Each and every day, Cades Cove sees thousands of visitors flood the idyllic valley nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. No wonder, for this is no doubt one of the most beautiful natural areas anywhere in the eastern U.S. Views across the dale’s open fields take in the looming presence of Rich Mountain, with Thunderhead Mountain and Mount LeConte in the distance. Here visitors can spot turkey, black bear, and herds of deer, along with the plethora of historical structures which were spared destruction during the park’s establishment. Abrams Creek cuts an exuberant path through the grassy meadows and patches of wood scattered along its bank, rushing to its inevitable climax at Abrams Falls miles away.
Cars snake along the twisty Cades Cove Loop Road as visitors try to take in all the sights, and as anyone who has visited the park on a hot July weekend can attest, it doesn’t take long for it to come to a complete standstill. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is famous for its title as the most-visited park in the country, with more than ten million visitors every year. Many don’t realize that if Cades Cove was its own national park unit, it would still be in the top dozen or so most popular parks! The traffic is sure to be as bad as ever this year, as the National Park Service has started a much-needed paving project on Laurel Creek Road.
If you plan on visiting the Cove this year, take some time to explore some of the more isolated portions of the surrounding landscape. Hiking any trail beside Abrams Falls can give some much-needed solitude. These include Gregory Ridge and Cooper Road trails. Go adventuring on the gravel roads leading out of the Cove such as Parsons Branch Road. One of the best ways to leave the crowds behind is to wander the open fields with a camera or picnic basket in hand. Just be sure to keep your eyes open to avoid an encounter with the local furry residents.
One of our favorite parts of the park lies just to the east of the valley, easily accessible from Laurel Creek Road. While thousands of visitors drive by the Schoolhouse Gap Trailhead every day without giving it a thought, a magical world lies just a short walk up the trail. Known to locals as White Oak Sink, this smaller version of Cades Cove is devoid of the crowds and subsequent wear and tear which come along with it. Here one can wander along wooded paths which lead through an eruption of the Park’s most remarkable wildflower displays. Waterfalls tumble into the dark recesses of caves below. Yes, several caves dot the floor of this giant sinkhole and provide a safe haven for the critically-endangered Indiana bat.
To reach the sink, park at the trailhead for Schoolhouse Gap Trail and head up the wide, gravel pathway. Believe it or not, this actually was a road that was meant to connect nearby Maryville with the communities which lay across the state line in North Carolina. You can follow the rest of its path along Bote Mountain Trail which begins on the other side of Laurel Creek Road. The trail gently climbs for 1.1 miles as it parallels a small stream on its way to Dosey Gap. Here at the ridge crest, you’ll see Turkeypen Ridge Trail split off to the left. Just a couple hundred feet past this marked trail junction you’ll soon see another trail on the left side as well. It is bereft of a trail sign, as the NPS doesn’t officially recognize the track into the basin as an official trail. Most likely this is to protect the delicate environment of the Sink.
Follow the narrow manway about another mile as it crosses a small stream and then climbs the side of a ridge in order to navigate the lip of the Sink. It will soon plunge steeply down, so watch your step carefully. One last slippery spot marks the end of the descent, and you’ll find yourself in a surprisingly flat area completely surrounded by steep mountain slopes on all sides. April is by far the best time to visit, as the ground is completely covered in delicate blossoms. Trilliums, foamflower, mayapple, blue phlox, and wild geraniums are just a few of the dozens of species found here. Follow the pathway—carefully, so as to not injure any plants—as it leads to the highlight of this Smoky Mountain gem. White Oak Sink Falls is stunning as it plunges over sheer cliffs before disappearing into a black hole below, its destination unknown. Nearby, several caves are blocked by sheer bars in order to keep would-be intruders out of the critical bat habitats.
While exploring the bottomlands, it’s easy to see the hand of man in shaping this wilderness to his will. Believe it or not, several families had cabins all the way down in here. Stone fences still stand and trace the outlines of fields once green with corn and sorghum. Rusty items lie scattered about, tossed aside or left behind decades ago and left to succumb to the elements. A small cemetery lies off on a side trail. Feral hog traps show how humans have upset the natural ecosystem here even in indirect ways.
As you explore this Appalachian jewel, once again be aware of your surroundings. The delicate ecosystem here needs constant observation in order to stay healthy, and a careless footfall can damage delicate blooms or erode loose soil. Over the last few years, the park service has limited access to the Sinks on several occasions during the spring months. Sometimes this closes the entire area, while sometimes just portions of the trails are blocked off with bright orange fencing. We have checked the park website (www.nps.gov/grsm) and it appears to currently be open. If it does close, please be patient and adhere to the park’s guidelines so everyone can have access to this natural oddity for years to come.