Rush hour in Townsend means innertubes getting stuck on the Little River. That’s about the most crowded I’ve ever seen it – outside of the occasional festival – and that’s precisely what I love about this small mountain town. It’s my favorite place to stay in the Great Smoky Mountains because there are many wonderful things to do in that town.
The local tourism folks describe Townsend as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies” – and they’re right. Away from the hustle and bustle of Gatlinburg and overcrowded shopping centers of Pigeon Forge, Townsend is where people go to escape the crowds, listen to the chorus of tree frogs, and count the stars at night.
My first visit to Townsend was in 2017, and I have returned every year since. It’s one of my favorite destinations and one I have been wanting to brag about for some time. I finally dedicated the time to write about the things to do in Townsend and why you really need to visit.
Start at the Townsend Welcome Center
The Townsend Visitor Center is one of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s official visitor centers – but it also serves the greater Townsend area. It’s one of the best visitor centers in the Smokies and the first place I visit every time I return to town.
The information desk at the visitor center is always staffed by someone who knows the area. You can get suggestions on what to do, things you need to see, and inside tips, you won’t find anywhere else – not even on my website. The staff will eagerly assist you in picking out travel brochures and even help you collect the National Park Passport cancellation stamp.
The gift shop is one of the best in the area. Loaded with books on local history, travel, geology, and fiction, I always walk away with one or two in my hands. The gift shop also has a nice assortment of clothing, jewelry, toys, and travel accessories.
Visit the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center
The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center hides one of the best attractions in Townsend. The museum’s Main Gallery is home to the Native Americans of East Tennessee Collection – an assortment of historical artifacts from the bands of Native Americans who once called the area home. Displayed in well-lit exhibit cases, the artifacts include interpretive information for the history buff.
But the best attraction at the museum is hidden behind, obscured from sight. The Historic Village is a collection of thirteen historical buildings from the Northeast Tennessee region relocated to the museum. The buildings are open for visitors to explore and furnished according to the time the structure was built.
The museum charges an admission ranging from $7-$10 per person. It takes about an hour to see all the exhibits inside the Main Gallery and take a walk through the Historic Village – but I would recommend spending at least two hours.
Learn Local History at the Little River Railroad & Lumber Museum
Did you know Townsend was founded in 1900 as a logging town by a railroad company? Visiting the one-room Little River Railroad & Lumber Museum was a great way to spend an hour one hot summer day. It was a small museum, but the walls were covered in fascinating facts about the town’s history.
Inside the museum, you’ll learn about the town’s founder, W.B. Townsend, and how he was instrumental in establishing the Elkmont Historic District and creating The Sinks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can explore an old logging locomotive that once hauled the fresh-cut timber into Townsend to be sawed into lumber outside the museum.
Explore Tuckaleechee Caverns
A local newspaper editor once called Tuckaleechee Caverns the “Greatest Sight Under the Smokies.” The privately-owned attraction is run by the second generation of the family who opened it in the 1950s. Today, it’s one of the best caverns open to the public in Tennessee and a must-see attraction in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Guided tours take about an hour to explore the 1.25-mile out-and-back route through the caverns. Visitors are treated to the gargantuan Big Room – big enough to hold a football field – and one of the tallest underground waterfalls in the country.
Go Tubing in Townsend
The only traffic jam I ever witnessed in Townsend happened on the Little River. Along with dozens of other visitors, I began my summer day at Smoky Mountain River Rat. Dressed in swimming shorts with my favorite Crocs Swiftwater Sandal, I plopped into a vibrant yellow innertube and began to drift down the cool mountain stream.
River Rat has two options for tubing in Townsend. From Outpost A at Wears Valley Road – where I began my adventure – it’s a two-hour float down the river to a pull-out at Webb Road. This section is calm and suitable for all ages. The more adventurous section from Outpost B – located beside Burger Master Drive In – requires a higher age limit because the river includes more rapids.
On that particular summer day, the splash of cold mountain water was a welcome respite from the humid summer heat. The pace was pleasurably slow beneath the shade of massive trees lining the riverbanks. The occasional burst of giggles and the low murmur of conversation between innertubers was the only break in the silence. Near the end, just before the Webb Road bridge, a traffic jam emerged as dozens of people bumped together trying to get out of the water. It was the most fun traffic jam I’d ever seen.
Visit Cades Cove
The first time I visited Cades Cove, I stayed at a nice hotel at the edge of the national park in Gatlinburg. I quickly learned it was the worst place to stay while visiting the secluded section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – and I never did it again. It took nearly an hour to get there and much longer to get back.
Townsend is my favorite place to stay while visiting Cades Cove. It’s only a twenty-minute drive to the entrance sign and rarely congested with traffic. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road takes about an hour to drive straight through – but you won’t do that because you’ll make at least one stop along the way.
Historic homes, hiking trails, scenic views, hidden waterfalls, and an abundance of wildlife make Cades Cove one of the most popular sections of the national park. Plan to spend the day in the cove to give yourself time to explore it. Grab a moderately decent lunch at the deli beside the campground, enjoy the meal at the Native Plant Overlook, and wait until sunset across the field at the Dan Lawson Place.
Dinner and Shopping at Apple Valley Mountain Village & Café
At the west edge of Townsend, Apple Valley Mountain Village & Café is a one-stop destination for local arts and crafts, gifts, and dining. The General Store advertises “Fried Pies, Fudge, Souvenirs,” and that is precisely what you should get. Souvenirs include clothing with an entire room dedicated to graphic tees, toys, stuffed animals, and gift ideas for the national park. The fudge is made fresh every day, and the fried apple pies are a wonderful treat.
Apple Valley Café is open for three meals a day. It features the Burger Toppings Bar – a self-serve counter for getting your own toppings for their fresh hand-patted burgers. Get a comfortable seat inside or take the food to go.
Across the parking lot, The Dancing Bean is their coffeeshop open until mid-afternoon every day. It’s a great place to grab a freshly brewed coffee to go, but it’s not my favorite coffee shop in town.
10 Reasons Why You Need to Visit Townsend
- Least crowded of any town bordering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Comfortable lodging at hotels, campgrounds, and cabins
- Just enough shopping and dining to keep you going
- Easy access to Cades Cove
- Quiet evenings
- You can actually hear the tree frogs and count the stars
- Friendly locals
- Spend less time sitting in traffic
- Driving distance to other towns if you wanted to visit
- Easy to get there via U.S. 321 through Maryville
Visit Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville
Although I am certainly a supporter of staying in Townsend when visiting Townsend, there is nothing wrong with visiting nearby mountain towns for shopping, entertainment, or dinner. Getting to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville from Townsend is easy and just about an adventure of its own.
The most scenic – and most time-consuming – route to Gatlinburg would be Little River Road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It takes about an hour along the two-lane road with a few stops along the way at Meigs Falls, The Sinks, and Elkmont.
The quickest route into Pigeon Forge is Wears Valley Road. It only takes about thirty minutes on the two-lane road through the valley – and you just might want to stop in Wears Valley to browse the antique shops.
Do Some Shopping in Townsend
Townsend isn’t a shopping destination – at least, not like how Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville have developed. You’ll find more local artwork in this small mountain town and a few downright interesting places to shop.
My favorite place to browse is Tennessee Sally’s. A two-story white house has been converted into a gift shop chocked full of local artisan’s goods, quirky souvenirs, and all sorts of great gift ideas. The Townsend Artisan Guide is another great place to find local artwork. The guild is operated by the artists and can include all sorts of artwork depending on what the locals produce. When I visited, I found watercolor paintings, clothing, and a nice assortment of photography.
Need some supplies for your dulcimer? Do you even own a dulcimer? Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop is certainly a unique find in Townsend – but it’s wildly popular with the locals. Saturday evenings throughout the summer mean it’s time to listen to dulcimer artists pickin’ on the front porch of the local retail shop. Maybe that will inspire you to buy one of the musical instruments?
Little River Outfitters has everything you need to enjoy fishing or fly fishing while visiting Townsend. They also offer classes and will connect you with a local guide to find the best fishing holes. Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center – located next to River Rats – offers tube and bicycle rentals and a small outdoor gear selection. Yeti coolers and cups were stacked to the ceiling, but I also found clothing, camp chairs, and bug spray among their wares.
Ride a Bicycle Through Town
One feature of Townsend I love the most is the 5-mile Townsend Bicycle Trail. The trail begins at a parking lot across U.S. Highway 321 from Apple Valley Mountain Village & Café. After passing another parking area – and the better place to park your vehicle – the trail crosses the four-lane divided highway and continues along the south side of the road through town.
The paved trail is usually a comfortable distance from the highway, with bicycle crossing signs on most roads. After passing through the entire town, the trail ends at a parking lot across the road from the KOA campground.
The best place in Townsend to rent a bicycle is Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center. Half-day rentals begin at $20, and you can rent a bike for multiple days to cover your entire trip.
Go for a Scenic Drive on the Foothills Parkway
When the latest section of the Foothills Parkway opened in 2018, it offered visitors a chance to enjoy a 33-mile scenic drive between Wears Valley and U.S. Highway 129. The parkway was Tennessee’s answer to the Blue Ridge Parkway with a vision to create a 72-mile route along a mountain ridge that offered views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The original section between Walland and U.S. Highway 129 has been around for decades but has remained one of the least-visited areas of the national park. That section included several stunning overlooks – most notably the Look Rock Observation Tower. The new section has fewer overlooks – and no official hiking trails – but the views are much better.
Visitors from Townsend can take Wears Valley Road to the current end of the Foothills Parkway, drive about an hour to U.S. Highway 321, and return to town for lunch. Then, an out-and-back adventure from U.S. Highway 321 to U.S. Highway 129 takes about two hours – three if you stop as much as I do to enjoy the view.
Get a Coffee at The Artistic Bean
There are a few coffee shops in Townsend, but my favorite is The Artistic Bean. Owner David Fahidy knows a thing or two about coffee and begins every day roasting his own beans in the corner of the charming coffee shop.
The barista behind the counter was still learning how to make latte art – something I have never been able to master myself. She giggled as she ruined the top’s artistry, but the delicious coffee more than made up for it. The front half of the coffee shop is furnished with large couches and armchairs, while the back half has a couple of tables – the perfect place for me to get some work done.
The Artistic Bean offers coffee just about every way you could enjoy it – and they even sell their beans to take home with you! Come out on Friday nights, and chances are good, you’ll enjoy some live music.
8027 E Lamar Alexander Pkwy, Townsend, TN | 865-738-3412 | www.theartisticbean.com
Get a Meal at a Local Restaurant
Townsend may be a small town, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some fantastic local eateries. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner – there is a place to go for any meal of the day.
My breakfast at Townsend Pancake House wouldn’t have won any culinary awards, but it was served fast, cooked to order, and delicious to the last morsel. The interior of the restaurant was plainly decorated, but at least the seating was comfortable.
Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro is the most upscale restaurant in Townsend – and you’ll see that when you pay for the meal. The food is fantastic, though, inspired by the mountain region with menu items like elk chop, smoked ham, and beef tenderloin. The bar is one of the best stocked I’ve ever seen, with several pages of wine, beer, and liquor from local breweries and distilleries, and name brands.
Trailhead Steak & Trout House offers exactly that: locally raised steaks and fresh catch trout. The family-friendly restaurant has reasonable prices, a comfortable atmosphere, and a wide assortment of menu options. The Trailhead Potato Skins were a great starter, and I really loved the Mississippi Fried Catfish.
Smokin’ Joe’s is my favorite place in Townsend for lunch. You’ll smell the quality of the food the moment you step out of your car. The Big Sandwich – a “whopper sized bun” piled high with pulled pork – was a fantastic meal that threatened to put me into a food coma. You can also order racks of ribs, brisket, or chicken sandwiches.
The Burger Master Drive In is one of the most iconic places to eat in Townsend. The old-fashioned drive in has you ordering through a window and sitting outside at one of their covered picnic tables. Everything is cooked fresh just the way you order it – which is probably why that cheeseburger was one of the best I’ve ever had.
If you’re on a strict budget – or even if you’re not – don’t discount the deli at the Townsend IGA. Mornings start with scrambled eggs and breakfast sandwiches, and then they’ll put out salads and fried chicken for lunch and dinner. It’s a great place to grab a meal to go – maybe for a road trip on the Foothills Parkway or a trip to Cades Cove.
Attend a Fantastic Festival
There is always an exception to the rule – and the exception to Townsend’s peacefulness is one of their fantastic festivals. There are only a few each year – so don’t worry about continually competing with hotel rates and availability – but one of these just might be the reason you want to visit.
I attended the inaugural Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival and had the time of my life at the small festival. The large field beside the Townsend Visitor Center played host to about a dozen hot air balloons. They weren’t taking anybody on rides – but I’m not sure I would have taken that chance anyway. Would you?
The Townsend Heritage Festival kicks off the Autumn season with live bluegrass music, arts and crafts, and food. The two-day festival spans a weekend and it one of the best festivals to attend if you want to get to know the mountain town.
Similar to the heritage festival, the Townsend Spring Festival signifies the end of Winter each year with two days of bluegrass music, arts and crafts, and local food. Held the first week of May, it’s a great time of year to visit Townsend.
Grains & Grits is another new festival for Townsend – and it’s fantastic to attend. The festival showcases brewers and distillers from throughout the Appalachian Mountains in a fun-filled atmosphere of mountain music and sample drinks. It’s a great opportunity to discover a new beer or liquor and meet the people who make it.
Explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it’s not the only destination. There are many places to explore in the national park within an hour’s drive of Townsend, making this a great place to spend the night.
The Townsend Wye has grown in popularity in recent years. It’s the first destination in the national park to visit after leaving Townsend behind. It’s a popular place for tubing or swimming in the shallow water in the river’s bend.
Meigs Falls is the only waterfall in the national park viewable from the comfort of your own car. It’s located a few hundred feet from Little River Road in a small ravine, but you can see it from your car or by sitting on the stone wall above the river. Nearby, The Sinks is an area of cascading waterfalls created when a lumber company used dynamite to blast a log jam on the Little River. The explosion created a deep chasm beneath the river and actually changed its course.
Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area is a great place to spend an evening with the family. It’s about a 25-minute drive from Townsend, so it’s possible to take something to eat with you. The picnic area has a few covered shelters, access to the Little River, and a hiking trail leading to the Little Greenbrier School.
The Elkmont Historic District is a fascinating area to explore about forty-five minutes from Townsend. The historic district includes an assortment of historic homes and cabins located where a logging village had been built in the late 1800s. The cabins are leftovers before the national park was founded when wealthy people from Knoxville used the area as a summer vacation. Hiking trails, waterfalls, access to the Little River, and the campground are a few things to see there.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is an hour from Townsend without traffic – and when there is traffic, it could take as much as two hours. Newfound Gap is about two hours from Townsend and Clingmans Dome, about two and a half hours. All of these are easily doable in a lengthy day trip – but why would you want to go that far from Townsend?
When to Visit Townsend
Most of the local retail shops, restaurants, campgrounds, and hotels are open year-round in Townsend. The winter months are certainly the slowest in terms of visitors – and that might be a great time to visit.
But the best time to visit Townsend is the summer months. Most people flock to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge on the Tennessee side and Bryson City on the North Carolina side of the national park. That leaves Townsend mostly peaceful – but not deserted.
Day-trippers will frequent the town, and campers from Cades Cove will venture out for food and supplies. It’s never really a ghost town in the summer, but it is less crowded than alternatives.
The busiest time of year is typically Autumn, coinciding with the peak of fall colors. It’s a great time to visit, but you’ll find overnight rates more expensive – sometimes even more expensive than summer weekends. But if you want to visit Cades Cove to see the colors, I strongly recommend staying in Townsend.
Where to Stay in Townsend
The Townsend River Breeze Inn doesn’t look like much on the outside, but on the inside, you’ll find recently updated rooms with modern furnishings. The swimming pool is surrounded by a chain link fence, but on the plus side, you can admire the mountains while floating in the water. The motel has King Rooms with a sleeper sofa and Double Rooms with two queen beds.
The Highland Manor Inn is a wonderfully nostalgic place to spend a few nights in Townsend. The motel is located in an old building, but the furnishings and bedding are relatively new and in good condition. They have a fantastic outdoor swimming pool, and the lounge is a great place to hang out. They have a Standard Room with two queen beds, Deluxe Queen and Deluxe King Rooms, and a King Room with a private balcony.
The Best Western is the budget-friendly go-to in Townsend. The hotel has King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. With an outdoor swimming pool and moderately nice free breakfast, it’s a great place if all you’re looking for is a bed and shower.
The Tremont Lodge and Resort is located in an older building, but after the property changed hands in 2017, the new owners have been updating the furnishings. The free breakfast in the morning leaves a lot to be desired, but otherwise, this is a comfortable place to spend the night and enjoy the outdoor swimming pool. The hotel has King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a pet-friendly Family Suite with two queen beds and a sleeper sofa.
The premiere overnight destination in Townsend is the Dancing Bear Lodge. The lodge features rustic mountain decor, rooms with wood-burning fireplaces and full kitchens, and outdoor recreation in the 36-acre property. The lodge features rooms in the villa and cabins with one or two bedrooms, and some of them are pet friendly!
My favorite place to stay in Townsend is the Little Arrow Outdoor Resort. It’s located literally at the national park’s edge, so it’s only about twenty minutes from Cades Cove. There is definitely something you’ll want with a nice campground, glamping tents, tiny homes, and cabins.