Cades Cove is the most popular destination within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, drawing in more than 2 million visitors each year. So what’s so special about it? Less than an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Gatlinburg, the 4,000-acre valley features rich native wildlife, spectacular mountain views, and hiking and auto trails. It is perhaps best known for its role in Appalachian history and the early settler historic sites that remain standing there today. Let’s uncover the fascinating history of Cades Cove and see the valley through the eyes of the Cherokee and European pioneers!
A Brief History of Cades Cove
The Reign of the Cherokee
Though we don’t know much about him, Chief Kade of the Cherokee is to thank for lending his name to the isolated limestone valley we call Cades Cove. As the original inhabitants of these mountains, the Cherokee used Cades Cove as hunting grounds where bears, bison, elk, otters, and deer were plentiful. For hundreds of years, the Cherokee used this region for passage between the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the Smokies before Europeans followed suit. However, the Cherokee never had any major settlements in the area, other than Tsiya’hi, meaning “Otter Place,” a small village that served as a seasonal hunting camp.
By 1819, the Treaty of Calhoun ceded all Cherokee rights to Cades Cove. It was one of several purchases of Cherokee ancestral land by the United States leading up to their forced relocation. Though the Cherokee people resented the treaty and made life difficult for the white settlers, by the 1830s, the Trail of Tears was in full effect. This tragic event forced all indigenous peoples to move west of the Mississippi River, resulting in a devastating loss of life.
The Rise of European Settlement
Early European settlers were attracted to the Appalachian Mountains as soon as the late 1700s and early 1800s. However, Cades Cove didn’t see white settlers until 1818. Attracted to its rich soil for farming, they were quick to build. Each new arrival made a unique contribution to the growing community.
For instance, the first to settle in Cades Cove was a War of 1812 veteran named John Oliver. William “Fighting Billy” Tipton came next and purchased large tracts of land for his relatives. Peter Cable built dykes and sluices to drain the water-logged areas. Cable’s nephew, John, later built the first mill at the junction of Forge Creek and Mill Creek. Daniel Foute established a metalworking forge, and Frederick Shields built the first grist mill. By 1850, there were log cabins, barns, smokehouses, churches, schoolhouses, corncribs, and many other structures scattered about the cove. The population had also grown to reach approximately 680.
The farmers weren’t entirely isolated during this period. The community often came together to gather chestnuts, make molasses, and husk corn. Many marriages resulted from these social events. Plus, the death of a community member brought folks together to help prepare the grave, dress the body, and provide meals and childcare for the grieving family.
The Civil War
The inhabitants of Cades Cove were predominantly pro-Union during the Civil War. Although, there were also enough Confederate sympathizers in the mix to breed tension. For the first time in this community that depended on one another for support and survival, there was division due to ideological differences.
On the one hand, legend has it that Cades Cove was part of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War broke out. On the other hand, it was not uncommon for Confederate guerilla fighters to invade the cove to kill and steal from Union sympathizers. As a result, many Union supporters could not stay in the area and either hid temporarily in the mountains or left Cades Cove altogether.
Creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The year 1927 brought the first purchase of land by Tennessee and North Carolina for the creation of a national park. At first, the Cades Cove community was told their land would not be affected by the formation of the park, and so many families embraced it. However, local sentiment grew mixed once the Tennessee General Assembly gave the Park Commission the authority of eminent domain.
Some families were happy to give up their land and leave Cades Cove, while others fought back. John Oliver led the resistance with several court battles but ultimately lost. Still, others were granted life-leases, permitting them residence in Cades Cove until their death. However, those with life-leases would still have to follow environmental limitations on hunting, trapping, and logging.
By 1945, Cades Cove was almost entirely uninhabited, and the National Park Service deemed it a historical area. Today, the park’s aim is to preserve the natural environment and historic structures of Cades Cove. Their efforts include restoring many of the homesteads and early settlement structures and maintaining the land as a meadow. Visitors to Cades Cove today can experience the land in the same state that it was during early European settlement.
Cades Cove Trails
Cades Cove Scenic Loop
Given the remarkable history of Cades Cove, there is quite a lot to see and do in the area. If you’d like to cover the most ground, a driving tour on the Cades Cove Scenic Loop is the way to go. The 11-mile one-way auto trail takes about two to four hours to complete, depending on your pace. Before you go, gear up properly in Pigeon Forge at Wranglers & Razors. Their 2- and 4-door Jeeps, Slingshots, and Razors make cruising the scenic loop and Cades Cove trails that much more stylish and adventurous!
Points of interest on the Cades Cove Scenic Loop include:
- Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church
- Ike Lequire Cemetery
- Carter Shields Cabin
- Dan Lawson Cabin and Lawson Cemetery
Stop by the Cades Cove Visitors Center to see:
- John P. Cable Drive Thru Barn
- Becky Cable House
- John P. Cable Grist Mill
Along the route, you’ll also pass by a campground, picnic area, and riding stables. Be prepared to spend a large chunk of your day making multiple stops along the Cades Cove Scenic Loop!
Abrams Falls Trail
One of the most popular Cades Cove trails leads to a 20-foot waterfall named after Chief Abram of the Cherokee. Peel off of Cades Cove Loop Road after stop #10 onto Abram Falls Road to find the trailhead. A 5.2-mile roundtrip hike through pine oaks, rhododendron, and hemlock will take you to the rocky waterfall. Dogs are not allowed on this trail. Expect to hike for 5 to 6 hours roundtrip, so make sure to bring lots of water and snacks.
For a bonus hike, take an immediate right (about 160 ft from the start of the Abrams Falls trailhead) to take the Wet Bottom Trail. This 1.7-mile out-and-back only takes about a half hour and features the Elijah Oliver Cabin.
Rich Mountain Loop
If you decide to stay at the Cades Cove Campground, the Rich Mountain Loop will be right around the corner near the entrance to Cades Cove Loop Road. At 8.5 miles in length, the Rich Mountain Loop trail is recommended only for experienced hikers. However, it’s worth the trek to see the John Oliver Cabin and the Crooked Arm Falls. Plus, in the wintertime, you’ll have some nice views from the top of Rich Mountain overlooking Cades Cove and Dry Valley.
As you plan your journey through the Cades Cove trails and scenic loop, it certainly helps to know what to look for. Since the sights aren’t always obvious from the road, you should bring a hard copy map or take a photo or screenshot of a Cades Cove map. With a basic understanding of the local legends and your handy map of Cades Cove, you’ll be well-equipped to find the sites that excite you the most.
The history of Cades Cove is as abundant as the wildlife that continues to swath the region. Let the stories bring meaning and wonder to your hiking adventures! Afterward, you can look forward to all the delicious Southern food, kid-friendly activities, and other fun things to do in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
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