If the mountains are calling you this time of year, then you might be feeling the urge to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the 522,427-acre wilderness that straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina and is America’s most-visited national park. The Smokies’ namesake hazy mountaintops billow along the southern end of the Blue Ridge range, and more than 12 million visitors venture into those shady mountain hollows each year. With so many folks hiking to the same waterfalls that you want to ogle, you can quickly find yourself among too many other people who heard that same call.
Despite the inevitable hordes of leaf-peepers tromping around those haze-covered peaks this fall, you can still carve out some solitude in the Smokies, if you’re savvy about it. Many travelers who visit the Smokies predictably anchor their visits in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the uber-popular tourist mecca jam-packed with family-friendly attractions. But Townsend, Tennessee, on the northwest corner of the national park, is a much quieter and far less shlocky mountain town that has earned the sleepier slogan of being “the peaceful side of the Smokies.”
You won’t miss the Gatlinburg hubbub for a minute—and even if you do, it’s only a 50-minute drive away if you simply must squeeze your haunches into a go-kart to feel inner peace—but you’ll have everything you need right in Townsend. Its main road (U.S. 321) has gas stations, a grocery store, post office, hardware store, antique shops, and an assortment of non-chain restaurants and cafés. There are also a few modest, old-timey one-off attractions, like the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum and the Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop. (You do plan to bring your mountain dulcimer, right?) The closest thing Townsend has to the commercial flash of Gatlinburg are the competing river-tubing outfits that launch blissful vacationers into the winding Little River for leisurely floats through this mountain town all summer long.
To beat the autumn crowds as you explore inside the park, avoid the temptation of the most popular hikes—Laurel Falls, Clingmans Dome, Abrams Falls, Alum Cave, etc.—and take advantage of the roads less traveled. The “quiet walkways” are unnamed short hikes with unassuming trailheads dotted along the main park roads (Little Creek Road, Laurel Creek Road, Newfound Gap Road). These lovely jaunts plunge you right into the wilderness with no parking hassles or crowds jostling around you.
The ever-popular 11-mile Cades Cove loop is hard to resist. Its open valleys are among the best places in the park to spot black bears, and you can explore old churches and cabins once inhabited by the last mountain folks who homesteaded the area before it became a national park. On Wednesdays, the loop is closed to all auto traffic, so you can explore it on foot or via bike. (If you don’t bring your own bike, you can rent one at the Cades Cove bike rental, but be sure to come early because all the bikes are often rented out by midmorning.) Hiking there on foot mid-day is one way to beat the energetic morning crowds; you might even be lucky enough to find stretches of the loop you can have all to yourself.
If you’re hankering for a scenic drive, take Newfound Gap Road over the top of the mountains to the less crowded North Carolina side of the park. Be sure to stop at Newfound Gap to soak in the panoramic views and get the requisite “one foot in Tennessee, one foot in North Carolina” photo that everybody takes. Instead of following minivans and motorcycles plodding along the popular Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (a 5.5-mile one-way loop near the Gatlinburg entrance to the park), a much better option is to cruise along the Foothills Parkway (outside of the park), which provides soaring views of the mountains and overlooks where you can peer down into the miniaturized Townsend. The most recently finished connector section of this gorgeous parkway links the Townsend-adjacent town of Walland to Wears Valley Road, a key piece in a route to Gatlinburg. Pull-offs along the scenic parkway offer far-reaching views of the Smokies that are very hard to come by on hikes when you’re deep within the forest’s dark hollows and wooded slopes.
Perhaps the greatest beauty of the Great Smokies is that you don’t have to wear out your soles—or your actual soul—to find the deep-forest solitude.
WHERE TO STAY
Townsend offers an assortment of lodging options, including budget-friendly motels, fancy mountain lodges, hotels, riverside inns, campgrounds, and cabins offering serious mountain solitude just a few minutes’ drive from the park entrance. exploretownsend.com
Black Bear Café, 7621 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy., Townsend, Tennessee, (865) 448-8887
Antique Outlet Mall, 4531 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy., Walland, Tennessee, (865) 977-8641
Tuckaleechee Caverns, 825 Cavern Rd., Townsend, Tennessee, (865) 448-2274,
Davy Crockett Riding Stables, 505 Old Cades Cove Rd., Townsend, Tennessee, (865) 448-6411
Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop, 7645 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy., Townsend, Tennessee, (865) 448-6647