Cades Cove is one of the top destinations in Smoky Mountains National Park. Because it is indeed beautiful, especially early in the morning. But because so many people go there, and it’s basically an 11 mile, single lane, one-way loop around the Cove, expect there to be long lines.
And, unfortunately, a lot of people who don’t understand other people exist. They’ll stop to look at something and not pull into one of the many pull outs, blocking traffic for as long as they wish. Especially if they spot a bear, which is common. The speed limit is 20 but you’ll end up behind someone going 5 miles an hour the entire way, not showing the courtesy of pulling over.
My recommendation is to go off-season or, if in-season, do Wednesday or Sunday mornings when the Cove is closed to cars from 6 to 10 am so people can bike it. Be warned, though. It’s a harder bike ride than you might expect for 11 miles. I do a lot of biking and am always a little surprised at the sharp, hard uphills. You can check the web site for the in-season, usually May to the end of October for these closures.
In season for the crowds is spring through fall. Winter isn’t crowded.
Personally, I prefer to go other places in the mountains. In essence, everyone visiting the Smokies goes to Cades Cove and/or Route 441 through the mountains. I’ll do another post for AllWhoWander with other beautiful, hidden options in the area.
During the pandemic, when I did a lot of wandering and found places empty, I tried to do Parsons Branch Road which comes out of the far end of Cades Cove to the middle of the Dragons Tail on Route 129. But since the NPS was on skeleton crew, the road was closed due to trees down. Much like Swan Cabin was.
They re-opened it for the season, which ends 13 November, so I braved the long line of tourists going around the park and then took the turn off for Parsons Branch, which was nice because I was the only one. The signs are ominous—require high clearance, one-way, yada yada.
Frankly, I think most cars could easily do it. You do cross several streams and we’re in a bit of a drought here so the water would be higher, but still not that bad. I didn’t even go into 4WD at any time in the Wanderer.
Honestly, it was a typical forest road. Nothing of note, no great views. You can find the same throughout the mountains. It is a nice away to get from the Townsend area to 129 without looping all the way around on Foothills Parkway, but it’s actually slower because of the tourists rubber-necking in Cades Cove.
I checked it off my list and enjoyed the quiet and solitude after the crowds in Cades Cove. When you reach 129, you’re closer to the NC end of the Dragons Tail. Which is left. Turn right and you are in TN and toward Foothills Parkway. Or stay on 129 and you eventually end up in Knoxville after passing through Maryville.
There is no cell phone reception as soon as you start into the Smokies toward Cades Cove, in the Cove, on Parsons Branch road and Tail of the Dragon.