a wildlife safari.
When you do get stuck in traffic, give yourself a mental break and just accept it. Take it as a sign that there’s something interesting to be spotted.
Cades Cove Wildlife Sightings
As we entered the park, just after the information kiosk parking, we came across our first traffic backup. Several horses (not wild) grazed in the large open field, while a flock of turkeys dangerously weaved their way around the cars. Tourists snapped their photos.
As we made our way around the circuit, we spotted several white-tailed deer grazing in the thick forest. The quiet side roads near the Primitive Baptist Church seemed like a good spot to find them.
Spotting Bears at Cades Cove
Our favorite spotting of the day happened just past the Missionary Baptist Church. A tiny bear cub took me by surprise as he peered out of the high grass. By the time we pulled off the road, he was already heading back into the forest. We waited a while to see if he would come back out but had no luck.
Considering bears are either eating or sleeping, the easiest way to spot a black bear is to think about what is around to eat. This is especially true if you visit in the early morning or late afternoon when they are active and foraging.
Bears eat a predominately vegetarian diet. Often, you’ll see them grazing in the clearings close to the tree line. In summer, look for patches of blackberries. These guys love their berries. In fall, bears eat a lot of nuts to prepare themselves for winter. Keep an eye out for oak trees with lots of acorns.
Don’t forget to look up. Bears spend a lot of time hanging out in the trees. We found this big fella sleeping away his day in the large oak just across from the Dan Lawson Place.
Being Safe Around Black Bears
Luckily, here in the southeast we only have black bears, which are a lot less aggressive than brown bears. They are also a lot cuter, so it’s easy to forget they are a dangerous wild animal. But they are, and they can kill you.
Most importantly, you must keep your distance, at least 50 to 100 yards as recommend by the National Park Service.
If a bear starts to approach you or watches you, take this as a warning that you are too close, and slowly back away. Never turn your back to the bear and always maintain eye contact. The National Park Service has a fantastic page on bear safety.
Finally, it’s very important you don’t intentionally or unintentionally feed
a bear. This could cost someone, and the bear their lives.
More On The Great Smoky Mountains
Where To Stay for Cades Cove?
The small town of Townsend, TN is the closest town to Cades Cove. However, there’s not a lot of choices so most folks stay in Gatlinburg, TN or Cherokee, NC when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Here are a few suggestions for clean, comfortable accommodation, in great locations.
Books on The Great Smoky Mountains
If you are spending a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, or plan on doing a few return trips, it’s worth picking up a book on the area.
- Travel Guide: Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Hike, Camp, Scenic Drives
- Hiking Trail Guide: Falcon Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- History of the park told through historical images: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Looking for more history on Cades Cove, check out the book Cades Cove, Images of America