Mention popular North Carolina mountain towns and Bryson City might not make the list — and that’s a big part of its charm.
Tucked up against the southern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the small town serves as an outpost for outdoor adventures, from hiking and fly fishing to white-water rafting and zip-lining. Not into adrenaline adventures? Hop aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to take in the views or stroll through downtown Bryson City, home to shops, restaurants, and museums — all set against the backdrop of the majestic mountains.
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All aboard for adventure
It’s no surprise that the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is one of the top attractions in Bryson City. The railroad tracks run through some of the prettiest landscapes in the state, especially when fall foliage is at its peak. Board the Steam of the Smokies, a steam engine that dates back to World War II, for The Nantahala Gorge Excursion. The 44-mile trip to the Nantahala Gorge includes a stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for some riverside dining and sightseeing. The new first-class Carolina Shine car (for passengers 21 and over) includes tastings of craft moonshine.
Tip: History buffs should book a seat on The Great American Rails-N-Tales Narration car. The narrated tour, offered on both the Nantahala Gorge and Tuckasegee River excursions, shares the history of life in western North Carolina and iconic features like Fontana Dam.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Get the right gear
Before you explore the rivers and trails, stop at Bryson City Outdoors. The downtown outfitter stocks a huge selection of outdoor gear from hiking boots and backpacks to tents and trail snacks. There’s even a selection of dog gear for active canines. A shuttle that can be reserved in advance takes hikers to local trailheads, offering pick-ups and drop-offs for a modest fee. And there’s an onsite taproom and bottle shop. Choose from 200-plus beers to take on the trail or ask the bartender to pull a pint of one of 12 craft beers served on tap to sip as you review trail maps.
Tip: Need advice on which trails to hit? The knowledgeable staff will happily provide recommendations for routes that are right for your skill set and timeline.
Bryson City Outdoors
Step back in time
The Swain County Heritage Museum was built in 1907 and served as a county courthouse before being transformed into a museum five years ago. Today, the museum includes exhibits on quilts, military, and early education, and a collection of photos and historic artifacts explore how construction of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park changed the landscape and the local community. Admission is free.
Tip: The main floor of the museum serves as the visitor center. Stop in for brochures and maps and stay awhile to explore the history of the region.
The Swain County Heritage Museum
Cast a line
The rivers and lakes in the Great Smoky Mountains are among the hottest fishing destinations in the Southeast. To get in on the action, head to Fontana Guides, which offers guided fishing excursions on waterways such as Fontana Lake and the Tuckasegee River to catch species like trout and smallmouth bass. Sign up for a guided half- or full-day trip. Leave your cooler at home; all trips are catch-and-release.
Tip: You must have a valid North Carolina fishing license in hand before your trip. If you need help identifying the correct license type, call Fontana Guides for advice.
Enjoy the ride
Pristine natural surroundings make Bryson City ground zero for adventurers. The Nantahala Outdoor Center, named “One of the Best Outfitters on Earth,” offers zip-line adventures and guided or self-guided rafting trips down the Nantahala River. And thanks to new lodging, the outfitter also serves as a basecamp: Choose from a hotel, cabins, bunkhouses, and platform tents.
Tip: You have to be 60-plus pounds for whitewater rafting trips, so little kids can’t partake.
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Grab a bite
River’s Edge Restaurant is perennially packed, but the food is just part of the draw. Perched on the banks of the Nantahala River, hikers, bikers, and paddlers can watch the water rushing past while tucking into home-cooked fare like sandwiches, burgers, pizza, and salads.
Tip: Don’t show up for a late supper: From Sunday to Thursday, the restaurant closes at 7 p.m. It’s open until 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
River’s End Restaurant
Stop for family fun
Darnell Farms is part supermarket, part amusement park. The 80-acre farm grows a huge variety of produce (sold in an onsite market that is open daily) and offers seasonal activities like corn mazes, hayrides, and tubing — you can even reserve a campsite and spend the night next to the Tuckasegee River.
Tip: Local musicians rock out at The Stage at Darnell Farms. Check the website for dates of upcoming shows.
In 2012, the former Nehi bottling plant in town was transformed into Nantahala Brewing Co. Take a tour (offered on Saturdays) to learn more about the craft brewing process. In the taproom, order one of the flagship favorites like App Trail Extra Pale Ale or Bryson City Brown or try one of the limited edition “pilot brews” that are often here today, gone tomorrow.
Tip: The brewery does not serve food. After a tour and tasting, walk down the street to Nantahala Brewing’s Burger + Bar to order a meal and sample even more local craft brews.
Built in 1895, the Fryemont Inn, named for original owners Amos and Lillian Frye, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The inn boasts original details like wood paneling and period furnishings and fixtures (and no air-conditioning). For more modern accommodations, book the stone cottage, log cabin or one of the balcony suites — all separate buildings on the grounds. But even if you don’t stay the night, you can grab dinner in the cozy dining room and warm up by the stone fireplace.
Tip: The lodge and dining room are closed from Thanksgiving to mid-April.
Take a hike
The Civilian Conservation Corps built the Deep Creek Trail while working in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s. The two-mile trail passes three waterfalls (Toms Branch Falls, Indian Creek Falls and Juney Whank Falls), rhododendrons, azalea, mountain laurel, and in warmer months, colorful wildflowers are abundant along the route.
Tip: To extend the hike, follow the Deep Creek Trail to the Indian Creek Loop, adding an extra 4.5 miles to the route.
Deep Creek Trail
Follow signs on Deep Creek Road to the parking lot and trailhead