[caption id="attachment_173835" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Head to the wide-open meadows of the Cataloochee Valley at dawn or dusk for your best chance of seeing elk.[/caption] Swain County Bryson City • Cherokee
Before the land became part of the country’s most visited national park, the picturesque Cataloochee Valley was home to an Appalachian farming community where elk roamed freely. Due to overhunting, the last of the elk disappeared in North Carolina in the late 1700s, but thanks to a reintroduction program in 2001, more than 150 of the animals once again wander through the valley and other parts of the park.
All aboard! The GSMR runs through some of the prettiest mountain landscapes in the state — the tracks were carved out of the mountains in the 1880s — especially when fall foliage is at its peak. Board the Steam of the Smokies for a Nantahala Gorge or Tuckasegee River excursion.
From its broad front porch looking toward the mountains to its well-appointed guest rooms (most with a balcony or deck), this bed and breakfast preserves its 1920s farmhouse charm. In the morning, a three-course breakfast begins with sweet homemade breads and fresh fruit before main course specialties like sweet potato hash with poached eggs.
For the past half-century, NOC has been a go-to destination for adventure. Ready to flex your skills — or learn new ones — on a whitewater rafting trip on the Nantahala River? Before navigating the thrilling Class III whitewater of Nantahala Falls, rafters have eight miles of practice on straightforward Class II rapids.
If you’re craving Southern classics, stop by this diner for breakfast or lunch. For the former, try the Southern Fried Biscuit Breakfast. For the latter, you can’t go wrong with a piled-high sandwich — just don’t leave without a slice of homemade blackberry cobbler.
Before it was converted into a museum nine years ago, the 1908 building that houses the Swain County Heritage Museum was used as the county courthouse. Through photos, exhibits, and videos, learn about the lives of early settlers and how the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Fontana Dam impacted the landscape and the surrounding communities.
At this classic family-owned breakfast joint, refuel with fluffy blueberry pancakes, biscuits and gravy, corned-beef hash, and country ham.
1384 Tsali Boulevard
On the banks of the Oconaluftee River, Smokemont offers the only guided trail rides in the North Carolina section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Enjoy short hourly rides, longer excursions to waterfalls, or a wagon ride on one of the area’s earliest roads.
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Take in awe-inspiring views of North Carolina and Tennessee from the concrete observation tower at the summit — where eastbound hikers begin the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. For those who make the effort to rise early, the peak also offers a spectacular sunrise experience.
Chef Kevin Faini’s farm-to-table restaurant offers dishes inspired by his Southern and Italian heritage but rooted in the freshest local ingredients from nearby farms. Diners reach for their cameras when lunchtime favorites like tacos made with sweet tea-brined fried chicken and fried deviled eggs arrive at the table.
Using single-origin Venezuelan cacao instead of a blend of beans, this chocolate factory crafts truffles, chocolate-covered espresso beans, almond bark, and more. Try their pecan and cashew turtles, which, instead of messy globs of chocolate, nuts, and caramel, come shaped like actual turtles.
Situated on more than 1,400 acres near Nantahala National Forest, this 101-year-old retreat with a spectacular view of Chimney Top and Rock mountains features old-school, rustic charm and modern luxuries.
Soaring to more than 6,000 feet, this overlook is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Reach the summit via a 1.5-mile, self-guided loop trail that passes through a spruce-fir forest.
At the west end of Sylva, the hilly front lawn of this historic courthouse beckons people to climb the 107 steps to the top for a spectacular view. With the Blue Ridge Mountains as its backdrop, the 1914 landmark is renowned as the most photographed courthouse in the state.
401 Grindstaff Cove Road
Comfortable suites and spacious decks provide breathtaking views of the Tuckasegee River at this rustic inn, which is just steps away from the rushing water and a short walk from downtown restaurants and shops.
At this visual art center’s sprawling six-acre campus, take art classes, wander a sculpture trail, or watch pottery demonstrations at the Dave Drake Studio Barn. Three galleries host permanent and temporary exhibitions featuring works by local artists and masters.
Take winding, narrow U.S. Highway 64 through the Cullasaja River Gorge, and you’ll pass several dramatic waterfalls. Keep an eye out for Dry Falls, which you can admire from a viewing platform off a parking lot or from behind the cascading water via a short stroll along a paved path. Yes, you’ll stay dry — mostly.
At an elevation of more than 4,000 feet, this refined mountain town has long served as a cool summer respite for vacationers. Today, visitors come during every season — like when the leaves burst into color — to explore an upscale downtown surrounded by natural beauty. First, suit up at Highland Hiker, which has been outfitting visitors with adventure-ready gear for more than 35 years. Need something fancier for an elegant dinner at Madison’s or Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro? Head to TJ Bailey’s for sweaters, jackets, and accessories. When you’re ready to wind down, check into Highlander Mountain House, an 18-room inn located in an 1885 clapboard farmhouse, or get a taste of posh mountain charm at Old Edwards Inn & Spa.
Toast to your adventures at Franklin’s first craft brewery amid locals, visitors, and thirsty thru-hikers from the nearby Appalachian Trail.
A visit to the Gem Capital of the World wouldn’t be complete without learning about the town’s long mining history. This museum, located in the 1850 Macon County Jail, offers free admission to tour eight rooms filled with the gemstones, fossils, and historical treasures that earned the town its nickname.
When the autumn sun dips behind Whiteside Mountain, seasonal magic occurs: A shadow cast onto the fall foliage evolves into a phenomenon known as the “Shadow of the Bear.” From mid-October to early November, visit this overlook at 5:30 p.m. to watch the bear emerge.
Surrounded by the lofty peaks of the Great Balsam Range, Waynesville is known as the gateway to the Smokies. During a day of exploring, treat yourself to daily specials like chicken pot pie at Clyde’s Restaurant, or reward yourself at the end of the day with Dad’s Tomato Pie at Birchwood Hall Southern Kitchen and a craft beer on the banks of Richland Creek at Frog Level Brewing. Find curated gifts and home goods at Robin Blu, culinary gadgets at The Kitchen Shop, and nature-inspired art and fine crafts at Twigs & Leaves Gallery, which features the works of more than 120 artists, most of whom live in Southern Appalachia.
Formerly the Rocky Waters Motel from 1948 to 2009, Route 19 was reimagined with nostalgic, mid-century mountain style in 2020. Colorful rooms are decorated to make guests feel like they’ve checked into a motor lodge from the ’50s.
This multigenerational family-owned studio and gallery features the works of local artists — including its owners — and is a fixture in the Appalachian arts community.
At an elevation of 5,820 feet, this is the highest visitor center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parking area alone offers stunning vistas to both the east and west, but take a moderate, 0.6-mile climb to the overlook for a magnificent view to the south. On a clear day, you’ll have 50-mile views of the Smokies and Maggie Valley.
When Chef Dennis Barber, who grew up in Louisiana, opened this fine-dining restaurant in 2007, he brought a piece of the French Quarter to Hayesville, blending Southern ingredients, Cajun flair, and traditional French cuisine in dishes such as shrimp Creole with stone-ground grits.
This folk school, established in 1925, offers weekend and weeklong courses rooted in Appalachian traditions. Explore the Craft Shop to browse the works of more than 150 regional artists, sign up to pick up a new skill at one of 17 studios, and visit the History Center to learn about the 270-acre campus.
Framed by mountain peaks and surrounded by Nantahala National Forest, this pristine lake, which straddles the North Carolina-Georgia border, was formed when the Tennessee Valley Authority built the Chatuge Dam across the Hiawassee River in 1942. Its 132 miles of shoreline and hidden coves are ideal for paddling, swimming, and fishing.
In addition to the babble of a mountain stream, you may hear the melodic sounds of pianos, cellos, and violins during a tour among the vines at this winery — classical music is played for the grapes to keep bugs away.
The road connecting Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tennessee, is a favorite among leaf peepers, and for good reason. Offering 43 miles of stunning vistas, the skyway winds through two national forests and past waterfalls, hiking trails, and mountain views, rising to more than 5,300 feet at its highest point. Pack a picnic to enjoy at one of the mile-high overlooks.
NC Highway 143
Robbinsville, NC 28771
A 10-minute, 0.3-mile trail rewards hikers with cascades along the way and beautiful falls plunging into a pool at the end — a hidden gem just off the road.
For more than 30 years, Billy Welch has used wood from the surrounding forest to hand-carve masks and other art that reflect his Cherokee heritage. At his workshop in the Snowbird section of the Qualla Boundary, visitors can watch him bring his pieces to life.
2793 Massey Branch Road
At 480 feet high, the dam is the tallest east of the Rockies. Its construction, which took 36 months for the Tennessee Valley Authority to complete, was driven by the increased demand for electricity during World War II. Stop by the visitor center to learn about the concrete behemoth, and climb the observation tower for a bird’s-eye view.
One of the largest contiguous tracts of old-growth forest in the Eastern U.S. is home to some of the oldest trees in Southern Appalachia, including ones that date back more than 400 years. The forest’s largest trees can be found in Poplar Cove via a two-mile figure-eight loop trail.
Sleep among the treetops at this wooded escape perched above the banks of the Cheoah River, where six luxurious tree houses with spacious decks are sure to fulfill your childhood dreams.
This cultural arts hub showcases local arts and crafts, plus bluegrass, folk, and old-time mountain music during an annual concert series. Find a souvenir in the Artisans Gallery.
Since 1941, this cozy retreat set on 100 acres off the Cherohala Skyway has celebrated the wilderness that’s all around with breathtaking views of the Smokies and a dedication to helping guests explore the great outdoors right outside their windows.
Discover an extensive collection of more than 2,000 Native American artifacts and exhibits on early mountain life — including antique farm implements and vintage household items used by early pioneer settlers in the county.
87 Peachtree Street
In addition to beers like Mountain Haze and Blonde Ambition, this brewery is home to a Sicilian-style brick oven and specializes in delicious pizzas. The secret to the pizza is twofold: fresh ingredients and owner Tom Rodeck’s homemade dough.
This New York-style deli is known for its overstuffed sandwiches. If you’re feeling extra hungry after a hike, challenge yourself to The Mountain: a two-pound pastrami-and-corned-beef sandwich. Finish it in one sitting, and you’ll earn your place on the Wall of Fame.
The Hiwassee River is a year-round fly-fishing destination for brown, rainbow, and brook trout. Set out on your own at the Mission Dam area between Hayesville and Murphy, or cast a line with a local guide.