Trail Ride With Kids at Cades Cove Riding Stables

I hadn’t ridden a horse in fifteen years, but my daughter and I love them, so we wanted to try a family trail ride during our vacation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are many stables in the area, but the most convenient was only a two-minute bike ride from our campsite: Cades Cove Riding Stables.

We arrived around 10:00 a.m. to inquire about making a reservation. It turned out to be a first come, first served operation, and we were able to get on our horses in about fifteen minutes.

First, we went inside the office to fill out liability waivers, pay and select helmets that fit. Helmets are optional for those over age 16, but I feel strongly about safety, and we have a friend who got badly injured when her horse got spooked a few years ago, so we all wore them. I was hoping we could just wear our bike helmets, but they wouldn’t allow that.

This trail ride was a splurge for us at $30/person. The price seems to be in line with other stables in the area, but some of the other stables allow “doubling up” for young riders with an adult at an additional cost of only $10. My kids did great riding on their own, though. Plus, we wanted to stay in the “national park bubble” and avoid driving 25-45 minutes.

What we did not consider ahead of time is that tipping is expected, so we were glad we had some extra cash on hand for our amazing guide, Debbie. We were really unsure what an appropriate tip would be and would have loved to Google some advice, but there’s no cell service available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I have since learned from various online sources that 15% of the price of an excursion is considered appropriate for trip guides.

Our riding group consisted of the five of us and another family of four. Before the ride started, we lined up on a raised deck that made mounting the horses very easy. Debbie and several of her associates adjusted our stirrups and went over some basic instructions on how to ride Western.

I’ve been on trail rides that required no horse handling skills whatsoever. This one was a little more mentally stimulating! The horses knew the route, but knowing how to use the reins and being authoritative in setting the pace was important.

Debbie did a great job reiterating the instructions on using the reins and coaching us on how to handle our horses. Each horse had its own personality and bad habits, whether stopping to eat plants or going off-trail to avoid mud. Personally, I appreciated that we got some skill practice in, but I understand now why they have the age requirement of 6 years and older. They don’t check birth certificates or anything like that. Read “About Us” to see whether we followed the rules.

Unfortunately, our two sons’ horses did not get along. While stopped to arrange a group picture, Noah’s horse bit Joshua’s in the rear end, and Josh’s horse reared up on its hind legs and ran off the trail. One of the other family’s horses didn’t like keeping pace with the rest of us.

The entire ride was through the woods. We crossed a creek and the Loop Road twice, but otherwise, we were riding single-file on a path through the woods. While we enjoyed the shade and pleasant temperature, this ride would not be for someone seeking a variety of views.

The ride lasted at least an hour. We were glad we hit the bathroom beforehand! Backpacks are not allowed, so we were lucky that Andy wore pants with roomy zippered pockets for our wallets and cell phones. I did wear my camera around my neck, but I’m not sure whether I was supposed to. Also, I highly recommend using insect repellent. We used this one (affiliate link) and it worked great and felt nice on our skin, so I’m buying a half-gallon (affiliate link) refill of the lotion.

The trail ride at Cades Cove was a wonderful experience for us! If you have any questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you.

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Biking the Cades Cove Loop Road with Kids

We’ve come to enjoy cycling as a family, and one reason we chose to camp at Cades Cove was so that we could ride the eleven-mile paved Cades Cove Loop Road without traffic. The loop road is closed to motorists Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10:00 a.m. during the tourist season, May through September.  We were lucky: the weather allowed us to do the ride both car-free mornings!

We brought our own bikes, but the Cades Cove Trading Company runs a bike rental shop that opens early on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. The cost was $7.50/hour for adults and $4.50/hour for kids, and helmets are included. They have mostly cruiser-style bikes and some hybrids, and they were all brand new when we were there! You can read more about their bike selection here. Based on my own kids’ bike sizes, I’d say if your kid is 4 or older and can ride on their own, you could rent a bike here that fits them.

Although we didn’t rent from them, I can tell you the employees were very nice. They allowed us to use their good tire pump to top off our tires after I had broken my own.

Since Wednesday was our first morning at the campground, it took us longer than expected to get on the road – we had to make sure our helmets were properly adjusted, fill everyone’s water bottles, pack our saddlebags with a pump, CO2 inflator, tools, snacks, etc. It was well after 9:00 a.m. when we started, but we got almost all the way around the loop without being passed by cars because the speed limit is 20 mph and rangers drive through first, at or under the speed limit.

Signs direct cyclists and pedestrians to a shortcut to enter the loop road, and it’s a rocky dirt path up a steep hill. On car-free mornings, it might be easier to ride on the road rather than take the shortcut.

Once you’re on the loop road, you’ll see horses grazing, beautiful views of fields and the surrounding mountains, and lots of churches and houses from the 1800s. You can tour the houses; some are right on the loop road, and others are a short hike. Make sure to park your bike by the road or in the parking lots; we were scolded for walking our bikes on the path to one house.

I’ll be honest: the Wednesday ride was difficult for us. There were some steep climbs that left our hearts pounding and legs screaming, and we were really hot and drank every ounce of the water we brought. We didn’t check our tire pressure before setting off, and found out later that almost all of them were under their minimum recommended pressure. Oops! Saturday’s ride was much better.

There are a couple of shortcuts across the loop on dirt roads if 11 miles is too far. The loop is one-way only, and it is strictly enforced, so there’s no turning back.

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The hills seemed particularly difficult because I was towing Selah on her own bike using our FollowMe Tandem connector. She can ride on her own, but climbing hills is tough for her and she doesn’t like going downhill fast.  I love that I can hook up her bike when she needs help and release her when she doesn’t.

Andy gave Josh a boost up the large hills using the BikeToad bungee connector. This kind of ride was perfect for that; we would not use it in traffic.

We ran into many other like-minded families biking the loop road – it was a gearhead’s paradise! We exchanged mini-reviews of our bike gear after catching our breath atop the hills, and many of us took notes. Some of the “biking with kids” gear we saw making it all the way around the loop were the Weehoo single AND double, the WeeRide Kangaroo seat (which we loved when Selah was a toddler), the iBert, and a few trailers. RESPECT! What a workout!

The Abrams Falls trailhead and Cades Cove Visitor Center are about halfway around the loop. Both are worth a stop at some point – our family definitely did not have the stamina for both the bike ride and the hike on the same day!

At the Visitor Center there are bathrooms, a souvenir shop, a working grist mill (you can buy bags of flour!), a couple barns, a wild boar trap, and some houses.

As you make your way around the loop, you are sure to see some wildlife! We saw a total of six bears, a coyote and too many deer to count during our rides. It is absolutely imperative that you keep your children close to you and teach them how to behave around wildlife! A huge, beautiful bear emerged from the forest and walked very close to us when we were exploring a barn.


My hands were shaking and I couldn’t figure out my camera quickly enough, but that dark spot in the photo here is a mama bear and two cubs!

When we finally finished the loop road ride, we were drenched in sweat and famished – but very proud of ourselves! We ate ice cream cones at the Cades Cove Trading Company, and began our quest to find a shower.

I would love to answer any questions you have, or hear about your own adventures on the Cades Cove Loop Road!

Check out some of the other things we did on this trip – our horseback ride, hikes and swimming, camping, and excursions into Townsend, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge!

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Complete DIY Camping Bathroom Setup

Alternative Title: Smells Like Family Spirit.

When we camped at Cades Cove in the Smokies last month, there were no showers. We knew this, and had budgeted $10/night for pay showers that were supposed to be available nearby, but the list that the rangers gave us of these alleged locations was completely outdated. It’s not their fault that businesses have changed their policy, but the fact remained that we couldn’t find a single place that actually offered showers!

This could have been a big problem.

We hiked, biked, and rode horses. We were staying for five nights. It was 80-some degrees and humid. All five of us slept in one tent one rainy night.

We have a teenage boy.

I’m not a hardcore type of camper; I like to wash the dirt, sweat, bugspray and sunscreen off before bed. We had sixteen nights booked at national park campgrounds coming up this summer, and I wasn’t taking any chances with basic hygiene!  I designed my own complete camp shower setup using components that fold flat when not in use!

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The components are a pop up privacy tent, a Nemo Helio Pressure Shower*, a silicone funnel, a pop-up gardening bin, and a bucket.

Here’s how the shower looks when set up:

The blue thing is just a nylon tarp we had that we stand on afterward.

When you pack up camp, everything except the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower fits into the bag that the privacy tent came in, making a disc two-feet in diameter and four inches thick.

And here’s the procedure for taking a hot shower:

1) Fill the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower tank two-thirds full with water from the spigot or dishwashing sink (not river water, unless you filter it, otherwise it may clog).  It’ll warm up to the ambient temperature if given time; if not, no problem, it’ll just require hotter water in the next step.

2) Next, heat a pot of water.  Our large cook pot has a 1 gallon capacity, and I don’t quite fill it. It doesn’t need to boil, but should be too hot to touch.

3) Carefully pour the hot water into the pressure shower using the silicone funnel. (We wear our BBQ gloves from our camp kitchen box to avoid splash burns!)

4) Pressurize the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower using the foot pump until you feel a firm resistance.

5) Make sure your privacy tent is staked down… you definitely don’t want it to blow away while you’re in there.  Ask me how I know!

Just kidding.

6) Pop open the gardening bin and put it in the privacy tent.  Stand in the gardening bin, hang on to the showerhead (which is like a kitchen sprayer) and wash away the camping grime!

Sounds like a lot of work, right? My husband thought so, too, but when we couldn’t find a place to take a regular shower, he was happy we had this setup.  I was pretty pleased with myself.

All five of us can take a military-style shower with one fill of the tank (not counting washing my long hair… I mostly skipped that).

Don’t forget to pack a towel – here’s how we label them.

Here’s an extra tip: if it’s dark out, don’t hang a light inside the privacy tent, because it will cast anatomically accurate shadows on the walls for your neighbors’ entertainment.  Instead, put two lights or citronella candles on the outside of the tent, on opposite sides, and enjoy the soft glow.

After each family member showers, we transfer the dirty water to the yellow bucket, and dump it according to the campground regulations (typically, there is a dishwashing sink or graywater pit) and Leave No Trace ethics.

Speaking of LNT…  Looking around the campground, I noticed that everyone had a good grasp on the basics.  Food was stored properly, sites were kept tidy.

The bathrooms, though?  (It’s not the campground managers’ fault; they clean them, but by the middle of the weekend, they’re usually a mess.) I’ll spare you the description and leave it at this: The idea of my kids dropping their pajama pants to the ground while using the bathroom and then sleeping in them gives me hives. I repeat, I’m not hardcore! I just wish campers would Leave No Trace in the bathrooms!

So, I made another purchase to add to our DIY Camp Bathroom: a potty.  I bought both the Turbo Toilet (the blue one in pictures below) and Reliance Hassock, compared the two, took a bunch of pictures, and returned one (unused!).

When not in use, the Turbo Toilet packs down very small, and the Reliance Hassock does not, but is sturdy enough be used as a seat.

When deployed, the Turbo Toilet is much shorter than the Reliance Hassock.  The Turbo Toilet is just under 10″ tall.

As you can see, the shape is a little different.

The Reliance Hassock has an insert that goes on over the seat and under the lid that stores a roll of toilet paper.  Also, see how the Reliance has a seat over the black plastic bag?  The Turbo Toilet does not.

Both potties are to be used with a Double Doodie Bag or equivalent, as shown in the two photos above.  These are double-layer bags with gel powder in them that solidifies up to two quarts of liquids and supposedly breaks down solid waste, with no smell or spillage.  You throw the bags into the trash. I’m not sure how environmentally friendly these bags are, but we will be using them only when the other options are unsanitary or nonexistent.

In terms of cost, at the time I purchased them, the Reliance Hassock was priced lower than the Turbo Toilet.  The actual cost of the potties alone is almost exactly equal, because the Turbo Toilet comes with 12 gel bags, which you would have to buy separately for the Reliance Hassock.

You just read over a thousand words on camping showers and toilets. High five! So, do you think you’ll give my shower setup a try, or do you have something better? Which camping potty do you think I chose? Which one would YOU choose?

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Camping at Cades Cove – Campground Review

Last month, we took a long overdue family vacation; it had been over a year since our last trip. All of last summer’s vacation time and funds were used for moving halfway across the country. It was totally worth the sacrifice, though, as we love our new home, and it made this trip seem extra sweet!

Living in a different part of the country means that many new places are accessible to us by car. We fly every once in awhile, but the cost of five plane tickets and a rental car reduces the amount of fun activities we can afford. When we realized that Great Smoky Mountains National Park was only a six-hour drive, it rose to the top of our list. Initially, we thought of combining this trip with a visit to Mammoth Cave National Park, but we decided to save that for a long weekend later this summer.

Whenever we visit a National Park, we like to camp inside its boundaries. This allows us to experience the beauty of the park in its quiet morning and evening hours, without outside tourists. These campgrounds tend to attract respectful campers, in our experience, and the restrooms are typically clean. One thing to note is that most National Park campgrounds lack shower facilities, but there are usually businesses just outside the parks that provide showers for a fee. The park ranger stations can usually provide a list. If not, there are ways to keep clean that I’ll discuss in another post.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has ten developed campgrounds (with running water and flush toilets), but we knew we wanted to be on the western side for this trip so we could do some “civilized” sightseeing in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Both Cades Cove and Elkmont campgrounds have excellent reviews on various online forums, both are near trailheads for hikes, and neither have showers. I’m sure Elkmont is a wonderful place, but we decided on Cades Cove based on its bike-friendliness, historic sites on the loop road, and the possibility of a trail ride at the Cades Cove Riding Stables.

We booked five nights, arriving Tuesday and departing Sunday, so as to take advantage of the car-free hours on the Cades Cove Loop Road on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. We reserved site C-44 after looking at the available sites on, and it turned out to be a great location. We were equidistant from the camp store and one of the restrooms, and had a large, wooded parcel of land on one side. Like most sites in Cades Cove, there was a gravel driveway and a sandy, level tent pad (some sites have a paved driveway, and designated trailer sites may not provide a tent pad).

All sites have a fire pit with a flip-down grill grate, as well as a picnic table. The picnic tables are bolted down to cement pads, so they can not be moved, but do provide a level eating area.

The only bothersome thing about our site was the noise on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Many vehicles parked in the camp store parking lot so that their passengers could take advantage of walking or biking the loop road without vehicle traffic. RVs idled in the lot starting around 6 a.m., and I think some of them may even have been running their generators. We wanted to wake up early to get out on our bikes, but would have preferred to do so in peace.

The wooded area next to us provided some interesting wildlife encounters. We saw two owls and one coyote from our campsite, and one night, around 1:00 a.m., there was a terrifying commotion in the woods. We heard snarling, whimpering, and thrashing in the brush. One animal clearly killed another, but we couldn’t determine what species were involved. Our fear that the animals would come crashing into our campsite made the struggle seem to last a long time, but in reality it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes long.

While we didn’t see any bears in the campground ourselves, we heard from other campers that some had sauntered right through their campsite while they were cooking dinner! These folks weren’t doing anything wrong, but it illustrates why there are strict rules regarding food in bear country. Campers are required to keep a clean campsite, with all food, cooking equipment and even scented candles stored inside a vehicle when not actively using them. I saw only one bear-proof locker, and it was between two hike-in sites.

A dishwashing sink is provided behind each restroom. I meant to take a picture, but forgot; they look like a laundry/utility sink. I often see people washing dishes in the restroom sinks or under the water spigots, and I suspect it’s because the campgrounds’ dishwashing sinks are not well-advertised. There was no hot water, so I opted to heat water on a camp stove and wash dishes at our campsite, but we carried all the graywater to the dishwashing sink afterward.

You don’t necessarily need to cook or eat at your campsite in Cades Cove, because the Cades Cove Trading Company provides prepared food, as well as groceries, camping supplies, souvenirs and bike rentals. If I had known how good the food would look, I would have packed a smaller cooler. The prices and selection were impressive.

Before we went, I knew there was a store but had no idea what the selection would be like, so I wanted to be sure to document it on my blog. I felt strange taking pictures in the store, though, so I snapped them very quickly, and not surprisingly, they aren’t very good! You can order food at the counter and serve yourself coffee or tea…

Or grab groceries from one of their refrigerated cases…

You can buy bundled firewood – $5 for logs, $6 for kindling – and bags of ice, which were around $3, if I remember correctly.

And if you’ve just completed a hike, or biked the 11-mile loop road, are recovering after riding a horse or just realized that there are no showers, you deserve an ice cream cone! No pictures because there wasn’t time; it’s soft-serve.

Check out all the supplies they have. Fans were really popular! We got so sweaty in the Tennessee heat that we imagined ourselves acting in the movie A Time to Kill.

There were also tons of souvenirs.

If you arrive before or after store hours, there are vending machines under a shelter.

If you’re like me and love getting weather updates, try your luck at the camp store. Wifi is not available, but the employees at the cash register have a computer and some of them will let you know the detailed forecast for the hours ahead. Others are less helpful; one just shrugged and told me to expect a thunderstorm every afternoon that time of year. Actually, that might have been the most accurate forecast!

Other than showers, the only thing we missed was cell service. If you are staying in Cades Cove and want to use your phone, the nearest place to do so is the tiny town of Townsend, Tennessee, (say that five times!) twenty minutes from the campground.

Overall, Cades Cove was a great basecamp for us to explore the Smokies, and at only $20/night for the campsite, we were able to divert our funds to some great activities. Check back soon if you’re interested in reading about our trail ride, hiking to Abrams Falls and Clingmans Dome, swimming in a creek, biking the Cades Cove Loop Road, exploring Tuckaleechee Caverns, riding an Alpine Coaster, visiting Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and find out how we finally got a shower.

Do you have questions or stories about visiting Cades Cove? Let me know in the comment section!