Finding solitude in Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t easy. Welcoming nearly 15 million annual visitors, it’s the nation’s most visited National Park. While the masses head to the circus-like environment of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, solitude seekers can find exactly what they’re looking for in Townsend, known as the “peaceful side of the Smokies.”

Townsend is the perfect destination for travelers wanting to enjoy the verdant forests, expansive summit views, and incredible wildlife of the Smoky Mountains without the maddening crowds. Come mid-October, the forests surrounding Townsend explode with some of the best autumn foliage in the world, and this charming little town makes a perfect base for exploring the Smokies like a local.

Cabin - Roaring Fork
Roaring Fork Cabin | Credit: Joey Priola

Outdoor Adventures

There’s no better way to experience the lushness and unique biodiversity of the Appalachian forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park than by shouldering a pack and hitting the trails. Numerous options for hiking can be found within a short drive from Townsend, with some of the most scenic and quietest trails located in the Tremont area, particularly off Tremont Road. 

Getting to Tremont Road is straightforward—it forks off from Laurel Creek Road and runs along the Middle Prong of the Little River for five curvy miles before ending at a parking area for two different trails along wild and picturesque rivers. The Middle Prong Trail utilizes an old logging road, which makes for easy and pleasant hiking for hikers of all abilities, and borders the cascading Middle Prong of the Little River. It’s a 7.8-mile roundtrip hike with just over 1,100 feet of elevation gain to Indian Flats Falls, with Lynn Camp Falls an optional turnaround point if a shorter (1.4-mile roundtrip) foray is desired.

For the photographer, Little River provides endless opportunities—especially the many smaller, unnamed cascades along the river—and is an excellent destination for those damp and cloudy autumn days. Departing from the same parking area as the Middle Prong Trail, the aptly named Thunderhead Prong Quiet Walkway is an even less-crowded alternative to the Middle Prong Trail, and is a pleasant 1.3-mile roundtrip walk on a trail along the Thunderhead Prong.

Two additional trails departing from Tremont Road are Spruce Flats Falls and the West Prong Trail. Spruce Falls Flat is a short 1.8-mile roundtrip hike that leads to a pretty waterfall, while the West Prong Trail is a great choice for longer hikes with options to connect to other trails, such as the Bote Mountain Trail. For an easy overnight backpacking trip (permit required), hike in just two miles on the West Prong Trail to campsite 18, idyllically perched above the West Prong Little River.

For a completely different type of hiking experience, consider checking out Tuckaleechee Caverns, which includes a 1.25-mile-long subterranean walkway with views of underground waterfalls (including Silver Falls, which is over 200 feet tall!) and the Big Room, with many stalagmites (some over 20 feet tall).

To experience the great outdoors in a way that residents of the region have for centuries, Cades Cove Riding Stables offers guided horseback riding tours as well as horse-drawn carriage rides through the park.

Middle Prong Cascade
Middle Prong Cascade | Credit: Joey Priola

Scenic Drives

For visitors who aren’t keen on hiking, it’s still possible to savor the Smoky Mountains without even leaving the car. No trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be complete without a visit to Cades Cove, which is circumnavigated via an 11-mile one-way loop road. The verdant valleys and meadows of Cades Cove attracted homesteaders in the 1800s, and several well-preserved cabins still stand, adding to the unique beauty of the area. Cades Cove can often be as crowded as it is beautiful, although some solace from the crowds can be found early in the morning and late in the evening, but keep in mind that entry to Cades Cove is restricted before sunrise and after sunset.

While the landscape of Cades Cove is enchanting, arguably the most exciting thing about visiting is the opportunity to view wildlife up close. Deer, turkeys, and coyotes are commonly seen while driving the loop road, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the black bear. Like Yellowstone National Park, black bear sightings in Cades Cove can cause traffic to grind to a halt, creating what is known as a “bear jam.” While missing out on viewing a bear due to a bear jam can be frustrating, with some patience and persistence, viewing a black bear in Cades Cove is practically guaranteed (especially in spring and fall), and is a highlight of any trip.

A less-crowded but almost equally scenic alternative to driving the Cades Cove loop is the Foothills Parkway. Extending between the towns of Walland and Wears Valley, the Foothills Parkway provides expansive views of the valleys below ringed with distant mountains. Given its proximity to Townsend, the Foothills Parkway is a great place to go for sunrise. This is true on chilly autumn mornings when thick fog often settles in the valley and the mountain peaks poke above the fog, which can lead to incredible photographs. Black bears are also commonly seen along the Foothills Parkway, and extra care should be taken when driving to look out for wildlife in or along the roadway, especially at dawn and dusk when animals tend to be most active.

If making a day trip to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge from Townsend, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a perfect way to get back to nature after enjoying popular tourist attractions such as Dollywood or doing a moonshine tasting at Ole Smoky Distillery. Like Cades Cove, Roaring Fork allows visitors to explore several historic cabins, providing a unique glimpse into what life as a homesteader in the 19th century was like. While lacking the open valley views that can be found in Cades Cove and along the Foothills Parkway, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail does provide some nice intimate views of the forest and creeks, which can be further appreciated on hikes to Rainbow Falls or Grotto Falls.

Cades Cove Tennessee Bear
Cades Cove Bear | Credit: Joey Priola

Dining and Lodging

There’s nothing better after a full day of exploring the wilderness than a hearty meal and a tasty beverage, and there are plenty of options for both in Townsend. One of the best, and certainly most unique, dining options in the area is The Abbey, a bar and restaurant that resides in an old chapel and serves beers from breweries across Tennessee and North Carolina. The outdoor patio along the Little River is the perfect place to enjoy a cold drink and a bite to eat, especially when there’s live music in the gazebo alongside the river. Peaceful Side Social is another fun establishment that has a brewery and kitchen and hosts an Oktoberfest celebration in September. If locally made wine is your jam, head to Cades Cove Cellars, where a variety of their spirits (including wine slushies) can be enjoyed in their tasting room.

While lodging options are plentiful in the Townsend area, possibly the best way to enhance a trip is to stay at a beautiful cabin. The Smoky Mountains are known as being a hot spot for honeymooners; as a result, a bounty of excellent and surprisingly reasonably priced cabins can be found in and around Townsend. Thunderhead Ridge cabins are a great option, with several of their cabins enjoying sweeping mountain views that can be soaked up while soaking in a hot tub on the deck of the cabin. Camping near Townsend is also possible—National Park Service campgrounds can be found in Cades Cove and Elkmont, and a KOA just outside the National Park offers tent sites, RV sites, and rustic cabins.

Wears Valley Tennessee Sunrise
Wears Valley Sunrise | Credit: Joey Priola

Already ticked Townsend, Tennessee, off your list? Add Port Clyde, Maine; Inlet, New York; and Sugar Hill, New Hampshire to your list of places to explore like a local.