Known as the place where you can take “a big vacation in a small town,” Bryson City, NC is a destination for history fans, train lovers, and, especially, outdoor enthusiasts. You’ll want to spend at least two full days here to sample the things this town offers and longer if you want to enjoy all of the outdoor activities in this natural paradise.
Things to do when visiting Bryson City
The best place to begin is at the Visitor’s Center, located in the former historic 1908 county courthouse. There you can pick up a Visitor’s Guide to help you plan your vacation so you don’t miss a thing. While at the Visitors Center, be sure to visit the Swain County Heritage Museum that tells the story of Bryson City, Swain County and its people. The museum is onsite and there is no admission fee.
Through exhibits, photographs and a fascinating 15-minute video, you will see how the early settlers learned in a one-room schoolhouse, worshiped to the music of an 1887 church organ, and relaxed and gathered for stories on the fully restored log cabin porch.
You also will discover how the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Fontana Dam created the backdrop to the distinctive and challenging outdoor fun you will be experiencing during your visit.
Outdoor Excursions in the Smoky Mountains
Whether you choose to take a guided rafting trip or, for the more experienced, to rent a raft or inflatable kayak, known as a ‘ducky,” white-water rafting on the Nantahala River is the most popular activity to locals and visitors alike. With 8 miles of exhilarating rafting fun, paddlers will be challenged with Class I and II rapids and end the trip with a breathtaking Class III drop over Nantahala Falls. Check out the Nantahala Outdoor Center and other rafting companies like Wildwater for rafting-trip details and for packages that include other unique activities, like camping out in a yurt!
Take a canopy tour of zip lines featuring stunning views of the Nantahala George and Fontana Lake while you fly through the treetops. Be sure to ask about ziplining appropriate for the kiddos, too. Or marvel at the beauty of the Smoky Mountains with a package that includes a train ride across Fontana Lake and up the Nantahala Gorge. At the top you can hop into a custom-fitted Jeep for a tour of the lakes and waterfalls on the way up to the world-famous Appalachian Trail.
For hikers, Great Smoky Mountain trails abound around Bryson City and offer something for all levels of hikers. The Noland Creek Trail is an old service road with a gentle grade for 6 miles of easy hiking. For an easy-to-moderate hike, try the 4-mile-long Deep Creek Loop that passes by the stunning Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls.
Martin’s Gap loop is another choice for an easy-to-moderate hike at approximately 12 miles long. For those seeking a strenuous hike, try the Nolan Divide Trail to Lonesome Pine Overlook. This almost-7-mile hike starts with 3 miles rising steadily to a 2300-foot elevation. At the crest of Beauregard Ridge, the trail becomes extremely steep and narrow, but the views of Bryson City, Tuckasegee Valley and Nantahala Mountains makes every demanding step worth it.
Mountain bikers will be thrilled with their trail options in and around Bryson City, NC. Traveling light? Rent a specialized bike from Nantahala Outdoor Center and hit the onsite Flint Ridge Trail or the multi-use trail system in the Tsali Recreation Area, just 15 miles west of Bryson City. With 40 miles of trails and 4 excellent loops, Tsali is known as one of the Top Ten places to mountain bike in the country!
In addition to the multitude of adrenaline-pumping activities, Bryson City, NC offers a plethora of options for the more relaxed vacationer. Topmost is a trip on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. The 32-mile, 4-hour Tuckasegee River Excursion travels round-trip from the historic Bryson City Depot through quiet countryside to the small town of Dillsboro, NC.
Or choose the Nantahala Gorge Excursion that passes over the historic Trellis Bridge that crosses Fontana Lake into the Nantahala Gorge and back. This 4.5 hour and 44-mile excursion offers first-class dining service with a private attendant. Listen to Bluegrass music and Appalachian stories while you sip your exclusive specialty cocktail. Travelers may also pre-order box lunches if desired.
Where to Dine in Bryson City
Bryson City offers several excellent dining options with everything from a fun snack to a gourmet meal. You must stop in at POP-IN-JACKS, where popcorn is everything! Try traditional popcorns like White Cheddar, out-of-the-box flavors like Dill Pickle, or, for the undecided, Jack’s DNA with a unique blend of Kettle Corn, Extra Buttery, Jalepeno Cheddar, and Buttery Caramel popcorns. They are happy to give you free samples, and, even more deliciously, the shop is named for a rescued Beagle named Jack and supports the local animal shelter, P.A.W.S.
Just coming off the river after a day of paddling or as its own destination, the River’s End Restaurant offers magnificent views of the gorge and front-row seats as paddlers complete their Nantahala River rafting trip. River’s End serves hearty American fare, like the Tail of the Dragon Burger, Chicken and Waffles, and Black Bean or Beef Chili. Or complete your rafting trip at Big Wesser BBQ & Brew for authentic North Carolina BBQ. Located at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, Big Wesser is what North Carolinians brag about whenever the subject of “real BBQ” comes up!
For an afternoon pick-me-up of chocolate, Heavenly Fudge on Everett Street uses only the finest ingredients cooked in large copper kettles and turned on large marble slab tables. You can watch the chocolatiers hand-dip each chocolate while you revive with a drink from their espresso bar.
Bryson City is also known for its bass, trout, and fly-fishing spots on the Nantahala River. For supper, order the fresh river trout dinner at the Fryemont Inn. Featured in Southern Living Magazine, the Freymont Inn has a rustic dining room open to the public. Insider tip: request a romantic table near the huge stone fireplace. Then spend the night at this charming inn or just relax on the rocking-chair porch where you can plan your next big vacation to the delightful and energetic small town of Bryson City, NC.