The long chain of cars slowly inched along the paved loop road the exit, inching forward a few feet at time, like a deck hand reeling in the anchor. The chain of cars moved so slowly it was possible to have short conversations. “Getting anything good?” some would ask, nodding toward my two cameras on tripods pointing at the sky. “In about an hour I’ll have an amazing sunset.”
Cades Cove is the most coveted and revered section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The eleven mile one-way, one-lane loop road guides visitors away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Gatlinburg and the throng of hikers along Newfound Gap Road, leading them into a peaceful cove surrounded by mountains and lush forests. Century-old log cabins are left open for the public to explore; sitting on the porch at the secluded Elijah Oliver Cabin will help you picture life there almost a hundred years ago.
The number of visitors to the cove steadily increases throughout the day, reaching a peak in mid-afternoon. Visitors slowly work their way around the loop road hoping to spot a black bear, eager to begin the hike to Abrams Falls, or excited to watch the action at the Cable Mill. But most visitors to Cades Cove make a critical mistake: they leave too early and miss the best part of the day.
I would spend some evenings on Sparks Lane, one of the dirt and gravel two-way roads connecting the two sides of Cades Cove Loop Road. This lane is less-traveled which means the wildlife is more likely to appear. I would sit on the back of my car, a telephoto lens in my lap, and wait for the inevitable deer to arrive. Sometimes just a single deer would gradually saunter through the tall grass in the fields on either side of the road; other days an entire herd would pass through.
Other evenings were spent at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Black bears frequent the area, especially in the tops of trees nearby on the loop road. The creek running behind the Cable Mill and historic buildings provide water for the wildlife and attract them frequently. Once the crowd thins out it’s more exciting to walk around the historic home, corn crib, and barn.
Sunset was approaching and the chain of cars were still moving along. I was sitting near my favorite place in Cades Cove to watch the sunset: Dan Lawson Place. A massive solitary tree in a large field across the road from the historic home made the perfect foreground element for my photo. I put two cameras on tripods framed and ready to shoot, a GoPro shooting a time-lapse video, and then plopped into a comfy camping chair on the side of the road.
With fifteen minutes of light left in the day the long chain of cars finally disappeared. I looked around and realized with a weightless, tingling sensation that I had the entire cove to myself. A few deer silently emerged from the edge of the woods nearby, grazing in the field. The quietness filled my ears and I couldn’t help but smile. Just a few minutes in nature like this was enough to recharge my soul.
The sun finally disappeared behind a mountain peak and cast the entire cove into a shadow. The coolness was a welcome respite from the hot and humid summer day. I kept my seat, cameras clicking away, and waited for the show I knew was about to come. Ten minutes later the clouds drifting through the sky turned bright pink and warm orange. The colorful display didn’t last long, though; just five minutes later the clouds were a muted gray and the sky a dull blue. Sunsets are always too short and leave us wanting more.
I packed up my gear and hopped in the car. The windows always stay down in the park so I can smell the forest and hear the chorus of nature. There were no cars in front of me but still I drifted along the road at a causal few miles per hour. I wanted to enjoy the last moments of the day in the cove. By the time I reached the exit of the loop road the forest was dark and the air several degrees cooler.
Visitors could have been hungry, tired, facing a long drive to their lodging, or dealing with screaming children in the backseat. But whatever the reason they missed my favorite time of any day in Cades Cove. The emerging wildlife, stillness of the air, and colorful sunset frequently combine for a wonderful end to the day in this remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.