Every time I get an email asking for recommendations on how to travel this summer while safely socially distancing during this pandemic, I revert back to a few of my go-to tips: seek out nature. Steer clear of crowds. Road trip when possible. And find places where you can have plenty of space for yourself—destinations like a World War II airplane hangar or Dolly Parton camper van in the foothills of Maryville primed for a Smoky Mountains staycation.
This post was last updated in February 2021 and contains affiliate links.
Maryville is just 18 miles due south of Knoxville; its downtown is also only four miles from McGhee Tyson Airport, the main airport for East Tennessee. For those devoted to road trips for the foreseeable future, Blount County is also a convenient drive from many major Southern cities, clocking in at three hours or less from Nashville, Lexington, Asheville, and Atlanta and under two from Chattanooga.
Note: No matter where you decide to go, travel safely and be mindful of those around you. Wear a mask at all times when you’re in public, stay a safe distance apart from others and please observe the CDC’s protocol.
Interested in a Smoky Mountain staycation? Here are some ideas of what to do in Maryville and Townsend while visiting the Smokies and staying away from crowds.
Stay in a former airplane hangar
I love a unique vacation rental, and when I say that Terminal 1344 is spectacular, that’s an understatement. I first came across this rad Airbnb property last year and several times intended to book it, only to have my travel plans unexpectedly change. So I was thrilled when we made a last-minute visit to East Tennessee earlier this month for some photography work and found the hangar available for the night. Not only that, but it is surprisingly affordable at just $119 a night, plus taxes and service fees.
In 2016, the Smith family—Dean, Adrienne and their daughter Tayler—purchased the six-acre plot upon which this piece of paradise is located; it houses their own home in addition to an old airplane hangar and World War II train car. The previous owner had been a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who bought the train car from a military surplus in Florida and relocated it to Tennessee.
Not only is there gorgeous Tennessee countryside surrounding you (plus, a private airstrip just beyond the property line!), but Adrienne, Dean and Tayler put so much time and care into outfitting the hangar not only to be ridiculously comfortable, but to look like something out of the pages of Architectural Digest.
It’s no big secret that we’re huge midcentury modern lovers, so the design of the hangar was visually appealing to us, but often with MCM functionality, you sacrifice comfort. Not in this case. The beds, couches, everything were complete luxury, and we slept like kings and queens (in separate bedrooms, too, because you know SVV’s snoring).
Every detail and furnishing was carefully considered, and the Smiths thought of absolutely everything, providing far more kitchen and bath amenities than you’d ever find in a hotel. Fellow aviation enthusiasts will go wild for all the subtle nods to the Jet Age.
Sleep in a World War II train car
A year later, the Smiths decided to begin renovating the external structures and fulfill Adrienne’s dream of owning a B&B. The train car came first—a labor-intensive eight months in which the Smiths consulted the help of a contractor team for the build while Adrienne and Tayler tediously worked on the design, keeping quirky historical elements while also adding in both comfort and convenience—and then the hangar, now a luxury two-bedroom loft, debuted last year.
Stay in a Dolly Parton-themed camper van
The newest addition to the compound is a Dolly Parton-themed fantasy trailer that the family recently finished up, bringing their Planes, Trains and Automobile concept to life. This cozy 20-foot-long Dolly camper van has a full-sized bed and a bathroom with shower, perfect for a romantic getaway with someone you love (or are hoping to woo).
This property is truly one of a kind. As someone who works in travel media and has stayed in hundreds of short-term rentals, I can honestly say this is within my top three of all-time.
The rentals are very much separate from each other with plenty of privacy, but they also share several outdoor spaces: a fire pit, a beer garden, a reflection pond and greenery galore.
The icing on the cake is the owners’ six adorable dogs—a mix of standard poodles and miniature and golden doodles—who chilled with us and kept us company on the hangar patio as we were missing our own fur babies.
On a scale of 1 to 10, this property is a 100, and we will absolutely be back. One night was such a tease! We’re in East Tennessee often, and I look forward to making this our home away from home in future visits. Thanks to Dean, Adrienne, Tayler, and the pups for creating such a cool space and sharing it with travelers like us.
Stroll downtown Maryville
Downtown Maryville is part of Tennessee’s Main Street program, and on top of a thriving retail and entertainment district, it’s got charm to boot.
A few shops were still closed due to the virus while we were there, while others like homes store Roost were able to safely allow shoppers inside thanks to ample space and an outdoor setup.
Take advantage of the ample street parking along Broadway and leave your car as you stroll or park in the free lot right next to Bluetick Tavern. If you happen to find your way into Capitol Coffee & Ice Cream Parlor for a scoop or three, don’t worry, I won’t judge.
Shop at Coning Family Farm
After checking out of Terminal 1344, we decided to veer west along the ridge before driving the 15 minutes back into Maryville. As we neared the road that flanked the mountains, we saw this hand-drawn sign announcing Coning Family Farm.
We decided to get a closer look and found that they were readying the market to open for the season. This family-owned and -operated farm specializes in produce and had an abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables for sale. Currently, the farm market is open 9am to 6pm from Monday through Saturday, noon to 5pm on Sundays.
Enjoy Maryville’s green spaces
In the center of Maryville is the college of the same name, and branching off from the campus is the Maryville-Alcoa Greenway, popular with runners and bikers of all ages.
The nine-mile Maryville-Alcoa Greenway connects downtown Maryville to Alcoa, crossing streams, creeks and parks while providing peaceful shade for those who want to use the paved path for a variety of recreational activities.
Dine and drink alfresco
Downtown Maryville has a number of great dining options, but to comply with social distancing recommendations, on this visit we were interested solely in patio options, of which we found a few contenders:
And while another of my favorite local restaurants, Bluetick Tavern (formerly Barley’s Taproom), may not have patio dining, you can still order takeout then take it to a nearby park—the Maryville Greenway right behind Vienna Coffee Co. is a nice spot—and create your own alfresco dining experience.
Venture into the Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of the first national parks to reopen in mid-May, and with more than half a million acres, it’s the prime spot to enjoy the outdoors while putting space between you and other travelers. It’s also one of the few national parks that doesn’t charge an entry fee. Keep up to date with any pandemic-related closures via the Great Smoky Mountains NPS site.
Once you’re in or near the park, there are so many things to do outdoors in the Smokies that you could spend days hiking to waterfalls, biking Cades Cove, tubing down the Little River in Townsend, spelunking at Tuckaleechee Caverns or driving the 318 curves of the Tail of the Dragon (U.S. 129).
If you’re more of a leisure traveler and less of an adventurer, you can still enjoy the area in your own way: I recommend grabbing a six-pack or two from local brewery Blackberry Farm Brewery and food from Burger Master Drive In in Townsend and making a picnic under the leafy canopy.
For more Tennessee trip ideas, check out these tips and itineraries:
- Summertime in the Smoky Mountains
- Planning a Day Trip to Burgess Falls State Park
- Opt Outside: Fun Summer Things to Do in Franklin + Leiper’s Fork
- Knox Rocks: The Perfect Weekend in Knoxville