Townsend, Tennessee, is known as “The Peaceful Side Of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” As the most visited national park in the nation, many folks enter Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains through Sevier County encountering huge traffic and noise issues. An entirely different experience is to enter the park through Blount County and the small town of Townsend.
With guided historical tours, stunning nature and wildlife, pleasant hikes to waterfalls, accommodations at tiny homes or glamping, farm-to-table delicious dining, whisky tasting, spectacular mountain drives, and visits to Tuckaleechee Cavern, enjoy a journey on the peaceful side of the Smokies.
Fly into McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) to get to Townsend. If arriving from the West Coast, you will probably land mid-evening. The drive to Townsend is only about 30 minutes. The Hilton Knoxville Airport Hotel is an excellent choice for airport accommodation, located just a 5-minute walk away. There is also a shuttle bus if you prefer.
Here are my 15 fantastic and favorite experiences entering from Townsend, Tennessee, the quiet side of Smoky Mountains National Park.
Blount County and Fletcher Marketing sponsored my trip. All thoughts and ideas are my own.
1. Drive The Cades Cove Loop Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Enter the park from Townsend and enjoy the Cades Cove Loop, an 11-mile one-way road with fabulous views of the ancient Smokies, wildlife, and the history of early settlers.
Be sure to stop at the Cove Entrance to pick up the self-guided Cades Cove Tour Booklet, or you can download one through this link.
Take time to stop at some of the 13 historical buildings which depict Appalachian Life in the early 1820s. Step into the log homes, churches, barns, and smokehouses to re-enact settler life.
Remember to take nothing and leave nothing behind. Check this link for wildlife viewing tips.
Allow at least 3–4 hours here. Consider packing a lunch and enjoying a picnic. Some of the paved paths are handicap accessible. Check the Cades Cove Tour Booklet mentioned above.
Pro Tip: Watch for “Bear Jams,” when traffic stops to admire the wildlife. Also, observe wildlife from a distance. See additional Cades Cove information under the cycling, hiking, and horseback riding sections below.
2. Enjoy Cycling
Cycling in the Townsend area is like being in a candy store — so much to choose from!
The Townsend Bike Trail is a 9-mile trail used for cycling, walking, and running. It parallels both sides of the main highway, Highway US 321, along restaurants, shops, hotels and motels, the visitor’s bureau, and historical sites.
Every Wednesday from May 5–September 11, Cades Cove is closed to vehicular traffic offering cyclists a safe and relaxing ride. Bikes are available for rent at Cades Cove Trading Company — no reservations are required. Arrive early in the morning as bikes are often rented out by 8 a.m. Bicycles are also available in Townsend at the Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center (SMOC).
3. Take A Hike
Enjoy hiking both in the Great Smokies, along Cades Cove, and in the town of Townsend. Cades Cove offers more than two dozen hiking trails, ranging from easy, 1.2-mile hikes to strenuous, 11.3-mile treks. Check this link for a downloadable trail map.
4. Enjoy Horseback Riding In The Great Smokies
Enjoy horseback riding in the Great Smokies with Cades Cove Riding Stable, a national park-authorized riding stable. The stable, located in Cades Cove, offers a variety of activities, including guided trail rides and horse-drawn carriages.
Pro Tip: Be cautious around wildlife for your protection and the protection of wildlife. Stay on designated trails and keep your distance.
5. Discover The Enchanting Underground At Tuckaleechee Caverns
Step down, way down, into a world underground at Tuckaleechee Caverns. Called “The Greatest Site Under The Smokies,” Tuckaleechee is proud to be Tennessee’s only AAA five-star cave attraction. The cavern is estimated to be between 20 and 30 million years old. The 1.25-hour guided tour gives insight into its folklore and history. Marvel at the 210-foot underground waterfall and the cave formations called “cave onyx.”
Pro Tip: Wear sturdy closed-toe shoes and dress in layers. It is chilly underground.
6. Explore History At The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center
Located in Townsend, The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center features galleries telling the stories of the history and culture of the Appalachians, Townsend, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Native American Gallery houses artifacts from one of Tennessee’s most extensive archeological digs. The Historic Village has 13 buildings from the 1800s–1903. Car buffs will enjoy the Transportation Station with its significant 19th and 20th Century automobile collection. There are also educational programs and other special events and exhibits.
7. Stroll The Townsend River Walk & Arboretum
Are you looking for a quiet stroll along the Little River? Head to the Townsend River Walk & Arboretum, a delightful 0.3-mile trail between Little River and Highway 321. The site is maintained by the Tuckaleechee Garden Club and other volunteers. You will find 35 “signed trees.” The signs include basic information about the tree and gives a QR code if you are interested in more details. Check the website for information on what is currently blooming and upcoming events.
You will find directions and maps at this link. The site is handicap accessible at the north end of the trail.
8. Sip The Spirits Of Tennessee Bourbon
Under the helm of Jeff Arnett, Company Distilling is opening a new tasting room in Townsend. Located along the Little River, both indoor and outdoor seating will be offered. Jeff Arnett spent 12 years as a master distiller for Jack Daniels and is bringing his talent to the Townsend area.
9. Enjoy Tubing On The Little River
Tubing is a popular activity on the Little River. River Rat Tubing offers two adventures: Outpost A, the gentle, family route; and Outpost B, for more adventurous folks. Amenities offered include high-quality tubes, life jackets, dog-friendly tubes, and shuttle rides.
10. Discover History At The Little River Railroad & Lumber Museum
History and railroad buffs will enjoy the Little River Railroad & Lumber Museum in Townsend. The museum explores the lumber and railroad industries of the 20th century and how they led to present-day Townsend. Admire the beautifully restored Shay Engine #2147, the last Shay Engine to run in this area. Volunteer help is responsible for all of the restoration.
11. Enjoy Fly Fishing Along The Little River
Try your hand at fly fishing along the Little River running through Townsend. You will find convenient pull-offs along the river. The main catch is rainbow and brown trout. Brown trout is a delight in corn and bread bait! Purchase a can of niblet corns and a loaf of white bread and try your luck. Consider also stopping at Little River Outfitters, a family-run fly shop and fly fishing school.
Pro Tip: Anglers over 13 years old need a Tennessee fishing license. Check this link for details.
12. Enjoy The Panoramic Views From The Foothills Parkway West
Enjoy the scenic views from the Foothills Parkway West. On one side are the fabulous Great Smoky Mountains and on the other side are views of the Tennessee Valley. Numerous large turnouts and lookouts are available. We entered the parkway just west of Townsend and toured about 20 miles. Many folks come here to catch sunrise photos.
13. Connect With Nature At Great Smoky Mountains Institute At Tremont
Founded in 1969, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont has a mission to “connect people and nature.” Located just inside the national park, they have a variety of classes for folks of all ages, including science classes, art classes, and recreation classes. Classes do fill up quickly so consider signing up for their newsletter. You can register for classes online. A second campus is in the works for Townsend.
14. Take A Hike To A Waterfall
Access to waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park range from easy to moderate to strenuous.
An easy hike from the Tremont Institute is the 1.4-mile Spruce Flats Falls Trail. Park in the Tremont Institute Parking Lot and find the signs directing you to the trail. Enjoy the scenic 30-foot tall waterfall with waters cascading over four separate tiers.
15. Enjoy Amazing Accommodations At Little Arrow Outdoor Resort
We stayed for four nights at Little Arrow Outdoor Resort. Located right along the Little River, Little Arrow Outdoor Resort is located only about a 5-minute drive from the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the peaceful side. You may choose from tiny homes, glamping tents, cabins, vacation homes, Airstream trailers, and RV sites. There is a swimming pool, hot tub, a delightful gift shop, and a pit for roasting marshmallows. There are also events and activities offered. We enjoyed the Cocktail Making With Edible Wildflowers Class.
Our tiny home featured two queen bedrooms and two baths. It was perfect!
Townsend, Tennessee, the “Gateway to the Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” has activities for all interests. Plan your visit soon — you will be delighted that you did!
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