Posted by Darryl Payne in Things To Do
Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee can be a fun-filled adventure. Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville comprise a 25-mile corridor of tourist destinations that can fill a lifetime's worth of vacations. With everything from attractions and shops to restaurants and overnight lodging providers, these three communities are an enchanted gateway to the most visited national park in the nation.
But what if you're looking for something a little more laid-back in a Smokies vacation? A place where the pace is a little slower and there's not quite as much traffic. A place that still offers shopping, dining and fun but on a much smaller scale. A place that is still on the front doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains.
If that's what you have in mind for a mountain getaway, then say hello to Townsend, Tennessee, a historic community that for years has billed itself as "the peaceful side of the Smokies." Read on for an introduction to this beloved alternate mountain destination, which is a short drive from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. So in some cases, you can still get a full dose of Smoky Mountain fun and also take a side trip to Townsend for a slightly different flavor of experience.
Here are our top five reasons for visiting Townsend:
This cultural attraction is located about a mile from the Townsend entrance to the national park. The proximity is fitting since this self-guided museum tour tells the story of Townsend and the greater East Tennessee region through the centuries, from early Native American habitation to white settlement to the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The tour proceeds in chronological order, and along the way, visitors will discover archaeological relics and antiquities as well as modern-day, interactive exhibits that make it fun for all ages to learn about area history. There's also an outdoor component to the museum. Guests can tour a number of restored historic structures, including a granary, private homes, train depot, church, barn and corncrib, saw mill and print shop.
This popular swimming hole is technically within the boundaries of the national park, but it's a very short drive from the traffic light in Townsend. It's a spot where the Little River forks, and that juncture forms a natural place to wade in on a hot summer day and cool off in the bracing waters. There's usually plenty of parking, either in the lot or along the shoulder of the road. It is a rocky area, so you'll want to watch your footing as you make your way in and out of the water, but the water is generally shallow, so it's fun for old and young alike.
This attraction tells the story of how the railroad and lumber industries helped bring commerce and prosperity to rural East Tennessee. It also goes further back in time to explore how Native Americans and pioneers influenced the development of the region. The museum offers a self-guided tour with railroad-related exhibits inside and a number of displays outside the main building, including a Shay 2147 vintage caboose, two vintage flatcars, a portable Frick steam engine and a wooden water tank that was used at the train station in nearby Walland, Tennessee.
As a matter of fact, the original Walland depot was one of the first exhibits moved to the current museum site when it was founded in 1983. Today, that building houses the museum's indoor exhibits-primarily a collection of photographs, papers, tools and smaller artifacts related to local railroad history. The original Little River Railroad & Lumber Company was responsible for the creation of Townsend as a community, and that industry thrived until the formation of the national park in the 1930s.
Here's another fun way to cool off in the Little River: Rent an inner tube, settle into it and then set off on a float downstream. You'll find several tubing vendors in Townsend. In some cases, they'll transport you to a put-in location and then you float back to their main outpost. Sometimes, you might put in at the outpost, and then they'll pick you up at the take-out spot. Different packages are available, depending on how long you want to spend floating on the river.
Billed as the “Greatest Sight Under The Smokies,” Tuckaleechee Caverns is a set of underground caverns located just outside Townsend. The caverns were discovered in the middle 1800s, and they were opened to the public as a tourist attraction in 1953. The tour leads guests to a number of unique underground features and rooms, including stalagmites, stalactites and what they call “the big room,” which is large enough to contain a football stadium. Also look for the 210-foot-tall Silver Falls, which is the tallest subterranean waterfall in the Eastern U.S. The tour altogether totals 1.25 miles round trip.
Those are some of the main things you can do for fun in Townsend, but that's not all there is to the community. You'll find a wide variety of restaurants ranging from national fast food chains to local restaurants serving down-home flavors. There's plenty of barbecue, Southern cooking and more to be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You'll also have quite a few lodging choices if you decide to make it an overnight stay. There are several hotels and motels along the main drag, most of which are locally owned. Or you could book an overnight rental property like a cabin or a cottage and stay a little farther off the main drag.
Townsend also hosts a number of special events every year, including the Smoky Mountain Fiber Arts Festival, the Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon and several different custom-auto shows.
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