By Jenny Burdette
Magical. That’s the first word that comes to my mind when anyone mentions Cades Cove. Whether your goal is photographing wildlife, landscapes or historic structures, a summer visit to the Cove is perfect for viewing bears and other wildlife, flower-filled meadows and tumbling mountain streams.
Getting There: Navigating the Cove
Located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Townsend, TN, the only access into Cades Cove is on Laurel Creek Road, driving west from the Townsend “Wye.” The entrance is about 20 minutes from Townsend and an hour from Gatlinburg.
As you enter Cades Cove, stop at the entrance parking area and pick up a Cades Cove Tour booklet for $1 (these are also available at the Visitors Centers at Sugarlands and Oconaluftee). The booklet contain a map and descriptions of various locations in the Cove, which is open from sunrise to sunset.
During the summer months, the Cove is closed to motorized traffic all day on Wednesdays. If photographing the historic cabins and churches is your goal, Wednesday is a great day to get in without the crowds. The Cove has some serious hills, however, so know your limits and use caution! You can walk or bike in before sunrise on any day to catch a sunrise view from Sparks Lane. The walk in and back out will be 2–4 miles, depending on how far down Sparks Lane you walk. A stream crosses Sparks about a quarter of a mile in, and after a recent rain walkers should be prepared for wet feet.
The main road through Cades Cove is the Loop Road, an 11-mile one-way road with historic structures spaced out along the way. The Loop is bisected by Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane, two-way gravel roads that tend to be less heavily traveled than the Loop. Both roads have fields on each side that offer good opportunities for birding and wildlife viewing. These bisecting roads are a good option to create shorter loops, double back, or take a shortcut if the traffic becomes unbearable.
The Loop Road continues along the far end of the Cove, curving past the Visitors Center and Cable Mill, continuing past the opposite ends of Hyatt and Sparks Lanes, and ending near the campground and campground store, where you can rent bikes or purchase lunch, snacks, and souvenirs.
Wildlife in the Cove
Myriad opportunities for wildlife viewing are what draw most visitors to Cades Cove. Summer blackberries entice bears into the fields and the plentiful wild cherries of late summer attract bears to the trees lining the roads. The Cove boasts an abundance of bear, deer, and wild turkeys, and the easiest and surest way to spot them is simply to drive the Loop Road. The fields along Sparks and Hyatt Lanes also provide glimpses of bear, deer, and an occasional coyote, and offer excellent birding opportunities. You can often photograph directly from your vehicle; just pull off the road and don’t block traffic.
Bears – even turkeys – can bring traffic to a standstill. Pull into one of the numerous pull-offs, grab your camera, and walk if you suspect that you are in a “bear jam.” Chances are, a volunteer will already be on the scene, directing traffic and trying to keep onlookers at a safe distance. When you pull off, all four tires need to be off the asphalt. If not, you will be asked to move and may miss your photo op while you are moving the car.
Park Service volunteers work diligently to keep 50 yards between bears and people, so bring your longest lens. With patience, you can get “the shot” without endangering yourself or the animal. Remember, animals involved in any interaction with humans, or those that simply become too comfortable with close human presence, often end up being euthanized. So be mindful of the animals’ safety, as well as your own.
Pileated woodpeckers are common throughout the Cove, and you may also spot an owl. Eastern Meadowlarks are common in the fields along Hyatt Lane near the Dan Lawson cabin, and songbirds are plentiful in the shrubs around the cabin, as well as in the trees near the creeks on Sparks and Hyatt.
Conventional wisdom holds that wildlife will be most visible in the early morning and late afternoon, especially on hot summer days.
Historic structures in the Cove consist of five cabins along the Loop Road and one along Forge Creek Road, three churches, and a gristmill. All are open for visitors. In the summer, a church or cabin provides a perfect anchor to the verdant green of the surrounding woods and makes a lovely composition. However, by late morning the light becomes harsh on sunny days, and the crowds at these structures challenge the landscape photographer. I recommend getting in early and heading directly to a chosen structure. Use the Cades Cove Tour booklet to develop a plan, and you may be able to photograph several structures in soft early morning light before the crowds arrive.
Landscapes: Sweeping Vistas and Intimate Close-ups
The early morning light in Cades Cove is truly magical, and morning fog often enhances the magic. More than once, I have entered the Cove with a definite plan, only to be completely sidetracked by gorgeous golden light and fog.
Sparks and Hyatt Lanes both offer iconic spots to photograph the road flanked by stands of trees and tall meadow grasses pushing along the fence line. The horses from the stables are usually in the fields along the intersection of Sparks and the Loop Road and can add some interest to a landscape image.
Driving along the Loop Road between Sparks and Hyatt Lanes offers some beautiful landscapes of fields, with a lone tree and towering mountains in the background. In summer, some of these fields will be covered in Queen Ann’s Lace, yellow wildflowers, or thick golden grasses.
The far end of the Loop Road, between the Missionary Baptist Church and the Visitor Center, offers some beautiful, sweeping views of the mountain ranges surrounding the Cove. The hiking trail to the Elijah Oliver cabin begins in this area and has beautiful glades of thick ferns, offering wonderful opportunities to shoot intimate landscapes. The Abrams trailhead has beautiful views of Abrams creek, and Forge Creek Road meanders creekside for several miles with attractive views of tumbling water. You can access Forge Creek Road at the Visitor Center/Cable Mill parking area.
A summer visit to Cades Cove provides views of leafy woods, lush meadows, and abundant wildlife. Expect crowds, and plan accordingly. Get into the Cove as early as possible; a park ranger unlocks the gate at sunrise, and serious photographers are there waiting. As the crowds increase mid-day, consider heading back to town for lunch. Or bring a picnic and spend some time streamside in the picnic area. Or perhaps take a hike on one of the many trails visible from the Loop Road; just pick one and explore for a bit when you need a break from the traffic. However you choose to spend your time, every day spent in Cades Cove is magical.
Jenny Burdette is an avid nature photographer and conservationist. Her work has appeared on the covers and pages of Georgia’s Great Places magazine, Birds and Blooms magazine, and Living Bird, the membership magazine for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Her images are featured in the Visitor Centers and other buildings at several of Georgia’s state parks. Jenny currently serves as a Member at Large on GNPA’s Board and is a member of GNPA’s Conservation and Communication committees.