Who hasn’t been on a trip to Cades Cove? The peaceful mountain valley, filled with historic cabins, astounding mountain views, and what seems to be an ever-growing population of bear and deer, is by far the most popular attraction within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With an average of four million visitors per year, about as much as visit the entirety of Yellowstone National Park! For anyone who has had a morning alone wandering the fields, biking the loop road, or picnicking beside Abrams Creek, the magic of the cove is no mystery. For those who have been stuck in a traffic jam for the past two hours with no way out, however, the allure might be obscured in all the dust and exhaust fumes making their eyes water.
To truly experience the beauty of this jewel of the Smokies, getting out of the car is a must. While there are views to be seen, the closer, more intimate secrets of nature much are harder to find while peering through a pane of glass. You can explore the fields and walk to the historic structures, but what better way to experience all there is to see than by taking a hike on one of the many trails which radiate out from the loop road? Rich Mountain Loop climbs the high ridges and affords sweeping views of the valley and neighboring communities just outside the park’s borders. Gregory Bald Trail leads visitors to a mountaintop pasture filled with blueberries and flame azaleas while also passing through stands of old growth forest.
Abrams Falls Trail, leading to one of the park’s largest and most popular waterfalls, is one of our favorite hikes to do within the park. With a wide path, gentle climbs, and an easy day-hiking distance of only five miles roundtrip to the waterfall, this is a trail that even those who are new to hiking can enjoy. Late October is also the best time to hike it, as the autumn leaves along Abrams Creek Gorge are some of the most brilliant to be found in the area.
As mentioned already, the first portion of the trail is one of the region’s most popular hikes and can be very crowded at times. If you enjoy a more secluded experience, you’ll want to be at the trailhead no later than 8:00 A.M. Located just off Cades Cove Loop Road, the parking area is reached by a gravel road turning right just before you reach the Cades Cove Visitor Center. The parking lot was recently expanded, so there should be plenty of parking available. As you head out, be sure to bring plenty of water and a pair of sturdy hiking or running shoes.
You begin the trail by crossing Abrams Creek at the points where it exits the cove. Its frolicking sounds will be your companion for the rest of the journey. Keep a sharp eye on the stream, and you might be lucky enough to see a river otter or two. These were reintroduced by the National Park Service several years ago and have made a great comeback throughout the area. Black bears and herons also make a habit of showing up near the creek as well.
Throughout the next two miles, the trail makes gradual climbs over a series of small ridges. The highest and rockiest of these may require a rest or two on the way up, but a partial view of the gorge and surrounding mountains is a great reward at the top! If you are hiking through this area in late spring/early summer, check the base of the trailside cliffs here for the delicate blossoms of bleeding heart. Also, you might be aware of the significant number of downed trees along the hillsides. A large swath of forest in the western end of the national park was damaged in 2011 as an extremely rare F4 tornado ripped through the area. Although only seven years have passed, the forest is already reclaiming the open areas as young pines and tulip poplars crowd together and reach for the sky.
Not too much farther, and the roar of Abrams Falls can be heard far below to the left. The trail descends one last rocky ridge and crosses a footlog over a small stream. A junction in the trail is marked by a sign pointing the way to the falls as well as reminding guests not to climb on the slippery falls, an ominous reminder of several deaths that have occurred here in recent years. A rocky scramble through a boulder field will soon bring you to a clear view of the falls. The roar and mist pervade the amphitheater as the river thunders a good thirty feet onto the rocks below. A rock shelf juts out into the splash pool just beside the falls and offers a great spot to take photos. Please be careful, however, as it is usually wet and covered with moss, making it extremely slippery.
On any given summer/fall afternoon, there may be hundreds of visitors enjoying picnics on the rocks and swimming in the splash pool. No matter how many you may see in the water, please stay out! The park service advises against any swimming in the pool due to a strong undercurrent which has been known to pull people under. It is best just to enjoy the falls from the safety of dry land.
If you would like to continue further on your hike, you’ll be pleased to know that the trail continues another 1.7 miles along the creek and passes by several lower falls as well. As most visitors don’t realize this, you’re more than likely to enjoy it all to yourself. Not only does it offer the chance for solitude, but it also offers some great views and passes through some unique landscapes created mostly by the 2011 tornado. Roundtrip hike to the end of the trail and back is 8.4 miles, which makes a great day hike for more experienced adventurers. However far your hike takes you, you’re sure to enjoy it here in the majesty of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Directions: From U.S. 441 in Gatlinburg, drive south 2.5 miles to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Turn right onto Fighting Creek Gap Road, and continue straight onto Little River Road. Follow this 13 miles and continue straight again onto Laurel Creek Road. After 7.5 miles, this will lead straight onto the one-way Cades Cove Loop Road. After following this 5.1 miles, make a right turn onto Abrams Falls Road. The parking lot is at the end of this gravel road.