Uncover hidden gems galore with a peaceful trip to the smokies.
True peace and tranquility—and even a great deal of adventure—can be found when you’re in the mountains. That’s exactly what the cozy and welcoming mountaintop community of Townsend, Tennessee, offers travelers year-round. Settled about an hour’s drive south of Knoxville, Tennessee, and just a stone’s throw from the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s an idyllic getaway for those craving a change of pace and relief from the hustle and bustle of day-to- day life. But don’t be mistaken—there’s plenty more to this place than its abundance of beautiful vistas and good ole Southern charm.
Hiking and History
History is rich in Townsend and plays a large part in how the town came to be as it is today. A visit to one of several local museums sheds light on the region’s past with unique exhibits and demonstations. At the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, local scholars even don period clothing and gear to guide visitors through a representation of early Appalachian life, including tours of authentic re-creations of a granary, sawmill, moonshine still, and more that would’ve been found in the area’s early villages.
Another helping of history awaits at Cades Cove, a lush and pastural valley nearby. Its 11-mile, one-way loop welcomes drivers, cyclists, and hikers and is dotted with preserved homesteads, churches, the still-operational John P. Cable Grist Mill, and other historical sites. It also boasts some of the best opportunities for viewing wandering wildlife, like white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, groundhogs, and turkeys.
The natural wonders don’t end there, because the entrance to the breathtaking Tuckaleechee Caverns lies just a handful of miles from the town’s main strip. The cave formations within are estimated to be between 20 million and 30 million years old and feature Silver Falls, the tallest subterranean waterfall in the eastern United States.
If you’re looking to grab a keepsake from your trip to the mountains, local artisans like Mountain Makers show off the area’s other trades. Their quality woodworking practices result in stunning, one-of-a-kind furniture, cutting boards, coasters, and other adorable tchotchkes lacquered to perfection. A stop by their stall in the Dogwood Mall gives a small glimpse into their collection and the opportunity to pick up a few pieces for your own home.
When the thrill of all that outdoor adventure winds down for the day, it’s time to recharge with help from Townsend’s famed peaceful spirit. Everything from luxurious resort accommodations to family-friendly campgrounds are plentiful, but a few stand out from the rest of the pack.
If stepping out of your comfort zone and living life off the grid is what you prefer, Little Arrow Outdoor Resort is the best of both worlds. It provides a mix of fully furnished tiny homes, cabins, Airstream campers, and well-equipped plots for motor homes and pop-up tents. But the on-site showstoppers are the lavish glamping (glamorous camping) tents. These aren’t your typical tents—inside, you’ll find two bedrooms with plush bedding, a bathroom, a kitchenette, and heating and air-conditioning.
For something a bit more luxurious, Dancing Bear Lodge sits on more than 30 acres of pristine mountainside terrain and boasts rustic yet modern lodging in its numerous cabins, cottages, and villas ideal for hosting groups of all sizes. The original site was completely lost in a terrible blaze several years ago, but it has since been built back to its former glory and renewed acclaim.
On-site at Dancing Bear Lodge is the delicious Apple Valley Cafe, the convenient Dancing Bean Coffee House, and the award-winning Appalachian Bistro led by Chef Jeff Carter and his talented team. On the bistro’s menu, you’ll find Jeff’s subtle infusion of his Gulf Coast roots as well as the beloved traditions of the restaurant’s surrounding Appalachia region. Dishes like his North Carolina Rainbow Trout and Grits, Blackened Gulf Grouper, Sweet Tea Brined Pork Chop with green tomato and jalapeño jam, and Creole Mussels come to mind.
Peaceful Side Social is an inviting, casual hub serving farm-to-table flatbreads, sandwiches, and shareable snacks. Goat Cheese Grit Fritters are a favorite among locals, along with the Cajun Shrimp + Sausage, Mountain Italian Hoagie, and Smoked Trout Dip. Wash it all down with the brewery’s lineup of craft brews, including one or two of its own signature creations, if you care to indulge.
Family-owned and -operated Little River Pub and Deli is the perfect spot to grab a bite for lunch while taking in the picturesque views of Little River right next door. The menu is focused on perfectly stacked sandwiches and panini—don’t miss out on the Boyd, filled with roast beef, Cheddar, onions, jalapeños, and a special sauce—along with some snacks to share, including Moonshine Meatballs, Jalapeño Pimiento Cheese, and Moonshine BBQ Pork Nachos.
When your visit eventually ends, you’ll realize Townsend has a welcoming slower pace than nearby larger cities such as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, which are often overcrowded with tourists. Townsend is a convenient home base for day trips to those neighboring places and everything from bucket-list national parks and spectacular underground sights to delectable sips and snacks in between.