If you’re looking for an amazing gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, look no further than Townsend, Tennessee. While there are two other entrances to the half a million acre park, the other two (Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina) draw millions of visitors each year and are chock full of commercial attractions. Townsend, however, is a delightfully peaceful place to explore the beautiful Tennessee countryside. Ready to learn more? Let’s get started!
The town gets its name from Colonel W.B. Townsend, a Pennsylvania businessman who saw potential in the thick virgin forests of the region. In 1900, Townsend purchased 86,000 acres of the area now considered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in 1901, he applied for and received a charter for the Little River Lumber Company. Townsend erected a bandsaw mill and the ensuing community was named after him.
Townsend became immensely wealthy from the sale of his timber but by the 1930’s, almost two-thirds of the forests had been destroyed. Though many worried that the loss of timber sales would impact the area economically, Townsend sold at base price almost 80,000 acres to what would ultimately be the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Today, the area does well economically thanks to droves of tourists and adventure seekers.
What You Need to Know About the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the United States. In 2016 alone, it had over eleven million visitors! It has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes part of the Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Appalachian Mountain chain. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially dedicated the park.
The park is stunning. Blue, smoky peaks tower into the sky, giving way to thick pine forests in what can only be described as cinematic views. Dark and moody, the park covers parts of Tennessee and North Carolina and includes some of the most diverse landscape in the world. Dim spruce forests give way to meadows filled with sun and magic and wide, surging rivers thick with sediment washing from the mountaintops give away to babbling brooks and sparkling waterfalls.
In addition to the diverse landscape, the park also holds a vast variety of plant and animal life. Here are some of our favorites:
Black bears roam all elevations of the park because here, they’re protected. Approximately 1,500 bears live in the park which is great news for biologists since at one time the bear’s range extended over most of North America. While these bears may be brown or cinnamon in other parts of the country, here they are black. They’re smaller than the Grizzly bear but can still be as tall as six feet in length. In the summer, male black bears weigh about 250 pounds but can double this during the fall.
While bears are omnivores, like humans, it’s important to understand that they are wild animals and should be handled with extreme caution. You should never approach a bear in the wild, and before visiting the park, make sure you check in with the rangers to learn what to do if you see a bear.
Thanks to its intensely beautiful wildflower diversity, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is sometimes called the “Wildflower National Park.” Over 1,500 kinds of flowering plants are found here and almost every part of each season of the year is rich in new blooms to discover. You’ll find everything from spring ephemerals like trillium, violets, columbine, phacelia, and lady slipper orchids to hepaticas in the late winter to asters in the late fall.
The park even hosts its annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. For one week, it throws a festival for visitors from around the world, full of guided walks, hikes, and programs that celebrate the beauty of the flowering outdoors. While the park gets crowded, especially at the other two entrances as we’ve previously noted, the Townsend, Tennessee entrance is a welcome retreat.
If you’d like to find a mix of natural beauty and history, you’ll love Cades Cove. This beautiful valley is tucked into the Smokies and provides fantastic opportunities to view wildlife, including deer, bears, coyotes, hogs, and more. You may drive through the cove or enjoy its many biking and hiking trails.
The valley is dotted with preserved buildings from the 1700’s and 1800’s, including log houses, churches, and a working grist mill. While the Cherokee Indians hunted for years in the cove, it was until the 1800’s that it was settled permanently by Europeans. Today, it’s one of the most popular destinations in the park.
What To Do
Once you arrive at Townsend, there’s a host of things to do throughout the Great Smoky Mountains Park, including hiking, camping, renting bikes, horseback riding, and fly-fishing. Here are a few of our favorite places to visit while there:
The mature forests and old-growth hemlocks of Grotto Falls perfectly highlight the beautiful waterfalls of this part of the park. You can find the trailhead on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is almost two miles from the beginning. Trillium Gap Trail is one of the main arteries that you’ll be hiking to reach the top of Mt LeConte, a journey of about six and a half miles.
You’ll discover a moderate ascent on a well-maintained trail, with creek crossings along the way. You’ll even get to traverse under Grotto Falls behind a veil of water, a favorite location for photographers and admittedly very cool!
Alum Cave Bluffs
The Alum Cave Bluffs hike is often rated as the best in the park. It is full of stunning views and outdoor pleasures, but these must be earned. Despite only being 4.5 miles round-trip, it’s a steep and difficult ascent from the parking lot to the bluffs.
One of your rewards, however, will be Arch Rock. There, handcrafted stone steps lead you through a beautiful stone arch that will remind you of something out of Lord of the Rings. The trail also crosses the Styx Branch and climbs again, where you’ll find a delightful heath bald filled with mountain laurel and blueberry bushes.
Next, you’ll encounter Inspiration Point, a scenic vista that leads you on one more short climb to the bluffs. You won’t find a cave but instead a rock overhang with sulfur and rare minerals. You can keep going for another 2.7 miles to the summit of Mt LeConte if you still feel up to it!
At the very tip of the Smoky Mountains is the park’s highest peak, known as Clingmans Dome. There’s even a paved trail that leads to an observation tower with a 360-degree view of the mountainous park. Even when the sun is shining it might be cold or foggy, so when you climb the steep, half-mile trail to the summit, make sure you don’t forget your jacket.
What to Do
Townsend, Tennessee weather is fairly mild, with historical monthly averages in the 50’s during the winter. That doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a blizzard or a frigid winter’s day, but if you’re not interested in the arctic temps of, say, Canada, these mountains are the ones to visit! The summer rarely sees temps in the 90’s, which makes this a great place to visit at all times of the year.
Want something besides just hiking and trail walking? Here’s what to do in Townsend, Tennessee:
1. Visit Tuckaleechee Caverns
Tuckaleechee Caverns has received almost 1,500 positive reviews on Trip Advisor, and for a good reason. Called “Greatest Site Under the Smokies,” this series of caverns and caves are a sight to behold. View the tallest subterranean waterfall in the Eastern US along with the millions of formations that can be seen as you mosey along the 1.25 mile round trip underground experience.
2. Try Tubing or White Water Rafting
Smoky Mountain River Rat is great place to get setup for a whitewater adventure! The outfitters can prep you for a whitewater excursion, kayaking, or tubing on the Pigeon River. The company offers outings for all age and experience levels and offers a unique way to get to know the mountains.
3. Take an ATV Tour
Another unique way to check out the beautiful Townsend, Tennessee countryside is in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). The vehicles at Mtn Trax offer you a chance to do just that while renting one of their two-, four-, or six-seater street-legal off-road vehicles. You can even sign up for a trail drive with a guide for a truly thrilling experience.
Where to Stay
You won’t find lodging that as varied or luxurious as you would in Gatlinburg, but Townsend, Tennessee cabins are treasures all the same. We love checking out options on Airbnb. The marketplace for short term rentals offers everything from cozy cottages with mountain views to guest suites at economical prices to mansions fit for a crowd.
What something a little more traditional? The Dancing Bear Lodge, Townsend Gateway Inn, Highland Manor Inn, and Best Western Cades Cove are all Townsend, Tennessee hotels that offer well-reviewed stays for the long term or short-term visitor. You can also find vacation rentals higher up in the mountains; those these can be costly during peak tourist seasons.
Townsend, Tennessee is a treasure trove of adventure and idyllic vistas. It’s the kind of vacation you just won’t forget in a lifetime.