Sunny skies, lush greenery, dense meadows, impulsive showers, rushing waters, grazing wildlife, foraging bears…summertime at Cades Cove, one of the most visited sites in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is beautiful to say the least. With temperatures ranging between the mid-70s and 80s, it is certainly cooler than most places in summer, making it a great location to take an early morning cycle or a leisurely evening drive. Get ready for breathtaking valley views, incredible historic structures, adventurous nature trails, wild animals all around, and best of all — higher chances to spot a Smoky Mountain black bear!
Where the Bears at?
Harboring a wide variety of flora and fauna, the Smokies is the perfect habitat for the omnivorous (having the ability to eat both animal and plant life) black bear. In fact, there are around 1,500 black bears within the boundaries of the national park, and Cades Cove is the best place to catch a glimpse of this magnificent animal. Why? Perhaps, the reason is that this is a valley area, where rain collects, and vegetation grows strong, encouraging many critters to move in — including black bears. With luck on your side, you may even spot a few cubs keeping close to mama bear, as they would have ventured out of their den for the first time only a few months ago in spring. One thing’s for sure: whether you see a black bear or not, the experience of exploring Cades Cove alone is well worth the trip.
Top Bear-Spotting Tips
While Cades Cove has much to offer year-round, black-bear sightings are why many tourists and locals pay a visit in summer, so we’ve prepared a list of top tips to help YOU spot a black bear!
- Black bears are incredibly good climbers and sometimes even make their dens up high, so keep an eye on the treetops as well as the forest floor.
- While getting up early may not be your cup of tea, the wee morning hours are when black bears come out for breakfast. Though, if you can’t muster up the strength at dawn, give dusk a try as the late afternoon and evening hours present another great opportunity to catch sight of a black bear.
- Sometimes people pass right by black bears without even knowing because, believe it or not, they can be hard to spot! So, bring binoculars — that way you can see them when they’re peeking at you.
- Though not widely known, black bears are actually pretty decent swimmers, so don’t be afraid to check out the nearby waters – from a distance.
- Patience is a virtue…and a key when spying for black bears. As simple as this may be, it is probably the #1 tip as far as bear watching goes, so take your time, relax, breathe, and enjoy the journey.
- When you do finally spot a black bear, keep your distance if you want to watch for a while. They have incredibly powerful senses, so if their behavior changes, you’re too close! Back away slowly, give them their space, and never approach them — for both your and their safety.
Other Cove Critters
While keeping a watchful eye out for black bears at Cades Cove, other wildlife will surely find you along the way. A rarity to be sure, bobcats are nocturnal and roam Cades Cove in silence while stalking their prey, so if you catch a glimpse of these graceful animals, treasure it for all time. Is that a dog in the meadow? Should you find yourself asking this question, chances are you’re looking at a coyote — with round eyes, pointy ears, bushy tail, and all! One animal you will most likely see is the white-tailed deer. Common throughout the area, your best chance of seeing these guys is in the open fields. You may also encounter turkey, foxes, ground hogs, racoons, river otters, owls, salamanders, a variety of small birds, and more!
The Famous Loop Road
If Cades Cove is known for anything, it’s known for the 11-mile loop road that surrounds the area — feel free to traverse by bicycle, foot, or car. While traffic along the loop may be heavy, the slower pace will keep your photos picturesque and your memories strong. There are also pullouts along the way, so you can stop for a bit, write a tad in your journal, sketch a passing herd of white-tailed deer, and go on your merry way. Though, if traveling slow isn’t your game, choose to go on a weekday as the cove tends to become more crowded on the weekends. Pro tip: make sure you begin your expedition on a full tank of gas since there are no gas stations in the area.
As a bonus, from early May to late September, only cyclists and hikers are allowed on the loop until 10:00 a.m. every Wednesday and Saturday, giving people a chance to hear, feel, and experience nature in the Smokies. Don’t want to lug your bike to the mountains? Rent a few for the whole family at the Cades Cove Campground Store at only $7.50 per hour for adults and $4.50 per hour for kids. Don’t forget to grab a tour booklet at the entrance — packed with information on the restored structures from the 1800s, nature trails, and local wildlife — before you set off in pursuit of black bears at Cades Cove!