Smoky Mountain National Park

Eat, Drink and Explore in The Great Smoky Mountains

See what makes this East Tennessee treasure one of the top tourist destinations in the world

Though not far from the bright lights of Sevier County’s parkway, the Peaceful Side of the Smokies feels worlds away. The most visited national park in the country, the Great Smoky Mountains straddle two states—North Carolina and Tennessee—with Townsend the perfect central base for exploring the multitude of activities, restaurants and shops that make this region so visitor-friendly.

If you’re heading to the Smokies—for leaf-peeping in the fall, wildflowers in the spring or a retreat from the thrum of city life any time of year—here are all the best things to do in Townsend and the surrounding towns.

Getting outdoors in the Smokies 

The Peaceful Side is conveniently located near many of Tennessee’s best waterfalls like Abrams Falls, Spruce Flat Falls and Laurel Falls, most of which can be via hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty. If you want to visit the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, Clingmans Dome (6,643 feet) is an easy day trip from Townsend with a paved (albeit, steep) path that leads out to an observation tower.

For travelers looking to stretch their legs, the Smoky Mountains offer no shortage of hiking trails, several of which depart from Tremont Visitor’s Center. Most notable is the one-way, 11-mile, pedestrian-friendly Cades Cove loop that doubles as one of the Smokies’ most iconic bike rides. On Wednesdays from May through September, Cades Cove is car-free to give cyclists and hikers more freedom to safely explore.

You don’t even have to leave Townsend to get your bike on, though. Vee Hollow is a 14-mile mountain bike trail network located just off Highway 73 in Townsend. The trails are free for public use daily during daylight hours, and there’s an on-site bike shop open on select days. For even more outdoors gear, Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center not only sells graphic T-shirts and apparel from major outdoor brands, but the outfitter rents bicycles and tubes for those warmer months along the Little River.

Always wanted to golf in the Smokies? You can play 18 holes at Wild Laurel Golf Course, which—true to its name—regularly hosts the area’s wildlife, who may very well come wandering across the fairway during your round. After you’re through testing your swing on this par-70, Audubon-certified course, settle in at the tavern for a different kind of rounds (of drinks, that is).

For a caving experience unlike any other, Tuckaleechee Caverns just outside of Townsend, lays claim to one of the most sensitive seismic stations in the world, which tracks both earthquakes and nuclear tests. The mile-long guided tour, which passes by the 210-foot-high Silver Falls and through the football field-sized Big Room, is offered daily year-round.

Eating, drinking and exploring in Townsend

Once you’ve had your fill of hiking and biking in the Smokies, Townsend will take care of your late-afternoon entertainment. Townsend Mercantile Co. brims with mountain-themed memorabilia like Townsend-branded throw pillows, candles, mugs and long-sleeved Tees while Apple Valley Mountain Village houses a general store, café and coffee shop. 

For a town of under 1,000 residents, Townsend packs in numerous restaurants, bars and cafes for visitors to enjoy. Towns End Coffee Co. sits right smack in the middle of town, whipping up coffee and espresso, seasonal drinks like a Pumpkin Spiced Cold Brew, breakfast items such as avocado toast and pastries aplenty, including gluten-free dishes.

Peaceful Side Social is a craft beer bar, farm-to-table restaurant and social space all rolled into one. Townsend’s first brewery specializes in German-style beers as well as their own microbrews and is pet-friendly, so your dog can accompany you for lunch or dinner. There’s also a taco bar that’s open several days a week for as long as supplies last. Townsend’s craft beer pub, the Abbey, also serves shareable plates and beer out on its riverfront patio, as well as regularly hosts special events like yoga.

But beer isn’t the only libation the Peaceful Side has to offer. Townsend’s first distillery, Company Distilling, occupies prime real estate—13.5 acres of riverfront property—makes its own bourbon, rye, Tennessee whiskey and gin. If wine is more your thing than whiskey, Cades Cove Cellars specializes in sweet wines and is known for its wine slushies, best enjoyed on the winery’s deck on warmer afternoons. Cades Cove Cellars has a second location in Wears Valley.

Staying the weekend in Townsend

One of the Smoky Mountains’ finest resorts, Dancing Bear Lodge has accommodations for every kind of traveler: There are rustic villas, treehouse-style cabins and multi-bedroom lofts. Dancing Bear also is dog-friendly, so the most important member of your family doesn’t have to stay home on your mountain vacation. The resort’s Appalachian Bistro provides a farm-to-table dinner that focuses on seasonal ingredients sources from the area, as well as patio seating with wooded vistas and firepits for making s’mores.

For those looking to camp in the Smokies, Little Arrow Outdoor Resort sits at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is an excellent option for those who want to stay as close to the park as possible while still enjoying basic amenities. Little Arrow is more than a campground: In addition to RV and tent sites, it’s also got tiny homes, glamping tents and a pair of Airstream trailers for rent. Guests have access to the swimming pool, store and the river. The best part? Little Arrow is just 14 miles from Cades Cove, so you can bring your bike and cycle up to one of the Smokies’ most popular spots.