Tom Riley, a 70-year-old Townsend resident, is perhaps the only person to love the bear traffic jams at Cades Cove – the traffic jams that occur every time visitors spot a bear and lock the brakes to see better.
For one thing, he walks, not drives, so traffic jams have no real effect on him or his ability to get around.
But the real reason he welcomes interruptions is his outgoing nature, because Riley loves meeting people along his walk so much. With heads popping out of car windows and others poking out, it’s an opportunity to converse with people from all over the world. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is, after all, the most visited national park in the country.
And over the years, many visitors have noticed Riley as he rides the 11-mile Cades Cove loop. He started doing so in early 2015 and said he walked an average of 250 to 275 days that year. His record was 27 consecutive days of traversing the scenic terrain where one day he might end up watching several deer feeding in a field or spotting a mother bear and her cubs just passing by.
“Even though I’ve hiked the Cove, sometimes doing eight miles but usually the whole loop, at least 2,000 times, it’s still different out there,” Riley explained. “It’s so peaceful there when I start before the creek officially opens when I have it all to myself.”
The miles certainly piled up. Riley said he has now walked over 18,000 miles to Cades Cove and is just getting started. He estimates that he enjoys the beauty of nature along the loop at least 300 days a year.
“I tell people I want to be 101 and still walk, even if I’m on a walker,” he said.
Originally from West Virginia, Riley moved here about 10 years ago after a 21-year career in the United States Navy and later teaching history at Baylor University. He said he first went here in 1974 and he just couldn’t stay away.
He is in the park at least six days a week and is currently a volunteer who travels the creek with a park radio to report any incidents. Why not? He has certainly demonstrated that he can show up any day of the week, and early. He said he hiked the loop in snow, sleet, rain and hail.
It’s gotten to the point now that people recognize Riley despite never having met him; that’s the power of social media. But Riley admits he’s not the one posting — he’s not on Facebook or Instagram and only recently got a smartphone. It’s the people he meets who want to share Riley’s story.
“People want their picture taken with me,” Riley said, a little surprised at first. “I’m just the guy walking in the creek. A woman got out of her car and put her arm around me and said, ‘My sister is going to be so jealous.’
Riley had no idea who she was but willingly posed for the photo.
He describes himself as a sociable person. His wife still teaches at Baylor University, so she only lives here during the summers. Long Cades Cove walks are Riley’s social outings.
He’s not trying to set records for how long it takes him. Riley said he could usually do the tour in three and a half hours.
“On a good day, I say it takes me four to four and a half to five miles – that’s when I have a lot of people to talk to,” he explained. He’s over there with his backpack and the American flag attached.
Cades Cove under a full moon, with an early frost or packed with visitors on a wet July day – this outdoorsman has seen it all. He was chased away by rangers as the snow piled up. And he was invited to share breakfast by strangers who also like to get to know other nature lovers at dawn.
An elderly couple frequently visit the creek and, after spotting Riley through their car window, always hand him an apple. He said he was offered beer, wine and other refreshments. He gladly accepts.
His Navy travels took him to Spain, Guam, the entire East Coast, California and Washington. He said the town he grew up in in West Virginia had just 1,100 residents, so his career in the Navy provided an opportunity to see other beautiful places.
When he ventures beyond the Cades Cove Loop, two of his favorite hikes are Mount LeConte and Abrams Falls. There’s nothing quite like the view while enjoying food on the trails.
“The best place for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is Mount LeConte,” he recommends. “I explored a lot of places.”
On his rides, Riley makes it a point to check license plates to find out where they came from. He said Alabama has the most visitors to Cades Cove outside of locals. He will speak with whoever listens to him and engage in conversation with him.
The fact that he has kept himself fit means Riley will likely walk the Coe for many more years. He said there is a volunteer in the park who is 82 years old. Riley was a marathon runner and long-distance cyclist who continues to stay active.
“When they put out the Silver Alert, they’ll know where to find me,” he said.
His wife wants to continue teaching at Baylor for a few more years before retiring. Riley said he sometimes shows her pictures he’s taken and asks her, “Are you sure you don’t want to retire?”
In the meantime, he’s content to lace up his sneakers six days a week and marvel at his surroundings in those mountains of East Tennessee. A pair of shoes, he says, is good for 600 miles. He said trading West Virginia against Tennessee was a great move on his part.
“West Virginia was almost heaven,” he said, as John Denver’s popular song goes. “East Tennessee.”