GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, TENNESSEE
The 53 mile mixed-surface Cades Cove route enters Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a seldom used gravel road over Rich Mountain. Cades Cove is one of the most visited locations in the entire national park system and simply too beautiful to ride fast. The 11 mile paved loop road and gravel roads within the cove are sometimes closed to motor vehicles to allow car free access to cyclists.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the jewels in America’s crown and Cades Cove is one of its most beloved locations. The Cades Cove route takes advantage of one of the few areas within the national park accessible to cyclists.
The route starts about six miles east of Maryville, TN at Coulter Bridge which spans the Little River. A turnout has room for a dozen or more cars. The bridge is a popular start location and you will likely share Old Walland Highway with other cyclists enjoying the spin along the river toward the city of Townsend.
The route can be shortened to 36 miles by parking at the trailhead for the Townsend Historic Trail as indicated on the map. Quiet country road lead from the trailhead to the national park boundary and the switchbacks on Old Cades Cove Rd are a sign that you are getting close. As you begin the ascent over Rich Mountain, keep in mind that you will descend the same switchbacks at speed on the return. This is one of the highlights of the route.
Pavement turns to gravel inside the national park where the name changes to Rich Mountain Rd. An ominous sign at the far end of the road warns that it is one way and unimproved but the surface was well groomed and the road gated as of June 2020. Grades are moderate, typically less than 6%, and climbing is relatively easy for those accustomed to the sometimes uber-steep roads in the National Forests. Thick rhodedendron groves and hardwoods dominate and creeks can be heard gurgling if one stops for a moment. A bear cub was spotted one half mile north of Cades Cove on June 3, 2020.
The route rightfully takes more time than indicated by mileage or elevation numbers from the map. A broad valley nestled into the mountains, Cades Cove is incredibly beautiful and a long narrative wouldn’t do it justice. Most will ride it slowly, stopping often to take photos or simply marvel at the glory of creation. This is a place to soft-pedal and linger. Average speed should not be a concern on this route.
The National Park Service has traditionally closed Cades Cove to motor vehicles and reserved the loop road for bicycles only on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. This has been changed to all day Wednesday for the summer of 2020 and it remains to be seen if the schedule becomes permanent. See the link to the National Park Service Cades Cove road closure page on the Parking & Logistics tab below.
Keep in mind that Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives twice as many visitors as any other national park. Cades Cove can fill to capacity on holiday weekends and during the height of summer so choose your start time wisely. For those who make the effort, especially those who have the ability to ride in winter or when the cove is closed to cars, the Cades Cove route is an incredible opportunity to see one of the most visited locations in our national park system at a level of intimacy not possible in a minivan or SUV.
- Cameras are mandatory.
- Bears are active within Great Smoky Mountains National park so educate yourself on what to do should you have an encounter.
- Do not expect cell service.
- Parking for the Cades Cove route is at Coulter Bridge, approximately six miles east of Maryville, TN where a parking lot can accommodate approximately fifteen cars. Additional parking can be found off the road nearby.
- The route can be shortened to 36 miles by starting at the trailhead for the Townsend Historic Trail as indicated on the map.
- Modern conveniences can be found in Townsend. Maryville is the largest city with full services and is located approximately 6 miles west of the start.
- The Cades Cove loop road has been closed to motor vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings to allow bicycles touring without traffic. This has been changed to all day Wednesday for the summer of 2020. See the National Park Service Cades Cove information page for details.
- The Cades Cove camp store and visitors center are the only store stops and are indicated on the map.
- Plan on 3.5 hours drive time from Atlanta.