In the final months of the Civil War, we’re introduced to two characters: Inman, a Confederate soldier who’s been hospitalized after fighting in Petersburg and Fredericksburg, and Ada Monroe, a beautiful young woman who’s living alone on a huge farm following the death of her father, Monroe. Ada and Inman both live in the town of Black Cove, which is overlooked by Cold Mountain. The novel cuts back and forth between the two protagonists, as Inman tries to return to Black Cove and Ada tries to survive there.
Inman slowly regains strength and then proceeds to leave the hospital, albeit with a large neck wound. He’s haunted by nightmares about his time in battle, and he’s so powerfully attracted to Ada that he wants to see her again as soon as possible. As he slowly walks home, he remembers seeing Ada for the first time in her father’s church. On the road, Inman gets in a fight with three men who demand to know where he’s headed. Inman fends off the men, but they chase him to a river and shoot holes in the boat he’s taking to the opposite side. Inman also fears that he’ll be attacked by the Home Guard, a group of Confederate soldiers who have the right to arrest and kill deserters—which Inman technically is.
Ada and her beloved father lived in Charleston for most of Ada’s life, but when Ada was a teenager, they moved to Black Cove so that Monroe could be a preacher. Ada was trained for a docile life of reading and music, so now that Monroe is dead (and she’s still unmarried), she’s slowly starving to death. Her fortunes change when her neighbors, Sally Swanger and Esco Swanger, send a young woman named Ruby Thewes to live with Ada. Ruby is a talented farmer and a diligent worker, and she and Ada agree to live like equals, taking care of the land. Ada is amazed by how hard she’s forced to work to survive.
Inman crosses paths with a strange priest named Solomon Veasey, who’s carrying a young woman whom he’s impregnated. Inman forces Veasey to return the young woman, whose name is Laura, to her home. Afterwards, Inman spends a night with a group of roaming gypsies, and steals food from a group of beautiful women who are bathing in the river. Soon after, Inman crosses paths with Veasey yet again. Veasey continues walking in the same direction as Inman, reasoning that he’ll be killed if he sticks around any longer. During this time, Inman remembers his early experiences with Ada, such as resting his head in her lap at a Christmas party four years earlier.
Inman and Veasey come to a brothel, where Veasey tries and fails to have sex with a black prostitute named Tildy. Veasey and Inman also meet an old peddler named Odell, who claims to own a vast fortune in Georgia—one that he’ll probably never be able to claim for himself.
As time goes on, Ada and Ruby become close friends. Ada learns that Ruby is the daughter of a ne’er-do-well named Stobrod Thewes. Stobrod abandoned Ruby when she was still a child, so she’s been taking care of herself for almost as long as she can remember. Ada tells Ruby about her own childhood: her mother, Claire Dechutes, turned Monroe down the first time he proposed to her, but changed her mind several years later. Later, she died giving birth to Ada.
In town, Ruby and Ada meet a captive who tells them that he was arrested and tortured by the Home Guard, which is headed by a man named Teague. Although the captive served in the war, he tried to desert halfway through, and was punished for his “crime.”
Inman and Veasey meet a man named Junior, who’s trying to move a dead bull out of a riverbed. After helping Junior with his task, they join Junior for dinner. In Junior’s home, Inman realizes that Junior is an abusive husband and father, and he may be serving his guests human flesh to eat. Inman meets one of Junior’s children, a half-black girl named Lula, and Junior’s (white) wife Lila. Lila gets Inman drunk and Inman is tempted to have sex with her. Suddenly, Junior bursts in and points a gun at Inman: he’s lured Inman and Veasey into his home so that he could arrest them and turn them over to the Home Guard. Drunkenly, Junior forces Veasey to marry Inman to Lila; afterwards, the Home Guard shows up and marches Inman and Veasey into the forest. The horsemen of the Home Guard shoot both Inman and Veasey. Veasey dies of his wounds, but Inman miraculously survives. He crawls back to the road and eventually gains the strength to walk. Inman sneaks back to Junior’s house for revenge. There, he reclaims the possessions he left there, including a rifle and money. He uses the butt of the rifle to beat Junior over the head, and then walks back to the road.
Back in Black Cove, Ada remembers one of her final meetings with Inman, just before he went off to fight. Inman, who was quiet and introspective, told Ada a long story about the lost city of Kanuga, which used to be a Native American community. One day, long ago, a stranger came to Kanuga and told the people that he came from the land of Shining Rocks. The stranger advised the people of Kanuga to journey to the Shining Rocks—but he also suggested that very soon, they’d be conquered by a dangerous enemy. The people decided to take the stranger’s cryptic advice, and they traveled to the Shining Rocks, where they found a bright cave. Confused, the people returned home, where they were quickly conquered. Ada had no idea what this story meant. She said something flippant and then said goodbye to Inman, but soon regretted her words. She saw Inman one more time before he left, and gave him a passionate kiss.
Inman comes to an Old Woman, who takes Inman into her home and treats his wounds. The woman gives Inman food and lets him rest until he’s feeling much healthier. Afterwards, Inman stays with a young woman named Sara, who’s lost her husband, Jonathan. Late at night, Sara is ambushed by Union soldiers, who threaten to kill her baby. Inman hunts down the soldiers and kills them, returning what they stole from Sara.
In Black Cove, Stobrod Thewes, now a military deserter, returns to Ruby and asks Ada and Ruby to take him in. He plays the fiddle for them, very beautifully, and Ada, feeling sympathetic, allows him to stay with them. Later, Stobrod brings a deserter friend, nicknamed Pangle, and another, Reid, to stay with Ruby and Ada. Ruby is resentful of Stobrod’s presence, but agrees to let the guests stay. Shortly afterwards, Stobrod and Pangle are attacked by the Home Guard in the mountains. The Guardsmen kill Pangle and wound Stobrod. Reid, who was just out of sight when the Home Guardsmen attacked, tells Ada and Ruby what’s happened. The trio goes into the mountains, where they find Stobrod, still barely alive. Ada and Ruby take care of Stobrod, trying to nurse him back to health so that they can carry him down to Black Cove.
Inman draws closer and closer to Cold Mountain, and imagines what his reunion with Ada will be like. When he’s back on Cold Mountain, he’s amazed to meet Ada there, as she’s caring for Stobrod. At first, Ada doesn’t recognize Inman, but when she does she embraces him and takes him back to Stobrod and Ruby. Inman and Ada make passionate love and share stories of their time apart.
Ada and Inman agree that to keep Inman safe, he should journey north, surrender to the Federals, and wait for the war to end. Inman and Stobrod—who’s been nursed back to health—head north while Ruby and Ada return to Black Cove. But while they’re still in the woods, the Home Guardsmen attack Inman and Stobrod. While Stobrod succeeds in running off, Inman attacks the Guardsmen, succeeding in killing three of them. The remaining Guardsman runs away from Inman, and Inman chases after him. Inman corners his enemy in the forest, where he realizes that the horseman is just a teenaged boy. The boy shoots Inman and runs off. By the time Ruby and Ada hear the gunshots and run to find Inman, Inman is dead.
In an Epilogue, set in 1874, we see that Ruby and Ada’s fledgling community is still thriving: Ruby and Ada do the farming, and Stobrod makes the music. Ruby has married Reid, and has three children. Ada has lost Inman, but she has a nine-year-old child, presumably the product of her encounter with Inman just before Inman’s death. Ada spends her days caring for her child and calmly attending to the tasks of life on a farm.