For an introduction to the history and culture of Townsend  and the surrounding park area, visit the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center (123 Cromwell Dr., 865/448-0044, www.gsmheritagecenter.org , Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 1–5 p.m., adults $6, seniors $4, children 6–17 $4). Exhibits here describe the remarkable archaeological finds made in Townsend, and explain what scientists have learned from their discoveries.
There are interactive exhibits about the lifestyles and culture of Native Americans who lived in the mountains, as well as the white settlers who carved out a life here beginning in the 1700s. Another exhibit, “Tennessee on the Move,” describes just how hard it was to get around the mountains before paved roads and advanced automobiles. Outside, you can tour replicas of mountain cabins, a gristmill, cantilever barn, and smokehouse. There is an outdoor amphitheater and indoor auditorium for special events.
Tuckaleechee Caverns (825 Cavern Rd., 865/448-2274, Mar. 15–Nov. 15 daily 9 a.m.–6 p.m., adults $14, children 5–11 $7) is the oldest tourist attraction in these parts. The caverns were known to Native Americans and early white settlers, who would travel to the mouth of the caves on hot summer days to cool off. In the early 1950s, local residents W. E. Vananda and Harry Myers invested their savings into making the caves a tourist attraction, because no bank would loan to them.
A year after the caverns first opened to the public, its greatest attraction—its underground Big Room—was discovered. The Big Room, part of the one-mile underground tour, is 300 feet by 400 feet, with ceilings of up to 150 feet high. The cave maintains a constant 58-degree temperature, and it’s open rain or shine.
The Little River Railroad and Lumber Museum (Hwy. 321, 865/448-2211, free) is more than another railroad museum. It is also a place to learn about the extensive logging that took place in the Smokies  during the early 20th century. Originally called Tuckaleechee Cove, Townsend  got its name from the founder of the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company, Col. W. B. Townsend. Exhibits here include antique railroad equipment and photographs from the era of railroads and logging in the Smokies.
The museum is open June–October weekdays 10 a.m.–2 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m., and Sunday noon–5 p.m. In April, May, and September the museum is open Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday noon–5 p.m. Call for an appointment to visit the museum from November to March.
Watch dulcimers and other mountain instruments being made at Wood-n-Strings Dulcimer Shop (7645 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy., 865/448-6647, www.clemmerdulcimer.com ). This music shop also hosts a free “Pickin’ Porch” on Saturdays at 7 p.m. during the summer. Call for a schedule.