Townsend, Tennessee is a mountain town roughly halfway between Maryville and Gatlinburg, with Highway 321/Lamar Alexander Parkway running through it.
Townsend got its start in the 1920s as a hub for the railroad and lumber industries. It is called the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” and is just a mile or so from an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP).
The other two entrances to the GSMNP are located in Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC. Both of those towns are insane with tourists, hence the “Peaceful” distinction.
THE TUCKALEECHEE COVE
This land was originally home to many Native American tribes, as far back as 2,000 BC and the Woodland Period. The Cherokee settled into the Tuckaleechee Cove at the start of the 1600s and built villages along the Little River.
Traveling through Blount County, which includes Townsend and Maryville, you can find countless historical markers, museums, monuments, and former Cherokee Overhill villages.
The Tuckaleechee Caverns attraction is a developed part of the ancient cove that dates back 20-30 million years ago. The guided 1.25-mile round-trip walking tour of its caverns leads through a giant “great room” to the 210-feet high Silver Falls, known as the tallest subterranean waterfall in the eastern United States.
I keep trying to visit the Tuckaleechee Caverns but I always seem to end up in Townsend during fall and winter, missing its open days.
If you are starting this journey in Townsend, start at the west end close to Walland, where the Foothills Parkway meets Hwy 321/Lamar Alexander Parkway.
Follow 321/Lamar Alexander Parkway to the Cades Cove Jeep Outpost. There, you can bear left to stay on 321, also known as Wears Valley Road, and follow it all the way up to Wears Valley.
Alternately, you can continue straight past the Jeep Outpost where the road is called Townsend Entrance Road, and leads you to the Townsend Wye.
From the Townsend Wye, either direction will lead you into the northwest region of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You can turn right toward Cades Cove, or left to visit the The Sinks, Metcalf Bottoms, and Wears Valley.
If you choose to drive to the Sinks and Wears Valley, you will end up at the eastern end of the Foothills Parkway that leads back to Walland, where you started.
You could also take the Foothills Parkway from Walland to Wears Valley. Choose your own adventure!
Here is a Gmaps route that corresponds to my photo below:
Locals and tourists alike love Townsend for its serene and natural beauty. Townsend is also popular for its top three area attractions; the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove, and the Foothills Parkway.
THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK is the most visited national park in the country, and one of the few that you can enter for free. As of 2023, parking fees are being instated, but you can still drive through for free. For now.
Due to nonstop development, the GSMNP is currently considered one of the most polluted of national parks in the US, so the “ain’t no smog/smoke on Rocky Top” lyrics in that stupid anthem are lies. LIES!
Despite that, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designated International Biosphere Reserve since the 1970s, and has been part of the greater Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve since the late 1980s.
The Appalachian Trail, Clingman’s Dome, Mount LeConte, and Cades Cove are some of its most famous features. Mountain peaks within the park reach nearly 7,000 at their highest points, and there are more than a dozen peaks that reach over 5,000 feet.
Entering the GSMP from Townsend will bring you in near Cades Cove.
Located inside the GSMNP, Cades Cove is the park’s most popular destination. Like the park itself, Cades Cove is free to enter, where you can drive around a one-way 11-mile gravel loop and view the wildlife.
Visitors can also park in designated spots to hike and explore the preserved homestead and settlement buildings.
Cades Cove is often called Tennessee’s answer to the Cataloochee Valley in North Carolina, though Cataloochee is not nearly as busy year round.
Bull Cave (Tennessee’s deepest cave), Gregory’s Cave (famous trilobite fossil site and Cold War fallout shelter), founder John Oliver’s Cabin, several old church buildings and other cabins, Gourley’s Pond, the old Cantilever Barn and other empty barns are popular sites to explore or take photos of.
Slightly north of Townsend is the Foothills Parkway, a gorgeous scenic drive through the mountains.
The eastern side (east of Hwy 322) connects Walland to Wears Valley in about 15 miles.
There are lots of overlooks and trails to entertain you, but the best time to visit is early autumn when leaves are changing colours. It is a super popular spot for dates, picnics, sunrise/sunset viewings, and star gazing.
If you take the Foothills Parkway westward away from Townsend, it leads to Vonore, Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Fort Loudon, the Tellico Blockhouse, the Chota / Tanasi Memorial, and many historic Cherokee Overhill sites.
This can also connect you to the northern end of the Tail of the Dragon, a famous biker route that runs from Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina.
It is full of steep mountain hairpin curves where you can be driving 100 mph and still have people honking and riding your ass and cursing at you while trying to run you off the road into a ditch. Thanks, I hate it.
While you are on the Foothills Parkway, stop at the Look Rock overlook. I was quite lucky one night to catch a shot of this sweet owl that had been flying overhead between two trees and hooting at us.
On the west end of Townsend, check out the Snoring Bear Diner in the Walland Community.
We thought it would be a greasy little dive diner judging from the outside, but the food was impressive.
We tried two different burgers, homemade chips, and onion rings. I hope to return many times in the future.
APPLE VALLEY VILLAGE
Nearest to Walland is Townsend’s wildly popular Apple Valley Village, a tiny but beloved complex for shopping, dining, souvenirs, lawn and garden décor, old fashioned candy, jams, jellies, pickled versions of anything you could think of, outdoor gear, and more.
The Dancing Bean Coffee House is my favourite part of the village, but Cades Cove Cellars is a must for any wine lover.
The “Townsend Historic Trail” is a paved sidewalk that runs either direction from the Townsend Visitors Center, allowing you to explore the town by foot without encountering motor vehicle traffic.
I put that in quotations because if you ask someone working in either Visitors Center, or even locals who are literally walking on the trail when you ask them about it, they will most likely not know what that is. I got lucky.
In the past year, some definition has been given to what is called the Townsend River Walk & Arboretum, which runs parallel to 321 and the Alcoa-Maryville Greenway. Check this map, and let me know if you figure it all out, otherwise check back later after I have walked it myself.
You will see three traffic lanes of decreasing width- the main highway, a narrow unmarked lane to safely connect exiting traffic to roadside attractions, and an even narrower unmarked lane for pedestrians, bikers, and cyclists.
Townsend has several coffee shops and cafés, and its own roasting company called Little River Coffee Roasters over by the Appalachian Bear Rescue.
They typically just serve what they are roasting that day rather than offering a menu, but visiting can be an enjoyable, tailored experience where you can learn about the roasting, grinding, and brewing processes before trying the final product.
For a more diverse selection, check out Town’s End, Artistic Bean, and Bear Grounds.
Artistic Bean is usually quiet and I like the old antique roasting and grinding equipment they have on display.
FOOD AND BOOZE
Peaceful Side Social is the newest brewery and restaurant in Townsend, and the most modern.
The food there is fantastic, but my favourite thing about this company is that they support so many great local causes and environmental organisations that you can read about here.
The Abbey is my second pick for Townsend dining.
Inside an old wooden chapel that looks more like a woodlands wedding chapel for gnomes than a brewery, polished wood panels and pews line the path to a patio overlooking the river.
A few steps down the street from The Abbey, visit the Dark Island Swinging Bridge if you dare.
This bridge is one of the few remaining swinging bridges in the South available for public access, and that is maintained well enough for continued pedestrian use.
Below the bridge, clusters of intertubers go floating or “tubing” by with the current.
Tread lightly, and remember that no more than four people should be crossing the old bridge at the same time.
Company Distilling is another recent addition to Townsend, broadening its nightlife options. Stop by for tastings and take home your favourite bottle and some merch.
Good Vibes on the River, like The Abbey, has a patio overlooking the river and they are known for their selection of homemade bakery items as well as local cuisine and brews.
The Chocolate B’ar, Black Bear Café, Miss Lily’s Café, Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro, and the Little River Pub & Deli are a few others that I like.
ARTS & CULTURE
Brush up on local history at the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Centerand learn about life in the early days.
The historic village has several preserved buildings, and the center hosts various classes and events throughout the year.
The Little River Railroad Museum provides insight into a different aspect of Townsend history, the rail and lumber industries.
Several models of old trains, railroad equipment, and artifacts are on display and there are more inside.
Admission was free, and it is open to all ages.
Townsend Artisan Guild Gallery & Studios is an excellent showcase of local talent, but Captain Dave’s Little River Artistry is far more enthralling.
This is the kind of place you just have to explore for yourself, but you can tell right away that “Captain” Dave has a lot of personality and a wild imagination.
Woodcarving is a pretty big deal in Townsend. Across from Captain Dave’s, behind the Cades Cove Jeep Outpost and Smoky Mountain Sasquatch shop, there is a gigantic mural that says “Bubbatown USA: The Chainsaw Carving Destination.”
I recall seeing this Bubba feller giving live demonstrations at Townsend’s Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Festival, and this lot is full of his awesome carved statues.
His owls and raccoons are my favourite.
Speaking of the Smoky Mountain Bigfoot Festival, this is Townsend’s most popular festival each year.
It is kind of an anything-goes festival with film premier parties, live hard-rock cover bands featuring a saxophonist and/or guitarist dressed as Sasquatch, a marriage of ‘squatch and his old lady Bigfoot, and a myriad of other strange cryptid soap opera affairs.
A few years ago they hosted the film premier for the Big Fur Movie, and everyone thought I was in it because of my big black sun hat, glasses, and vivid dress. Several people asked to post with me instead of the Bigfoot statue, to my amusement.
Townsend frequently hosts antique car shows and Jeep events too. It truly has something for everyone.
The Townsend Visitors Center has a ton of info on area attractions, trail maps, local art, souvenirs, snacks, and Bigfoot merch.
Townsend has some cool antique malls and unique stores like Wood Dulcimer, Birch and Twine, Cades Cove Trading Company, Little River Outfitters, and Smoky Mountain Squatch.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Camping, hiking, biking, fishing, riding horses, and tubing are popular activities in Townsend.
Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing is the tubing company I see most, though I have not yet taken the journey myself.
Each of the Outfitter companies seems to be connected to various, if not all, of the local activity guides and tours, so they can give you more info on that.
Campgrounds like Wesley Woods and KOA are in Townsend also.
You can also stay at local resorts and campgrounds like Little Arrow.
This guy and I waved at each other while I watched him fish for a moment. I held up my camera and he gave me a thumbs up.
Check him out, just having a day.
The Townsend Wye, like the letter “Y,” is a geographical landmark along the water as well as a popular spot for tubers and swimmers.
It is beautiful, even in the winter.
I often prefer to turn left at the Townsend Wye onto Little River Gorge Road to Wears Valley, instead of following Hwy 321 from the center of town.
Both routes are fun but the Little River Gorge Road route has more to see.
This route passes trailheads for Roundtop Trail, White Oak Flats Falls, Cane Creek Twin Falls, Meigs Falls, Meigs Creek, and The Sinks, while rarely losing sight of the Little River.
The Sinks refers to one of many small waterfalls you can see on this route without having to take an actual hike.
Water from the Little River flows under the bridge and gathers into the “sinks.”
There is a small parking lot, a manmade stone pathway to the overlook, and stairs leading up to the Meigs Creek Trail.
The Meigs Creek Trail also connects to the Lumber Ridge Trail and Tremont trailhead.
Past the Sinks, continue through Metcalf Bottoms Trailhead & Picnic Pavilion toward Wears Valley.
You will see the entrance to the historic Little Greenbrier School and the Walkers Sisters’ Cabin, and then the other end of Roundtrop Trail, the Little Greenbrier Trailhead, and finally, the main hub of Wears Valley.
Wears Valley is a small community in Sevier County just outside of Townsend that runs adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It feels remote, even though tourism and cabin rentals are what keeps this area thriving.
The Heavenly Roast and Mountain Brothers General Store are the valley’s social spots. Mountain Brothers is listed as a Sevierville address while The Heavenly Roast, across the street, has a Pigeon Forge address.
It all kind of melds together in these parts.
In the area for a while? Follow me to Fort Loudon, Maryville, and Sevierville (in progress).
© Copyright Fernwehtun, 2015- Current. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Fernwehtun and Fernwehtun.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.