Cades Cove Wildlife Loop

Pack Your Patience

It’s 7:45 on a Monday morning, twenty minutes after the sun pierced the horizon and started to lighten the sky.  The eleven-mile, one-lane Cades Cove wildlife loop is at a stop-and-crawl from the outset.  I can’t see the front of this train of vehicles.  How will I see any wildlife this way?  I surmise the first car will stop at a bear, deer, or coyote and watch it until it’s gone.  By the time we’d get there, there would be nothing to see.  At the first of two cutoff roads, we leave this rural traffic jam turning into a gorgeous, foggy valley towards the exit.

A Delightful Detour

We wandered out to Tremont Creek Road, leaving all the traffic behind.  This road follows its namesake creek.  Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 2100 miles of clear, shallow creeks, streams, and rivers, and all of them run downhill in an endless series of waterfalls.  Fog.  Waterfalls.  Red and yellow fallen leaves.  It was slow going as I stopped often to take it all in.

The road ended at the Middle Prong Trail, a “quiet walkway.” Perfect.  After our woodland walk to some more substantial falls, we backtracked to the car.

Another Try for the Cades Cove Wildlife Loop

Another day, we tried the Cades Cove Wildlife Loop again.  It was mid-morning, allowing for the initial rush of “beat the crowds” traffic to disperse.  The horses for the trail rides were making their way out of the pasture and into the corral.  Turkey grazed their way through the field, oblivious to the onlookers.

We passed several historic cabins and made it halfway through the loop when traffic stopped to watch a white-tailed doe and fawn at the edge of the woods.  The lead car was oblivious to the scores of bumper-to-bumper vehicles backed up behind and didn’t pull to the side.  For two miles, we crawled as more and more cars stacked up behind us.  It’s hard to watch for wildlife in such heavy traffic…in the National Park!  Finally, the dawdler pulled to the side.  I can only imagine their shock at the seemingly endless line of cars that drove past them!  We looped back around and took the second cutoff, Hyatt Lane, traversing the gravel road through a meadow and back to the main loop.Cades Cove Wildlife Loop

Rich Mountain Road is a little-used one-way, winding road that climbs over Rich Mountain through the National Park.  The mountain is forested in woodlands with open understory.  It’s secluded, peaceful, and quiet; it’s a good place for wildlife spotting.  On the other side of the mountain, we pass through farms and pastures before arriving back in Townsend.  Signs in Cades Cove caution about the condition of the road (likely contributing to its lack of traffic), but unless there have been torrential rains, any passenger car will have no trouble on it.

A Secluded Hike Just Outside Cades Cove

Finley Cane Trail off Laurel Creek Road runs 5.5 miles out-and-back through Eastern Hardwood Forest.  There are several “chose your own stepping stone” creek crossings as it starts in a lush, tropical-feeling rhododendron forest.  We walk through tunnels of these tall, dense shrubs with multiple trunks and broad leaves obscuring everything.  As we walk deeper, maples, sweetgum, oaks, and cherry trees predominate—a doe and fawn stop to study us for a minute or two.  Then flee, waving their full, thick white tails in the air.

There are occasional stands of pine, and then we lose the rhododendrons altogether, and the forest floor is open.  Mushrooms and ferns abound on this surprisingly humid October day. 

It is raining leaves.  The falling leaves shake the attached leaves as they fall through the treetops, mimicking the sound of gentle rain.  A twig snaps up the mountainside, and we freeze, listening intently.  No little squirrel can make a branch snap like that.  We wait.  Nothing more heard or seen.  Later, we’ll see and hear walnuts fall with such force that explains the noise we heard.  Probably not a bear after all!  But we did find this snake.

Third Time’s the Charm

Thursday morning, I head to Cades Cove alone.  Rob, his patience long since exhausted, will spend a peaceful morning on the porch of our woodland Air Bnb cabin.  The sun rose at 7:40, and I arrived at the wildlife loop at 7:50 am.  There’s a slow but steadily moving line of cars just past the entrance.  I pulled off the side of the road not far along in the valley dense with morning fog.  The trees next to me are clear, but the mountaintops are just suggestions of lines in the background.

An impressive buck with painstakingly shined and honed antlers is wooing a few does at the edge of the trees.  They are ignoring his interest.  Suddenly, he bolts into the meadow stopping on the far side of a lone, majestic, spreading oak.  On foot, I crept forward, anticipating his move into the open, dewy valley.  He slowly stepped into the fog, paused, and considered crossing the road where traffic is now stopped, all eyes upon him.  As suddenly as he bounded out of the trees, he leaps back across the meadow, disappearing into the fog.  The does follow.

There’s a trick to navigating this traffic.  After the deer ran off, I quickly ran up to my car and got ahead of the deer jam.  I had an open road.  Winding through the forest, I stopped at the next foggy field for landscape photography, marveling at how the fog and light changed from one moment to the next.Cades Cove Wildlfie Loop

A cloud behind a thick oak highlights its form.  Then the sun peeks through, and everything is golden and warm.

As I pulled away, a herd of deer that had been resting at the back of this clearing began to stir.  I stopped and got back out.  They are romping, frolicking, running in circles, and then all at once coming toward the road.  A moment ago, I was in the perfect spot to catch them headed right for me.  But now, all I have is a side view and their surprising long, thick, waving tails as they jump a creek and disappear into the woods.

All of the cars that had backed up at the previous deer jam have since passed me, and I’m on an open road.  I’m leap-frogging two other solo photographers who appear to be locals navigating these crowds in the same fashion.  Every time I stop, the traffic clears.

I drove the loop twice this morning, and it only took about 4 hours.  I soaked it in on the first loop, lingered a lot.  The second loop was more of a dedicated bear search.  No such luck today.  I’m glad to have seen so many bears at Roaring Fork and on Foothills Parkway.Dewy spider webs on the fence.

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5 Replies to “Cades Cove Wildlife Loop”

  1. Wonderful Sheila. Your experience makes me want to jump in the car and go. I love your changing light images. Wildlife, waterfalls and fungi – can’t get any better than that.

  2. I love your images. They are composed just right are so interesting that they encourage the reader to read all of your prose. Looks like it was a great trip and you are inspiring me to go the Smokey Mountains. Keep them coming!

  3. You have such a combination of patience and quick reflex to get the most amazing pictures of so many deer at various places and times. And the scenery around your outings is always wonderful to see as you point out the details I’m sure I would have missed.

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