Spring Break in the Smokies

Reflection of the mountains in Cades Cove

Last month we packed up our van, said goodbye to our two Golden Retrievers, and made our way to Wears Valley, Tennessee. For the second year in a row, we headed to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for spring break. This time it would be even more special with my parents meeting us there.

If you haven’t been to the Smokies before, you may have heard of Gatlinburg. It’s a popular tourist destination outside of the national park. Because we prefer a little more solitude and less people, we stayed on the “quiet side” in Wears Valley. The adjacent small town has an IGA for groceries and a few antique shops to fill a rainy day. Most importantly, we had great access to two entrances to the park.

Specifically, I was most interested in the entrance to Cades Cove. Cades Cove is a valley surrounded by picturesque mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies. If you’re lucky, you might spot wildlife like whitetail deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, and even black bears. So, of course, this was a top priority for me!

Each morning, my husband and my dad accompanied me through this eleven-mile, one-way loop in search of critters great and small. I got to spend dawn with some beautiful does feeding in the meadow and some large gobblers showing off for the ladies. One morning we saw a coyote strolling through the tall yellow grasses. Unfortunately, he was too far away for a photo, but I’ll take a coyote sighting any day!

After Cades Cove, we’d head home and stir the teenagers out of bed, feed everyone breakfast, and gear up for the rest of the day. Our first day included a visit to the Sinks and a hike up to Lynn Camp Prong Cascades, which is a gradual uphill climb along the Middle Prong River and is a big payoff in the end. The cascade is beautiful from below and then from a few enclaves at the top.

Our second full day was called our endurance day. We took the 2 1/2 hour journey to the other side of the park to visit the elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Elk were reintroduced into the valley in 2001 and now you can view the herd, which has grown to over 200.

At first, our search for elk came up empty-handed, so we got out our cooler and passed around our packed lunches while enjoying the sounds of the nearby creek. The valley isn’t just for elk. This picturesque setting also boasts historic buildings like two churches, a schoolhouse, homes, and some out buildings. It definitely takes you back in time.

After lunch we gave it one more try, and we spotted part of the elk herd along the tree line at the very end of the lane. This made the 2 1/2 hour drive worth it — along with a mama bear and three cubs sighting on the way home!

Another day we hiked down to Abrams Falls while my parents toured the historic mill in Cades Cove. The falls is considered the most voluminous in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and popular among hikers. The five-mile round trip hike was a little more elevation than I expected, but we did it!

From antique malls and general stores to hikes with family and suppers around the large table at night, the trip provided ample opportunity to make memories and forget about the world for a little while. I would call that a spring break success.

To view more of my photos from our Smoky Mountain trip, you can visit my Instagram here.
And to see the April issue of Explore magazine, download the PDF here:

Jen Ritchie

I'm a nature photographer who loves capturing beautiful landscapes and wildlife from our yearly trips out West and parks here closer to home.


  1. Tom Gross on June 5, 2022 at 1:32 pm

    Love your work. I recognize the Celery Bog in a couple of bird images and probably Prophetstown for a couple of deer.

    • Jen Ritchie on June 14, 2022 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks, Tom! Appreciate your comment. Yes, I’ve taken lots of bird photos at the bog. Most of the deer photos are from the Celery Bog, Tippecanoe County, the Smoky Mountains, or Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the deer at Prophetstown keep their distance from me : )

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