A Confederate soldier named Inman lies in a hospital in the late summer near Petersburg, Virginia receiving treatment for an injury suffered in battle. The observation of a blind vendor outside his window that being born blind is much better than having seen the beauty of the world once and knowing you will never get the chance again reminds Inman of how much he misses the Blue Ridge Mountains he calls home and the woman named Ada still there.
As for Ada back home on Cold Mountain, she is experiencing a hard life of daily struggle made almost impossible by the pressure upon her to take care of not only herself, but the house and the surrounding far.
Inman undertakes the challenge of making it back home, knowing that it means avoiding the Home Guard’s alert for deserters during the day by creeping along slowly during the night. The pressure upon him is unbearable: death where he stands or eventual death as a prisoner of war.
A mountain woman named Ruby moves into a cabin near Ada and lends her assistance with maintaining the farm. Ruby’s father used the excuse of war breaking out to escape his responsibilities at home almost before the first shot rang out.
In a flashback, Inman recalls the day he ran up against Veasey, a preacher trying to kill her pregnant lover. Inman had tied the preacher to a tree and ultimately the town ostracized him which explain how he manages to reunite with Inman on his travel back to Cold Mountain. Together, they help out a man who betrays them to the Home Guard. Inman actually lines up for execution, but somehow the bullet misses the mark, thanks to its passage through Veasey.
Ada and Ruby also encounter the Home Guard in a fashion when a group of women on the run from the Feds hide out on the farm and enjoy a rare meal. They also hear the story of the atrocities committed by the Home Guard against a deserter’s family.
Meanwhile, Inman manages to make it to the hill country where he meets a woman tending a herd of goats who claims to have been living alone in a caravan for more than a quarter of a century. While there, he receives medical aid that helps to heal his wounds. Another woman, named Sara, is victimized by the Federals who take a pig that was her only source of food during the harsh winter months. Inman secretly follows the Feds and kiss them, returning the pig to Sara and her baby.
Back on the farm, Ruby’s father shows up after having deserted from the Confederate military. Ruby’s reaction is decided mixed. Joining Stobrod, her father, is a fiddle player named Pangle who enchants Ruby and Ada with beautiful music that provides temporary respite from their daily struggles.
Stobrod, Pangle and a young Georgian named Reid have living with other deserters in a cave. When they arrive at hiding place where Ruby has stashed a secret supply of food, the Home Guard catches them and shoots them on the spot with only the boy managing to escape and deliver the bad news to the farm. When they arrive, they find a seriously injured Stobrod and transport him to a Cherokee settlement so he can recover.
Inman finally makes it back home only to discover that Ada is not there waiting as he had hoped. Instead, he finds Reid who informs him of the events leading to Ada’s absence. When they finally reunite in the rough country where Ada is hunting wild turkey, Ada fails to recognize him as the man who went off to war. She take Inman to the settlement cabin where Ruby is tending to her father.
The arrival of Inman moves Ruby to assert that Ada no longer needs a man on the farm. Ada’s response that it’s not about need, but want. She informs Inman that Ruby will be free to stay on the farm for as long as she wants. While Ada and Inman reunite in bed, Ruby stays by Stobrod’s side. After making love, they try to imagine what life will be like for them in the aftermath of the war.
A few days later, they start heading for home, but before reaching the farm they encounter the Home Guard. After learning the full extent of devastation wrought by personally by Teague, the leader, Inman kills him only to be shot by another Guardsman.
The story draws to a conclusion years after this showdown with the baby of Ada and Inman having grown into an adventurous girl. Ruby has since married Reid and had three children of her. In the absence of the dead Inman, Stobord joined the two women on the farm and is still there as the novel ends.