There’s nothing better than spending summer in the great outdoors, and one small mountain town in North Carolina is a vacation paradise for those looking to beat the heat. Bryson City, N.C., is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a mecca for water sports you can enjoy all summer long. From picturesque streams, creeks and waterfalls to mighty mountain cascades and whitewater rivers, this quaint mountain town is truly Mother Nature’s water park. Make a splash this summer in Bryson City with these eight fun ways to cool off in the Great Smoky Mountains.
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Bryson City is one of the most popular places in the country for whitewater rafting thanks to its proximity to four rivers that provide fun for paddlers of all ages and skill levels. The most popular is the scenic Nantahala River, with its placid pools and Class II and III rapids that make it an adrenaline-packed adventure for outdoor enthusiasts, yet still suitable for families. Those looking for something more calming should head out on the Tuckasegee River, where its Class I and II rapids provide plenty of entertainment for younger family members. More advanced paddlers can conquer the Class IV and V rapids of the Cheoah River, a 9.25-mile stretch of whitewater with classic drops, wave trains and more. Meanwhile, about an hour and a half from Bryson City, you’ll find the challenging waters of the Ocoee River, which was the site of the National Whitewater Championships and the 1996 Olympic Whiterwater competition. Adventure seekers can book fully guided trips down any of these rivers through numerous rafting outfitters.
Stand-up paddleboarding is the fastest growing water sport, and it’s making waves all the way up in the mountains. You can paddle your way through the picturesque Smokies on a stand-up paddleboard for some of the best views this mountain town has to offer. Escape your mountain cabin or B&B for the day and paddle down the Tuckasegee River in downtown Bryson City or take to the placid water of Fontana Lake. You’ll be surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery and get a great workout too, what’s not to love? Several local outfitters offer paddleboard rentals and guided tours, perfect for paddlers of all skill levels.
Perhaps one of the most epic experiences in the Smokies is the sights and sounds of mountain waterfalls. Bryson City is the perfect starting point for a full day of waterfall viewing, with six waterfalls nearby and easy access to the Franklin/Highlands waterfall loop. Just minutes from town and nearby lodging are the tumbling cascades of Deep Creek’s trio of waterfalls — Juney Whank, Tom Branch and Indian Creek Falls. A half hour to Cherokee and you’ll find Mingo and Soco Falls, or head west to see the Nantahala Cascades in the Nantahala River Gorge. Further along the US-64 corridor south of Bryson City, you’ll find eight other impressive waterfalls including the 411-foot Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Rockies, and Bridal Veil Falls, a 120-foot waterfall you can drive your car under. With so many stunning cascades, you’re sure to find an Insta-worthy waterfall.
Continuing its reputation as a paddler’s paradise, Bryson City also offers ample opportunities for kayakers. The hundreds of miles of whitewater rivers and mountain lakes, coupled with top quality instruction is why Bryson City is known as “the Whitewater Capital” and has been named one of the best paddling towns in America by numerous publications. Adventure seekers can kayak the Nantahala, one of the nation’s premier kayaking venues, as well as a variety of rivers with Class I to Class V rapids. Outdoor enthusiasts can get a glimpse of wildlife and take in the mountain scenery on the flat water of Fontana Lake and Cheoah Lake.
A mountain tubing adventure is a must-do during your stay in Bryson City. The crystal clear water that flows from the springs within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park has made tubing a favorite pastime for families looking to beat the heat. Just outside Bryson City, Deep Creek winds through Great Smoky Mountain National Park and gives riders a glimpse of gorgeous mountain views and waterfalls — plus plenty of scenic spots for a selfie. Those looking for a wild ride can take the upper section of Deep Creek, where you’ll bounce through rapids and whitewater that flows from Indian Creek through the narrow Deep Creek gorge. For a peaceful ride through the mountains, take your tube on the lower section where the water is easy flowing and the creek is wider — perfect for families with smaller children. The Oconaluftee River offers rushing rapids, relaxing ripples and swimming holes as well. This is one of the purest rivers in the mountains and the swift, cool water ranges from ankle deep to chest high. Check out the local outfitters and tubing rentals here.
Your vacation rental probably has a great view, but you can take in even more beautiful mountain scenery by boat with a day out on the lake. Bryson City offers access to two mountain lakes perfect for cruising and fishing. Fontana Lake is known as a best kept secret in the Smokies, as more than 90 percent of its shoreline is owned by either the National Park Service or the US Forest Service — meaning minimal development along the shoreline and unobstructed mountain views, so be sure to bring the camera along. This 35-mile-long lake offers several full-service marinas for renting boats as well as public access boat ramps. Meanwhile, you’ll find similar pristine shores on the smaller Cheoah Lake, which provides public access for private boat owners. This 9.5-mile-long lake is best known for the Cheoah Dam and its exceptional fishing.
Reel in the memories this summer and cast a line at any of the mountain lakes, rivers and streams near Bryson City. The local waters offer more than 17 sporting species from trout to bass to muskie, making it an angler’s paradise. In town, you can fish on the Tuckasegee River that runs through downtown Bryson City. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest provide hundreds of miles of clear streams and one of the most diverse fishing habitats in the world. Try out fly fishing for native brook trout in the clear waters of Deep Creek or the Nantahala River. The Little Tennessee River, just west of Bryson City, is perfect for smallmouth bass and muskie, while the Cherokee Indian Reservation offers plenty of opportunity for trout fisherman with stocked streams and rivers. For those who prefer flat water fishing, head to Fontana Lake, where walleye, muskie and smallmouth bass are local favorites.
Take a dip in a cool, refreshing mountain creek or river this summer during your stay in the Smokies. Deep Creek is home to a popular swimming hole in the middle of its tubing section, while Cherokee’s Island Park on the wide, shallow section of the Oconaluftee River is perfect for small children to splash around. The Finger Lakes Day Use Area of Fontana Lake has a small park and “beach” that’s great for swimming and a nice spot for a family picnic.