By Mike Steely
Townsend promotes itself as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” and compared to Gatlin-burg, Pigeon Forge or Sevierville it truly is. There’s fewer attractions but, thank goodness, lighter traffic.
My wife and I took a Sunday drive recently to revisit the area and found a welcoming and friendly community with its own draws — everything from good restaurants, gift shops and campgrounds to the Tuckaleechee Caverns, Cades Cove, a free train museum, and a gateway to the national park.
And there is also the Townsend Visitor Center, a free roadside attraction along Lamar Alexander Parkway. The center, which contains a neat gift shop and dozens of free pamphlets about regional attractions, has a gallery where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their handiworks.
The Visitor Center’s calendar for September and October features local artisans Randy Thornton, Cathy Coulter, Corinne Coley, Beverly Calloway, Lyda Plemons, the Townsend Artisans Guild and author Rea Rhyne. Unique crafts in the gallery often include pine needle basketry, woodburning, decorative wind bottles, log art, natural woodcrafts, gourds and clay jewelry, wooden flags, pebble art and birdfeeders.
The Townsend Visitor Center is located at 7906 East Lamar Alexander Parkway and can be reached by calling (865) 448-6134 or toll free at (800) 525-6834. You can also find the center online at www.smokymountains.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our visit to Townsend reminded us of visiting Gatlinburg many years ago before the commercial boom in that area. From Townsend, you can continue on Alexander Parkway, or Highway 321, until the road forks south of town. There you can take a right and drive to Cades Cove or a left and drive through the Smokies to Gatlinburg or even Cherokee, N.C.
Along the way to Gatlinburg, there are lots of places to pull off the road to see the sites along the Little River. Or, if you’d like a high and scenic drive, you can come back toward Knoxville a few miles and take the 321 to Wears Valley. Another great drive is north of Townsend to the Foothills Parkway where you can drive the mountain tops to Wears Valley or, westward, to Look Rock and eventually to Tallassee, returning to Knoxville by Highway 411 to Maryville.
We found the drive through Cades Cove congested on that Sunday afternoon with slow traffic as visitors slowed to catch a view of bears or other wildlife. We did that loop there and stopped at the Cades Cove picnic area to have lunch and watch families with kids play in the babbling creek.
Given the rise of Covid again, a day away in the Townsend area is less crowded and less stressful than dealing with the crowds that pour into the other Smoky Mountain communities and attractions.