At the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City is a small North Carolina town teeming with adventure. The number of activities in and around Bryson City seem endless, and its small town charm means you can enjoy it all without the hassle of major crowds. Simply put, this peaceful mountain town is in the middle of everything — spectacular mountain views, whitewater rafting and kayaking, pristine waterfalls, world class fishing, trails for hiking and biking, creeks for tubing and a scenic railroad. Bryson City, N.C., offers travelers a big vacation in a small town, and more than enough adventure for a stay in the Smokies. Whatever your lodging style, find out how to get the most out of your week’s vacation in Bryson City.
Explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Bryson City sits at the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so it’s only fitting to spend your day exploring one of the most beautiful places in the nation. Start your journey at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, N.C., where you’ll find maps and helpful park rangers, but also a museum highlighting the history of life in the Smokies and the creation of the national park. History buffs should stop by the Mountain Farm Museum to see a recreated late-19th century mountain farm with log structures that have been relocated from their original locations from inside the national park. Another piece of Smoky Mountains history is Mingus Mill, a grist mill with a water-powered turbine that was built in 1886. As you make your way through the park, be sure to drive up to Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, the highest points in the Smokies with some of the most incredible views in the park. Sunset is particularly picturesque, for those Instagram-worthy shots, as you’ll get a 360-degree view of the park from Clingman’s Dome and don’t forget to take the quintessential photo at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. Those looking for another scenic drive can take The Road to Nowhere, also known as Lakeview Drive, a winding mountain highway that ends at a tunnel about six miles into the park. If you need more information about the park or help planning your trip, be sure to stop by the GSMNP Information Center in the historic Swain County Courthouse in downtown Bryson City.
Have a Wild Whitewater Adventure
Get an early start to your day and head out to enjoy one of the most scenic areas just outside of Bryson City: The Nantahala River. Take to the treetops in the morning on a zip line excursion to get a different view of the Great Smoky Mountains. You’ll soar from mountain to mountain above the treetops and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding forests. Be sure to grab lunch at River’s End Restaurant at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where you can catch a glimpse of the whitewater rafting and kayaking, a good precursor for your next adventure. After lunch, share a guided whitewater rafting tour down the 8-mile Nantahala River. With a mix of placid pools and exciting rapids, the Nantahala can appease both families and thrill seekers. After a long day on the river, head back to your vacation rental for a cozy night in.
Follow the Waterfall Trail
You’re about halfway through your trip and you’ve seen some incredible views from the national park and the Nantahala, but make sure you take in the views from your vacation rental with a cup of coffee on the deck in the morning — certainly a peaceful way to start the day. Keep that relaxed vibe going with a trip to some of the nearby waterfalls. Bryson City is centrally located near five sparkling mountain waterfalls. The closest are Deep Creek’s trio of waterfalls — Juney Whank, Tom Branch and Indian Creek Falls. You could easily plan your day around these three tumbling cascades, as Deep Creek is a great place for tubing and fishing, with plenty of areas to enjoy a picnic too. If you’d rather make waterfall viewing a full day, take a drive to the Cherokee Indian Reservation where you’ll find Soco Falls, a double waterfall near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Mingo Falls, a 120-foot cascade that is one of the tallest waterfalls in the southern Appalachians. Or head west to the Nantahala Gorge to enjoy the cascades at the top of the mountain. It’s a very scenic drive with places to pull over for a selfie near the waterfalls.
Live Like a Local
Spend your day in town and enjoy how the locals experience Bryson City. Bryson City is an easily strollable small town with plenty of local shops, museums and galleries to explore, as well as a variety of local eateries. Take your pick from Southern home cooking and hickory-smoked barbecue to gourmet meals and farm-to-table fare — there’s even two local craft breweries, Nantahala Brewing and Mountain Layers Brewing to explore. There’s no better way to live like a local than enjoying the area’s delectable dining. After a day of fun in the sun, head back to your cabin, hotel or bed & breakfast to freshen up and then head out for dinner and drinks in downtown. After dinner, be sure to stop by Soda Pops for a sweet treat. This 1950s-themed ice cream parlor is pure nostalgia, from its decor to its tasty sundaes, shakes and floats.
Ride the Rails
See the Smokies from a different perspective aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. This scenic train chugs through town offering two different excursions: Nantahala Gorge and Tuckasegee River. The Nantahala Gorge is a 4 ½-hour, 44-mile round trip that crosses the historic Fontana Lake trestle and features a 1-hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. If you really want to make a day of this excursion, add on more rafting, zip lining or a jeep tour to explore more of this gorgeous gorge. Trains to the Nantahala Gorge during the summer and fall months also include an all-adult first class moonshine car for those who’d like to sample some spirits from North Carolina craft distilleries. If you’d rather explore a different route, take the 4-hour Tuckasegee River excursion that takes you on a 32-mile round trip to Dillsboro, a quaint village with century-old stores, restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses that will make it feel like you’ve stepped back in time. You’ll have a 1 ½-hour layover in Dillsboro where you can stroll from shop to shop and enjoy the nostalgia of small town America. On your journey to Dillsboro, you’ll pass the train wreck set from the movie “The Fugitive,” starring Harrison Ford, and you’ll pass through a train tunnel. In addition to these excursions, The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers many themed trains throughout the year like the Polar Express Christmas train ride. Be sure to check the train schedule for more information.
Take to the Lake
There’s nothing better than a day on the lake, and Fontana Lake is particularly special. Known as the best-kept secret in the Smokies, Fontana Lake provides a truly unique view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. More than 90 percent of the surrounding land is owned by the National Park & Forest Services, which means the stunning mountain views are unspoiled by commercial development. You can rent a pontoon boat and explore this pristine mountain lake, where the view of the national park in several areas is unobstructed from the lake level to the highest peak in the park. While the views are spectacular, so is the fishing. The lake’s deep, cold water provides an ideal habitat for a variety of fish, including muskie, walleye and smallmouth bass. Pack a picnic lunch and head to the Finger Lakes Day Use Area of Fontana Lake, a popular place for swimming as well as an access area for canoes, kayaks and paddle boards. After a day of fun in the sun, you’re sure to work up an appetite. Head back to your cabin to grill up your fresh catch and roast s’mores by the fire or head out downtown for a bite to eat and enjoy a cold beer at one of two local breweries.
Family Day in the Mountains
It’s your last day in Bryson City, so soak up those mountain views with coffee on the deck in the morning before you head out for your final day of fun. This day, enjoy the family-friendly activities around town. Start your day at one of the local gem mines where you can pan for gems and quartz to take home from the mountains. It’s an inexpensive activity young children will enjoy, and if you get lucky and find a ruby or sapphire, you’ll have something special to remember your trip by. Head over to Na-ber’s Drive In for lunch to experience an authentic, family-run drive in. This nostalgic eatery harkens back to the day of old-fashioned drive ins and the burgers and onion rings are a local favorite. If you can’t get enough water activities while on vacation, head to Deep Creek after lunch where you can fish, go tubing, visit the waterfalls, picnic by the water, and even swim in the popular and refreshing swimming hole in the middle of Deep Creek’s tubing section. Deep Creek winds through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and passes by a waterfall, giving the family plenty of sights to see as you all float by. Be sure to make a full afternoon of it – you can tube all day for only $6 each.
Bryson City may be a small town, but it’s full of adventure — all of which you can enjoy without the hassle of big crowds. You’ll be spoiled for choice during your week-long stay, and with so much to explore, you may even start dreaming of your next Bryson City getaway before the week is over! Start planning your trip to Bryson City and get the most out of your stay in the Smokies.