ULTIMATE Guide to Things to Do in Townsend TN | Attractions, Restaurants, & Lodging

Townsend, Tennessee, is the peaceful side of the Smokies and a welcome respite from the lively atmosphere of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. But don’t assume the word peaceful translates to boring. Townsend is home to treasures above and below ground, on land or water.

Townsend has an entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park that sees just 7% of the traffic compared to Gatlinburg and offers several things you can’t experience in Pigeon Forge and along the Parkway — in addition to being the Gateway to Cades Cove.

Townsend brings a great balance of activities inside and outside the park. The tallest peak might be in the park’s center, but the lowest point in the eastern U.S. is 924 feet below Townsend.

Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center-Townsend, TN
Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center | photo via katyuana

Indoor Things to Do in Townsend

In a place perfect for outdoor activities, you can still find some indoor options for rainy days or when you want a break from the summer humidity.

Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center

The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend is Tennessee’s answer to North Carolina’s Mountain Farm Museum.

The center sits just outside the park property, with museums, galleries, and a historical collection of buildings. Many festivals and demonstrations are held here throughout the year, including hands-on craft classes. Make the most of your time with a Cades Cove Heritage Tour.

Little River Railroad Days
Little River Railroad Days – Townsend, Tennessee | photo via Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum

Little River Railroad Museum

Townsend’s logging and railroad history is preserved at the Little River Railroad Museum. While logging in this forested area was lucrative, railroad access opened up the “peaceful side” to tourism. When the park took over the land in 1939, the tourists kept coming.

As you stand in the tree-rich landscape here, imagine what it would look like if logging had continued past 1939.

TRAVEL TIP: Just behind the museum, there’s a “Swinging Bridge” over the river. Only four people can walk on it at a time, and the opposite end is private property. Also, don’t put locks on the bridge.

Tuckaleechee Cavern-Townsend
Tuckaleechee Caverns | photo via dallaslovephotography

Tuckaleechee Caverns

The “Greatest Site Under the Smokies” starts in Townsend, with a guided tour through an underground labyrinth that culminates with a 210-foot waterfall named Silver Falls. Tour guides talk about the history of the caves, led by generations of the family who first owned the land.

Our future also might hinge on what happens in this cave — and that’s not an understatement. The most attuned seismic station on the planet is deep in the cave, constantly reporting any seismic activity indicative of nuclear testing across the globe. This monitoring started during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Dave Crockett Riding Stables-Townsend, TN
Dave Crockett Riding Stables | photo via blickenstaff

Outdoor Things to Do in Townsend

We were stretching it by putting a cave indoors, and it’s about time we got back outside in Townsend, Tennessee, anyway, since there’s a lot of ground (and water) to cover.


Without all the traffic on the Parkway, bicycling is a great way to get around and explore Townsend. The Townsend Historical Trail runs five miles across the city’s main drag but has a safe lane for walking and biking. Explore from the Heritage Center to the Townsend Sunshine Covered Bridge over the river.

Every Wednesday from May through September, Cades Cove is closed to cars. Bicycles are available to rent at the campground store, opening up the 11-mile loop for a three-hour ride through Appalachian history, stunning scenery, and wildlife sightings.

Horseback Rides

From March through November, ride through the peaceful side landscape on horseback. Dave Crockett Riding Stables caters to experienced or beginning horse riders, and young children are welcome.

Inside the park, Cades Cove Riding Stables also offers rides on horseback, carriage, or hay-filled trailers. Country Manor Acres is another option in a more remote setting, with the guide offering to shoot photos along the way.

River Rat Tubing & Rafting-Townsend, TN
River Rat Tubing & Rafting | photo via smokymtnriverrat

River Activities

River Rat Tubing & Rafting and River Rage Tubing are two of the most popular places for tubing rentals and adventures. These trips take you down the easier part of the Little River. If you’re looking for whitewater rafting, head to Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina or Hartford, Tennessee.

The Townsend Wye (Y) is at the fork in the road, just inside the local entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This popular swimming hole offers a place to cool off, but it can get crowded.

Fishing the Rivers

Anglers will love the trout and bass streams in Townsend and throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park. R&R Fly Fishing and Little River Outfitters are two Townsend businesses that help you get everything you need, along with daily fishing reports. Cades Cove is home to Abrams Creek, a popular trout stream.

Townsend River Walk & Arboretum-Townsend, TN
Townsend River Walk & Arboretum | photo via drmermaid_photos


From simple walks through town to adventurous backcountry searches for hidden caves, Townsend has it all. Start at the Townsend River Walk & Arboretum for seasonal blooms and three miles of riverside trails. Grab an arboretum list on your way to help identify different plants, flowers, and trees.

One of the most popular yet unpublished trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park takes you to two secret cave entrances – one with waterfalls dropping into the darkness below.

Take the Schoolhouse Gap Trail and go for two miles to the “No Horses” side trail. You’ll eventually find trails that lead to Blowing Cave and Rainbove Cave (not Rainbow Falls, but there is a waterfall here). Entering the caves is not allowed.


Given the karst topography of this land and all the water drainage down the mountains, you’ll find numerous waterfalls in this area. Some are right off the park roads, like The Sinks or Spruce Flats Falls. Others, like Abrahms Falls, require a five-mile hike.

Cades Cove Loop -Townsend, TN
Cades Cove Loop | photo via molldollmi

Scenic Drives

The beauty of the Smokies spans all directions for those who love a long car ride. The Cades Cove Loop is an easy drive that you can make with a more adventurous route on Rich Mountain Road, winding along a narrow road through the mountains.

The Foothills Parkway wraps around the eastern side of the park to Happy Valley. From there, explore the Cherokee of Nantahala National Forest or head to the Cherahola Skyway, one of the newest and most popular scenic drives on the North Carolina side.

Dancing Bear-Townsend, TN
Dancing Bear | photo via kittyseats

Where to Eat in Townsend

Bring a big appetite to this small town because the food here is as down-home as it is delicious, with a few upscale surprises that never cross over to pretentious.

Dancing Bear

We wondered if this fit best under where to eat or where to stay, but the Appalachian Bistro menu won us over. It was the only Great Smoky Mountain restaurant to make the Open Table list of Top 100 Romantic Restaurants in America, among several more accolades.

The rustic rooms would make a great place to stay overnight and enjoy even more menu items during your trip. Plus, the Dancing Bear is a great comeback story after being devastated by fire in 2013.

Peaceful Side Social

One of Townsend’s newest community gathering spots combines a restaurant, taco bar, creamery, and performance venue into one location. Look for seasonal activities like Octoberfest, and rest assured that if you think there’s “nothing to do” in Townsend, there’s always something “social” happening.

Apple Valley Cafe

Two words – fried pies. Apple Valley Cafe hits the spot for any meal, and with prices this low, you can enjoy a stack of pancakes and a croissant breakfast sandwich. If you’re really hungry, check out the Grand Daddy. Go hog wild for any BBQ item with sorghum sauce, or consider adding some bacon jam or pimento cheese to your burger.

When you fall in love with the fudge from the Apple Valley General Store, be sure to order more online.

Little River Pub & Deli-Townsend, TN
Little River Pub & Deli | photo via mtngirl375

Little River Pub & Deli

Forget everything you know about the word “deli” when you enjoy this charming slice of dining with an outdoor dog-friendly patio or an intimate indoor table.

Craft sandwiches and a mix of Appalachian appetizers (hello, Moonshine Meatballs!) pair well with cold drinks in mason jars while live music plays. Even without the music, you’ll get to hear the sweet sounds of the river flowing by.

Burger Master

Across the Smokies, locals and long-time visitors make the pilgrimage to Burger Master every so often. The drive-in restaurant and menu haven’t changed much since opening in 1967, but that’s even more of a reason to love it.

Choose between burgers, dogs, ice cream, and even dog treats, then enjoy a spot at a picnic table or rent a cabana by the river through River Rat next door.

Townsend, TN
Townsend, TN | photo via xanderstone12

Where to Stay in Townsend

Most people who stay on the Peaceful Side want clean, comfortable, and affordable, and Townsend over-delivers on all of the above.

Townsend Gateway Inn

This popular spot is just two miles from the entrance to the park and next door to the Heritage Center. Rooms, suites, and cottages are available with a playground, firepit, and seasonal pool. Large groups will love the big barbecue area backed by scenic views of the mountains.

Tremont Lodge

Forget whatever you’ve heard about Tremont Lodge in the past; it’s under new ownership and has big plans ahead.

All new furniture is in the guest rooms, and an indoor pool and hot tub are open year-round. A game room and fitness center have been added, with an outdoor pavilion that caters to everyone with an outdoor kitsch and firepit. Also, pickleball courts, putt-putt golf, and an outdoor movie screen round out the add-ons.

Riverfront Farmhouse

One of the benefits of staying in Townsend is immediate access to the water This five-bedroom farmhouse is perfect for big families or large groups, with a game room, fitness center, hot tub, and property access to the water for tubing or fishing. While the inside is exquisitely designed, the tiki bar outside with hammocks is a great place for an afternoon nap.

Charming Riverfront Cabin

When you want something smaller, look for places like this cabin set on 700 feet of access to the river. The cabin is secluded on 18 acres but close enough to the town or park. Groups of families can even consider renting the four cabins on the property to have their own vacation neighborhood.

Dave Crockett Riding Stables-Townsend, TN
Dave Crockett Riding Stables | photo via blickenstaff

Enjoy the Peaceful Side of the Smokies in Townsend Tennessee

When you want a peaceful valley with Smokies scenery, Townsend lives up to its name. Those seeking more of an outdoor experience with a laid-back vibe will love Townsend. Plus, it’s not on a remote stretch of land – Wears Valley is just seven miles east. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge can be accessed within 30-45 minutes.

On the North Carolina side, the Tail of the Dragon scenic drive is 30 minutes away, and Fontana Dam and Lake reside just about an hour on a stunning drive through the Foothills Parkway. You can also reach Elkmont in under 30 minutes and without Gatlinburg traffic.

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