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Cades Cove ...

a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.

Cades Cove - Tennessee

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 05-31-08

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park consist of 800 square miles of Southern Appalachian mountains along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Approximately 95% of the park is forested with about 25% of that area old-growth forest.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S., with Cades Cove the most visited area within the park. The park contains over 850 miles of walking and hiking trails, though the most popular method of experiencing the park appears to be auto-touring. Car camping sites and backcountry camp sites are dispersed throughout the park.

--- Cades Cove - Video ---

Black Bear

Black Bear, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley

Nature Perspective

The best places to view wildlife in the GSMNP are in the Cades Cove and Cataloochee areas. With that said, be aware that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains a very rich biodiversity of plant and animal life. Some species are only found in distinct habitats at certain elevations, while others may range over several habitats. The listing further down the page is of commonly seen wildlife I have personally encountered at the Cades Cove area.

The Cades Cove area of the park is basically a zoo where the real animals are kept behind car doors and windshields. Be extremely cautious, some do leave their cages and wreak havoc within the park. If one of these critters spies a black bear, back away for your own safety, they will inevitably leave the confinement of their vehicle and attempt to surround the animal for photos. You may get trampled by the exodus from the cars and trucks.

All kidding aside, Cades Cove is a great place to experience nature and some of the wildlife that inhabit the park. Just be aware that during the peak season traffic around the 11 mile loop can take between 3 and 4 hours. This area of the park can be extremely busy from late spring through early fall. You must be patient and willing to get out of your vehicle and explore areas outside of the standard auto-tour venue.

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley

White-tailed deer, wild turkey, black bear, and coyotes, are observed daily throughout Cades Cove by visitors during the summer and early fall. They are listed above in order of the frequency I have encountered them. Whether you are one of the visitors that get to view all of them depends on your strategy and tactics within the park ... and maybe a little luck. See the "Photography Perspective" section for tips on viewing/photographing wildlife in Cades Cove.

Otters are occasionally seen in the Abrams Creek section near the Abrams Falls trail parking area off the main loop. The otters have about a 7 mile feeding range up and down the creek so one's chances of encountering one are slim without some patience. While I have never actually seen a beaver in Abrams Creek, I have seen their work, so I know they are there. One can observe beaver dams, fallen trees, and gnawed tree trunks from the same Abrams Creek section mentioned above. Walk the creek shore between the Abrams Falls trail parking area and where Abrams Creek intersects the main park road and you will come across this evidence.

Pileated Woodpeckers are commonly seen throughout the Cades Cove area. While typically thought of as a southern swamp resident, the Barred Owl is commonly heard when camping at Cades Cove.


Coyote, Cades Cove
- Robert Kemmerlin

Wilderness Experience Perspective

If you are wanting a wilderness experience do not go to Cades Cove unless you are using the area as a launch point for a backpacking trip. You will not find solitude at Cades Cove, or Cataloochee for that matter.

There are many other places in the park to have a wilderness experience, whether day-hiking or overnight backpacking. Stay away from the shorter routes that lead to waterfalls if you want solitude, these will be popular among the day-hikers. See the GSMNP web site below for further information about hiking, backpacking, and backcountry camping. There is more than enough hiking trails in the park to find solitude if that is what you are after.

While backcountry camping is only allowed at designated sites, there is no rule or law that you have to be on a hiking trail to experience the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Just make sure you have the skill and confidence level to get off the beaten path. To ensure you don't get lost, find a creek that doesn't have an adjacent trail and follow it into the wilderness, when you've had enough, follow the creek back to your starting point. Be sure to take note of your starting point at the creek.

Black Bear cub

Black Bear cub, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley

Photography Perspective

There are countless wildlife photography opportunities in Cades Cove. Much of the wildlife is acclimated to humans and their vehicles. The animals are there, and most are observed daily by someone. Here's some suggestions specific to Cades Cove to help ensure that "someone" is you.

Immerse yourself in the area. Don't just go with the intention of driving the loop once in hope of sighting wildlife. Plan on being out in the field most of the day and plan on staying a couple of days ... maybe a week. I use the first day (and sometimes the second day) trying to identify hotspots (areas that wildlife frequent) for photography.

Identify Hotspots. Some of this can be done by casual chitchat with visitors. If they have seen something special, they are usually more than willing to tell you about it. Ask them where they saw that bear or buck and when did they see it. Note if most of the sightings are "this" side of the loop or "that" side of the loop.

Specifically for black bears, note where the food sources are. Identify areas with blackberries (July - early August), identify where the wild cherry trees are (mid-August), and locate the oak trees in the vicinity (September). Note if there are any bear signs in these areas (scat, trails through the berry briars, claw marks on the trees, broken branches, dug up yellow jacket nests, or overturned stones and logs). Try to find hotspots away from the main loop road.

Black Bear

Black Bear, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley

Get out of your car. Once you have identified your hotspots be willing to spend some time there or at least check them frequently. You don't necessarily have to stay hidden or in one spot. Walk the tree line border of a field in the area you have chosen. You can still explore a lot while staying near your photography hotspot.

During the summer months white-tailed deer are most active in the fields during the early morning and an hour or so before dusk. If you want to find them midday then get out of your car, cross that field, and spend some time walking in the woods. I've had fairly good luck finding deer this way in the afternoon. I have occasionally chanced upon bear this way also. Find open wooded areas without much understory growth and stay out of the thick stuff.

From my experience, black bears can be active any time. I encounter them midday through dusk mostly.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley

Wild Turkeys seem to be active early morning and then in late afternoon through dusk. They can almost always be observed in the field where the horses are kept in late afternoon (horse stables). Here they pick through the horse manure for undigested food. My favorite place to get photos of them is at the Abrams Falls trail parking area on the far end of the main loop road. I occasionally find them here in the early morning. The Abrams Falls trail parking area offers the advantage of taking the photos from your vehicle making the birds less nervous. In the early morning, before people start using the parking area, one can sometimes position the vehicle close to the Wild Turkeys.

Coyotes are encountered mostly an hour or so before dusk.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley

Indigo Buntings, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Gold Finches, can be found in and around the fields within the cove during the spring and summer.

Be sure to bring a variety of lenses. The animals (especially the deer) are acclimated to people and their vehicles, sometimes your long telephoto may be too long.

Bring along some sort of camera/lens support for your car door. Many photography opportunities are available while in your vehicle. I use a "Molar Bean Bag".

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer, Cades Cove
- Joe Kegley

Gear/equipment Suggestions

  • Tent/camping equipment - Bring your tent for car camping in the park. Don't forget some type of portable shower if you are going to stay a while. Showers are not provided in the Cades Cove or Cataloochee campgrounds.

  • Mountain Bike - Mountain bikes are great for getting around traffic jams in Cades Cove, though you can't take a huge lens. Mine is equipped with a rear rack and a rack pack. I am able to keep my camera with a 300mm lens in the pack. Also note the park closes the main loop road on Saturdays and Wednesdays to motor traffic, from opening to 10:00 am the road is for bikes and pedestrians only. This is a great time to explore the area and relax a little.

  • Field glasses/Binoculars - Field glasses are a good idea for spotting wildlife across fields and in trees.

Location and Points of Interest

Cades Cove Map (Google interactive map)

left double click to zoom in
right double click to zoom out
click and drag to move
hover over markers to see descriptions

Additional Information

  • http://www.nps.gov/grsm/ - Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the National Park Service web site.
  • http://www.friendsofthesmokies.org/ - a non-profit organization that assists the National Park Service in its mission to preserve and protect Great Smoky Mountains National Park by raising funds and public awareness, and by providing volunteers for needed projects.

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Cades Cove ... a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.

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