"Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies. It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals are also possible." ~ NPS website
You wake up early. You either make coffee or grab the energy drink that you purchased the night before (like I do). You pack the car with your gear and you take off for sunrise. By the way, I'm talking about two hours before sunrise. Yeah, that early or that late depending on which way you look at it.
This is a wildlife photographer's park. Yes, there are stunning landscapes as well, but the real beauty lies within the diversity in wildlife that roam these grounds. Tip Number 1: BRING YOUR TELEPHOTO ZOOM lens if you have one. If you do not have one and plan on visiting the Cades Cove area while visiting GSMNP (Great Smoky Mountain National Park) I recommend borrowing one from a friend or one of the many awesome rental sites online. I have used Camera Lens Rentals and Borrow Lenses with great satisfaction.
I left two hours early on my journey from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The map shows it being really close to downtown Gatlinburg, but do not let that fool you! These are winding forest roads with plenty of wildlife to run out in front of your car. Keep the speed limit. I'm telling you to keep the speed limit so you should know that it's pretty serious. Here's the thing; we left early and made it there within 30 minutes until sunrise. BUT, the park doesn't open to auto traffic until sunrise so you will wait at the gate until a park guard opens the gate. Also, check with the official GSMNP website for days in which no automobile traffic is allowed.
This is historic Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
In terms of what to bring and where to shoot in Cades Cove; the opportunities are endless. I would bring a decent telephoto lens. Anywhere from 70-200mm all the way up to 600mm if you can afford that kind of lifestyle. The telephoto as I mentioned above is great for wildlife. If you make it there at sunrise you will see a bountiful of animals eating breakfast. Within the first five minutes of the loop road I had seen deer, horse (not wild), woodpeckers, and coyotes. I know Cades Cove is also a really good spot to see black bears. I did not see any when I was in Cades Cove, but I did see them elsewhere in the park.
Get your wide-angled lens ready. I came to Cades with the idea of shooting sunrise coming over the Smokies. The Cove has a bevvy of awesome prairies, roads, trees, and historic grounds to shoot. Sparks Lane is the most infamous road in the Smokies so be sure to stop there first. It's the first road you will come across once entering the park.
On the way in or on the way out thru the GSMNP there are plenty of places to pull off the road to shoot the countless streams and creeks. Even though I was beat from an early morning rise, drive, and shoot I made sure to stop at a few of the awesome creeks along the way. My wife took a nap in the car while I played in the streams with my camera.