National parks were meant to be places of natural beauty and quiet reflection, but at the doorstep of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Tennessee twin cities of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are anything but.
Watching the throngs of tourists trod along Gatlinburg’s overwhelmed sidewalks and into the street, I silently curse Google Maps from the driver’s seat of my camper van. In the past 10 minutes, I’ve traveled as many feet; Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 150 species of indigenous snails, and I’m sure every one of them was plodding along much faster than me.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far the most heavily visited national park in the country, attracting more than 12 million visitors each year and three times the number of runner-up Yellowstone. Over the years, both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have become tourist destinations in their own right, and for the mass of visitors here, the national park seems almost like a secondary adventure to squeeze in, between gawking at wax statues of celebrities and dinner at Margaritaville .
Luckily, there’s an alternative close at hand.
It’s a much different scene 22 miles away in Townsend, Tennessee. Sipping a delightful IPA on the appropriately named Peaceful Side Social’s (peacefulsidesocial.com) patio, I watched a slow, steady trickle of cars on the Lamar Alexander Parkway make their way into the park. Tourists leisurely pedaled a paved bike trail alongside the highway and through the park’s nearby entrance.
The small hamlet of Townsend has long been a favorite of solitude-seeking travelers, while, somewhat ironically, being the nearest gateway to Cades Cove, one of Great Smoky Mountains’ biggest draws. I’d stumbled across it years ago, ducking out of the park looking for a cell signal, and was instantly enthralled. Driving through town, passing the solitary IGA grocery store, a Dollar General, and several small restaurants, one feels slightly out of place and time. Maybe one of the only inclinations that 2.5 million visitors drive through each year is the number of campgrounds and small inns along the highway.
That has been by choice. Many of Townsend’s residents are descended from folks displaced from Cades Cove, forced off the land when it became part of the national park. When those families moved to Townsend, according to Peaceful Side’s co-owner Houston Oldman, they were determined to retain their quieter way of life. Town leaders resisted development for decades, only recently pivoting to a more sustainable tourism strategy based on outdoor recreation.
I arrived in town the day after a huge rainstorm, so I wasn’t able to ride Vee Hollow’s (rideveehollow.com), 14 miles of mountain bike trails. Judging by the number of bikes I saw on car racks over the next few days, I wasn’t the only rider who might have missed out. Thankfully, I was able to pedal my e-bike in Cades Cove a couple of days later. Alongside me were hundreds of other walkers and cyclists, as well as several black bears — some with cubs — going about their day. Cades Cove may be the one of the best places in the country to see a wild bear, let alone the Great Smoky Moutains. During these encounters, the only sounds to be heard were the crowd’s excited breathing and the bears’ snorts.
Not content with bears, I hoped to get up close and personal with a few brook trout; some of the best fly fishing throughout the entire southeast can be found just six miles from the Townsend entrance. 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 Prong of the Little River. We spent the better part of a spring morning wading the fast-moving water and taking in the surroundings. The narrow river was surrounded by birch, maple and hickory trees, while down near our feet, dragonflies were escaping from their larval husks.
Although I hooked a couple of brookies, I wasn’t a skilled enough angler to haul either all the way in. Results may vary, but be sure to buy 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 delightful campground with cabins and tiny homes, as well as RV and tent camping. My spot not only came with basic amenities like a fire pit, ramada, and picnic table, but it also backed up to the Little River. An on-site convenience store sold firewood, drinks and everything you’d need to make s’mores with the family.
In addition to the more than 800 miles of hiking trails inside the park, Little Arrow has some short trails leading up to the top of a hillside, giving a nice view of the surrounding area. While camping at Little Arrow is far from roughing it, there are plenty of places nearby for people who need a few more creature comforts — TVs, hot tubs — such as the Dancing Bear Lodge (dancingbearlodge.com).
All those hikers, mountain bikers, and anglers need places to eat and drink. In addition to Peaceful Side Social’s standard brewery fare, it recently opened a tacos and tequila bar on-site. From former Jack Daniels master distiller Jeff Arnett, Company Distilling Co. (companydistilling.com/townsend-distillery) operates a tasting room featuring great Tennessee bourbon and some basic sandwiches and wraps.
When I stopped in for breakfast at the Apple Valley Café (applevalleystores.com), my server Tina greeted every customer like an old friend, which in a community of only about 600 people, may not be so far-fetched. The only time the smile left her face was when I ordered biscuits and gravy with hash browns, but without also ordering a side of bacon. For a brief moment, I worried that I personally offended her.
“You’ve got to order the bacon,” she cajoled. “We’ve got the best bacon here,” without elaborating if she meant merely in 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 television ad, not in a small-town cafe.
The best times to visit are the spring and fall. Wildflowers typically begin to bloom in April and early May, while the synchronous firefly displays typically occur in late May and early June. (You may have to apply for special permits at recreation.gov to attend viewings in the Elkmont region of the park.)
The autumn colors often last well into November, when the forests explode into gorgeous reds, yellows and oranges. Best of all, early spring and late fall are the times when park crowds will be at their lowest. You are coming for the peace and quiet, after all.
Robert Annis is a freelance writer.