by Karon Warren
Head west about an hour from Asheville, and you’ll find yourself in Bryson City. This small town is home to approximately 1,450 permanent residents, but that number grows exponentially when you factor in the visitors who come each year to explore this Western North Carolina destination. What draws them in? Three top attractions: the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, outdoor recreation in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala Gorge, and a fantastic downtown ripe with shopping and dining spots.
Come on, ride the train!
For those who love trains (and even those who don’t), the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers a unique way to explore the countryside of Western North Carolina. Train passengers can choose from a variety of excursions on either the Steam of the Smokies, a steam-powered #1702 locomotive dating back to 1942, or the diesel-powered fleet of locomotives GP9s, GP7, GP30 and GP38-3.
Excursions range from a trip over the historic Fontana Trestle across Fontana Lake and into the Nantahala Gorge to the Tuckasegee River route that includes a stop in Dillsboro, N.C. However, some of the most popular excursions are the specialty trains, such as The Great Pumpkin Patch Express and The Polar Express. Of course, any excursion during the fall is a top choice for those wanting to see fall’s glorious colors.
Whether you ride the train or not, be sure to visit the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum right by the train tracks. Visitors can check out the museum collection of 7,000 Lionel™ engines, cars and accessories, many in display cases. The highlight, though, is the operating layouts where you can see these trains in action. You can even take part in the action with one of the layouts, where you can push buttons to operate both the trains and the accessories in the case. Be sure to look for the tornado!
Also, when entering the museum, make sure you grab the scavenger hunt sheet. This fun activity will challenge even the sharpest eagle eye to see if you can find all the items.
Go outside and play!
Bryson City is surrounded by nature, and outside recreation opportunities are literally minutes from downtown. At the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll find a variety of hiking trails, including the Three Waterfalls Loop (2.4 miles). This moderate trail showcases three of the park’s waterfalls: Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls. The hike to Juney Whank Falls involves a slightly challenging climb up the hillside, but the hike to Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls follows an old logging road, so it is a relatively flat walk.
Another popular hiking destination, the Lake View Drive area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park also is known as the Road to Nowhere. To build Fontana Lake and the park, Swain County (where Bryson City is located) gave up land to the federal government. That land also included Highway 288, which the federal government promised to replace with a new road, i.e. Lake View Drive. Although the road was started, the government dropped the project due to an environment issue. At the end of the unfinished road—the Road to Nowhere—is a tunnel that has become the highlight of the hiking trails in the area.
If you like aerial views of the mountains, head to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Here you can travel more than 2 miles of ziplines on the Mountaintop Zip Line Tour. Along the way, you’ll take in scenic views of the mountains as you go from deck to deck. If you prefer something closer to the ground, you can sign up for a day of whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. From those who have never held a paddle before to the experienced kayaker, these fully guided tours are an adrenaline-filled way to spend the day.
Shop (and eat) till you drop!
Bryson City offers a thriving downtown district filled with locally owned stores and restaurants, which makes for a fun day with family and friends. Satisfy your sweet tooth at The Chocolate Shoppe, where you’ll find fresh-made chocolate truffles, chocolate-covered pretzels, fudge and more. For the perfect souvenir, head to the Loose Moose, where you’ll find shirts, hats, collectibles and more. If you need to update your outdoor apparel, Smith’s Dry Goods has what you need. Think shirts, boots, gloves and more, including equestrian apparel.
When it’s time to fuel up for the day, Everett Street Diner offers everything from granola, fruit and yogurt to biscuits and gravy to bacon, eggs and grits. At Loretta’s Snak Shak, choose from burgers and wings to daily specials like paninis and chicken wraps. For dinner, check out Pasqualino’s Italian restaurant for pizza and pasta. Keep in mind the portions are large, so plan accordingly when making a selection. Don’t forget a scoop of hand-dipped ice cream at Soda Pop’s Ice Cream Parlor! If you visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center, you can grab lunch or dinner at River’s End, where you can enjoy burgers, steaks and more while dining next to the Nantahala River.
When looking for a place to stay in Bryson City, check out Bryson City Cabin Rentals. You’ll find a variety of cabins just minutes from Bryson City that provide all the comforts of home. Also, when planning your trip or visiting Bryson City’s attractions, shops and restaurants, be sure to ask about an AAA discount. Many offer additional savings for members.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive December 2021)
(Photos: Karon Warren)