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Bryson City NC Travel Guide

Bryson City NC is a laid-back, small mountain town, that is most well known as the location for the popular Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.    Calling Bryson City a city is a bit of a stretch as it is definitely not a city, but a wonderful and relaxed small town.  Bryson City features a historic downtown area that is full of small shops, bookstores, restaurants, craft galleries, breweries, and more.   

There are lots of things to do and see in and around Bryson City as well, and it's close to a number of other popular mountain areas, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee NC, and Fontana Lake.

We think you'll love Bryson City NC - Let's explore all that Bryson City has to offer!

Cover Photo by: Seth Youngblood

Where is Bryson City NC?

Bryson City is located off the Great Smoky Mountains Express way, which travels from I-40, by Waynesville NC, Cherokee NC, and down to Lake Fontana.  Bryson City is about 20 minutes south of Cherokee.

Bryson City is also located just along the border of the southern most portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and specifically Deep Creek, which is popular for tubing, fishing, and hiking due to the 3 beautiful waterfalls located there.

History of Bryson City NC

Located in the lands that where historically Cherokee, Bryson City is the county seat for Swain County.  The Cherokee fished and hunted these lands around the Tuckasegee River for more than 14,000 years.  After the Revolutionary War, the land became reservation land and under the ownership of "Big Bear", a Cherokee Chief.  He sold the land to non-Cherokee and the initial town became known as Charleston.

In 1884, the The Western North Carolina Railroad laid tracks through Charleston NC, improving transportation to the town significantly, and resulting in significant growth.   In 1889, Charleston became Bryson City to set it apart from Charleston SC and to honor the founders of the town itself.

Things to do in Bryson City NC

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Bryson City offers many different things to do and see, both in the town itself, but also in the surrounding areas.   In fact, there are so many things to do and see, that you may find it hard just to find enough time to enjoy everything Bryson City has to offer when you visit.  

Here are just a few of the amazing things to do in and around Bryson City NC

1 - Tour, Shop and Eat in Downtown

Downtown Bryson City is a historic small town, full of old buildings that line the main streets, and the beautiful Tuckasegee river that flows right through the middle.  Downtown is full of activity, and wonderful locally owned shops and restaurants.  Bryson City is also food truck friendly, so be sure to check those out as well.  Who can resist fried deviled eggs and other unique food truck options!

The bridge over the Tuckasegee River, through downtown, provides beautiful views of the river.  While enjoying the views, you'll be surrounded by the beautiful greens and blues of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains.

Maps for self guided tours of downtown Bryson City are available at the visitor's center.

2 - Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Fall

Fall along the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

The main attraction, and it's difficult to miss and not hear is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR).  The GSMR offers a number of different rides, and they provide both Diesel and Steam engine service.  They even provide a number of different car options as well, from First-class (adult oriented) to coach and open cars which are intended more for families.

All of these options will determine your available times and destination.   The GSMR also has a number of special excursions, including food specials, beer and wine specials, and holiday specials.  The most well known and popular special excursion being the Polar Express at Christmas.

Some tips when riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad:

  • Book your tickets in advance for the best options.   You can book them online.
  • The GSMR provides a number of different ride options, with various layovers and ride times.  Pay attention to these, as the longer destinations are very long ride times.
  • When riding, you'll mainly be sitting and watching scenery.   For younger children, this may not be ideal.  For longer rides, you may want to bring some things to do for your children.
  • There is a snack car, but it provides food similar to a sporting event.  Food is not included with your ticket price.
  • There are bathrooms onboard.

3 - Visit the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum

Located right by the depot for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, is the Smoky Mountains Train Museum.   The museum is owned by the GSMR, and your train ticket provides free admission.  Without a ticket, there is a fee.  

The museum is a fun way to kill some time while waiting for the "All Aboard" call for your train ride.

The museum houses a collection of 7,000 Lionel (O-scale) engines, cars and accessories, all running on a large and impressive layout.  There are children’s activities and a gift/toy shop as well.

4 - Tubing at Deep Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Deep Creek Tubing

One of the most popular activities in the area, and one that we loved doing with our kids when they were younger, is tubing in Deep Creek.  Deep Creek is an area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, focused around the creek named Deep Creek. 

The area provides camping, picnic areas, hiking trails, three waterfalls, and free and natural tubing along the beautiful and crystal clear waters of Deep Creek.

You can rent tubes from a number of places coming into Deep Creek, then you'll park either at the Deep Creek trailhead or in the picnic area.  You'll need to hike up to the bridge to put your tube in for the easy section of the creek. If you want more challenging rapids, you'll need to hike up a bit further.

5 - Hike to See 3 Waterfalls at Deep Creek

Indian Creek Falls Deep Creek

In addition to tubing, the Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers access to some very nice hiking trails, including the Deep Creek waterfall loop, which will take you to three beautiful waterfalls, all within a short distance of each other.  This hike can be adjusted to different lengths as needed.

The trails will take you along side Deep Creek itself, which is crystal clear and beautiful, and one of the more beautiful areas of the park, especially in the Fall.

6 - Visit Fontana Lake and Dam

Located south of Bryson City is Fontana Lake and Dam.  The Lake is beautiful and perfect for boating and relaxing in a kayak.   The water has a somewhat mysterious green tint that makes it very unique looking.    

What made Fontana Lake is the engineering marvel and operational, Fontana Dam.  Fontana Dam is the tallest Dam east of the Rocky Mountains, at 480 feet tall.  About the height of a 50 story sky scrapper!

The Dam is part of the Appalachian trail AND visitors can drive across the dam, on the road above it.  There is a visitor center and gift shop, and touring and viewing the dam is an amazing and educational activity.

7 - Visit the Road to Nowhere

Located just outside of downtown Bryson City, is Lakeview drive, which will take you 6-miles out into the Great Smoky Mountains National park to end at a tunnel.  Yes, the road ends at a tunnel.  Hence the name, the Road to Nowhere.

During the formation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Fontana Lake, many people were forced to give up their land and homes, and Highway 288 that led to them is now under the waters of Fontana Lake.  The Federal Government promised to build a new road, Lakeview Drive.  But it was never finished, due to environmental and political issues.

Today, visitors to Bryson City can drive along the beautiful road, and walk through the tunnel at the end, where construction just stopped.  The drive and visit the tunnel makes for a unique, interesting, and educational experience for everyone.  The drive is especially beautiful during the Fall.

8 - Visit Darnell Farms

Darnell Farms is a family-friendly farm, located on 100 acres, just outside of Bryson City.  The farm hosts lots of special events, including:

  • Strawberry Jam
  • Summer Splash
  • Sweet Corn Festival
  • Watermelon Bash
  • Peach Jam
  • Fall Festival
  • and more!

All of these events are focused on the harvest at the time, and feature live music, vendors, food and fun!  

The farm also provides educational field trips, tours, and a very large fruit stand where you can purchase fruits, vegetables and more, all grown on the farm. They also sell many different artisan goods as well (the bread is amazing).  Oh, and you can't skip the Dream Whips!

9 - Raft at the nearby Nantahala Outdoor Center

Whitewater Rafting Blue Ridge Mountains

About 20 minutes south of Bryson City, is one of the most amazing outdoor centers on the East Coast, and most certainly in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Nantahala Outdoor Center, or more commonly called the NOC.

NOC is located along the absolutely gorgeous Nantahala River, and offers activities such as:

  • Whitewater rafting
  • Ziplining
  • Kayaking
  • Mountain Biking
  • Tubing

The offer a number of packages that combine various activities as well.  They also offering dining and lodging accommodations as well.  If you love the outdoors, this is definitely a place you'll want to check out!

10 - Nantahala Village Riding Stables

Cataloochee Valley Horse Camp

A fun, and exciting way to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains in and around Bryson City NC is on horseback.  

Located 9 miles west of Bryson City, is Nantahala Village Riding Stables.  They offer family friendly and fun, guide horseback rides.   Don't worry, if you've never ridden before or have limited experience, they'll teach you the basics before you hit the trails.  

Trails are all located in the Nantahala National Forest, a wooded forest overlooking the Fontana Lake.  They offer numerous options for guided rides.  Options vary by time and location, and they even over overnight rides.

Where to Stay in Bryson City NC

Bryson City offers a number of options for choosing where to stay when visiting.   Bryson City offers:

  • Bed & Breakfasts
  • Cabin Rentals
  • Hotels and Motels
  • and Camping

Regardless of your needs or preferences, you're sure to find the perfect place to call home for your Bryson City NC adventure.  Here are just a few great options to consider!

Hotels/Motels and Inns in Bryson City NC

Bryson City Cabin Rentals

Bryon City offers numerous cabin rental options, both close to town, and more remote.   Regardless of your needs or group size, cabins in Bryson city will fit your need.  Here are our top picks for Bryson City cabin rentals:

Best Restaurants in Bryson City NC

For such a small mountain town, Bryson City really delivers on great places to eat.  We've been to Bryson City many times over the years, and here are our top picks for best restaurants in Bryson City NC:

About the author

Larry Deane is co-owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Life. He has spent more than 20 years exploring the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and has a deep passion for nature, history, storytelling, and adventure. Along with his wife Jenn, they combined these passions to create Blue Ridge Mountain Life, a travel guide to these stunning mountains they are fortunate to call home.

Larry has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and journalist, and has established himself as a leading voice and expert for Blue Ridge Mountains. He is also an avid hiker, photographer, and videographer. He loves sharing his mountain adventures and knowledge with more than 500,000 people per month on Blue Ridge Mountain Life.

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