TOWNSEND, Tenn. — Nineteenth-century farms, black bears and a pastoral landscape surrounded by the Appalachian mountains have made picturesque Cades Cove the most popular destination in the country's most-visited national park.
More than 2 million visitors a year flock to this 6,500-acre valley at the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, making it one of the most heavily used park areas anywhere in the United States.
"You have great scenery, great nature and great history. It's got the combination there," said Dianne Flaugh, the park's landscape architect.
But with sightseers comes traffic congestion, particularly during summer vacation and right on through autumn, when visitors flock to see the brilliant colors of the leaves.
Up to 4,450 vehicles a day take the narrow, one-way, one-lane road that loops 11 miles around the cove.
Forget the 20 mph speed limit, it's a backwoods gridlock every time someone pauses to ogle a deer or photograph a bear. Campers and cars are lined up bumper to bumper, occupants breathing in the exhaust.
The Park Service cautions the loop road trip can take three to four hours during these busy times. "EXPECT DELAYS!" says the park Web site.
With traffic volume roughly doubling every decade since the 1970s to more than 563,000 vehicles a year, the park is now considering ways to cut, not just cope, with congestion in Cades Cove.
Five suggested alternative approaches take progressively stronger actions, from adding warning signs for "bear jams ahead" and more roadside pull-offs, to creating a shuttle service or limiting access during peak periods.
"I am perfectly happy that people want to come and spend three or four hours in Cades Cove," Flaugh said. "But I think it ought to be spent doing something more enjoyable than watching the red brake lights of the car in front of them."
Consultants surveyed nearly 900 Smokies visitors in July as part of a $1.3 million study on the Cades Cove experience. The results, still being compiled, will lead to a round of public meetings next summer and final recommendations in 2008.
Melanie Simon of ORCA Consulting in Clermont, Fla., headed the survey work, which interviewed visitors entering the cove, those leaving the cove and those who stopped at other park locations.
By and large, visitors love the cove and had to be drawn out to find something to complain about, she said.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the best, virtually every person leaving the cove rated the experience an 8, 9 or 10, she said. "Now there are some complaints about traffic, but generally people seem to be willing to put up with that," Simon said.
The biggest issue for many was restricting access. Most are opposed.
Congress stipulated in creating the Smokies in the 1930s that it was the people's park and would never have an admission fee. The Smokies is now one of the few major national parks where the public still can enter for free, although fees are charged for such things as backcountry campground reservations.
Visitors were asked whether it was more important to be able to come to Cades Cove whenever they want or when there were fewer crowds. "The majority were saying come whenever we want," Simon said.
Not every visitor who approached the survey-takers decided to enter the cove, Simon said. Some turned around after they found out how long the trip could take or saw pictures of the traffic they could face.
But these tentative conclusions sound similar to the results of another Cades Cove visitor survey taken in 1998. That survey found that "amazingly enough — well, no, it is not amazing — people love the park so everybody is usually satisfied with their visit," Flaugh said.
"I've got a lot of mixed emotions about it," said visitor David Mills of Owensboro, Ky., as he prepared recently to take his family, sitting in lawn chairs in the bed of his Ford pickup, on their annual drive through the cove.
"Some of us like to bicycle ride (through the cove) and some of us like to ride in the truck. But that bumper-to-bumper traffic doesn't work, either. So they ought to do something," he said.