Article: Avoiding Cades Cove Loop Road – What A Nightmare?!
“You better get to the Cades Cove early” said a fellow traveller in the hotel to us. His advice was absolutely right. However, as we had to do something in the morning in Gatlinburg prior to our visit, our only choice was to visit Cades Cove after lunch.
In fact, when we reached Gatlinburg before 9.00am the town was also very quiet. All the tourists were still busy inside their hotels. It could have been a perfect time to visit the park.
When you enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, you have to head west and drive along the Little River Road and the Laurel Creek Road. The valley is actually located in the upper western part of the National Park and solely in the state of Tennessee.
The Laurel Creek Road took us right to the beginning of the Cades Cove Valley. An 11-mile (18km) one-way loop road goes all around the valley. In good weather the road is open the entire year from sunrise until sunset. In the summer months (around May to September) you can even walk and cycle along this road on Wednesday/Saturday mornings until 10:00am (car free until that time).
As you drive along the paved loop road, you are really being taken back in time. You can visit various historical houses including three churches along the road. Additionally the car ride was so slow that a horse carriage from back then probably would have been quicker. There was hardly any space to overtake the other cars and every now and then cars just stopped to take photos. We felt quite lucky that the main vacation season in the US had not yet started because this car journey could have been a nightmare. Apparently the standard time to complete the loop road without stopping anywhere is about two to three hours.
With all these people and cars to watch out for, one can almost oversee the scenery. The historic buildings, views over the mountains, the smell of hay from the hayfields, the scents of the wildflowers and the hope to see real live black bears and a variety of other wild animals make the Cades Cove the most visited area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cades Cove was not only home to early settlers but also a hunting ground for the Cherokee Indians.
Half-way through the drive along the loop road you can see the famous Cable Mill area and visit the Cades Cove Visitor Center. The valley also has several hiking trails and even a camping ground that is open the entire year (Note: camping permits are required for the area).
When we finally reached the half-way point, we just wanted to get away from people and decided to drive through the quieter Parson Branch Road. This was the other road the guide from the Sugarlands Visitor Center was telling us about. It starts just after the Visitor Center and ends at the famous highway US 129. The beginning of the road was a two-way road but later on you could only go one-way. A few cars were already struggling with the initial part of this unpaved road. As we had successfully managed to drive through the unpaved road from Cataloochee to Big Creek the day before, we did not fear the road at all. Plus the park rangers opened it for traffic. What was there to fear?
At the beginning everything seemed like the day before. It was a drivable forest road with a few rough bits along the way. We could finally take a deep breath and felt free after being stuck behind all those cars.
Slowly the excitement about seeing a black bear around a corner started to set in. There was no one else around and so our chances of seeing a real wild black bear were very high.
This feeling was topped with a sudden adrenaline rush once we had driven through the first waterfalls.
This road is only suitable for SUV’s or 4×4’s. It was not suitable for normal cars like the one we had. At the beginning I didn’t speak much, my heart was pounding. The car journey seemed endless. One rough bit after another and these waterfalls just got bigger and bigger. With this road surface and wild animals around, you also cannot drive too fast.
There was no possibility of turning around because this part of the road was only a one-way bit. One-way right until the very end of it.
These moments in life, make you really feel alive.
The road finally got a little bit better and we soon saw a normal paved road. Some motorcycles just drove around a corner along this road. We and the car safely made it until the end. There was the famous highway US 129. Paul took a deep breath. You could see the sweat running down his head. Perhaps this was an even bigger nightmare?!
I felt a sudden lightness and we simply enjoyed the ride up the tail of the dragon which is another saying for the US 129. The road has this name because it consists of 318 curves along an 11-mile (18km) stretch. The curves make it very popular for motorcyclists. Along the road are several private photographers who take pictures of you and then post them on the internet for purchase.
We stopped at the next overlook. At the overlook you can have an amazing view over the area and the Calderwood Dam. A perfect end to an adrenalin spiced day.