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Townsend, in east Tennessee, is the gateway to Cades Cove on the peaceful side of the Smokies. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Knoxville. The Cherokee Native Americans who used this as their hunting ground before European colonization called it Tuckaleechee Cove, meaning “peaceful valley.” Tuckaleechee Caverns still carries the name.
Townsend follows the Little River, which provides a lot of outdoor activities like tubing, fly fishing, and swimming. Lamar Alexander Parkway borders the river and is one of several scenic drives here. Townsend is filled with fun things to do, including museums, resorts, attractions, unique gift shops, and the Townsend Visitor Center. You’ll probably see some wildlife along the river’s banks. It has an old-time Appalachian feel.
Little Arrow Outdoor Resort
First thing you need to get set up with lodging. There are dozens of RV parks, cabins, and other lodging choices. I stayed at Little Arrow Outdoor Resort. It’s a combination of RV park, glamping, cabins, or small house rentals and is very family-friendly. Kids have a small park right up front in the resort. They are pet friendly also with a park just for dogs. There’s a camp store, laundry facilities, bathhouses, and a community garden.
They have RV spots to fit any camper. Their glamping tents are a cross between a luxury hotel and tent camping. I stayed in one of their cabins. It was small but so well organized, with room for everything. There’s a full kitchen with refrigerator complete with freezer, a real stove with oven, a microwave, and instead of a table and chairs there is a comfy sofa with several small stacking tables so you can dine in comfort or watch the TV mounted in a cabinet space or use your computer since there is free wifi for one device.
The resort is filled with things to do. There’s a world-class swimming pool that also has a splash pad, hot tub, and plunge pool. For sports-minded visitors, there’s a basketball court, a gaga ball pit, and a pickle-ball court. They recently brought in Diamondjack Restaurant, so there’s dining on-site at certain times of the year. There was a REO Cheesewagon on site as well, so you won’t have to go far for food.
One of the most unusual attractions here is Tula Blu, a massage spa housed in a shiny airstream.
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There are lots of opportunities for indoor gatherings. Point and Feather Coffee Lounge has free coffee for coffee lovers in the morning. Unfortunately for tea people, there are no tea bags. The lounge had games, book and movie swaps, and a kids’ playroom. It’s a cozy spot to relax. Another relaxing spot is the outdoor pavilion with fireplaces at both and a glass enclosure around it. We attended the reception for the Grains and Grits Festival in the pavilion.
Grains and Grits Festival
Townsend is big on festivals. We attended the Grains and Grits Festival. The shuttle stops at most of the local lodgings and takes you right to the festival so you don’t have to worry about drinking and driving. There’s an amazing collection of distilleries and food vendors. It’s held at the Townsend Visitor Center and distillers from the Tennessee Whiskey Trail showcase their products.
Tennessee Whiskey Trail is made up of about 30 distilleries across Tennessee. Over two-thirds take part in this festival. Admission entitles you to food and drink samples from everyone. We sampled some of the top whiskeys in America. You’ll meet well-known distillers like Jack Daniels and smaller locals like Company Distilling, which is located right in Townsend. There were nearby distilleries, including Knoxville’s Knox Whiskey Works and Post Modern Spirits, Gatlinburg’s Sugarlands Distilling, Old Forge from Pigeon Forge, and Junction 35 Spirits with distilleries in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. There were others from farther away, like Lost State Distilling from Bristol, and several from Nashville, Chattanooga, and Memphis.
Some distilleries offered samples and others had cocktails as well. Two of my favorite cocktails were served at Jack Daniels, with rye whiskey and a tasty fruity concoction, and a hot apple cider and vodka concoction from Knox Whiskey Works.
On the food end, there were over 20 chefs passing out their favorite treats. Some were local, like Jeff Carter from Dancing Bear Lodge, home of Appalachian Bistro. Others were from all over Tennessee and even other states. The star of the culinary end was Michael Sullivan, aka “The Reverend of Fat” and “Chef Sully.” He hosted “The Ring of Fire” where five chefs cooked over a large fire pit roasting a whole pig, lamb, chickens, and sausages.
Of course, there was live music. I enjoyed some food and cocktails while listening to the band as I was kept warm by a blazing fire ring.
Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum
Little River Railroad and Lumber Company was founded in 1901 by W.B. Townsend and a group of investors. It became one of the largest commercial logging operations in southern Appalachia and developed the nearby towns such as Elkmont and Tremont, which were early logging camps. Townsend is named for the founder.
The company closed its sawmill in 1938 and abandoned the railroad in 1939 after the government founded the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1934. The museum tells the company’s story with many artifacts and some actual trains.
There’s a Shay engine No. 2147, which was used in the logging operation. Shay engines were not built to last but to pull heavy loads such as lumber up steep hills. It was used by Little River Company from 1932 to 1935 and is the last Shay engine not to be scrapped or wrecked. You can step aboard and pretend to be an engineer.
There’s a small Frick steam engine, a wooden water tank, and a depot that was moved to Townsend from Walland that contains other artifacts.
The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center
As you drive along Lamar Anderson Parkway, you’ll see a cluster of old log cabins just off the road. The Townsend Bike Trail passes in front of it. This is The Historic Village in the center which contains many historical buildings. They have been salvaged from all over Tennessee. Here they are arranged like a village where you get the feeling of walking through the past.
Walk farther back and you find many of the buildings that existed in Tennessee’s early villages. There’s a moonshine still, a smokehouse, a cantilever barn, a stagecoach station, and a wheelwright shop. There are cabins and an African-American church.
The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center has two indoor galleries showing life in earlier times. Part of the main gallery showcases Native American history, and the other part tells of pioneer and mountaineer periods. There’s a transportation gallery that tells about different types of early transportation, from wagons to railroads and automobiles.
Cades Cove Loop
Possibly the top attraction in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove Loop. It’s an 11-mile paved one-way single-lane road that winds through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ll have scenic views of the mountain tops, wildflower meadows and you may see white-tailed deer, black bears, woodchucks, river otters, skunks, raccoons, bobcats, gray or red foxes, chipmunks, and other wildlife including coyotes who have migrated here from the west.
There is a primitive campground that accommodates RVs but has no hookups, and a horseback riding stable near the entrance. If you want to do horseback riding outside the park, Davy Crockett Riding Stables is near the entrance to Cades Cove. There are several hiking trails that branch off from the loop.
You will see an authentic piece of history. Cades Cove was never designed as a museum, it’s the preserved remnants of the families who called this home from 1820 until the park began acquiring the land in 1934. The oldest home there, and the first you come to on the loop, is the Oliver Cabin. John and Lucretia Oliver were the first permanent white settlers in Cades Cove. They moved to Cades Cove in the 1820s when it was still Native American land. The two-story log cabin with its stone fireplace is in amazingly good shape
Another early cabin is the Tifton Cabin built by William Tipton, a Revolutionary soldier who came from Virginia. He was nicknamed “Fighting Billy” Tipton was a prominent resident as he was a miller and forge owner.
Two cabins tell a sad story with a happy ending. Matilda Shields Gregory’s husband abandoned her and their young son in the 1880s. Her brothers built her a small log cabin. It’s the one to be back of the larger cabin. Henry Whitehead, a local widower with three daughters, later married Matilda. He built them a squared log home. At first glance, it looks like a frame house but a closer look shows four-inch square sawed logs were used to build it. There’s a brick chimney on the squared log house
Near the middle of the loop, you find Cades Cove Visitor Center and a lot of other buildings. If you need a restroom, this is the place. The visitor center has a cute gift shop.
Last time I visited there was a lot of activity going on. There was a baseball game on the lawn with teams dressed as ball players would have then. Some “settlers” were grinding cane with a horse-powered mill. On an earlier visit, a ranger had a table set up with fox, wolf, and coyote pelts. You could feel the difference between the furs.
This is also where you find one of the most iconic buildings in Cades Cove, Cable Mill. Before electricity, the water wheel turned by the current of the stream was the most common power source to drive the early grist mills. Cable Mill is a workable mill. It is open from mid-April through October, and you can buy meal ground by these ancient stones. There is usually a costumed docent who explains how the mill works.
The Cantilever Barn shows the ingenuity of these early settlers. It’s designed so the upper story is larger than the ground floor. This allowed animals that were normally outside to have shelter from the weather.
These early settlers were religious. There are three churches in Cades Cove. Primitive Baptist Church built in 1887 is the first you come to on the loop. Turn left on the road right after the John Oliver Cabin. The Methodist Church built in 1902 has two front doors, so men enter one side, women on the other. The men then sat on one side of the chapel, and the women and children on the other side. It’s just a short distance past the Primitive Baptist Church along Cades Cove Loop Road. The third Baptist church came about due to a division in politics before the Civil War. Missionary Baptist Church split in 1641 but didn’t build a church until 1894. They later built the church you see today in 1915.
The newest home in the cove was built in 1879 by Leason Gregg on a one-acre tract he purchased from John Cable. The Gregg-Cable house was the first frame house built in Cades Cove. Greg used it as a general store downstairs and the family residence on the upper floors. Later, John Cable’s son, Dan, and daughter, Rebecca, bought the property back. Eight years later, they changed the property to a boarding house. Rebecca Cable never married, and after Dan and his wife died, she took care of her nieces and nephew and ran the boarding house. She was one of the last residents of the cove. The government lets residents choose to sell outright or keep life rights and remain in their homes. Rebecca chose to remain and died here in 1940. She was in her nineties.
Along Lamar Anderson Parkway
As you drive along the road, there are many places that invite you in. Little River Outfitters is your stop for anything related to fly fishing. Not only do they sell any equipment you might need, but they also offer fly-fishing classes and can hook you up with a guide.
Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing is the place to get tubes and book your tubing trip. However, they are only open during the summer months. They have two places they take you to for tubing. Outpost A is less challenging. Outpost B is for the more adventurous. Both outposts have swimming holes.
Food and drink spots are plentiful. I heard Dancing Bear is fantastic. Fudge Kitchen and Sweet Shop in Little River Village is a must if you have a sweet tooth like me. Peaceful Side Social Brewery and Craft Kitchen lets you mix your favorite brew with food ranging from soup, salads, and sandwiches to pizza or fish. Cades Cove Cellars is the place for wine lovers.