Have you ever been on a ‘Wild Goose Chase’ somewhere? Well, we had our very own “Wild Bear Chase” in the Great Smoky Mountains as we wandered aimlessly (at least that’s what it felt like!) in search of the elusive black bear.
Heading to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and into the Smokies in search of wild bears must have been one of the craziest ideas we had ever dreamed of. This is exactly what we decided to do during the start of our Thanksgiving road trip when we spent two days in the Smoky Mountains.
Was our search a success? Well, I guess it depends on your interpretation of success! But the story of our experience is worthwhile and portrays an awesome experience exploring the Great Smoky Mountains. Regardless of whether you head there in search of the beloved bears, I can guarantee that you will enjoy your time in the ‘Smokies’ simply because of the natural beauty and wildlife that is present here.
After exploring the gorgeous Laurel Falls Trail during our first day, we headed further into the Smokies in search of these elusive black bears. Our research suggested that heading to Cades Cove would bring us a better chance at seeing bears along with other wildlife so that is where we ventured.
The Drive to Cades Cove
Driving through the Great Smoky Mountains is a delightful experience on its own, regardless of whether you stop and experience the outdoors. But there lies the first problem. If you have a plan in mind of where you want to get to, there are so many gorgeous spots along the way that it can take at least twice as long as you originally anticipated because you stop so frequently to admire the beautiful scenery.
As you leave the hustle and bustle of Gatlinburg, the drive takes you on a 27-mile journey to the entrance to Cades Cove Scenic Loop. The drive to Cades Cove runs parallel to the Little River which is a hub for picturesque scenery on its own.
We stopped on countless occasions to take pictures of the tranquil river and surrounding nature, again hoping to catch a glimpse of some rare wildlife. One disadvantage of this road is that the speed limit is only 35mph so you can imagine how long it takes to cover the 27 miles.
Cades Cove Scenic Loop
Arriving at Cades Cove, the main attraction is an 11-mile scenic loop that is one-way and is a perfect way to experience this part of the Smokies. Although being stuck in your car may seem like a disaster when you are considering exploring the countryside, this is actually a great way to get around as there are numerous landmarks and attractions along the way that allow you to get out and explore.
This scenic loop is a hub for black bears and we knew that this was going to provide our best opportunity to see one in the flesh. After reading a friends experience a few months earlier, we were optimistic that we would be just as lucky to see one or more bears. Patience is a virtue right, or so they say…more about the bears later!
Depending on how much time you spend at each of the landmarks or whether you decide to park somewhere and take a hike to Abrams Falls, this will determine the length of time it takes to complete the scenic loop.
We spent about 3 hours slowly making our way around the 11-mile trail but honestly, this could quite easily have been doubled though the weather was not always on our side and we were quite grateful for having the car for shelter on several occasions.
Cades Cove Buildings
One of the really cool features of this loop is the variety of old, derelict buildings that are still standing at various spots. There is so much history dating back to the early 19th century in this part of the Smokies. Here are a few of the structures and buildings worth exploring.
John Oliver Place is the first building you will come across on your tour of Cades Cove. Accessible via a 10-minute walk from the scenic loop road, Oliver constructed this ‘honeymoon house’ in 1818. It’s really cool to walk up to and inside Oliver’s Place. Standing inside a wooden shack and staring at the old wooden doors and windows, contemplating people living here really makes you realize how times have changed over the years.
Primitive Baptist Church and Missionary Baptist Church are both popular attractions along the route emphasizing the role religion has played here since Oliver introduced the Baptist denomination to Cades Cove in 1825. The Methodist Church also dates back to the early 19th Century but the building you see today was reconstructed in 1902.
There are several other residential and farm structures dotted around the scenic loop. The current day visitor center is located at John P. Cable Mill surrounded by a variety of barns, mills and of course the residence of Gregg-Cable House.
I’m sure this is what you were waiting to read…so what wildlife did we see on our travels around Cades Cove? Well, let’s start with the deer that were sporadically scattered around the trail. For the majority of the drive around Cades Cove, both Heather and I saw several deer but it was getting to a point where we felt this was the only wildlife we would encounter.
We were approaching one of the final wooden cabins on the scenic loop and I told Heather that I would get out of the car and walk over to explore and take some pictures because many of these structures look very similar to the rest. However, the moment I walked towards the cabin I noticed something moving behind the wooden shack. As I walked closer, I noticed a group of wild turkey grazing in the wooded area and as I moved closer to get a better picture, of course, they began to make their way further into the forest.
I motioned for Heather to come and take a look and we were very fortunate to experience these turkeys in their natural habitat. But of course deer and turkeys are great but we didn’t drive deep into the Great Smoky Mountains just to see them – we wanted a black bear! As we approached the end of the Cades Cove loop we realized that it wasn’t going to be our day and we should head back towards Gatlinburg.
Wild Bear Chase
Exiting the scenic loop we noticed quite a bit of commotion on the road with a number of cars and people congregated on the side of the road. A park ranger was motioning for people to continue on their way but we knew something was going on. We pulled over into a nearby parking lot and walked over to the group and there we saw it – A BLACK BEAR!! All the hours we spent exploring was worth the weight in gold as we caught a glimpse of a bear in the distance hiding behind a tree.
Despite the distance between us and the bear, we were able to get a good look, especially with the naked eye. Trying to take pictures with all of the trees and plant life was difficult and unfortunately, these are the best shots we were able to capture but we can finally say that we found what we were looking for.
Exploring Cades Cove was a breathtaking experience with stunning scenery and an abundance of history. Although our journey around the loop almost ended in an anti-climax, even if we hadn’t faced our bear encounter on the way back to Gatlinburg, this trip would have been worthwhile.
I would highly recommend heading to Cades Cove early in the morning in order to maximize your chances of seeing a myriad of wildlife. Enjoy the outdoors and explore all of what the Great Smoky Mountains has to offer – I know we certainly did!
You can check out many more of our pictures around Cades Cove and in the Great Smoky Mountains here: Smoky Mountains.