Rich Mountain Loop in Cades Cove Is Great Winter Smokies Hike

January 21, 2015

By Holly Jones, Director of Community Outreach and Strategy

The wildly popular mountain valley of Cades Cove inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great winter hiking launch point because fewer park visitors and locals choose to motor around the famous eleven mile, one-way road even on the weekends.

Perhaps this is because odds are less that folks will catch a glimpse of black bears since they are enjoying their seasonal snoozes; viewing and photographing wildlife is one of the primary reasons that people choose Cades Cove as a destination when visiting the Smokies.

At a round trip distance of 8.5 miles, the Rich Mountain Loop is a moderately challenging dayhike. For our trip, my husband and I allotted 4 hours for the actual hiking, an hour’s drive each way from Sevierville to Cades Cove, and about 30 minutes for lunch. We know that we average 2 miles of trail per hour.

Trail distance and hours of daylight are always factors to consider with winter hiking, so it never hurts to pad the schedule a bit for the unexpected. Getting a jump on the day can be a good idea, but makes for a chilly start. I tend to dress in too many layers and end up carrying what I shed in my pack for the majority of the trip.

We parked our car close to the orientation shelter near the start of the Cades Cove Loop Road and walked about 75 feet to where the trail begins, just off the right side of the one-way Cades Cove Loop Road. (I wish we’d taken a picture of that; actually I wish we’d taken more pictures in general!)

With no leaves on the trees, even in the understory, at the beginning of our hike we could see cars pulled over on the Loop Road, so we knew wildlife was present in the first big meadow we passed on our left. There were deer out grazing on a “double date”- two large bucks each with a doe.

Rich Mountain Loop Trail sign
This sign sits at the intersection of Rich Mountain Loop Trail and Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. The top of the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail sign is visible at lower right.

Quickly we reached the intersection of Crooked Arm Ridge Trail, and we had a choice to make.


Going left and staying on the Rich Mountain Loop Trail means hiking the circuit in a clockwise direction. Resources I consulted (the book Hiking Trails of the Smokies and the website hikinginthesmokys.com) described the hike from that direction. Anecdotally we were told by other hikers along the way that it is the less-steep route.

We chose to go right at the intersection, so we went up Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. This trail gains about 1500′ of elevation in a bit over 2 miles. The Rich Mountain Loop hike overall gains about 1700′ of elevation, so we got nearly all of the climbing out of the way in the first half of the hike.

Rich Mountain Loop

There were numerous places to pause for a breather. There’s a really nice cascade that we came upon almost immediately, and it made for a good spot to shed a layer. We found several overlooks where we could see the valley floor of Cades Cove spreading out below like a diorama. In contrast to the sparse vegetation of the lower elevation hardwoods, the rhododendron, hemlocks, pines, and ground level mosses made this a very lush, green climb up Crooked Arm Ridge. I also recall a stream crossing or two, so I was glad for my trekking pole (I only use one rather than the more customary pair).

At the junction of Indian Grave Gap Trail, we headed left. (Going right will take you down Scott Mountain Trail, which is open to campsite #6. The rest of the trail remains closed due to downed trees from a severe storm a few years ago; the drive between Townsend and Cades Cove hints at the destruction that must lie within the closure. Hundreds of fallen trees litter the hillsides along Laurel Creek Road.)

We climbed Indian Grave Gap Trail to what’s known as Cerulean Knob. A noticeable side trail leads up top where we enjoyed our picnic lunch, sitting on concrete pillars that used to anchor the Rich Mountain Fire Tower. Since I hadn’t yet made a New Year’s resolution, I decided right there on that spot that I want to eat more peanut butter sandwiches in the forest this year.

After lunch, we began going blessedly downhill. At the intersection with Rich Mountain Trail, we headed left on the Rich Mountain Loop Trail to complete our dayhike. It might be good to mention here once again that we did this loop backwards of everything else I’ve read about the Rich Mountain Loop.

We descended toward the John Oliver cabin and encountered several more stream crossings on our trek. None of them were challenging despite several previous days’ rainshowers, but the rocks can always be slippery and unstable. The John Oliver cabin makes a terrific afternoon snack stop, and is a situated in a picturesque corner of Cades Cove.

Billy Jones at the John Oliver Cabin
My husband, Billy, on the porch of the John Oliver Cabin

The final 1.4 mile leg back to the car rolled along dry and durable trail which reminded me of an urban greenway. This short section would make an excellent beginning point place for newbie trail runners.

The Rich Mountain Loop was a terrific winter dayhike, offering excellent views and very little traffic.

Total Time On Trail – 5 hours with a lunch break and a stop at the John Oliver Cabin

Highlights of This Hike – Cades Cove views; John Oliver Cabin; Crooked Arm cascade; Cerulean Knob

Date of Hike – January 10, 2015

Essential Gear for This Hike – A half-dozen stream crossings made trekking poles a necessity for us

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