Even in 2018-2019, we’re amazed at how many of our visitors who come to the Smokies to find peace and quiet are unaware of Townsend, TN, just a reasonably short distance from many of our cabins at Bear Camp. Townsend is a town that functions as the other major gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and, while now far more developed than ever, a stark contrast to the largeness and energy that Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg provide.
The best way to get to Townsend, in our opinion, is to do so from Pigeon Forge. You take Wears Valley Road and drive that for about 35 minutes just straight. You will slowly transition out of the hustle and bustle of Pigeon Forge out to some more local businesses, services, and neighborhoods, and from there start seeing a plethora of much more natural views, valleys, farmland and more alongside some interesting local businesses and stops. About 17 minutes in, you will come to what appears to be a great clearing with a sudden burst of antique shops, Smoky Mountain stores, restaurants and some other local fare. This area is known as Wears Valley and it is definitely worth a stop sometime on its own, but as we’re heading to Townsend here, keep going straight. The road will begin to showcase some heavy curves again and the thick forestry of the mountains will come back. More roadside items and other curios like historic cemeteries will be among your sights now in an eclectic, almost random, fashion. Keep driving and soon enough you will come to another clearing with tubing and woodworking businesses on both sides that finally stops at a major fork in the road.
You’ve reached Townsend, friend!
And as you will see, Townsend is largely this one road. There are stores, gas stations, attraction providers and arts and crafts places, but as you can see, it’s a much different atmosphere out here. Traffic is far less, complexes and places are much more spread out. There is a major sidewalk on both sides of the road, but it almost seems ironic considering how much walking one would need to do to on it to get to places! Bicycling is preferred along that route. There are few chain restaurants in Townsend, no WalMart, and pretty much no fighting for parking space… with one exception we’ll talk about below. Townsend is touted as the “quiet side of the Smokies”, and that title is certainly justified.
As a significant part of the greater Smoky Mountains tourism region, Townsend has three things going for it – the aforementioned proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, its historical attractions and the “Townsend Wye”. As a gateway to the National Park, Townsend’s big strength is the wonderful driving tours and views that can be offered. Townsend is where you can find Cades Cove, which can be worth the trip from all over the country to the Smokies alone to visit, as well as gorgeous areas such as Upper Tremont Road, Little River Road, and Foothills Parkway West. From Townsend, you can also connect to Gatlinburg or, going the other way, you could even go out as far as Maryville with a lot of nature to see along the way (although going as far out as Maryville would definitely add to your driving time back).
For Smoky Mountain historical relevance, you almost can’t do better than Townsend! Townsend and nearby Walland (which are largely interconnected) were the sites of early lumbering enterprises that made use of railroads before the Smoky Mountains claimed a huge portion of mountain forestry as a protected National Park, and as such, Townsend is home to the Little River Railroad Museum, a short little stop that preserves this little piece of history and will be a fun little diversion for little children who have a thing for trains. On the other side of Townsend is a much bigger complex known as the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center where they have a sizable bookstore, an outdoor amphitheater, a multitude of outdoor exhibits showcasing what types of historic Appalachian buildings, tools and structures were needed for life in the mountains, and many special events and musical performances that are scheduled throughout the year. The Heritage Center is definitely a must-see place for interested parties to see once in Townsend and you’ll find some really eye-opening concepts and stories about who lived here and what took place long before we ever came along.
And finally, last and the opposite of least, the one thing you might have trouble finding parking for in Townsend, is the famous Townsend river that runs alongside the town. For most people, Townsend’s identity is intrinsic to the Townsend Wye river as it is an amazingly popular spot during the Summer for tubing, swimming, fishing and more. When it’s colder out is when you can expect fewer people parked along the Wye, but even then it’s unlikely to be fully empty as folks still come to fish and take pictures of unrivaled Smoky Mountain beauty in all its glory. When it’s warm enough to swim, though? Wow. And there’s a reason it fills up so quickly, the Wye really is that great a place to take the family for a swim and/or picnic. Tennessee rivers don’t get any better than the Wye!
We could spend pages and pages and pages talking about Townsend, for more information about this awesome little community. CLICK HERE