By Josh Boyd
As outdoorsmen and women, we are vividly aware that our love for the hunt runs much deeper than the satisfaction which accompanies a filled tag. Quite the contrary, we often find just as great of enjoyment in observing deer, turkey, and any other number of game animals in their natural environment.
Few locations are as abundant in such viewing opportunities as Cades Cove, a 4,000-acre valley located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For those who visit Cades Cove, an experience like none other awaits, steeped in history and rich in natural intrinsic value.
A Brief History of Cades Cove
Today, no one is completely certain where Cades Cove’s name originated. However, most believe the valley to be named after a local Cherokee chief, Chief Cade, that presided over the valley in a foregone era.
In the days before European settlement, Cades Cove is believed to have been used regularly by nearby populations of Cherokee Indians, as a seasonal hunting ground. By all accounts, the area has always been abundant in wildlife, as it still is today. The valley, which is surrounded by mountainous peaks, provided numerous species of game with lowland grazing habitat, to which local tribes were keen.
The Treaty of Calhoun, signed in 1819, ended all Cherokee claims to the Smoky Mountains, opening the area to further exploration and settlement. However, many Cherokee would remain in the area, conducting raids of various extents for the next several decades.
By the 1820s, European settlers had begun to inhabit Cades Cove, quickly erecting many cabins, barns, corncribs, and smokehouses. Eventually, both a Baptist and Methodist church were constructed, as were several schoolhouses. By 1850, Cades Cove’s population had ballooned to 685 residents.
By the early 1900s, both Tennessee and North Carolina had begun purchasing land for the eventual formation of a national park. With time, talks began to center around the incorporation of Cades Cove into such efforts. While some of the Cove’s residents willingly sold their properties, many others did not.
Lengthy court battles ensued, with several residents ultimately being granted “life leases” to their properties, though these individuals were paid less for their land as a result. One by one, business ceased operation, schoolhouses closed, and churches held their final services.
Today, the National Park Service manages Cades Cove as a historical area. Many of the valley’s primitive cabins still stand, while others were brought to the area from other locations, for display purposes.
Wildlife in Abundance
Cades Cove is immensely popular among visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and draws an estimated 2-million guests annually. Many of these visitors come to lay eyes on the valley’s abundant wildlife, which can be readily observed during nearly any hour of the day.
It is quite common to see whitetail deer, wild turkey, and black bear on a single trip around the Cove’s 11-mile motor loop. Viewing potential is enhanced as a byproduct of these species’ adaptation to human interaction. Rather than fleeing from passing vehicles, most animals within the valley will carry on in their endeavors, with little more than a fleeting glance. In fact, traffic is often forced to stop, to let wildlife cross between vehicles along the path.
Many visitors venture to Cades Cove in order to photograph the area’s wildlife, with a significant number of these individuals seeking out resident black bear, or whitetail bucks, which regularly grow to trophy size. The valley provides a unique opportunity to photograph any of these species in front of a scenic mountain backdrop.
Making the Most of Your Trip
While wildlife can be viewed in abundance at Cades Cove, no matter the time of day, a visitor’s experience can be enhanced by planning such trips to coincide with the first and last two hours of daylight. Historically, the gates to Cades Cove have opened at daylight and closed at dusk every day. However, one should always consult the area visitor center to check for current hours of operation, as seasonal maintenance does lead to periodic shifts in schedule.
The Cades Cove loop features a mix of open native grass fields and creek strewn woodlots. During much of the year, deer and bear can be seen by glassing the valley’s numerous fields, though the wooded portions of the Cove see an increase in wildlife traffic during the fall months, especially during years of an abundant mast crop.
Turkey can be viewed in virtually any open area of the Cove, especially in the hours directly following a moderate rainfall. Each spring, visitors are greeted with a chorus of gobbles, emitted from lovestruck toms. These same toms spend hours each day strutting in clearings and fields, much to the joy of passing motorists.
Those hoping to encounter a bear during their trip are seldom let down. Bear are numerous in Cades Cove, with spring and fall being some of the best times for viewing. However, if a bear is observed, keep your distance. While bear attacks are not common in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, provocation can lead to an aggressive response.
A Must-Visit Location
For avid outdoor enthusiasts, there are few places imaginable that can provide the same level of enjoyment as Cades Cove. A trip through this rustic valley will take you back in time, to a day
when the American pioneer coexisted with the wilds of the nation’s untamed lands and will treat you to a spectacle of nature, the likes of few can imagine.