Great Smoky Mountains: My Cades Cove Experience (2021) - Part One

June 22, 2021  •  9 Comments

I'm sure the fine people of Eastern Tennessee wouldn't want many people to read this three part photo essay.  Why?  Because at the end, many of you nature lovers are going to want to jump into your car and drive to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  First and most obvious, the scenery is beautiful.  Second, the wildlife is plentiful.  Personally, I was there to photograph Black Bear but I did share my attention with other subjects as well.  

I hope to share my experience in a way that takes you there with me. 

On Saturday, April 24th, Tom Dorsey and I departed for a 9+ hour drive to Townsend, TN.  Once there, we were joined by another Pennsylvania photographer, Jake Dingel, and a friend from Colorado, Luke Seaward.  Join us, in this three part photo essay, for a week in the Smokies, specifically, Cades Cove. 

Cades Cove is a broad, vegetation rich, valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains.  After about a 25 minute drive from the town of Townsend, you enter an 11 mile loop in Cades Cove.   Before 7 o' clock each morning, we began our time in Cades Cove at the entrance noted by the "START" sign on the map below.


The 11 mile, paved, one-way, loop road in Cades Cove is bisected by two gravel roads; Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane.  If you are searching for a place to photograph grassland birds and birds of prey in Cades Cove, these two roads are at the top of the list.  Each morning, we drove around the loop and crossroads before the crowds began to show up.  Then, we parked and hiked into the forest in search of Black Bear.

Sunday, April 25, 2021
A lot of the wildlife in Cades Cove are acclimated to people and may not seem to be bothered by our presence.  However, we need to be smart enough to respect they are wild animals and maintain a safe distance.  Take this American Crow for instance.  As we drove along Sparks Lane, this crow followed our vehicle down the road, flew past us,  and waited for us to approach.  It did this several times.  Probably hoping for a handout.

American CrowAmerican Crow
We did a lot of walking on and off trail in the forest.  One thing I noticed is there are a lot of dead and fallen trees.  Of course, those trees serve their purpose too.  Pileated Woodpeckers seem to like them for all the insects that call the decaying tree home.

Pileated WoodpeckerPileated WoodpeckerMale

This is a scene along Hyatt Lane.  Historically, I don't make a lot of landscape images.  I'd like to change that.  Improvement can only come with practice so I planned to get a lot of practice this week.  Normally, I would have skipped making this image but the clouds made the scene more interesting.  Of course, in order to show depth and size of the mountains, I needed to include something in the foreground.  Since there weren't any trees along this portion of the road, this row of fence posts had to do.  All my landscape photos were made this week by applying a technique called "Focus Bracketing".  The image is actually several images with various focus points combined in Photoshop.  The final result is an image that is in focus throughout the scene.  Very similar to how our eyes see it.

Cades Cove, GSMNPCades Cove, GSMNP


There are a lot of Wild Turkey in Cades Cove.  Lucky for us, their courting season was beginning.  We saw several strutting Gobblers all week but on this day, Tom and I spent about 45 minutes with this guy who was strutting around like he was the boss.  Guess what!  He was! 

Wild TurkeyWild Turkey


Caught in mid-gobble.
Wild TurkeyWild Turkey


One item I wish we had with us was walkie talkies.  There is no cell phone reception in Cades Cove so we didn't have any means to communicate with Jake and Luke in the other vehicle.  If we would see anything interesting, we had to wait until we crossed paths to share what we found.

Case in point, it was still before noon on this Sunday when a lady from Alabama shared the location of a Pileated Woodpecker nesting cavity.  I knew Jake would like to see that and Luke doesn't have Pileated Woodpeckers in Colorado so he would definitely be interested.  Finally, right around lunchtime, they met up with Tom and I as we exited the woods after a fruitless search for bear.  We shared the nest location which happened to be close by.

This is the female Pileated Woodpecker looking out of the cavity they recently built.

Pileated WoodpeckerPileated WoodpeckerMale

The woodpecker nest was near the Primitive Baptist Church that was built in 1887.  From within the unpainted walls of the structure came the smooth gospel sounds of what sounded like a violin.

This piqued my interest so I entered the church.  Inside, I found Charlie Closz playing a bowed psaltery.  He asked if I had any requests and I said "Anything as long as it isn't The Doors".  He said "You won't hear The Doors in here."

I wish I had shot video of him playing but other people were coming and going and making a lot of noise.

Charlie is also a Civil War reenactor.


Since the guys were all together, we decided to follow some tips of bear locations.  Tom and I explored one location in the morning but didn't go all the way into the valley.  We all decided to go there and take it to the next level.  We walked through the forest, past where Tom and I turned around earlier in the day, and ended up near a meadow with lush grasses.  Finally, we saw our first bear.  It was a female, called a sow, with three cubs.  For as large as a Black Bear is, I'm telling you they can hide very well.  This one was laying down in a dense thicket with her three cubs and was nearly impossible to see.

Now that we are onto the subject of bear,  I need to make something very clear for the remainder of this photo essay.  We were not too close.  Approaching or disturbing a bear from within 50 yards is illegal in the park and we obeyed the rule as best as possible.  Bears tend to wander as they eat so if one narrowed the distance, we picked up our equipment and backed away.

I was photographing with a Canon R5 45mp camera.  Attached to that camera was a Canon 600 EF II lens.  That lens is equivalent to a 12x binocular and if you add in the camera's 45mp sensor, it creates images that can be cropped significantly.  

After sitting on a log for what felt like hours, the sow, still hidden in the dense thicket, got up and walked down the hill into a small clearing to eat. Not long after, her three cubs followed.  Black Bears are omnivorous, meaning they will eat a variety of things, including both plants and meat. Their diet includes roots, berries, meat, fish, insects, larvae, grass, and other succulent plants.  This is a brief moment when she looked up from eating grass.

Black BearBlack Bear


While mom ate grass in the meadow, one of her little cubs showed off its climbing skills.  Maybe to get a better look at us.

Black BearBlack Bear


The cubs were playing a lot but not out in the open as we hoped.  The grass was nearly taller than they were.  In the next photo, mom paused a minute to scratch her back on a tree.  You can see one of her cubs in the grass behind her.

Black BearBlack Bear


Then it was time to continue eating.

Black BearBlack Bear


Darkness was falling and we were trying to decide the best way out of there and back to our vehicles.  Once again, momma grabbed a hold of a tree and began shifting her body up and down.  She must have had a really itchy back.  She gave us one last show before taking her cubs and heading into the forest.

Black BearBlack Bear


I can honestly say, I've done this before.  I'm sure I don't look as good doing it though.

Black BearBlack Bear


Before disappearing into the thicket, mom climbed about 10 feet up a tree and placed some deep scratch marks in the bark.  It was a dead tree and I think she was looking for grubs or other larvae.  The bark didn't peel off easily and she climbed down.  You can see her marks in the photo below.

Black BearBlack Bear

With mom and the cubs back up in the thicker woods, we were able to retrace our path back to the vehicles.  That wraps up our first day in Cades Cove.  We had a great bear encounter and everything else we saw this week would be a bonus.  


Monday, April 26, 2021

Each morning, during our first loop around the cove, we watched as the rising sun burned off the fog that formed overnight.  This scene is on the second half of the loop where the Cades Cove Loop Road and Hyatt Lane meet.  Just about every day we saw groups of people photographing this large oak tree.  I really liked this scene because of the glow of the sun lighting up the fog.

The banner photo at the start of this essay is a cropped version of this image.

Cades Cove, GSMNPCades Cove, GSMNP


It was very noisy in and around the woods in Cades Cove.  The songbirds were loving life and letting everyone know.  The "Squeaky Wheel" sound of the Black-and-white Warbler is unmistakable.

Black-and-white WarblerBlack-and-white Warbler


Other noise makers were Ovenbirds, woodpeckers, Hooded Warblers and chatty little squirrels like this Eastern Gray Squirrel.

Eastern Gray SquirrelEastern Gray Squirrel


We decided to spend some time this morning photographing some of the historical structures in the park.

First up is the John Oliver Cabin.  It is the first historical structure on the loop.  The following text was written by local experts at I couldn't have said it better.

"John and Lucretia Oliver, the original owners of the cabin, were the first permanent white settlers in Cades Cove. When they moved to Cades Cove in the 1820s, the only road into the cove was a primitive trail and there was not a working grist mill.

In the absence of a grist mill, the Olivers had to beat corn into cornmeal using only a mortar and pestle. During the early years, Lucretia feared she would starve to death.

Now, the Oliver cabin is one of the most visited historical structures in the National Park. The cabin is held together by gravity and notched corners – it does not need pegs or nails to hold it together.

Although the National Park Service eventually took control of the structure, it was one of the last historical structures to be vacated. The cabin remained in the Oliver family for over 100 years!"


Next stop is the Dan Lawson Place.  It is located on the second half of the loop where Cades Cove Loop Road meets Hyatt Lane. Here is more information directly from

"The Dan Lawson Place, which was originally constructed in 1856, is a transitional piece of architecture – the home features both sawn lumber and hewn logs. In addition, the pioneer cabin featured a modern chimney made out of bricks.

The property where the cabin is built was originally owned by Peter Cable, Dan’s father-in-law. Due to the quality of the carpentry and workmanship, most historians believe that Peter Cable helped Dan build the homestead. The property had a corn crib and smokehouse on site as well.

Over the years, Lawson expanded both his land holdings and his residence. By the time of his death, the cabin had been expanded to have a large porch and an additional second story. Lawson’s land eventually stretched from ridge to ridge!

One interesting fact about this cabin – it functioned as a post office for Cades Cove! The large, covered porch was used as a post office that Dan ran from his house."

Cades Cove, GSMNPCades Cove, GSMNP


Further down the road is the Tipton Place.  The following text from talks about the homestead and other structures on the property.  My photograph below does not include the home.

"The Tipton Place homestead was initially settled by Revolutionary War Veteran William “Fighting Billy” Tipton in the 1820s. He was able to procure the land under the Tennessee Land Grant program.

The two-story cabin that remains on the property was initially constructed by Fighting Billy’s relative and Civil War Veteran Colonel Hamp Tipton. He built the large cabin in the early 1870s.

The homestead was complete with a large, two-story cabin, double-pen corn crib, old-fashioned bee gums, blacksmith shop, and a cantilever barn.

The cantilever barn was built in 1968 and is a replica of the original. This type of barn, which was common in the 1800s, allowed a wagon to pull through and unload hay or feed for the livestock. In addition, the two pen design with the large, overhanging eaves provided protection for animals and equipment.

In addition to the land this homestead is on, Fighting Billy was able to secure multiple other land grants and was a dominant land speculator in Cades Cove. After taking ownership of the land, he then convinced friends and acquaintances to purchase the land from him at a handsome profit."

Cades Cove, GSMNPCades Cove, GSMNP


Okay, back to our search for wildlife.  We spent a lot of time walking but sometimes we'd just stop and enjoy whatever came around us.  I saw a couple Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitting around the trees so I watched them for several minutes before one sat down to pull nesting material from plants.

Blue-gray GnatcatcherBlue-gray Gnatcatcher
The weather was turning a lot warmer today and the forecast for the next two days was 87 degrees and sunny.  Not necessarily what we wanted.  I would have taken rain over 87 and sunny any day.  

Tom and I left Cades Cove for a few hours to have lunch at Apple Valley Mountain Village in Townsend.  It's a nice tourist attraction with a General Store, Coffee House, and Cafe.  We definitely enjoyed kicking back for lunch and beating the heat.

About 4:00 we met up with Jake and Luke back in Cades Cove.  We decided to go back to where we were the night before and look for the sow with three cubs.   We didn't find them.  So, we all split up in the valley and watched all around us.  

I saw a lone yearling come off the opposite hillside but he didn't stick around long.

Eventually, we saw a really big sow with four cubs.  She was feeding near a huge oak tree in a field of saplings and raspberry vines and other vegetation in the 3 to 5 foot high range.  Now, if I were a bear cub, I would want to climb that tree.  It was huge with a wide spread of thick limbs.  To the bear cubs, the oak tree wasn't as attractive as an old dried up creek bed.  They spent most of the evening crawling around in the creek bed and we barely saw them.  Mom was moving around while eating and sometimes she would go into openings but all the vegetation made it too difficult to make any photos without obstruction.  I only kept two photos from that evening.  The next photo is one of them.  I only used it here to show the obstructions we had to deal with.

Black BearBlack Bear


After spending a couple hours watching this family, mom gathered up the four little ones and headed into thick stands of saplings and bushes.  She probably wanted to feed the cubs and bed down for the night.  

The end of the day was upon us once again.  By the time we got back to our vehicles and drove back to Townsend, it was nearly 9:00.

Thank you for reading part one of my story.

If you would like to go directly to part two, click this link for My Cades Cove Experience Part Two.



Pat Connolly(non-registered)
Beautiful photography and narratives, Dan. Thank you for sharing your talent and knowledge with us.
Kevin Kuntz(non-registered)
Great photos Dan, they are beautiful!!
Maryellen Walter(non-registered)
Beautiful pictures and what a great place!
Bobbie Rochow(non-registered)
Really interesting to read it all! I think my favorite shot is the second back scratch of Mama bear on the tree.
Donna Mohney(non-registered)
Enjoyed this one, Dan. Love to read the story as I look at the pictures. It's almost like being there!
No comments posted.

January February (1) March (1) April May June (1) July August (1) September October November December (1)
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June (3) July (5) August (5) September (1) October November (1) December
January (1) February March April May June (4) July August September October (1) November (2) December (1)
January February March April May June (1) July (1) August September October November December (1)
January (1) February March (1) April May June (1) July (3) August September October (1) November December
January (1) February March April May June July August September October November December