The Impact of COVID-19 in the Smoky Mountains

covid-19 travel information for north carolina smoky mountains

Throughout the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, many businesses have had to make the difficult choice to temporarily close their doors for the greater good of keeping their community healthy. While spring is naturally a time when people are ready to get back to nature, the unprecedented situation we all face means that now is not the time to be traveling.

While the recommendation is that you stay at home and stay safe during this pandemic, there may be reasons you need to travel through the NC Smokies. In this case, here’s what you need to know.

Last updated on April 2, 2020

Local State of Emergency Declarations with Travel Impacts

Many counties in western North Carolina are now declaring states of emergency and putting restrictions on travel. Anyone passing through these counties should make sure to plan accordingly.

Graham County

Beginning on Friday, March 27, 2020, checkpoints will be established at entry points to Graham County and no visitors will be allowed access. Please see here for a list of highways with restricted access.

Jackson County and Swain County

All accommodations are now closed to visitors without a work-related reason for the stay. Proof of work will be required including a work ID badge and a letter from the employer stating the purpose of the work to be performed in the respective county.

Cherokee

The Qualla Boundary is currently only open to enrolled members and first descendants with valid ID, non-enrolled persons residing on the Qualla Boundary, non-enrolled employees of essential services and businesses, and delivery services.

Rest Areas

All NCDOT’s 58 Rest Areas’ restroom facilities statewide remain open 24 hours per day for travelers’ relief including the Smoky Mountain Visitor Center in Franklin, NC. State Welcome Centers on the interstate highways are closed for visitor information, but remain open for restrooms 24 hours per day.

Outdoor Closures & Updates

During this time of social distancing, the great outdoors at first seemed the best option to remain active. However, as people flocked to popular hiking trails, scenic lookouts, and waterfalls in droves it became clear that these too would need to be limited. While there are still ways to enjoy outdoor recreation, these more popular spots are have been closed.

We’ll update these as we learn more.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

All campgrounds, picnic areas and restaurants are closed. Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, and Cades Cove Visitor Centers remain closed until further notice.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The southernmost 14 miles of this scenic road have been closed. This spans from Milepost 455 to 469. There are some segments of this scene drive that remain accessible, but any public facility like picnic areas and bathrooms are closed.

Cherohala Skyway

Closed to all traffic.

Cataloochee Valley

Unrelated to COVID-19, all access to Cataloochee Valley will be closed from February 10 through May 20 for road repairs.

Cherokee – Fishing Season

The fishing season in Cherokee has been postponed until further notice. It is recommended that you don’t purchase permits at this time. Waters are not being stocked at this time.

The Appalachian Trail

The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in North Carolina are temporarily shutting down trailhead facilities and other access points to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail to prevent groups from congregating and to protect public health and safety. These include the following popular spots. See the full list here.

  • Wayah Bald – Nantahala National Forest
  • Cheoah Bald – Nantahala National Forest
  • Hampton and Dennis Cove Trailheads (Laurel Falls) – Cherokee National Forest
  • Osborne Farm – Cherokee National Forest
  • Max Patch – Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests
  • Roan Mountain/Carvers Gap – Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests
  • Lovers Leap – Pisgah National Forest

National Forests

The National Forest Service says that the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests will remain open however recreation services at their facilities may be changed, suspended or offered through alternate approaches as they manage for the health and safety of our work force and the public. All campgrounds have been closed.

 

For the latest information on COVID-19, please check the website for the North Carolina Department of Health.

Birding in the Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina are a prime destination for birdwatchers, or “birders,” thanks to a wide range of elevations and a diversity of habitats that welcome both permanent residents and migrating species.

The arrival of spring marks the first of the year’s big seasons for birding, when migrating songbirds arrive at lower elevation areas. These travelers move into the area throughout the spring and into the summer, when eagle-eyed birdwatchers can find dozens of species singing and nesting in the trees.

Early fall marks a second big migration season and is notable for the opportunity to see Broad-Winged Hawks and other awe-inspiring species.

Prime Locations to Bird Watch in the Smokies.

Pack your binoculars for these favorite birding hotspots in the N.C. Smoky Mountains:

Killdeer bird in the smoky mountains
Killdeer

Stecoah Gap

Just a few miles from the crystalline lakes of the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, scenic Stecoah Gap is famous for its variety of stunning wildflowers, as well as a diversity of warblers during the spring breeding season in April and May.

Hop on an easy-to-hike forest road and look out for Blackburnian Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and Wood Thrushes. Or choose the Appalachian Trail for a more strenuous hike and a possible sighting of the vivid Cerulean Warbler.

Kituwah Farm & Cherokee

The site of one of the original “mother towns” of the Cherokee Nation, Kituwah Farm offers 300 acres of open field to explore—perfect for spying raptors like the American Kestrel and sparrows such as Savannah and White-crowned sparrows, even in late winter and early spring. A few miles away, the Garden Trail at the Oconaluftee Indian Village offers an introduction to native plants and those cultivated by the Cherokee people, as well as sightings of Pileated Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Hooded Warblers.

family looking at ducks at Lake Junaluska
Lake Junaluska

Lake Junaluska

Situated in an idyllic valley a few miles from downtown Waynesville, Lake Junaluska is home to dozens of bird species, from waterfowl like swans (see baby cygnets April-June), herons and ducks, to a number of vireos and woodpeckers.

Bird enthusiasts have been very excited to see a nesting pair of Bald Eagles at Lake Junaluska in recent years. Pick up a birding checklist at the welcome center, or check the calendar for a guided bird tour in summer.

Little Tennessee River Greenway

In the town of Franklin, the Little Tennessee River Greenway offers a pleasant paved walk along the river, plus many family-friendly recreation options. Birders will find plenty of species along the main trail, and don’t miss the small wetland area adjacent to Big Bear Park where you’re likely to see White-breasted and Brown-Headed Nuthatches, Red-winged Blackbirds and a variety of ducks and woodpeckers.

Wren chirping in the Smoky Mountains
Wren singing

Blue Ridge Parkway

With its wide diversity of elevations and habitats, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a birder’s paradise. Devil’s Courthouse is a favorite nesting area of the Peregrine Falcon, with the parking area at milepost 422.4 offering the best views. Visit this area at sunset for a stunning view, then stick around during the spring months to hear the songs of Veery and Winter Wrens and to listen for the call of the Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Pack a picnic for Waterrock Knob at milepost 451.2, which boasts a panoramic view and a convenient loop trail perfect for spying Ruffed Grouse, Brown Creeper, Cedar Waxwing and many species of warbler.

Top 10 Romantic Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains

A mountain escape is even sweeter with someone special, and the North Carolina Smoky Mountains have plenty to inspire a romantic getaway. From cozy accommodations and sweet temptations to date-night ideas both fun and adventurous, here are some top activities for couples visiting the mountains.

A couple enjoying a romantic date night in the Smoky Mountains1. Enjoy a Romantic Meal for Two

Whether candlelight or BBQ night is more your speed, there are plenty of places to grab a table for two and enjoy delicious mountain fare. At Bogart’s Restaurant & Tavern in Waynesville or Sylva enjoy a signature Philly cheesesteak, a flame-grilled steak or the catch of the day. The Copper Door in Hayesville also offers elegant steak and seafood dishes in an inviting dining room or patio courtyard. And at Lulu’s On Main in downtown Sylva, grab a seat at the whimsical mosaic-tiled bar and choose from an eclectic menu including Thai noodles, paella, and eggplant parmesan.

2. Raise a Glass to Romance

Toast to a new favorite beverage, or two, at a local craft brewery, winery or distillery. Hoppy Trout Brewing in Andrews pours house brews in imaginative flavors, such as a s’mores flavored milk stout and a Belgian saison aged on cucumbers and jalapeno peppers, while the pub’s dining room serves up brick-oven pizzas and paninis. Lazy Hiker Brewing Company in Franklin lives up to its name, offering a laid-back tap room and patio where you can sip a porter or IPA and perhaps swap stories with a hiker on the Appalachian Trail. Elevated Mountain Distillery in Maggie Valley crafts small batch whiskeys, moonshine and vodka. The distillery offers tours and tastings Monday through Saturday, with mornings and early afternoons being the best times to see the still at work.

Harrah's Cherokee Hotels & Casinos - playing craps
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

3. Plan a Date Night with Serious Fun Factor

The couple who plays together stays together! Cherokee’s Ultra Star Multi-Tainment Center combines bowling, billiards and arcade games into one location. Be sure to check their schedule for 90s hip hop theme nights, live band karaoke and DJs spinning on the lanes. In downtown Sylva, Mad Batter Kitchen features live music and free movie showings on select evenings. Go for an old-school date night with mini golf and a milkshake at Bear Creek Adventures Mini Golf & Gem Mining, open seasonally in Murphy. Or try your luck at the tables or slots at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.

Founders Bridge Hikers4. Choose Your Own Couples Adventure

The Smokies offer adventure in all its forms, from adrenaline-fueled zipline courses at Highlands Aerial Park to go-with-the-flow tubing at Deep Creek Tube Center & Campground. Explore the trails on horseback with a tour at Smokemont Riding Stable, or enjoy the rush of the rapids with whitewater rafting at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Take in the zen calm of the forest as you luxuriate in the private outdoor hot tubs at Shoji Spa & Lodge in nearby Asheville.

5. Cozy Up in a Cabin or Lodge

Find your own slice of mountain paradise at one of the many accommodations that offers that iconic mountain experience, including mountain or lake views, crackling fireplaces and an away-from-it-all feeling. Tapoco Lodge in Robbinsville is set on 120 acres of the Nantahala National Forest, with an elegant lodge and classic cabins right on the banks of the Cheoah River. Nearby, the historic Snowbird Mountain Lodge beckons with panoramic mountain views, a screened-in fire pit area, and guest rooms featuring private decks with hot tubs for two. In Hayesville, discover a tranquil retreat at the Hinton Center, with a view of Lake Chatuge on the North Carolina-Georgia line. Or choose a one-bedroom treehouse cabin at Watershed Resort as your mountain home-away-from-home.

Heavenly Fudge in Cherokee
Heavenly Fudge in Cherokee

6. Indulge Your Sweet Tooth

Put the “sweet” in “sweetheart” by sharing a decadent dessert. With locations in Bryson City and Cherokee, Heavenly Fudge Depot & Shoppe has been crafting handmade fudge and candies for more than 40 years. In Waynesville and Sylva, stop by Jack the Dipper for a decadent ice cream treat⁠—served in the parlor’s signature made-to-order warm waffle cones!

7. Take a Hike

Enjoy nature’s wonders side by side on a favorite Smoky Mountain hiking trail. The easy Whiteside Mountain Trail near Cashiers features an awe-inspiring view of the highest vertical drop in the Eastern U.S. Feel at one with the forest on the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail. Or be wow-ed by waterfalls near Bryson City⁠—a loop trail in the Deep Creek area passes right by three favorite falls. Can’t choose? Let the professionals be your guide⁠—companies like Alarka Expeditions in Cowee will tailor a trip to your specific interests, be it birds, botanicals or cultural history.

Sunset in Cherokee NC8. Enjoy a Scenic Sunset

Watch the sky come alive at a favorite sunset spot, like the mountain bald at Max Patch, which boasts stunning 360-degree views. Waterrock Knob and Cowee Mountain Overlook are two of the top spots for sunsets on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. And Clingmans Dome⁠—the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park⁠—is ideal for both sunset and sunrise views. Remember to pack a jacket for quickly cooling temperatures and a flashlight for the hike back to the car! If you prefer to pair your sunset with a delicious dinner or drink, reserve a table at Mountview Bistro at Fontana Village.

9. Stroll a Small Town Main Street

Walk hand-in-hand through a charming mountain town and discover local shopping and art along the way. Waynesville has welcomed visitors to its downtown for well over a century. Sylva is known for its all-American Main Street and iconic courthouse, while nearby Dillsboro features the work of local artisans in the historic charm of 19th century buildings. Cashiers and Highlands combine high-end shopping with delicious restaurants and outdoor outfitters.

Cloggers in Dillsboro10. Learn From the Local Culture

Get to know the history and heritage of the Smokies, and take home some skills or souvenirs to remember your visit! Learn from Cherokee artisans at the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and stick around after dark for theater under the stars. Unto These Hills has reenacted the stories of the Cherokee people for 70 years. In the fall, a retelling of Sleepy Hollow takes over the outdoor amphitheatre. At the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, learn traditional Appalachian crafts, dance, music and cooking in week-long and weekend classes year-round.

 

Dillsboro Exploration Guide – Top Things To Do

Located in Jackson County, Dillsboro, North Carolina is the ideal getaway for a weekend or longer.  Surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest and located along the banks of the Tuskasegee River, this charming and artsy town offers a relaxing atmosphere, family activities, shopping, and great food.  Just 45 minutes west of Asheville, Dillsboro is a one stop destination with a variety of experiences to create a memorable visit.

Things to do in Dillsboro

With an abundance of hiking trails and activities along the Tuskasegee River, Dillsboro is the perfect basecamp for outdoors adventure.

River Adventures

kayakers on the Tuckasegee RiverThe Tuckasegee, also known as “Tuck” flows from Cashiers all the way to its entry into Fontana Lake.  A popular river for fly fishing, boating, and floating, visitors can experience it all.  Dillsboro is the fifth put-in point along the river and the ideal spot to take a slow float, kayak trip or fishing expedition. Here are some places who can help you access these mountain blueway adventures.

  • Smoky Mountain River adventures takes families on white water rafting with guide or offers advice to do it on your own.  Rental for rafts and inflatable kayaks are available.
  • Tuckasegee Outfitters offers family friendly rafting trips May-September from Dillsboro to Barkers Creek Crossing.  The rapids are small (class I and II), and perfect for an easy trip down the river.
  • Dillsboro River Company provides river trips for the whole family and is perfect for first time rafters or young children.

Go Fish

Fly fisher in Jackson County North CarolinaFly fishing is huge in Jackson County. In fact it’s known as the North Carolina Trout Capital and boasts 15 spots to catch a few varieties of trout. You’re sure to find a great spot away from other fishers to spend a quiet morning or afternoon. For license information, rules, and maps visit Discover Jackson NC.

Hiking in Jackson County will always end with a great view but what makes it special is that there is a trail for everyone regardless of age or ability. Here are some local favorites.

  • Black Balsam Trail loops through Black Balsam Knob with the full hike being 5 miles.  Once you reach the 6,000-foot elevation point, visitors will see mountains from every angle.  A  seven mile challenge for the seasoned hiker or adventurer
  • Pinnacle Park Trail offers a steep and rocky ascend to gorgeous summit views.
  • Whiteside Mountain offers panoramic views following a 2 mile track.  In the spring and summer, keep lookout for nesting peregrine falcons.

Culture and Shopping

Southern Appalachian Womens Musuem
Appalachian Women’s Museum

Explore a variety of cultural and shopping experiences rich in the history and people of the area. Probably one of the most popular excursions is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which offers year-round train rides along the Tuckasegee River.  Special themed trips like The Polar Express and The Easter Express are local favorites. Another unique Dillsboro offering is the Appalachian Women’s Museum, the first museum dedicated to Southern Appalachian women offers exhibits and a glimpse into their lives.

Dillsboro is known as an artsy community that has hundreds of arts and crafts on display along the five block village.

  • Since 1976, Dogwood Crafters has housed fine arts and crafts from over 125 local artists. Stop here to purchase a piece of Dillsboro culture.
  • The American House Cat Museum is for cat lovers alike.  Located 4 miles south of Dillsboro, visitors will find cat memorabilia from any decade and many important pieces of purr cat history.
  • Riverwood Pottery has been in the village since 1973 and is a great place to find a special ceramic piece.  The studio also offers demonstrations and classes.

Great Places to Dine

toward plott balsams mountain rangeBoasting the “Best Hand Cut Steaks in the Smokys”, Boots Steakhouse offers fine dining with a cozy mountain town feel.  Besides steak, the menu offers seafood, southern comfort foods, and a full bar.

With locations in neighboring Sylva and Dillsboro, Innovation Brewing offers a unique selection of over 30 brews along with crowd favorites.  Live music is featured every Saturday and Cosmic Carryout, their food truck is in full operation every day.

Located in Sylva,  Foragers Canteen offers an eclectic twist on southern and new favorites.  By offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you could make a day out of it!

Places to Stay in and Around Dillsboro

Dillsboro and surrounding offer a variety of accommodations to rest and relax after all that fun!

  • Best Western Plus River Escape Inn and Suites offers traditional accommodations with Tuckasegee River and Great Smoky Mountain views.  Each stay offers full amenities including full hot breakfast, internet access, and an indoor pool and hot tub.
  • Holiday Inn Express-Sylva is convenient to many area attractions, offers reasonable rates, and pool and hot tub.
  • For a unique experience, try  The Grand Old Lady Hotel in nearby Balsam.   Housed on a historic property, The Grand Old Lady Hotel offers standard rooms along, junior and traditional suites.