The Complete Guide to Townsend TN: Our Favorite Peaceful Side Of The Smokies

The scenic valley town of Townsend, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has been one of our favorite places to visit for years.

Living right outside Townsend, we’re always here throughout the year, especially in the summer.

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road through townsend
View of the road through Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

With a population of only 600, the town is much quieter than Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. There’s nothing like go-kart tracks or mountain coasters here.. for now.

But there are some great family-friendly things to do here.

As you enter town from the west, you’ll see a sign advertising Townsend as “the peaceful side of the Smokies.”.

welcome sign to townsend
Welcome sign to Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

What to do in Townsend


Tubing is the most popular summer activity in Townsend, bringing many people to town.

little river in townsend
Little River in Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

Head over to Smoky Mountain River Rat, where you can rent tubes for the whole family. It’s one of our favorite things in Townsend, and we’ve been doing it for years.

river rat tubing
River Rat Tubing Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

River Rat Tubing is located at 205 Wears Valley Rd., Townsend, TN, right at the town’s entrance when coming from Pigeon Forge.

The main office (Outpost A) is your starting point for the tubing adventure.

river rat tubing building in townsend
River Rat Tubing Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

Though the minimum age for tubing is 3, we’d be nervous and recommend caution when bringing kids that young.

Our experience with our kids has been as young as 6, which is about as young as we’d personally recommend.

rafters on tubes in townsend on the little river
Rafters Tubing in Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

With a wristband, you can enjoy unlimited tubing all day long.

Our plan is usually to go tube in the morning, grab lunch at a nearby restaurant, and return for an afternoon float.

The main office features small bathrooms and changing rooms. Accessories like paddles and tube connectors can be purchased to keep your child’s tube connected to yours.

tubers on the little river in townsend
Little River Tubing at River Rat Tubing Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

There are traditional and solid tubes without a hole in the middle, great for kids.

The river is cold (refreshing?), even in the summer heat!

tubers on little river in townsend
Tubers on Little River in Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

Some tubing rivers can get pretty rowdy, but as Townsend doesn’t allow alcohol river, it tends to be a bit more calm and family friendly.

The 2-mile journey takes 1-2 hours.

tubers on faster moving part of little river in Townsend. Photo by Ashley @
Faster Moving Part of Little River in Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

To stay close to your group, be prepared to do some paddling.

Rocks and other obstacles can slow or redirect you. The river splits into two channels at several places, and having a paddle helps you choose a route.

Midway through the trip, there is a deep, slow section with a tall rock on the right, where you’ll find people jumping into the river

Tips for Tubing with Kids in Townsend

  • Wear water shoes to protect your feet, in some parts, the river is really shallow, and the rocks are slippery.
  • Bring a lanyard-type waterproof phone protector to keep your phone safe.
  • Purchase a paddle from the gift shop; it helps when you get stuck or want to navigate around obstacles.
  • Arrive in your bathing suits to save time, as the bathroom/changing rooms can get busy.

Tuckaleechee Caverns

front entrance to Tuckaleechee Caverns
Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

Tuckaleechee Caverns is a guided cave tour just a couple of miles south of Townsend.

It’s over a mile round-trip and has some unique features, like a room big enough to hold a football stadium and the tallest subterranean waterfall in the Eastern US, at over 200 feet tall.

Open from March through November; Tuckaleechee is a great way to cool off on a hot summer day.

Townsend Historical Trail

The Townsend Historical Trail is a 4.5-mile paved trail that runs along both sides of the main road (321) through Townsend.

Townsend Historical Trail
Townsend Historical Trail Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

It’s a nice place to ride a bike or E-bike, and plenty of places to park along it.

Since it parallels the main road, driveways to businesses run through it when you get to the busier areas, but other parts are pretty quiet.

Townsend Historical Trail
Townsend Historical Trail Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

A good place to start the trail is at the covered bridge.

The covered walking bridge is located as you first enter Townsend from Maryville. On Google Maps, it’s listed as “Townsend/Sunshine Covered Bridge

A parking spot is a short walk from it on the road’s north side.

The picture above is taken from near the parking lot looking towards the covered bridge, which is visible in the far distance

Swimming at the Townsend Wye

river rocks in the river at the townsend wye swimming area
Townsend Wye swimming area. Photo by Ashley @

The Townsend Wye is a popular swimming area just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance.

The Wye (or Y) is where the Little River and Middle Prong of the Little River converge, joining in a Y shape.

Townsend Wye view of river joining into two rivers
Townsend Wye, where the river splits. Photo by Ashley @

Read more about the Townsend Wye

Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center

heritage center townsend
Heritage Center Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

Learn about in local history at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center.

heritage center cabin
Heritage Center Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

The museum showcases the region’s Native American, pioneer, and early settler history.

There are historic buildings and many events throughout the year, such as Kids Take Over the Museum and Smoky Mountain Storytellers.

Watch for special events like Old Timers Day and live music performances in summer.

Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum

Little River Railroad Museum Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum is a small museum. Little River Railroad operated in Townsend from the early 1900s until the 1930s.

With only a few pieces of equipment, it’s much smaller than most railroad museums.

But it’s worth a quick stop to learn the history of the railroad and lumber industry in the region.

Check their website for open times, as hours vary throughout the year.

Appalachian Bear Rescue

We stopped by Appalachian Bear Rescue to learn about their efforts to return injured or orphaned bear cubs to the wild.

They’re great people and enjoy letting people know about their important work.

Note that there are no live bears at the visitor center, those are kept elsewhere to avoid human interaction.

Their hours vary, so it’s best to call if you’re going to Townsend just to visit them. Also, visit their Facebook page to see daily updates on the bears!

Great Smokies Welcome Center

This is a brand-new visitor center and a great place to stop for information on the national park.

You can also pick up the yearly annual parking passes here, something you can’t find in the machines located inside the national park.

Cades Cove

cades cove view of gravel road
Cades Cove. Photo by Ashley @

Though it’s not in the town, Townsend is closest to Cades Cove.

cades cove john oliver cabin
John Oliver Cabin at Cades Cove. Photo by Ashley @

If you’re in Townsend and haven’t visited Cades Cove yet, don’t miss a trip to one of the most popular places in the Smoky Mountains.

Foothills Parkway

foothills parkway view of downhill part of road with valley in distance
Foothills Parkway near Townsend. Photo by Ashley @

Take a drive on the Foothills Parkway for a few views of Townsend from above.

It offers some great views of the valley with different lookouts to capture beautiful views

overlook from the foothills parkway on a cloudy day in spring
Overlook on the Foothills Parkway on a cloudy Spring day. Photo by Ashley @

Good Local Food

Townsend has some great options for dining!

Dancing Bear

Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro is the best restaurant in Townsend, especially if you’re looking for somewhere nice for dinner.

Treat yourself to a farm-to-table dining experience featuring locally sourced ingredients.

Dancing Bear also has a great resort for an overnight stay.

Peaceful Side Social

Peaceful Side is an indoor/outdoor craft kitchen and brewery featuring plenty of outdoor seating, outdoor games for kids, and events throughout the year.

When the weather is nice, it’s our favorite place to go!

Apple Valley Cafe

One of our kids favorite places to go, Apple Valley Cafe is a quick-service restaurant known for its delicious burgers and milkshakes.

We can’t drive through Townsend without being asked to stop here!

The Abbey

A good stop for lunch, The Abbey Restaurant is a unique restaurant made from an old church.

The outdoor patio has some great views of the river.

Spend the Night in Townsend

Townsend doesn’t have the same lodging options as in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge.

There are smaller motels, but some unique options here, too.

Dancing Bear Lodge

Dancing Bear Lodge is our top choice for a higher-end hotel. The resort features individual cabins and one of the best restaurants in the area.


There are some great options for camping in Townsend.

Little Arrow Outdoor Resort is our top choice, right outside the entrance to the national park. It’s on the river, and has a really nice pool. There’s also cabins for rent.

Big Meadow Family Campground is located next door to River Rat Tubing and has sites on the river (across a small one-lane road). If you’re staying here and tubing, you can walk right over to the tubing main office.

KOA Townsend is located at the eastern end of town. As usual with KOAs, it has many activities for the kids, such as a pool, playground, and outdoor movies.


Townsend is much less busier than other towns like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, one of our favorite places for a day trip, or an overnight trip.

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