The picturesque hamlet of Townsend, Tenn., tucked along the western rim of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, is marketed as the Peaceful Side of the Smokies. While the neighboring tourism centers of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have become overrun with Go-Kart tracks, mini-golf courses and chain motels, Townsend has retained its idyllic mountain flavor, thanks primarily to several land-owning families who were able to fend off developers for years. This is changing, however, as the older generation dies off and the heirs are tempted by rising land values.
Highway 321 leading into Townsend runs between the clear, meandering mountain streams on one side and the vertical rise of the mountains on the other. There is still plenty of green space between the hotels, log cabins, campgrounds, bed-and-breakfasts and craft shops (Townsend is known for its hand-crafted dulcimers) lining Townsend's six-mile stretch. The nearby Little River isn't quite deep enough for white-water activities, but inner tubes can be seen wistfully floating down the river toward town. The ease of the place puts one in mind of Mayberry. As one resident says, "We like to start the day out slow and taper off from there."
From Townsend, you can head to the national park for a hike to 6,600 feet to Mount LeConte, or stay in town and descend 500 feet to the bottom of the popular Tuckaleechee Caverns. The Chimney Tops hiking path off Route 411 offers a spectacular view: a 360-degree outlook atop a pinnacle of shale and limestone at nearly 5,000 feet.
Cabin rentals are available for a rustic mountain experience. But those seeking creature comforts may like the Richmont Inn, once named among the nation's Top 20 B&Bs by the Mobil Travel Guide. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlook nearby Rich Mountain and several other peaks. In addition to a full breakfast, a candlelight dessert on the veranda is included ($105 to $150; seven of the 10 rooms have hot tubs). Note: Townsend is a dry township, so BYOB.
As you were about to guess, signs of growth are beginning to unsettle Townsend. Construction to widen Route 321 is set to begin this year. It's hard to say when those remaining plots of green space will sprout water slides and Go-Kart tracks and maybe a Super Wal-Mart.
This year may be a good time to visit the Peaceful Side of the Smokies.
By car: Take I-81 south through Virginia, then I-40 west toward Knoxville. Get off at the Route 66/Pigeon Forgeexit and follow it to 441 south and 321 south into Townsend. It takes about six to seven hours. Info: Townsend Visitors Center (1-800-525-6834, www.smokymountains.org).
CAPTION: Townsend, Tenn., is a quiet little burg for the moment, but major changes may be on the way.