If you’ve followed us for any length of time, you know we typically visit the Smokies twice a year: once under the green canopy of early summer and once to peep the rainbow of colors the fall foliage brings. Both times are equally gorgeous, but I’m a water baby, and I love a summer trip to the Smoky Mountains for splashing, swimming and tubing down the chilly waters of the Little River.
And while there’s definitely a time and place to go to the other side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park—you know, the part with the bright lights, theme parks and one heavily-bosomed blonde songbird—the other side of the Smokies, the peaceful side they call it, is actually my preferred base camp for off-the-radar fun with nature. It’s quiet, Townsend only has about 150 residents year-round, and it’s a place you can easily fly under the radar.
About Blount County
Nearly a century ago, my grandfather’s parents relocated the family from Hollywood, Fla. to the Knoxville area of Tennessee so that they could all work at the bustling Alcoa Aluminum Plant. So many people I know prior to and just after World War II moved to or near Blount County because of this plant and the ample jobs it provided. That was my basis for knowing about the area just beyond Knox County, then befriending several Maryville residents during my high school Governor’s School program, which introduced me to other parts of Blount County outside of Alcoa. Attending the University of Tennessee and spending warm summer afternoons playing in Townsend further expanded my knowledge.
Blount County’s main towns are Maryville, the county seat and home to a college of the same name; Alcoa, where Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport is located (it isn’t actually in Knoxville at all—how’s that for a zinger?); Townsend, which borders Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and Walland, most famously home to luxury resort Blackberry Farm.
As we travel all over the country for more and more conferences, travel/tourism and media industries alike, I can’t help but think that Blount County is the perfect spot to host such an event. First off, the Knoxville airport is very manageable with just a dozen gates. It’s got service from major cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Denver, Chicago, Detroit, Orlando, New York and Philadelphia, but it’s small enough that there are never lines at TSA; it’s also super easy to get in and out of as there’s no traffic.
Plus, the new, expanded conference space at the Hilton Knoxville Airport that will debut in late fall offers ample opportunity for groups and other events. The proximity to the Smokies means that you can extend your trip after the meeting and spend a weekend communing with Mother Nature. What’s more perfect than a little “bleisure travel” as our industry has dubbed this combining of work and fun?
Where to Stay in Blount County
If you’re visiting for work, you may be at the aforementioned Hilton property for a few days, but there are several gorgeous smaller properties in the area, spots like Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend that are ideal for travelers who want to get off the grid. On this particular visit, we wanted to stick closer to Maryville—I was speaking at a conference at Maryville College, you see—and so we made our base out of RT Lodge.
I was wondering how I’d never heard of RT Lodge until the last year or two, considering it’s been a retreat since the late 90s, but I quickly learned this lovely inn-style property on the Maryville campus was used for corporate functions and weddings up until 2016, at which point it was opened up as a hotel for the general public.
Ruby Tuesday, Inc., which has its corporate headquarters in Maryville, acquired the property in 1997 and turned it into what it is today: a well-manicured estate that disappears into the woodsy campus.
It’s still used for myriad weddings each year, and groups get the run of the place for the entire weekend. As such, you can only book an individual stay at RT Lodge 90 days out.
If you’re more of the lux camping type, Little Arrow Outdoor Resort is just the spot for you, right on the perimeter of Townsend and literally at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With elevated tiny homes, glamping set-ups, a tricked-out Airstream and traditional RV or tent-based campsites for rent, this lodging option in the Smokies is the perfect compromise for the family or couple who want to “rough it” in comfort with plenty of amenities like a pool, food trucks and giftshop at their disposal.
Eating In Blount County
There are a few fine-dining establishments in Maryville, and seeing as we arrived on our wedding anniversary, we started at the one housed in our hotel: the Restaurant at RT Lodge. Chef Trevor Stockton rocks the palette with seasonally available veggies, curated wine selection, locally-sourced meat and fascinating twists on their ever changing menu.
The space is gorgeous, as well, and overlooks a large koi pond and layered garden with a s’mores station around a fire pit.
For those staying at RT Lodge, a filling breakfast spread is also included, so we dined there both mornings, too. And even if you aren’t a guest, you can still make a reservation for dinner.
While bopping around Townsend, we couldn’t help but spot throngs of people lining up under an outdoor canopy boasting the name Burger Master on the shack. We joined the masses and found that Burger Master is a sort of O.G. Sonic: an outdoor “drive-in” that’s been around since 1967. We indulged in burgers that could give In-N-Out a run for their money, fries and shakes. I love that this kind of novelty, locally-owned dining establishment exists in a small town like Townsend.
One of my Knoxville favorites, Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria, also has a location in downtown Maryville, though it’s undergoing a name change soon. If you need a casual bite with a pint of beer to wash it all down, this is your spot.
For our other dinner during our weekend in Blount County, we stumbled upon one of Maryville’s most underrated gems: Aroma Cafe. Shocked you can find top-notch Cuban food in East Tennessee? We were, too! But when several locals pointed us in that direction, we knew we had to take their advice and are so happy we did, too. Any excuse to hunt down some plantains!
Sipping Through the Blount County Beer Scene
Blount County has a growing number of local beer options, all of which can be explored at the upcoming Hops in the Hills, and we typically camp out at the Casual Pint Maryville to sip our way through the regional brews on tap there. On this particular summer trip, however, we were beyond thrilled to find that Blackberry Farm Brewery had opened a tasting room right in downtown, a very easy trip from our hotel.
We had planned to just “drop in for a beer,” and that beer turned into three hours and several rounds later. We were thrilled to run into owner Roy Milner, who I knew from his Nashville days, and find that BFB has many beers on tap that we can’t find outside of Maryville. Blackberry Farm Brewery’s signature beer, the Classic Saison, is one you can find on tap (or in bottles and now cans) all over Tennessee, and it’s always been a favorite of ours, but I’ll let you in on the secret that the brewery itself has even better beers, and I seriously hope they put some of them in packages soon. We were already huge fans of BFB, but we had no idea they also have a deep well of experimentals and classics on tap in the Maryville taproom.
Getting Outdoors in the Peaceful Smokies
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, seeing nearly double the amount of visitors as the second most visited park. Blount County borders the park to the west, not far from where it dips down into North Carolina.
Note: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is FREE to enter unlike many of the other national parks. The land was once privately owned, and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina and the local communities later paid to construct Newfound Gap Road (US-441). When the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road. How cool is that?
Blount is also easy driving distance from one of the Smoky Mountains’ most cherished gems: Cades Cove. This 11-mile loop is one I have biked many times in the past, both as a kid and an adult, and while we didn’t have time to tackle the entire loop on this visit, we did drive a few miles in and saw many motorcyclists taking advantage of the lack of mid-week traffic to cruise through this corridor of the park.
We also learned that the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to motor vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10am from early May through the end of September each year to allow bicyclists and pedestrians to enjoy the cove. Otherwise the road is open daily from sunrise until sunset, weather permitting.
Of course, hiking is also always free, and there are plenty of great trails to explore, many of which lead out to waterfalls. These are typically all-day endeavors, so plan accordingly and get an early start!
Upcoming Events in Blount County
- Hops in the Hills. This two-day beer fest takes place in downtown Maryville on the third full weekend of June each year.
- The Gathering. In its inaugural year, the Gathering will bring well-known chefs, artisans, farmers and brewers to RT Lodge for a weekend of delicious fun.
- Great Smoky Mountains Hot Air Balloon Festival. Taking place one Saturday each August, this event features hot air balloons, food and beer vendors, arts and crafts, wine tastings and more.
- Grains & Grits Festival. One of our personal favorite Tennessee events, this signature festival of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail inhabits downtown Townsend on the first Saturday evening of November every fall.