Numerous hiking trails crisscross the mountains surrounding Cades Cove, ribboning past creeks, rising over grassy meadows and bumping into historic cabins. Many of the hikes are strenuous half- and full-day adventures that climb to mountaintops, but a handful of family-friendly hikes teeter over log bridges and wander through groves of soaring trees.
Cycling can be a challenge on the heavily trafficked loop road, but on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from early May to late September cyclists can pedal with abandon because the park closes the road to motor vehicles until 10am.
Anthony Creek Trail to Anthony Creek Bridge
- Start/End Cades Cove picnic area
- Duration two hours
- Distance 3.2 miles round-trip
- Difficulty Easy
- Elevation Gain 495ft
For an introduction to the creek-and-forest charms of Cades Cove, take an easy ramble on the kid-friendly Anthony Creek Trail, which doubles as a busy connector to the Appalachian Trail and several notable natural features. With log bridges, burbling creeks, spring wildflowers and soaring trees, the backdrop for the trail is a page from a children's fantasy tale – just watch out for the horse poop!
It gets crowded in summer, but the picnic area beside the trailhead is quite lovely, with tables perched here and there beside the rippling waters of Abrams Creek and its small pools. For younger kids it's a mesmerizing place to explore. And if you're wondering where all those hikers with trekking poles are headed, it's most likely the Anthony Creek Trail, which connects to the Russell Field Trail in 1.6 miles and the Bote Mountain Trail in 3.5 miles. The latter two trails eventually connect with the Appalachian Trail.
The Anthony Creek Trail gets off to a rather uninspiring start, setting out as a utilitarian gravel road carrying park vehicles to places unseen. But the scenery improves after the Crib Gap Trail junction at 400yd, when the horse camp comes into view. Here equestrians tie up their steeds during overnight stays. Beyond the horse camp, the trail morphs from a boring gravel road to a more traditional path through the woods, with hemlock trees and Anthony Creek as the predominant distractions. Keep an eye out for purple iris blooms along the trail in spring – the Tennessee state flower is a beauty. Rhododendrons bloom along the path in July.
A series of small bridges, including two log bridges, soon appear, crossing Abrams Creek three times as the trail begins to ascend. The fourth bridge carries hikers over the Left Prong of Anthony Creek. Just beyond the fourth bridge is a large rock that makes for a nice place to enjoy a snack before turning around.
The gear-wearing hikers you'll see are likely headed up to Rocky Top, the rock outcropping with 360-degree views that inspired the country song of the same name, or they're climbing to Russell Field or Spence Field, two grassy mountaintop meadows. All are on the Appalachian Trail.
- Start/End Abrams Falls parking lot
- Duration three to four hours
- Distance 5 miles round trip
- Difficulty Moderate
- Elevation Gain less than 800ft
Not to be effusive, but this hike is darn near perfect: a boisterous creek hugs much of the trail, log bridges keep things adventurous, wildflowers add color in spring, a horseshoe bend snakes into view halfway through and a photogenic waterfall crashes into a wide pool as the final reward. The only drawback is the crowds, which can be quite heavy in summer, during spring-break season in April and on weekends. For solitude get to the trailhead before 9am.
Abrams Falls and Abrams Creek are named for Cherokee Chief Abram, who lived in a village near the mouth of the creek along the Tennessee River in the late 1700s. In the 1920s a descendant of Cades Cove settler John Oliver ran a guest lodge at the trailhead. From the parking lot the well-signed trail enters the woods – filled with oaks, beeches and pines – and immediately crosses a bridge over Abrams Creek. A side trail to the right leads to the Elijah Oliver Place, a half-mile north.
The main trail continues straight and level, tracking the creek. In warmer months look for rhododendron and mountain laurel blooms along the way. At about 1 mile you'll ascend Arbutus Ridge. From the top, after the leaves are down, you can see the horseshoe bend of the creek below. In the spring, as you descend, you might observe wildflower hunters checking the steep sandstone slopes of the ridge for blooms.
From here, in a little over 1 mile, you'll hear the falls before you actually see them. The trail then drops to two creek crossings with log bridges. And then, before the trail bears right, you'll glimpse the crashing cascades through the trees. The falls are only 20ft high, but the force of the water is strong. The view and the sound of the creek crashing over the sandstone ledge into the pool below is impressive.
Obey the signage and do NOT climb on the falls. There have been numerous drownings here. Rocks along the creek and near the falls can be surprisingly slippery. In fact, Backpacker magazine once named Abrams Falls one of the 10 most dangerous hikes in the US. But picnics and photos? All good.
The trailhead is at the end of the parking area between stops 10 and 11 on the Cades Cove Loop Rd. The turnoff to the parking area is about 5 miles from the start of the loop. No pets are allowed on this trail.
Rich Mountain Loop
- Start/End Orientation Shelter parking lot
- Duration five to six hours
- Distance 8.5 miles
- Difficulty Hard
- Elevation Gain about 1800ft
After a creekside ramble through the forest to the first home built in Cades Cove, this loop climbs the southern slope of Rich Mountain. From the top, pine-framed views of Cades Cove and the town of Townsend shimmer far below. Along the loop keep alert for turkey, deer and the occasional bear. A couple of convenient backcountry campsites can flip this lengthy day hike into a low-key two-day excursion.
The loop – comprised of three trails – begins with a family-friendly walk through a hemlock forest on the 3.4-mile Rich Mountain Loop Trail, which is interrupted by a few easy creek crossings. You'll pass the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail junction after 900yd then reach the John Oliver Cabin and its split-rail fence at 1.4 miles. John and his wife Lucretia were among the first white settlers in Cades Cove, arriving in 1818. Their log cabin is believed to be the oldest structure in the park.
You'll ditch the crowds as you leave the homestead and begin climbing. Sounds of wildlife crashing through the underbrush – we saw a few wild turkeys – will keep you on high alert as you follow the creek. Farther along the 2-mile ascent, the bird's-eye views of Cades Cove below are a nice distraction from the huffing and puffing, especially in winter and spring when views are unobstructed through the leafless trees. The Rich Mountain Loop Trail ends at Indian Grave Gap Trail after 3.4 miles. Turn right to follow the latter along the sometimes-narrow ridge, with views of Townsend to the north and Cades Cove to the south.
After 1400yd you'll reach backcountry campsite 5 at the junction with the Rich Mountain Trail (which is not the same as the Rich Mountain Loop Trail). From here continue 1.8 miles on Indian Grave Gap Trail to its junction with Crooked Arm Ridge Trail and the Scott Mountain Trail. If you've packed lunch, turn left on the Scott Mountain Trail for a 500yd detour to backcountry campsite 6, a nice spot for a quiet picnic if no one is here. Don't let the sight of the bear cables – used for food storage – ruin your reverie, but do pack up your trash.
Back at the trail junction, the 2.2-mile Crooked Arm Ridge Trail drops steeply though oaks and maples back to the Rich Mountain Loop Trail, where you'll turn left for the 900yd return to the trailhead.
To access this hike, park in the large lot beside the orientation shelter at the start of the Cades Cove Loop Rd. Since the lot is outside the loop, you don't have to worry about getting stuck on the lengthy one-way drive around the cove. Backcountry campsites 5 and 6 require advance reservation and a permit. To avoid a very steep ascent up Crooked Arm Ridge Trail, hike this loop in a clockwise direction.
- Start/End Forge Rd parking area
- Duration six to seven hours
- Distance 11 miles round trip
- Difficulty Hard
- Elevation Gain 3036ft
As you turn in a slow circle on the high grassy meadow known as Gregory Bald, it's easy to appreciate Julie Andrews' joy in the Sound of Music. This may not be the Alps, but it's the next best thing in the southern Appalachians, with views of mountains and valleys stretching to the horizon in every direction. And if you arrive in mid- to late June, the orange, pink and fiery-red blooms of the flaming azaleas add one last dab of perfection.
The origins of the high-altitude balds in the park are uncertain. Some of these treeless meadows may have been cleared by white settlers for cattle grazing. Others say natural causes such as wildfires or high winds created small clearings, which were later expanded by cattle owners. Gregory Bald is named for Russell Gregory, a prominent Cades Cove resident whose cows grazed here in the mid-1800s. Today the park service maintains the balds and prevents the forest from encroaching on these broad, open spaces.
In the morning the Gregory Ridge Trail is disarmingly pleasant: birds are chirping, Forge Creek tumbles merrily beside you and sun-dappled leaves frame your views. At 2 miles the trail reaches backcountry campsite 12, a scenic spot in the shadows of towering old-growth trees. From here the fun ends and the climbing begins. Be sure to pause at the rock outcrop about 1300yd up from the campground – this is your first bird's-eye view of Cades Cove to the north. The trail continues to climb, and climb, finally calling it quits at its junction with the Gregory Bald Trail in Rich Gap, 4.9 miles from the trailhead.
Take a breather here. The 1000yd final push on the Gregory Bald Trail is steep and punishing. Fortunately it's also short and the absence of trees just ahead lets you know that the bald is close. Once you reach its edge, walk right for broad views of Cades Cove then swing up the hill to the survey marker noting that the altitude is 4949ft. You can return to the trail on the path through the azaleas, which typically bloom in mid- to late June. Blueberries make an appearance in August.
From the Cades Cove Loop Rd, turn right onto Forge Creek Rd just beyond the Cades Cove Visitor Center parking lot. Follow Forge Creek Rd south for just over 2 miles. Park at the small parking area beside the trailhead sign for the Gregory Ridge Trail.