Things to do in Townsend, Tn: The Peaceful Side of the Smokies

We just returned from a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains and I was so impressed with the small town of Townsend. It has nice people, good food, and best of all there are so many fun things to do in Townsend, Tn. In fact, It was one of the best places that I have ever stayed near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

This area is often called the peaceful side of the Smokies and I would agree.

You come here to escape the crowds, watch the fireflies, listen to a mountain stream, look up at the stars…and when you are ready for some activity…there are plenty of great things to do in Townsend, Tn.

You will find every type of activity in Townsend. From the aforementioned relaxation to hiking and tubing and white water rafting. If you love the outdoors you will adore this town.

This small and quiet place with a population of about 500 is a perfect gateway community for a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. There are many great things to do in Townsend and the surrounding area.

Things to do in Townsend, Tn

Start With a Visit to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Center in Townsend

The visitor’s center in Townsend is a must stop for anyone coming to the area. It is one of Great Smoky Mountains National Parks official visitors centers. You can get information about things to do in Townsend, Tn and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as any festivals and activities that might be happening in the area.

We found the staff to be incredibly friendly and helpful and the gift shop is excellent! It is full of great books about the area as well as toys, travel accessories and jewelry.

Go Tubing in Townsend

We had the best time tubing on the Little River which runs through Townsend. You can choose your level of excitement when tubing by deciding where to go. There are sections of the river with more rapids and a higher age limit as well as sections which are calm and good for all age groups and ability levels.

Check out River Rat Tubing or the Tube RIver Rage. Either of these outfitters can help you plan your tubing adventure, set you up with a tube, and take you to the drop off point.

Be sure and wear water shoes that won’t fall off! The bottom of the river is rocky, plus you might find yourself having to push off of rocks or stand up in some of the more shallow sections. I wore my Teva’s and they were perfect.

Tubing on the Little River is one of the best things to do in townsend tn

Step Back in Time at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center

This is a fun and interesting museum that you really shouldn’t miss. It is one of the best things to do in Townsend. Located just one mile from the entrance to the National Park, The Heritage Center will take you back in time to connect with the spirit and history of Townsend, Cades Cove, and the Great Smoky Mountains.

There are interesting exhibits about the Native Americans who lived in the area as well as an historic village with a collection of thirteen old buildings from the region which have been relocated to the museum. They are furnished with pieces from the past and provide a fascinating look at a bygone way of life.

Go Underground at the Tuckaleechee Caverns

The Tuckaleechee Caverns are Known as the “Greatest Site Under the Smokies” There are guided tours that will take you on a 1.25 mile round trip adventure through the caverns.

On your tour you will learn about the lore of the caves from the past and from more recent times. You will see gorgeous formations.

Your tour will also include sights like the “Big Room” which is an underground room that is big enough to hold a football field as well as the tallest underground waterfall in the Eastern US.

Visit The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum

The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum is non-profit, free museum that exists to preserve the heritage and history of the two companies that were so influential in the area.

You see, Townsend was founded in the 1900’s as a logging town and the railroad was created in order to get people and goods back and forth.

This is a small museum that won’t take long to see but will teach you so much about local history. You will learn about the town’s founder, W. B. Townsend, how the area developed, how “the Sinks” were created, and so much more.

This is a stop that should be on your list of Townsend Tennessee attractions.

Spend Time in Cades Cove

The entrance to Cades Cove is only about 20 minutes from Townsend.

Cades Cove is the most popular attraction in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I know it is one of my favorite places in the world! Cades Cove is a stunning, broad, lush valley which is surrounded by mountains.

An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the cove. Because the area is so popular the drive can be busy. Just remember, it is meant to be leisurely. You can stop at various pull-offs to enjoy the scenery or watch the abundant wildlife that is found in the area. There are also hiking trails that lead to various vistas or hidden waterfalls.

In addition to natural beauty, the valley has a rich history. It was first settled by Europeans around 1818. Cades Cove has many historic buildings that you can still view scattered all along the loop. There are three churches, a working grist mill, old log houses, and barns.

You will want to grab a self-guiding tour booklet at the entrance to the loop road for information about the buildings you’ll see in the cove and the people who lived here.

You will probably spend from 1/2 to one full day depending on how much you want to stop and observe or stop and hike. I would suggest bringing plenty of water as well as a picnic lunch to enjoy while in the area.

Note: The loop is closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesdays during the summer months. This is the day for bikers to explore the loop without traffic! You can find some bike rentals in the area if you want to bike the loop and don’t have your own.

A visit to Cades Cove is one of the best things to do in Townsend, Tn

Visit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

Looking for someplace a little less peaceful than Townsend? Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are busy, busy places that are packed full of activities like shopping, entertainment, and restaurants.

You can get to Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge from Townsend in as little as 30 minutes if you take the quickest route which is Wear’s Valley Road. It can also take as much as an hour if you want to take the scenic route on Little River Road. This route will also lead you past some interesting, historic, and beautiful sights that might be worth a stop.

Once you get to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge you will find plenty of things to do for all ages. There are activities ranging from the Dollywood amusement park, to dinner theater shows, to a Ripley’s Believe it or Not Aquarium.

There is no lack of people or activities in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

View of Gatlinburg tn

Ride the Townsend Bicycle Trail

The Townsend Bike Trail is about 5 miles long. It is paved with only a few easy hills. This is a great trail for cyclists of all ages and experience levels. It runs along Hwy. US 321 in Townsend, with a portion running along the Little River.

Because of its location near the highway it is not the quietest trail you will ever experience but it does provide access to restaurants and shops along the way.

In addition the trail has a historical component. You can pick up a brochure called “Shadows of the Past,” at the Visitor Center. The brochure has a lot of interesting facts about various things you’ll see along the trail. There are relics from the Native Americans as well as from the early European settlers.

Drive the Scenic Foothills Parkway

The Foothills Parkway is a National Parkway that crosses a series of high ridges running roughly parallel to the Tennessee boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Eastern Tennessee. It has gorgeous and unobstructed views of the Smokies to the south and the Tennessee Valley to the north.

This parkway has a slooowww history. It was authorized by Congress it 1944 and still has not been completed. There are currently about 38 miles finished with about 33 or so more to come. It is expected to be as much as 20 more years before the entire parkway is finished.

Even so it is a beautiful and little known drive. You can stop at a number of overlooks and unlike the Blue Ridge Parkway you will usually encounter very little traffic.

Go Fly Fishing in the Gorgeous Waters

Fishing is one of the most popular activities in Townsend, Tn.

The Little River runs through Townsend, and it is here that you will find an assortment of trout as well as bass and other fish. The amazing fishing spots will also have gorgeous scenery.

You will need a permit to fish and there are daily catch limits.

Check out Little River Outfitters for the fly fishing report. They also offer fly fishing equipment and even a fly fishing school. Little River Outfitters does not provide guides but they will recommend some if you want to take a guided fly fishing trip.

Flyfishing is one of the best things to do in Townsend, tn

Ride Horses on Mountain Trails

Horseback riding is a great way to do something fun and unique on your visit to the Smoky Mountains. It is also a good family activity.

Horseback riding is offered in Townsend as well as in Cades Cove. You can check out Davy Crockett Riding Stables in Townsend and Cades Cove Riding Stables in Cades Cove.

Take a Guided Photography Tour

Barry Spruce, a photographer who shows his work at the Cades Cove gallery also offers Smoky Mountain guided photography tours. He says that this allows you to “see the mountains from a new perspective.”

There are both individual and small group tours that can be tailored not only to your skill level but also to your interests!

Visit Elkmont Historic District

When driving the scenic route between Townsend and Gatlinburg you will see a sign to Elkmont campground. Behind that campground is the Elkmont Historic District.

The Elkmont Historic District is an abandoned town hidden in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It began as a logging village in 1908 and eventually a private resort community named “The Appalachian Club” was also established in the area. This was a vacation resort for wealthy businessmen from Knoxville. It included private cabins, a restaurant, lodges, and a hotel.

The establishment of the National Park meant that private landowners had to leave after a certain period of time.

Elkmont is now a ghost town and many of the buildings have either collapsed or burned. However, the National Park has recently undertaken a restoration project to return the buildings to their original condition using materials of the time. 

Visitors are allowed to visit the town and see the old buildings.

Elkmont historic district is one of the interesting places near townsend tn

Discover the Townsend Wye: The Smoky Mountain’s Best Swimming Hole

The Townsend Wye is known locally as just the “Y.” It is an awesome swimming hole and if you are visiting when the weather is hot this is definitely a place that you will want to stop and splash in the cold mountain water.

You will find plenty of parking and it is easy to get to the water’s edge. There are a couple of large pools, some shady places, a jumping off rock, and even some small rapids if you want to bring a tube along.

Some of the swimming holes get deep so if you have young children you will want to bring a life jacket for them. There are plenty of shallows for wading as well. The river bottom is rocky so you will want to wear water shoes.

Hear Mountain Music

Rocky Branch Mountain Music has Friday night jam sessions. They are free to the public but donations are accepted. Their goal is to save the music of the mountains and you will hear a little bit of bluegrass, country, and gospel music.

You can also listen to dulcimer mountain music on the front porch of the Wood and Strings Dulcimer Shop on Saturday evenings.

ABR (Appalachian Bear Rescue) Visitor and Education Center

The Appalachian Bear Rescue Center is a great place for any nature or animal lover to visit. The purpose of the center is to care for “orphaned and injured black bear cubs for return to their natural wild habitat; increase public awareness about coexisting with black bears; and study all aspects of returning cubs to the wild.” 

At the Visitor and Education Center you can watch videos about the cubs that have been helped since 1999. You can also learn more about black bears and how people and bears can co-exist.

Bears in the Great Smoky Mountains State Park

Hiking Near Townsend, Tn

Hiking is one of the best things to do in Townsend, Tn! There are many trails and waterfalls in the area. Some of our favorites are:

The Sinks – The Sinks is one of the most picturesque spots along the scenic Little River Road. It was actually created during the logging days when there was a log jam and the loggers used dynamite to clear it. This created a whole new route for the river.

It isn’t truly a hike as the sinks are located just off of the road but it is a beautiful place to see.

The sinks near townsend tn.

Spruce Flats Falls – Spruce Flats Falls is a 1.8 mile out and back trail with a beautiful waterfall. It is pretty heavily trafficked as it is near town. It is rated as being of moderate difficulty but although it is short there are some pretty steep and rocky ups and downs. The falls are very pretty.

Spruce Flats Falls. Hiking is one of the best things to do in townsend, tn

Abrams Falls Trail – This is a 5.5 mile out and back trail that is located off of the Cades Cove Loop. It is a very popular trail and can get busy from time to time. It leads to a lovely waterfall with a 25 foot drop over a rocky cliff.

Townsend River Walk and Arboretum – Ok, not sure I can classify this as a hike as it is only 1/2 mile but it is a pretty walk along the Little River in Townsend. It is quiet, scenic and shaded and you can learn more about the native trees & vegetation along the way.

Do a Wine Tasting at Cades Cove Cellars

Cades Cove Cellars was established by two local families who have a combined 80 years of winemaking experience.

They say on their website, “we constantly strive to capture the rustic elegance that surrounds us in every drop of wine we make.  Whether it is in the grace of a white tailed deer or the majesty of a bald eagle, we find inspiration all around us for a process that is as much art at it is science.”

I love that! Best of all they create award winning wines.

You can visit for a wine tasting but do be aware that tastings are available on a first come first serve basis.

Eat at a Local Restaurant

  • The Artistic Bean – They roast their own fair trade, organic coffee beans here in small batches at this charming coffee shop. It is delicious. You can truly taste the quality.
  • Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro – A true farm to table experience. The Appalachian Bistro uses fresh produce grown on-site, and sources the highest quality local ingredients. Their dishes are regionally inspired and they even have a fire pit for S’mores.
  • The Burger Master – This place is an old-fashioned (in all the best ways) hot dog, burger, and soft serve ice cream place. It was established in 1967 by a famous fisherman named J.C.Morgan. Old time locals call it the Chalet. We loved our burger and shake and the outdoor seating here.
  • Trailhead Steak and Trout House – This is a nice restaurant. My husband’s steak was perfectly cooked and I had the blackened pan-grilled trout which was delicious. Highly recommend the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer! They were perfection.
  • Good Vibes On the River Cafe – A mother and son team started this restaurant in order to have more healthy options in the area. Most of the food is made homemade and there are gluten-free and vegan options available. You will definitely want to try some of the baked goods! They also have nice outdoor seating on the river.
  • Townsend Little River Pub and Deli – They say that this is a perfect place to chill by the river and enjoy a craft beer and I agree! We really enjoyed this cute little restaurant which has local craft beers, appetizers, soups and sandwiches, and a perfect beer garden to relax in with a view of the river.

Shopping and Arts and Crafts Galleries in Townsend, Tennessee

One of the best things to do in Townsend, Tn is to peruse art and craft galleries. Over the years Townsend has become a haven for local artists. There are a number of businesses catering to visitors looking for unique and truly local pieces.

  • Birch and Twine – Birch and Twine is a lovely shop featuring home decor, gifts, seasonal items, robes, handbags, and much more.
  • Cabin Treasures – Cabin Treasures is known for stained glass created by artisan Becky Goodman. In addition you will find Mexican vanilla, jewelry, candles, and much more.
  • Apple Valley Mountain Village – You will find a bit of everything that you might want at Apple Valley Mountain Village. It actually consists of several different stores including: The general store where you will find a huge variety of merchandise from T-shirts to fudge to home decor. The Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center where you can get gear for all your outdoor activities. The Cafe which is a great place to pick up food for a picnic. They also have amazing fried pies. If you need a pick-me-up you can get a coffee at the Dancing Bean Coffee House.
  • Captain Dave’s Little River Artistry – Little River Artistry specializes in wood sculptures that are created by Dave Lavoie, a master sculptor who’s been carving since he was a teenager. Chainsaw carved figures are the main focus but you will also find fireplace mantels, relief carvings, wall hangings and much more.
  • Cades Cove Gallery – At Cades Cove Gallery you will find the work of nature and wildlife photographer Barry Spruce. His photos capture the unique beauty of the Smoky Mountains and particularly Cades Cove. You can purchase his prints with a variety of frames and mattings at the gallery.
  • Townsend Artisan Guild Gallery – The purpose of the Townsend Artisan Guild is to “connect fine arts and fine crafts and the people of East Tennessee through education of youth and adults, professional development of local artisans, and community development.” They have a gallery in town and sponsor many art events.
  • Wood and Strings Dulcimer Shop – Check out these gorgeous hand made dulcimers at this Townsend, Tn shop. On summer weekend evenings you might even catch the dulcimers artists pickin’ on the front porch of the shop.
  • CAM Cabin Crafts – Everything sold here is handmade and handcrafted by the people in these mountains. You will find everything from scrubbies to jewelry to windchimes and it is all locally made and sourced with nothing imported.

I hope that you enjoy your visit to Townsend, Tn and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! You will find that there are many amazing things to do in Townsend, Tn.

Looking for another wonderful gateway town to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Check out Bryson City in North Carolina!

Thanks for stopping by!