Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of our most favorite places on earth. This lush valley surrounded by tree covered mountains is Mother Nature’s masterpiece. It is a place where wildlife thrives. Primitive log farmhouses, barns, churches and old cemeteries dot the landscape revealing a rich history. We have been drawn to this place time and time again. I was here as a young boy and through the years returned several times with my own family. We share many fond memories of Cades Cove.
Memories like slowly cruising around the eleven mile loop road in our minivan with the windows down and the side door open looking for deer. We saw deer everywhere. There were big bucks with large antlers. There were does and spotted fawns. We could see deer standing at the edge of the trees. We saw herds of deer grazing in the cove. Once in a while, we would even find a deer standing in the middle of the road blocking our progress. The children would try to count them all—a near impossible task. “Dad, what comes after one hundred?”
Memories like seeing a black bear climb on top the hood of a car and peer through the windshield at the passengers. We laughed out loud when the driver honked the horn and turned on the wipers. The bear eventually lost interest and went on its way. We have seen numerous black bears in the cove. While driving the loop road, our children were keen eyed at spotting them. “Dad, stop! I see a bear.”
Memories like the children sitting motionlessly in the campground as skunks climbed over their feet and sniffed their toes. There were a lot of skunks in the campground then. The rangers warned us to shuffle our feet when we saw one approach. They said that should scare them away, but if that didn’t work, they said to be very still until it goes away. The kids closed their eyes and gritted their teeth. “Dad, is it gone yet?”
Memories like hiking to Abrams Falls for a picnic. We would spread a blanket on a big flat rock at the base of the falls where we would sit and listen to the sound of the crashing waters. Afterward, we would wade in the creek below the falls. The water was cold, but that did not seem to bother the kids. “Dad, can we get in the water now?”
Memories like huddling around a campfire while roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. The kids remember, to this day, the story of the furry toe. Grammi and I laughed when they screamed at the end of that story. “Dad, you scared me.”
We have memories of going horseback riding in the cove, riding single file along a rocky trail and through a stream. We also remember the time we took an early morning hayride around the loop road in a wagon pulled by a tractor. We’ve gone on a ranger guided hike to an overlook high above the cove to watch the sunset behind the mountains. Walking back down the trail with only a flashlight to guide the way was part of that adventure. “Dad, I can’t see where I’m going.”
With all the things we have done during our times at Cades Cove, there is one thing we did not do. We did not go for a bike ride around the loop road. Every Wednesday during the summer the loop road is closed to motor vehicles and opened to biking and hiking. Riding a bike around Cades Cove’s loop road is one of the best things to do while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We have always wanted to ride a bike around the loop. I don’t remember exactly why we never did. Maybe the cost to rent six bicycles had something to do with it. Maybe we didn’t think we could make it around the eleven miles with little ones. But still…we always wanted to try it.
When Grammi and I bought our e-bikes this past year, the one thing we said we wanted to do is go to Cades Cove to ride the loop road. We made our reservations at Cades Cove campground months in advance. We bought a truck cap so we could lock our bikes in the truck bed when we travel. We rode our bikes trying to build our endurance. All in preparation for the Cades Cove loop road.
The first evening after we arrived, we took a slow drive around the one-way loop road. Oh my! How the cove has changed. I was shocked. No longer were the open grassland and mowed hayfields where we once saw herds of deer grazing in the fields. The trees and brush were reclaiming the meadow giving the wildlife more places to hide and making them difficult to spot. Wow! “How long as it been since we’ve been here”, I asked Grammi. “Oh, probably ten or fifteen years”, she said. Wow! I had no idea it had been that long ago. It seemed like yesterday to me.
As we drove along, we were glad to see the horses. They graze in a same section of the cove near the riding stables where I remember them to be. The old homesteads and churches looked just like they did the last time we saw them. We saw a bear in the distance, but only when it stood on its hind legs to look over the brush. We saw turkey and we saw about a half dozen deer—nothing like the numbers we saw in the past. I must admit, it was disappointing. Maybe we will see more wildlife when we ride our bikes around the loop.
I talked to a ranger about the change in the cove. She said that twenty years ago the park started a project to return the cove back to its pre-european settler condition. When the settlers arrived in the early 1800‘s they cleared the cove for farming and altered the streams for irrigation. At the turn of the millennium, the land lease for growing hay in the cove expired and was not renewed. The mowing and cultivation ceased. Native plants were reintroduced and nature was allow to slowly run its course.
Since then the bear population has dramatically increased. Coyotes have found their way back to the cove. The result for the deer population was a reduction to a more natural level. I suppose it is for the best, but I am going to miss the days when we could see herds of deer in the cove.
When I awoke the next morning I felt a little off. I had a headache and scratchy throat. When I took my temperature, it was 100.8. Crap! This is not a good time to get sick. Like there is ever a good time to get sick, right? I mean we have plans. The following day, Grammi was feeling ill as well. So there we were…in a national park campsite for seven nights and we were sick as a dog. It was forty-five minutes to the nearest drug store and there was no cell service or wifi?
We spent most of our week at Cades Cove stuck in the camper. We lazed around and slept quite a bit. We watched some shows we had downloaded on the iPad. When boredom became intolerable, we went for a ride in the truck. Driving through the park surrounded by nature seemed to help.
When Wednesday came around—the day the loop road is closed to motor vehicles—I was feeling a little better. Grammi, however, was not. She spent the day in bed, again. She encourage me to take the bike for a ride. So I did. I wasn’t sure how much energy I would have to peddle up the hills and did not want to attempt the entire eleven miles. I decided to take a shortened 4-miles ride, cutting across the cove on Sparks Lane. Turns out I felt fine and did the ride without difficulty. Matter of fact, I did the same ride again later that afternoon.
A couple of days later, Grammi wanted to go for a bike ride. She was feeling bummed about missing out on the Wednesday bike day and wanted to just go on some kind of ride. We did not go far. We rode to a secluded spot along the creek where we sat for a while and enjoyed the scenery.
After seven days, it was time to hitch up and move along to our next site. We were feeling better, but not at 100%. At least we were strong enough to get to our next destination. Riding the Cades Cove loop road on a bicycle is still on our bucket list. I am sure we will come back one day. With any luck, we can do it then.
Until next time…Happy Days and Safe Travels.