TO THE TRAILHEAD: Head to the Cades Cove area. As you approach the one-way loop road, you will want to park in the parking area on your left. Do not pass the gate and enter the one-way loop road. The trailhead will be on the opposite side of the road near the gate.
THE HIKE: Rich Mountain Loop is one of the best and most overlooked hikes in the Smoky Mountains. While nearly everything else in Cades Cove is bustling with more people than it can handle, this serene trail offers views, cabins, and ample wildlife viewing in a moderately strenuous hike. As with any loop hike, you can either hike clockwise or counterclockwise. I prefer a clockwise hike given the unevenness of the trail going up and the trail conditions coming down (again, going clockwise). There are several trail crossings on this hike as there are on most loop hikes. Just watch the signs carefully.
Begin this 8.5 mile loop by starting the trail across the street from the parking area. At .04 mile, you will come to your first trail junction. You need to take a left onto Rich Mountain Loop Trail. For the next mile, you will be in close proximity to the road and the sounds of people in Cades Cove. You will reach your first milestone at 1.3 miles from where you began when you come to the John Oliver cabin. This is one of the oldest cabins in Cades Cove and has been very well maintained by the park service. You should definitely take the time and check it out if your time and legs permit.
Once you leave the cabin, most of the sounds and sight of people will disappear and you will notice a marked increase in the difficulty as you push uphill. Your next trail junction will be at 3.3 miles from where you began. You will take a RIGHT here onto Indian Grave Gap Trail. The steepness of the trail will continue until about 5 miles in, when you will begin coming down the mountain. Views of Cades Cove can be found in several places along the way as well as a couple of views into the quaint town of Townsend.
You will soon come to your next trail junction. At this junction you will need to stay on Indian Grave Gap Trail. If you take the Rich Mountain Trail, you will end up far from where you want to be and eventually come out at Rich Mountain Road. This can be a mistake easily made. It makes sense that you would take the Rich Mountain Trail when doing Rich Mountain Loop, but you DO NOT. Stay on Indian Grave Gap Trail until your next trail junction at the 6 mile mark.
At this point, turn right onto Crooked Arm Ridge Trail. You will definately hear the sound of water now. There is an often overlooked waterfall just off the trail. It is a small waterfall, but definitely worth the extra hundred steps to see. Your final junction brings you back to Rich Mountain Loop Trail. Take a right here to get back to the trailhead and parking lot and finish a thrilling, and exhausting, 8.5 mile moderate to strenuous hike in one of the best overlooked hikes in the park.
This hike gives you a great chance to see bears. Bears densely populate the Cades Cove area, and on a serene trail like Rich Mountain Loop, you have a high probability of seeing one.