We saw bears. Lots of them.
I thought that when, or if, that moment would ever arrive, I’d freeze, terrified.
Instead, I was the opposite, squealing with glee and doing my best to stop myself from running over to cuddle them.
I felt safe.
There was an energy of permission for us to watch in open wonder as Momma taught her two babies how to pick apart the wood of the tree stump to eat the worm and insects cowering inside. What, no honey?
Savannah was almost crouching down behind me whispering to walk away slowly.
She’d listened to our bear safety instructions and was confused as to why I was not moving.
“Don’t worry, we’re safe here.” I pointed out the crowd of people watching and the nearby ranger. And the ease of the bears.
She was 20 meters off the popular trail to John Oliver Cabin on the Cade Cove Loop Road.
“See how she’s protecting her babies. Just like your Momma is doing to you right now. Human Mommas and Bear Mommas are the same.”
The cubs soon lost interest in the worms and began wrestling. After they tried unsuccessfully to take down their mother, she herded them up and over the hill.
My first wild bear experience was thrilling.
Not too long later, as Kalyra and I cycled around the loop, Craig and Savannah trailing in the car, we came to a traffic jam.
We soon saw the reason – far off into the distance and Mama and 4 cubs played in the long grass.
When you come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Spring there is a good chance you’ll see bears in Cades Cove, Tennessee. And why wouldn’t they hang out in the wildflower meadows and lush rolling valley greens with a beautiful backdrop of the mountain peaks?
What is Cades Cove, TN?
Cades Cove is an isolated valley located on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It started as a seasonal hunting camp for the Cherokee Indians.
Europeans settled the Cades Cove area between 1818 and 1821. Cades Cove was once a farming community and has now been preserved as part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It’s now one of the most popular places to visit in the most visited National Park in the USA.
Cades Cove is an about an hour and a half drive from Gatlinburg but is well worth it for the forested scenery, views and bubbling creeks beside you as you drive. It really is a gorgeous national park.
You can cycle or drive around the 11-mile Cades Cove loop road stopping to look at the various historical sites or just admire the views which I thought was far prettier. There are turnoffs at two different points on the Cades Cove loop road if you’d prefer a shorter bike ride.
Along the way, you’ll see numerous historic buildings – the homes, churches, and workplaces of Cades Cove residents during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are several walking trails on the loophole as well in case you want to stretch the legs.
A cove is another name for a valley and I couldn’t think of a better way to experience it than riding along covered one-way roads and tearing down hills with the breeze cooling you down and bears and safe distance beside you.
When to do the Cades Cove bike ride
If you don’t want to deal with car traffic on the Cades Cove loop road, time your bike ride for Wednesday or Saturday morning. They close off the road to vehicles from 7-10am to give the bikes a little safety and freedom.
As there was no tag along available at the bike rental for Savannah, she and Craig followed in the car and we joined the car traffic on the Cades Cove loop road.
I was pleasantly surprised and grateful at how encouraging and respectful the vehicles were to us.
Although I should not be surprised, I am in the South after all where courteousness and friendliness and manners are not long forgotten.
Kalyra did an amazing job. It was her first time on a geared bike. After a shaky start, she got the hang of the gears and the ride was smooth. She’s now begging us for a geared bike for her birthday.
I swapped with Craig of the last part, conveniently where most of the uphills were. Up until then, it was relatively flat or downhill riding. Kalyra, despite her exhaustion, nailed those final hills.
It’s moments like this that keep me motivated to continue traveling as a family. It can be an exhausting experience and, most days, I feel like giving up.
But then we have these days where we use our bodies, experience awe and wonder, connect deeply to nature and to each other. It’s these days where I get to experience the growing character and strength of my daughters and get to know their spunky spirits a little better.
These are the moments are helping to create an empowered future for my girls.
And we saw bears. And I wasn’t even scared.
To the next adventure.
Planning your Cades Cove bike ride in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Cades Cove Bike Rental
You can rent bikes from the store at the entrance to the Cades Cove loop road. They have a wide Fuji cruisers and hybrid bikes for adults and children. Cades Cove bike rental costs Adults: $7.50 per hour Children (under 10): $4.50 per hour.
You could complete the Cades Cove bike ride in 2 hours, but I’d allow at least three so you can soak up the gorgeous scenery and spend time with the bears!
Tours in the Smokies
If you wish to join a tour to explore more of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Viator has the following:
- Great Smoky Mountains waterfall adventures
- See the spectacular colors of the Smoky Mountains in the Fall
- Take an adventurous hike through the Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Accommodation
We recommend camping within the Great Smoky National Park. We camped in the Smoky Mountains Tennessee a couple of years ago and much preferred it to staying in Gatlinburg, TN, which we did this time.
There are plenty of front and backcountry campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains.
Cades Cove Campgrounds is the most developed of the campgrounds in the park and is open year round. It’s right near the start of the Cades Cove loop road. The campground has restrooms with running water and flush toilets.
Cost 17-20 a night. Make reservations at least one night in advance. Check here for more information.
There are also full-service campgrounds in the nearby towns outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We stayed at Old Creek Lodge in Gatlinburg, which was comfortable and clean, but nothing flash. I liked the river/creek views from the small balcony. It helped me to feel like I was in the Smokies and not Gatlinburg! You can check them out here.
Take your own snacks and water
There’s a small store at the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop road, but nothing once you get into the park so take your own snacks and plenty of water.
More Tennesse Travel tips:
- 12 cool things to do in Knoxville Tennessee
- A magical Grand Ole Opry experience in Nashville
- 12 cool things to do in Memphis with kids (or without)
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Have you done the Cades Cove bike ride in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before?
Did you see bears?