National parks were meant to be places of natural beauty and quiet reflection, but on the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee’s twin cities of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are anything but.
As I watch the throngs of tourists walk down Gatlinburg’s overwhelmed sidewalks and out onto the streets, I silently curse Google Maps from the driver’s seat of my RV. In the last 10 minutes, I have traveled so many feet; The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 150 species of native snails, and I’m sure each one of them was moving much faster than I was.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far the most visited national park in the country, attracting more than 12 million visitors each year and three times the number of Yellowstone runners-up. Over the years, both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have become tourist destinations in their own right, and to most visitors here, the national park seems almost like a side venture to get into, between gawping at statues of celebrity wax and dine in Margaritaville. .
Fortunately, there is an alternative at hand.
It’s a very different scene 22 miles away in Townsend, Tennessee. Sipping a delicious IPA at the appropriately named Peaceful Side Social’s (pacificsidesocial.com) patio, I watched a slow, steady trickle of cars on the Lamar Alexander Parkway making its way into the park. Tourists leisurely pedaled along a paved bike path along the highway and through the nearby park entrance.
The tiny hamlet of Townsend has long been a favorite of solitude-seeking travelers while, ironically, it is the closest gateway to Cades Cove, one of the Great Smoky Mountains’ biggest draws. I stumbled upon it years ago, sneaking out of the park looking for a cell phone signal, and was instantly captivated. Driving through town, past the lonely IGA grocery store, a Dollar General, and several small restaurants, one feels a bit out of place and time. Perhaps one of the only inclines that 2.5 million visitors pass each year is the number of campgrounds and small inns along the road.
That has been by choice. Many of Townsend’s residents are descended from displaced people from Cades Cove, driven off the land when it became part of the national park. When those families moved to Townsend, according to Peaceful Side co-owner Houston Oldman, they were determined to preserve their quieter lifestyle. City leaders resisted development for decades, only recently switching to a more sustainable tourism strategy based on outdoor recreation.
I got to town the day after a big storm, so I couldn’t ride Vee Hollow’s (rideveehollow.com), 14 miles of mountain bike trails. Judging by the number of bikes I saw on the bike racks over the next few days, I wasn’t the only rider who might have gotten lost. Fortunately, I was able to pedal my electric bike at Cades Cove a couple of days later. Joining me were hundreds of other hikers and bikers, as well as several black bears, some with cubs, going about their day. Cades Cove may be one of the best places in the country to see a wild bear, let alone the Great Smoky Mountains. During these encounters, the only sounds to be heard were the heavy breathing of the crowd and the snorting of the bears.
Not content with the bears, I was hoping to get up close and personal with some brook trout; Some of the best fly fishing in the entire Southeast can be found just six miles from the Townsend Inlet. Although I didn’t know where to go, my guide Charity Rutter of R&R Fly Fishing (randrflyfishing.com) did, taking us to the Middle Point of the Little River. We spent most of a spring morning wading through the fast-moving water and taking in the surroundings. The narrow river was surrounded by birch, maple, and hickory trees, while near our feet, dragonflies were escaping their larvae.
Although I hooked a couple of brookies, I wasn’t a skilled enough angler to drag them all the way. Results may vary, but be sure to purchase a Tennessee fishing license before you hit the river; daily licenses can be purchased online (gooutdoorstennessee.com).
At the end of the day, I retired to the Little Arrow Outdoor Resort (camplittlearrow.com), a charming campground with cabins and tiny houses, as well as RVs and tents. Not only did my place come with the basic amenities like a fire pit, ramada, and picnic table, it was also backed by the Little River. An on-site convenience store sold firewood, drinks, and everything else you’d need to make s’mores with the family.
In addition to the more than 800 miles of hiking trails within the park, Little Arrow has a few short trails that lead to the top of a hill, providing a beautiful view of the surrounding area. While camping in Little Arrow is far from rough, there are plenty of places nearby for people who need a few extra amenities (TVs, hot tubs), like the Dancing Bear Lodge (baileosolodge.com).
All those hikers, mountain bikers, and fishermen need places to eat and drink. In addition to the Peaceful Side Social’s standard brewery fare, it recently opened an on-site taco and tequila bar. From former Jack Daniels Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, Company Distilling Co. (companydistilling.com/townsend-distillery) operates a tasting room that offers excellent Tennessee bourbon and some basic sandwiches and wraps.
When I stopped for breakfast at Apple Valley Cafe (applevalleystores.com), my server Tina greeted each customer like an old friend, which in a community of only about 600 people, may not be that far fetched. The only time the smile left her face was when she ordered biscuits and gravy with hash browns, but without also ordering a side of bacon. For a brief moment, I worried that I had offended her personally.
“You have to order the bacon,” he coaxed. “We have the best bacon here,” without explaining whether he was simply referring to Townsend, the state of Tennessee, or the entire world. When my plate arrived, the strips were perfectly crisp and thick, and most importantly, very tasty. It’s the bacon you’d expect to see in a TV commercial, not in a small-town cafe.
The best times to visit are spring and fall. The wildflowers typically begin to bloom in April and early May, while synchronous firefly displays typically occur in late May and early June. (You may need to apply for special permissions at recreation.gov to attend tours in the Elkmont region of the park.)
Fall colors often last well into November, when the forests burst into beautiful reds, yellows, and oranges. Best of all, early spring and late fall are the times when crowds in the park will be at their lowest. You come for the peace and quiet, after all.
Robert Annis is a freelance writer.