The scenic valley town of Townsend, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of our favorite areas for a day trip. We love going here in the summer for a tubing trip, or just lunch.
The town is much quieter than Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, but there are some great activities here, especially in the summertime. As you enter the town, you’ll see signs advertising Townsend as “the peaceful side of the Smokies.”
NOTE: Our guides focus on unique local attractions. We want to explore things that can’t be found at home, and we only include places that we’ve been to.
If you search for “best things to do in (random city),” you’ll find many of the same things: wax statue museums and believe-it-or-not attractions. But if we’re flying around the world to visit somewhere, we want to see something new first.
Top Things to do in Townsend
Float The Little River on a Tube
Ready to make a splash? Head over to Smoky Mountain River Rat for an unforgettable river tubing experience. Rent tubes for the whole family, grab your life jackets and let the gentle currents of the Little River carry you away. It’s the perfect way to spend a hot summer day soaking up the sun and enjoying the natural beauty of Townsend, TN.
Tubing is the top attraction in Townsend, and it’s an adventure you won’t want to miss on a hot summer day! There are several tubing companies in Townsend, all sharing the same river. River Rat Tubing is our favorite.
River Rat Tubing is located at 205 Wears Valley Rd., Townsend, TN, right at the town’s entrance when coming from Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. The main office (Outpost A) is your starting point for the tubing adventure.
Though the minimum age for tubing is 2, we recommend caution when bringing very young children. There are some small drops along the way where it’s possible to flip or fall. Our experience shows that kids as young as 5 can enjoy tubing without issues.
With a wristband, you can enjoy unlimited tubing all day long. Many visitors like to tube in the morning, grab lunch at a nearby restaurant, and return for an afternoon float.
The main office features small bathrooms and changing rooms. There’s accessories for purchase, such as paddles and tube connectors to keep your child’s tube attached to yours.
Collect the tubes outside once you’ve checked in and head down to the river. River Rat Tubing offers traditional and solid tubes without a hole in the middle, perfect for kids or pets.
The river is cold (refreshing?), even in the summer heat!
Some tubing rivers can be pretty lively, but Townsend is great for family-friendly tubing, as alcohol is prohibited on the river. The 2-mile journey takes around 2 hours, offering a mix of calm, relaxing floats and some faster, rougher sections.
To stay close to your group, be prepared to do some paddling. Rocks and other obstacles can slow or redirect you. The river splits into two channels at specific points, and having a paddle helps you choose your preferred path.
Midway through the trip, there is a deep, slow section with a tall rock on the right, perfect for climbing and jumping off.
Tips for Tubing with Kids in Townsend
- Wear water shoes to protect your feet from the rocky riverbed.
- Bring a lanyard-type waterproof phone protector to keep your phone safe.
- Purchase a paddle from the gift shop; it’s helpful when you get stuck or want to navigate around obstacles.
- Arrive in your bathing suits to save time, as the bathroom/changing rooms can get busy.
For a more thrilling adventure, consider white-water rafting at River Rat Tubing.
Delve into the Tuckaleechee Caverns, a fascinating underground world that will leave your kids in awe. This guided tour takes you through the “Big Room.” It has soaring ceilings, glistening formations, and an impressive underground waterfall called Silver Falls. At a constant 58 degrees year-round, it’s a great option for a hot summer day!
Don’t forget to swing by the gift shop for a unique souvenir to remember your underground adventure!
What better way to explore the peaceful side of the Smokies than on horseback? Check out these local stables for a family-friendly ride:
- Cades Cove Riding Stables
- Davy Crockett Riding Stables
- Located near Cades Cove is the Cades Cove Riding Stables.
- Deer Farm Zoo is in the Sevierville area (a bit of a drive away) just north of Pigeon Forge, which also has a large petting zoo. We’ve been horseback riding at Deer Farm, and to the petting zoo. The petting zoo is one of our kid’s favorites.
Swimming at the Townsend Wye
In the summer, cool off at the Townsend Wye, a popular swimming spot where the Little River and Middle Prong of the Little River converge.
The Wye is located where the road splits off to turn towards either Cades Cove or Gatlinburg.
This area offers cold, clear water, perfect for cooling off on a hot day.
Parking at Townsend Wye be busy, especially on a hot weekend day. Arriving early in the day or visiting on a weekday can increase your chances of finding a parking spot. Watch children always while swimming, as the water flow can be fast.
Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center
Immerse yourself in local history at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. This interactive museum showcases the region’s Native American, pioneer, and early settler history, complete with historic buildings, cantilever barns, and more!
Watch for special events like Old Timers Day and live music performances in summer.
Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum
The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum is a small museum. It’s just a quick stop to learn the history of the railroad and lumber industry in the region.
Little River Railroad operated in Townsend from the early 1900s until the 1930s. With only a few pieces of equipment, it’s much smaller than most railroad museums. But it’s worth a quick stop if you have any train fans in your family.
Scenic Drives and Lookouts on the Foothills Parkway
For those who prefer to take in the beauty of the Smokies from the comfort of their car, the Foothills Parkway offers some of the most stunning scenic drives in the region.
Stop at various lookouts to capture beautiful views and family photos with the majestic mountains as your backdrop.
Located just north of Townsend, the new Foothills Parkway has excellent views above the Townsend Valley. The above picture was taken from an overlook looking towards Townsend.
If you’re up for a longer drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway is another picturesque route worth exploring.
Hike the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must-visit! It’s is the most popular national park in the United States. There’s breathtaking scenic views, incredible wildlife, and numerous hiking trails. And there’s plenty close by, especially on the drive between Townsend and Gatlinburg.
Remember that parking at many of the most popular trailheads is limited, so get there early on a busy day like a weekend. Otherwise, you’ll be walking more from your car than on the trail.
Grotto Falls is a moderate 2.6-mile round trip hike leading to a picturesque waterfall where you can walk behind the cascading water.
Spruce Flats Falls is a slightly more challenging 2-mile round trip hike with a beautiful waterfall reward.
Prefer driving? Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile one-way loop that takes you through lush meadows, historic buildings, and opportunities to spot white-tailed deer, black bears, and other wildlife. We’ve spotted wildlife each time we’ve been!
Up for a rewarding challenge? Check out the LeConte Lodge hike. Its hotel is only accessible by hiking one of several trails, which are 5 miles to 9 miles long. Supplies to LeConte are carried in by llamas.
Pro tip: Check out the visitor center for information on guided tours, special events, and additional trails.
Good Local Food
Townsend has some great options for dining!
Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro. Treat yourself to a farm-to-table dining experience featuring locally sourced ingredients. The best high end restaurant in Townsend, Dancing Bear also has a great resort for an overnight stray, which we list below. \
The Abbey Restaurant is a unique restaurant made from an old church. The restaurant offers a diverse menu with some great views of the river.
Enjoy a meal in the dining area or on the lovely outdoor patio with beautiful views of the river.
Apple Valley Cafe
Apple Valley Cafe is a charming Townsend, TN, eatery known for its delicious burgers and milkshakes. It’s one of our kid’s favorite stops whenever we’re in Townsend.
Spend the Night in Townsend
Dancing Bear Lodge
This upscale, rustic lodge offers comfortable accommodations, a farm-to-table restaurant, and a serene atmosphere surrounded by the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Guests rave about the exceptional service, cozy cabins, and on-site amenities.
Cozy Up in a Cabin or Go Camping
Big Meadow Family Campground is located next door to River Rat Tubing and has sites on the river (across a small one-lane road). If you’re staying here and tubing, you can walk right over to the tubing main office.
While it doesn’t have a pool or the other amenities of the KOA, it has a great location on the river. You can even climb down the river’s bank for a swim. Big Meadow also offers RV storage. We have used the storage option before; they will even tow the RV to your site before you arrive.
KOA Townsend is located at the eastern end of town. As usual with KOAs, it has many activities for the kids, such as a pool, playground, and outdoor movies.
Q: What are some fun things to do near Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg?
A: While you’re in the area, don’t miss out on the many fun things to do in Pigeon Forge with kids and our top picks for activities in Gatlinburg. From amusement parks and dinner shows to museums and ziplining, there’s never a dull moment in these bustling mountain towns.
Q: Can we expect snow in Townsend, TN, during winter?
A: While snowfall in Townsend is less frequent than in higher elevations, you may still experience the magic of a snowy day in Tennessee. For guaranteed winter fun, head to nearby Gatlinburg and enjoy snow tubing and other snowy activities.
Q: What are the most visited locations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
A: Some of the most visited locations within the park include Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the park), and the abandoned town of Elkmont. Don’t forget to stop by the Townsend Visitors Center for maps, brochures, and expert advice on planning your visit.
We hope you found our guide to things to do in Townsend, TN, helpful and inspiring. It’s one of our favorite places for a day trip or even just lunch. Now, start planning your family’s unforgettable Smoky Mountain adventure!