The Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States. As many as 10 million people have visited the park in a year on their bikes, motorcycles, RVs and cars. It can be somewhat overwhelming depending on what time of year you visit as the mountain roads are narrow and snake through the twists and turns of the Smokies.
Don’t get me wrong, the area is absolutely breathtaking, with its cascading rivers and old growth trees. You may think of Gatlinburg or Sevierville when you think of the Smokies, but the real jewel is the charming town of Townsend, TN. If you don’t know about Townsend, TN, it serves as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains. Townsend touts itself as the peaceful side of the Smokies, a claim that’s true. To contrast, a quick trip through the park lands you in Gatlinburg, a town teeming with the hustle and bustle of tourists. Townsend feels like small town America in a wonderful way. There are lots of reasonable places to stay and eat and tons to do without much effort.
As my husband and I drove thru the Smokies (we actually took a wrong turn), it got me thinking about the vision of the states that put the land under protection for future generations.
The vastness and beauty is glorious. You may think that the Feds initiated acquiring the land, but in actuality it was initiated by the prominent citizens of the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. This was a dramatic departure from the process by which the early national parks were acquired. Most of them were vast expanses of land that were placed under protections by the federal government. The land around the southern Appalachians was privately owned, and the motivation to protect it came from visionaries in the surrounding communities. They were inspired when they saw America’s most beautiful landscapes and wildlife being protected for future generations. Also, there were great benefits to creating a national park — more jobs, increased tourism and updated roadways. No federal money was appropriated to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Townsend feels undiscovered in that you can get a $50 hotel room, a steak for under $20 and omelets that fill the plate for next to nothing. And there is so much to do there! For the sports enthusiast, biking, hiking and rafting are right there, but if you want to pursue more cultural offerings, those are there too. If camping inspires you, there are a number of RV parks right on the river, or you can acquire camping permits.
Here’s a quick and dirty look at where to stay, eat and play during a trip to Townshend.
Where to Stay
If you want an affordable place to stay with lots of personal touches, then the Strawberry Patch is for you. The proprietress Wendy Baker couldn’t be nicer, and she aims to accommodate your every need. I’m not kidding. We actually took all of her advice, from where to eat and all of her advice on the right festivals to visit. What I loved about Strawberry Patch, other than the name, was that it was campy in a wonderful way. Our room was comfortable and large with an additional bed if you brought a small child. There was a kitchen area and fridge if you wanted to create a cheese plate or quick breakfast. The grounds had hammocks, bird feeders and inner tubes for relaxing in the river. The sound of the river rushing by was a lovely addition. Believe it or not, Strawberry Patch is right on the main drag, so you are close to everything and it’s incredibly reasonable. To contact Strawberry Patch, click here.
We have stayed at Dancing Bear Lodge a couple of times, and it doesn’t disappoint. It is also on the main drag but hidden from the road. Dancing Bear Lodge feels secluded and has a magical touch with individual cabins with hot tubs! Previously owned by BlackBerry Farm, the main lodge at Dancing Bear was demolished in a fire in 2013. Rather than rebuild the property, it was sold to new ownership. I was skeptical at first as it’s hard to live up to the standards of Blackberry Farm. The rebuilt restaurant is gorgeous with lots of outdoor space, and the cabins offer lots of privacy. It is every bit what it was before and more! To contact Dancing Bear Lodge, click here.
If you want to bulk up on a good ol’ Southern breakfast before your biking or hiking expedition, then head to Country Steak N’ Egg. As we watched plates of flapjacks, omelets and hash browns go by, I began to drool. Per the waitress, it was recommended that we split the Western omelet due to it size. That was fine with me as I wanted to try the hashbrowns, grits and biscuits. It was huge when delivered to us. One notable omelet they have is called the Garbage Can Omelette — it lives up to its name and is not for the faint at heart, but it’s certainly satisfying.
Full disclosure, I did not eat here on my recent trip, but I did see the lines snaked around their building. Out of curiosity, I checked out their reviews. Lots of love going on at Burger Master as they reportedly serve some of the best burgers and soft serve ice cream in town, which they’ve been doing since 1967!
Known for world famous fried apple pies with 50,000 sold a year, Apple Valley Cafe and Restaurant is one of Townsend’s iconic restaurants. They have bakery items like granola and biscuits and brag that their hamburger is one of the best. You won’t go wrong with Apple Valley Cafe’s down-home cooking and bakery selections.
Upon arriving to town, we asked Wendy from Strawberry Patch where to eat dinner. Immediately, she dialed up Trailhead Steak and Trout to get us an 8 p.m. reservation since it was Heritage Festival weekend. A couple of things to note — Trailhead Steak and Trout does not serve wine, but you can bring your own and pay a $3.50 corkage fee. With bonafide bragging rights, Steak and Trout sells more steak than most restaurants in Tennessee. Here’s the best thing — their top-of-the-line sirloin steak dinner costs a whopping $15.95, and it was delicious. My husband ordered the rainbow trout and gave it high marks. When it comes to a find, Trailhead Steak and Trout delivers.
What to Do
With some quick research into bike trails, it is easy to see there are lots of options. Here are the two bike rides that we did. Cades Cove was so beautiful that we rode it twice.
Townsend Bicycle Trail
The bike trail that runs parallel to Hwy US 321 is called the Townsend Bicycle Trail. It’s about 3 miles long, an easy ride and a great way to get to restaurants and shops nearby.
The Cades Cove Bicycle Trail
Both my husband and I said unequivocally that this is the prettiest bike ride that we have ever been on. Important to note: From early May through late September, only bike and foot traffic are allowed on the Cades Cove Loop until 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Saturdays only. A game-changer as the narrow road is busy when you add bikes, walkers and cars.
Cades Codes has majestic views of expansive valleys and threads through what was the community of Cades Cove. Along the way, you will see the homesteads of families who inhabited the valley. Names like Shields, Tipton and Gregory grace log cabins along the roadways. There are also a number of churches along the way, all open to visit. We stepped inside the Cades Cove Methodist Church only to hear a trio singing around the piano. The woman, who was seated at the piano, motioned us to sit down and sing with them. This gospel trio was singing from the ancient hymnal — a memory that won’t be long forgotten.
We took two hikes while we were in Townsend, which were lovely. There is so much water in the park that it was hard not to hike along a rushing stream or river. The ancient trees, rhododendron and ferns offer hikers a lovely backdrop that isn’t easily replicated. The best advice I have on hiking is to decide what level you want to take on — easy or difficult. We chose to hike Little River Road and the Cucumber Gap Loop and Abrams Falls. They were moderately difficult and exceptionally beautiful.
If you go in the summer or early fall, grabbing a tube or rafting is a must. The river runs through Townsend with several operators on the main drag. If you stay at Strawberry Patch, you can grab one of their tubes and take a float.
How lucky we were to be in town during this festival! It is held about the same weekend every fall and hosts musicians from all over the region. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy the acts of the main stage or wander around to experience all the “ pop up” jam sessions. I have always loved bluegrass music since my first visit to hear bluegrass at the Lucy Opry in Lucy, TN. The Heritage Festival offers visitors a rich experience with banjo, bass, fiddle and a hearty dose of cloggers. If you like fried Twinkies or specialty pork rinds, they have those, too. We were impressed by the quality of the local artisans who sold everything from authentic turquoise jewelry to homemade soaps and lotions.
Old Timer’s Day
This festival coincides with when they open up Cades Cove to automobiles. It makes sense because it may be difficult for old timers to get to the festival if they can’t drive there. Musicians of all kinds play, from a soulful fiddle player in the field to a family dressed in authentic dress from the ’30s. If you are interested in the descendants of Cades Cove, there were tables set up with old photos and genealogy charts. The Civil War brought conflict to the Cades Cove community, and legend says that Cades Cove was a stop on the Underground Railroad before the war started.
Have I inspired you? While my husband and I went alone to celebrate our anniversary, I highly recommend Townsend for families. There’s nothing better than to get your kiddos to commune with nature, and it is all there — hiking, biking, tubing and a good dose of history.
As my grandmother used to say, “If you want to see real beauty, travel the US. For history go to Europe.” Truly Townsend, TN, offers both.
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