The Explorer’s Guide to Franklin, NC

Well known for its neighborly ways and charming historic downtown, Franklin, NC is a destination of its own. With a population of about 4,000 people and surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains, it is by definition a small town with its own unique heritage. Serving as the seat of Macon County in Western North Carolina, Franklin has a history deeply rooted in both the native Eastern Band of Cherokee and a unique Highland Scottish heritage.

Things to Do in Franklin

Recently named as one of the best cities to live in America, the city of Franklin offers a rich mosaic of things to do. The historic downtown with its museums, shops, festivals, entertainment venues and hometown eateries coupled with one-of-a-kind outdoor activities are enough to fill a whole week of adventure and then some.

Buck Creek in Franklin NC

Outdoor Adventures

Surrounded by the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, Franklin is the perfect basecamp for outdoor exploration. There are miles upon miles of hiking and biking trails dotting the mountain landscape. Some lead to breathtaking views and others to thunderous waterfalls. Here’s a list of some of the best trails in the region including Whiteside Mountain, Bartram Trail, and Yellow Mountain Trail.

Continue to explore the beautiful Franklin outdoors on a trail with the Friends Of the Greenway (FROG) along the Little Tennessee River. You can hike, bike, or walk your dog along this almost 5-mile trail, or one of its segments. You’ll traverse over bridges and through meadows, wetlands, and forest with outstanding opportunities for bird-watching and butterfly viewing at the Greenway’s Butterfly Garden.

In Otto, NC, about 8 miles south of Franklin, sign up for an off-the-beaten-path adventure with the Primitive Outback Kayaking and Gem Mining “Kayaking Adventure.” This adventure is a 2.5 – to 3-hour, self-guided kayaking trip on the picturesque Little Tennessee River. You’ll get a life jacket, dry box and return shuttle for one all-inclusive price. There are experts on hand to teach you about your precious discoveries as you unearth them from a covered outdoor flume that overlooks the river.

Main Street in Franklin NC

Where to Shop

When exploring historic downtown Franklin, you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time, especially at the T.M. Rickman’s General Store. Serving as the town’s general store and nerve center since 1925, the store was closed when the owner died but was purchased in 2007 by the Mainspring Conservation Trust to protect its heritage.

Rickman’s General Store also serves as a community gathering place. Every Saturday between May and December, volunteers host an open house and old-time jam session from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the storefront. Peruse the vintage items and furniture on display from the store’s heyday and purchase the wares of local artisans, quilters, writers, and photographers to help support the preservation effort.

Hoping to add an exceptional antique find to your home décor? Look no further than the 3 floors of treasures at Nestfeathers Antiques, recognizable for their picturesque building and known for their great prices. Also stop by NC Mountain Made for rare “primitives” and antiques, along with the works of more than 100 artists and craftspeople.

You cannot miss the Whistle Stop Depot, a one-of-a-kind antiques mall specializing in furniture, clothing, jewelry, and country accessories. Here you will find items you didn’t even know you wanted. but you surely will.

Franklin NC Gem Mining Museum

Mountain Museums

The town’s most remarkable historical objects are found in Franklin’s fascinating museums. The Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center is the only museum of the Scots in the entire country.

Located in Franklin, NC since 1994, this museum was established to be a source of “reliable information” on traditional Highlands dress and heritage. The second floor of the museum houses a tartan gift shop where you can research your family’s own traditional pattern and have it transferred onto everything from shirts, ties and kilts to coffee mugs.

A World of Gems

Franklin, NC is rich in gems and minerals and known internationally as the “Gem Capital of the World.” The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, established in 1974 and open from May through October, is a mesmerizing study of thousands of gems and minerals from across the globe.

Here you will see a ruby that weighs more than 2 pounds. How about a 385-pound sapphire? Ruby City Gems and Minerals is not only a rock and jewelry store, its free museum hosts this remarkable gem along with a shrunken head (!) and ivory carvings. Another interesting feature of this museum is it’s location. It was once home to the local jail!

Open year-round, the Macon County Historical Museum also merits a visit. Situated in a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the free museum takes a close look at the mountain heritage distinctive to the Southern Appalachians.

When inspired by so many magnificent gems, you will no doubt want to dig for your own precious souvenir. There are several splendid gem-mining places to try in Franklin, including Artisan Gemstone and Mineral Gallery and Rose Creek Mine.

Cloggers in Dillsboro

Performing Arts

Franklin is home to world-class shows, events and festivals. The Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts is a premiere venue for superlative artists and performances. With stunning architecture and impeccable acoustics, this site offers a variety of shows, including concerts, comedies, gospel, folk and dance to name a few.

Every year in June, Franklin’s 3-day Taste of Scotland Festival celebrates its Scottish heritage with highland games, bagpipe music, the crowning of Little Miss Tartan, Border Collie trials, crafter exhibitions, and Cherokee and re‑enactor demonstrations.

Kids on ice slide in Franklin

Holiday Traditions

The holidays in Franklin are simply magical. Historic Downtown Franklin is transformedinto  “Winter Wonderland” with live music in the downtown gazebo, enchanting holiday decorations, and storefronts pulling out all the stops to make sure holiday shopping memorable. The schedule for Winter Wonderland is available here.

Where To Dine and Drink

You can always find a delicious and interesting cold beer in Franklin, NC. At the Currahee Brewing Company, named for the Cherokee word for “stands alone,” just off Main Street, you can try their European-inspired ales and lagers such as “Lucky Scars Wild IPA” or “Frankenstark.” Enjoy your brew in their large tap room or at the bier garden overlooking the Little Tennessee River while eating your fair share of BBQ from Smokejack next door.

For a taste of the Appalachian Trail, you must visit the Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. Because of its proximity to the world-famous trail, Lazy Hikers tips its hat to those who traveled as far as they could go with surrendered hiking boots dangling from the rafters and brews with names like “Slack Pack IPA” and “Trail Mate Golden Ale.” No visit is complete without homemade fries from the Hiker’s Kitchen Food Truck and live music on their backyard stage.

lazy hiker brewery in the nc smoky mountains

Franklin brings the comfort to “comfort food.” Martha’s Kitchen in downtown Franklin is only open from 11 am to 2 pm, so plan ahead. Enjoy a hot buffet with meatloaf and chicken and dumplings or order from the menu. You don’t want to miss their Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad on a croissant or a Veggie Wrap on wheatberry bread. Enjoy your meal at a cozy private booth inside or dine al fresco in the fresh mountain air.

Relish some southern cooking and homemade pie at Sunset Restaurant, where you’ll have a nearly impossible time choosing from amongst Chocolate, Coconut, Lemon, Butterscotch, Pecan or Egg Custard plus their seasonal pies. Or why not skip a meal and sample them all? You won’t be sorry.

Where To Stay

For true southern hospitality, plan your stay at the Franklin Terrace B&B, an old schoolhouse with wide porches and large guestrooms. Browse the antiques and crafts for sale on the main floor or take a short walk to downtown for your shopping.

Want to be closer to outdoors? Rent a cabin, pitch a tent or hook up your RV at Pines RV Park and Cabins, featuring campfire rings, a playground, basketball, planned activities and a pet-friendly park.

Choose a vacation rental from Franklin Home Store, where you can select a cabin with fishing from your deck, an adorable, cozy tiny house, or a home with a wrap-around porch, perfect for a trio of couples.

Cozy Winter Escapes in the Smoky Mountains

With winter views that go on for miles, cozy cabin rentals, and plenty of indoor activities to pass the time, winter is a beautiful time of year to visit the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina!

Sure the temperatures may be cooler, but get outside anyway! Enjoy hiking through the woods (and possibly through the snow!) to catch spectacular views of frozen waterfalls scattered throughout the area. You can also take part in outdoor excitement like skiing and snow-tubing. However, if you’re looking for a vacation that marries comfy and cozy vibes with plenty of relaxation, then there’s plenty of options available as well.

Cozy Cabins and Resorts

cozy cabin rentals in the Smoky Mountains

There are so many options for cabins and cottages to rent and hunker down in cozy, warm bliss. Some even have fireplaces and hot tubs for extra relaxation!

  • Watershed Resorts: The cabins available at Watershed Resorts in Bryson City, NC, offer everything from one- and two-bedroom cozy cabins to amenities like hot tubs and fireplaces. They even offer cabins large enough to house a group of your family and friends!
  • Laurel Bush Riverfront Cabins: The rustic, cozy cabins available through Laurel Bush Riverfront Cabins in Sylva, NC, sit on the Tuckasegee River, offering amazing views all year-round!
  • Fire Mountain: The cabins at Fire Mountain in Highlands, NC, feature amenities to keep you warm and relaxed during your stay, including hand-laid fireplaces made of native stone and two- and four-person jacuzzi tubs!

Seasonal Indoor Activities

great smoky mountain railroad in the winter

Outdoor adventures aren’t the only way to have fun in Western, NC, this winter! Here are a few ways you can stay warm while still enjoying everything our beautiful small towns have to offer!

  • Train Excursions: This family-friendly activity in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina is open year-round. During the holidays, your kids will LOVE riding on the Polar Express!
  • Shopping & Museums: At any of the shops in the Great Smoky Mountains, you can find everything from unique antiques to locally-made goods perfect to take home as souvenirs or give as gifts! Plus, there are plenty of cultural and educational experiences to be had at the local museums!
  • Seasonal Drinks to Warm You Up: Sip on sensational lattes, cappuchinos, hot chocolate and more at quaint local coffee shops like Mountain Perks Espresso Bar & Cafe, Panacea Coffee Company, or Smoky Mountain Roasters!

Endless Winter Views

Blue Ridge Parkway winter vista

No matter where (or when) you stay in Western NC, the views of the mountains and valleys will be exquisite. In the winter, when snow blankets the forests and the world seems a little bigger, brighter, and quieter. Book your stay in the Great Smoky Mountains to experience this for yourself!

Exploring the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Large poplar tree at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, N.C.,  inspires the kind of hushed awe that can only be found in rare old-growth forests. Widely undiscovered by most, this forest, part of the Nantahala National Forest, lives under the protective watch of the US Forest Service and has remained untouched by logging and development since 1936. In fact, this land is so shielded from intrusion, all-terrain vehicles and chainsaws are not permitted, even by the forest’s keepers.

Featuring one of the largest contiguous growths of hardwood trees and encompassing 3800 square miles near the town of Robbinsville, NC, this majestic paradise will have you questioning when exactly you stepped through time and into these primordial woods.

Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918), the American poet and writer for whom the forest is named, is probably best known for his 1913 poem ‘Trees” that worships their splendor and disparages even his own attempt to write words worthy of their beauty.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

With your first few steps into the forest, Kilmer’s words resonate as you are greeted by the heady scent of the dark, rich earth; the organic decay and life-giving rebirth of the fallen trees and mossy underbrush; and the purity of the crisp, sweet mountain air.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast

On your visit, you will spend as much time looking up as you do around. Over 100 tree species define the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest as one of the most unique and varied forests on the east coast; its old-growth hardwood varieties can only be found in our Appalachian Mountains. White Oak, Beech, Red Oak and Basswood trees are plentiful, insulating you from the brightest summer sun or coolest snowy day.

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

plaque at joyce kilmer memorial forestSadly, the once-plentiful American Chestnut and Hemlock trees have been decimated by disease and pests, but the majestic Yellow Poplars (also known as Tulip Poplars) still tower over the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest at an astounding 100 feet tall Leaning your head back and straining to see the treetops is a dizzying but must-do activity. And spanning 20 feet around, these giants could make for an all-day game of hide-and-seek.

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is an experience of a lifetime and quite possible for most to explore with an undemanding 2-mile roundtrip trail. In the shape of a figure eight, the trail is defined by an upper and lower loop. The easy upper loop winds through the grove of colossal Yellow Poplars, but you don’t want to miss the lower loop featuring the memorial plaque in honor of the forest’s namesake.

Not only was Joyce Kilmer a poet, but he served his country in WWI where he was killed by a German sniper in 1918. The Veterans of the Foreign Wars requested that the government create a living memorial named in honor of the brave man. Fittingly, this memorial forest with trees that have been standing for over 450 years, was named for Joyce Kilmer, the man who wrote so eloquently yet so humbly about them.

Driving Directions to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

From Robbinsville:

  • Head north on Highway 129 for 1.5 miles.
  • Turn left on Highway 143 west (Massey Branch Road) and drive 5 miles to Kilmer Road.
  • Turn right onto Kilmer Road and drive for 6.9 miles and then take a slight right onto Santeetlah Rd.
  • Keep going for a 2.3 miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Drive the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway

A sweeping view from Newfound Gap Road

The Great Smoky Mountains are synonymous with adventure, even when your plan for the day is a serene drive along the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway in Western North Carolina. Close to the Tennessee border, this 75-mile trip takes about 2 hours to complete, not including stops. The Byway creates a partial loop, running from Almond to Tapoca on NC 28 and then from Tapoca to Topton on US 129. It travels through the heart of the Nantahala Gorge and past the magnificent Fontana Lake and Lake Santeetlah, eventually landing you in the small town of Robbinsville, NC. Along the way, you will be charmed by the local artist community and delightful dining options, but your drive begins with heart-pounding excitement.

Undiscovered by most casual road-trippers, the “Tail of the Dragon” describes the adrenaline-pumping thoroughfare that has become world famous to those in the know. Motorcyclists and sports car drivers come from all over the world to test their grit on this road with over 300 tight curves spanning a short 11 miles. But more than just a challenging drive, the scenery lining the Tail of the Dragon is untouched by man. It is from this glorious road that the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway begins in Almond, NC.

Doc Watson and David Holt
David Holt and Doc Watson performed to a sold-out ‘An Appalachian Evening’ audience in 2009 | Photo Courtesy of the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center.


Your first stop on the Byway must be the Stecoah Valley Cultural Center, originally an old stone schoolhouse. Derived from the Cherokee word “Usdi Gohi,” “Stecoah” means “little place.” Visit the artists’ gallery, learn about the ways of the Cherokee people, and purchase unique local crafts and artwork for those unfortunate enough to not be along on your trip. Plan to spend enough time to explore all of the displays so you don’t miss any of the true treasures.

The first stunning lake for which that the byway is named is Fontana Lake. Although not a Native American word or phrase, “fontana” is derived from the Italian word for “fountain.” Take a refreshing swim, enjoy a picnic, rent a boat or a paddleboard, or fish in the deepest lake in North Carolina on your way to the awe-inspiring Fontana Dam.

Reaching as high as a dizzying 50-story skyscraper, Fontana Dam is the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Located on the Tennessee Valley River, the dam was designed to satisfy the urgent need for electric power during WWII. Amazingly, the project was completed in an unbelievable 3 years. The world-famous Appalachian Trail crosses over the dam and you are welcome to walk or drive it. On the far side, you will find an Information Center and gift shop. But, standing on the Observation Deck and feeling the raw power of the dam is the real draw. Insider tip: for an astounding experience, take a cable car from the skyway above down to the Fontana Dam.

Fontana Lake
Fontana Lake


You may also want to visit the family friendly Fontana Village Resort, originally founded in 1944 as a tent-city to sustain the workers building the dam. Enjoy the outdoor pools, lazy river, hiking trails, and water sports at the resort or spend the night bunking down in the lodge or a cabin. Alternately, find a more exclusive view of Fontana Lake from the Lakeview at Fontana Spa in Bryson City. This adults-only retreat features Treetop Soaking Cabanas with private, open-air, oversized tubs and signature bath salts.

When you come upon the shores of Lake Santeetlah, almost completely surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest, it’s easy to forget you are not alone in the wilderness. Be one of the lucky few to nab a campsite right on the lake and your isolation is almost complete. The word “Santeetlah” is Native American for “blue waters,” and you will not be challenged to see why in this crystalline lake.

a person boating on lake santeetlah in the nc smoky mountains
Lake Santeetlah | Photo by anoldent


After a day on the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, you’ll be hungry enough to eat an elk. Literally. The Hub in Robbinsville near the end of the Byway offers just that. Try the Spicy Bison, an exotic 8 oz. burger made with a mix of elk, bison, wagyu and wild board and topped with cheese, bacon, jalapenos, grilled onions, and ranch dressing. Or challenge your appetite  to a MASSIVE Nathan’s® Famous footlong with any choice of toppings on a 12” bun. Believe it or not, they also make a double! But don’t delay, The Hub is only open from 11 am to 3 pm, 6 days a week (closed Tuesdays).

Another favorite with the locals around Robbinsville is Moonshiners Steakhouse, a laid-back and popular restaurant. They serve up heaping Smoked Chicken or Cajun Shrimp Tacos to feed even the hungriest traveler, and you will have to pinch yourself when you bite into their lemon-butter-topped, pecan-crusted trout. Did someone mention decadent homemade truffles? Yes please! Full of local flavor, the outside bar features local brews and generous cocktails alongside live music on their “tennis-court stage.” Eat and drink, tap your toe, laugh it up and become a local as the perfect way to end your journey on the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway.


Header image courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.

Bryson City Exploration Guide – Top Things To Do

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

Swain County Heritage Museum in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains
Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.


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

Paddlers on the Nantahala wave to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad train as it passes by them.
Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.


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.

Hikers in Deep Creek Falls
Deep Creek Loop – Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.


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 Biker on the Flint Ridge Trail in Bryson City
Flint Ridge Trail – Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.


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.

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad passes by Fontana Lake
Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.

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!

People dining at Big Wesser in Bryson City
Photo Courtesy Swain County TDA / Chamber of Commerce.


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.

Celebrate Smoky Mountain Holiday Traditions

Enjoy a cozy and festive holiday escape in the North Carolina Smokies. There are plenty of gorgeous winter-time mountain views to go around. Many small towns began adapting their festivities to keep residents and visitors safe during the pandemic, and while 2021 is no different, there are more events for visitors to enjoy.

Wander among dazzling light displays, enjoy a small town parade on main street, and support local small businesses as you check off the gifts on your shopping list. Take part in the holiday cheer happening across the Smoky Mountains at one of these great events. Please note that scheduled events are subject to change—refer to event websites and organizers for the most up-to-date information. We’ll update this blog as we learn of new events.

Our Top Picks For Holiday 2021 Events in the Smoky Mountains

People boarding The Polar Express in Bryson City
The Polar Express. Photo courtesy of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.

The Polar Express Train Ride

November 12 – December 23, 2021

All aboard! The Polar Express is waiting to take you and your family on a fantastic holiday ride to The North Pole to meet Santa Claus. This 1¼ hour round-trip excursion comes to life as the train departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness. Set to the sounds of the motion picture soundtrack, guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while  they listen and read along with the magical story. Children’s faces show the magic of the season when the train arrives at the North Pole to find Santa Claus waiting. Santa will board the train, greet each child and present them with a special gift as in the story, their own silver sleigh bell. Christmas carols will be sung on the return back to the Bryson City Depot. Excursions in 2021 will operate with reduced capacity to allow for social distancing, and all passengers must wear face coverings.

Christmas Cookie Walk and Bazaar

December 4, 2021, 9:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Fill your basket with a remarkable selection of Christmas cookies and treats while getting in some early  holiday shopping. Visit the Christmas Cookie Walk and Bazaar at the United Methodist Church at 76 Main Street in Bryson City. All proceeds benefit the United Methodist Women’s Group’s outreach efforts.

Franklin’s Winter Wonderland Nights

November 27 & December 4, 2021, 5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Kids on ice slide in Franklin
Winter Wonderland in Franklin

Visit the town of Franklin for their 2021 Winter Wonderland festivities! Enjoy unique holiday experiences like living window displays, live sounds of the season, extended shopping hours, and you may even catch a glimpse of Santa! Attendees can witness the annual lighting of the Christmas tree during the first night of the event.

Andrews Magic on Main Electric Christmas Parade

November 27, 2021, 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

The Magic on Main Electric Christmas Parade is Andrews’ “crowning jewel” for the holidays. Delight in over 50 lighted floats, and see if you can tell who will win the Best in Show trophy. For everyone’s safety, no candy will be thrown from floats—look for volunteers handing out bagged candy before the event!

Christmas in Highlands

Light Up the Park, November 27, 2021, 6:00 p.m.

Highlands, N.C. welcomes you to join them in their holiday celebrations for their annual tree lighting. The trees in Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park will sparkle with millions of lights, to be switched on promptly at 6  p.m. and can be enjoyed by car or on foot. Tune in to WHLC 104.5 FM for a festive program with holiday music, Christmas carols and Santa Claus reading The Night Before Christmas.

Evenings set amongst the softly lit trees of the park, joy and laughter from the ice-skating rink, it’s all available for you throughout the holiday season.

Trim Our Town,  November 27 – December 24, 2021

Light Up the Park kicks off Trim Our Town, where local storefronts engage in a holiday decorating contest. When you vote for your chosen window, you can also win a special prize! Watch for posters at participating stores and vote online for your favorite.

Santa in the Park, November 27 – December 18, 2021

Santa and Mrs. Claus will be stationed in the Kelsey Hutchinson Park to hear your Christmas wish list.

Olde Mountain Christmas Parade, December 4, 2021

This long-standing Highlands Christmas tradition features camels, bands, and floats decorated by community organizations parading down Main Street.

Dillsboro luminaries
Dillsboro luminaries. Photo courtesy of Discover Jackson NC

Dillsboro Festival of Lights and Luminaries

December 3, 4, 10, and 11, 2021, 5:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Named one of the top 20 events in the southeast for December, Dillsboro Festival of Lights and Luminaries is a step back into Christmas past. Experience Christmas magic as the entire town transforms into a winter wonderland of lights, candles, laughter and song. 2500 luminaries light your way to shops and studios. Horse and buggy rides are available each night, shopkeepers provide live music and serve up holiday treats with hot cider and cocoa, carolers sing, and children visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Murphy Farmers Christmas Market

December 2021 (Exact Date TBA), 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Head to the L&N Depot in downtown Murphy to shop from a wide variety of vendors. This is a great opportunity to support local crafters and purchase unique gifts for friends and family.

Sylva NC holiday display
Sylva, NC, holiday display.

Robbinsville Christmas Parade

December 7, 2021, 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

The Town of Robbinsville will ring in the start of the holiday season with the Robbinsville Christmas Parade. Floats, Cars, Fire Trucks, Santa, and much more are in store. Bring the family to enjoy the excitement of Christmas.

Holiday Fireworks

December 17, 2021, 7:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

Downtown Sylva is hosting its first-ever holiday fireworks this year. Get there early to find unique holiday gifts at downtown shops and enjoy dinner at an award-winning restaurant, all to the backdrop of holiday music.

A Night Before Christmas

December 11, 2021, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Waynesville turns into a holiday playground for children and children at heart. Shop and dine along a luminary lined street, tell Santa (and Mrs. Claus, too!) your Christmas wishes, and enjoy musicians and carolers.

Christmas Elves Craft Show

November 13, 2021 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Nothing says love like a gift made by local Smoky Mountain artists and crafters. Visit the Smoky Mountain Event Center in Waynesville for the Christmas Elves Craft Show and find that most treasured gift. Masks are required.

Appalachian Christmas at Shelton House

December 5, 2021, 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

The whole family will be dazzled by the twinkling lights of Tinsel Trail and the kiddos will meet Santa and tell him all of their Christmas wishes at the Shelton House in Waynesville. Tinsel Trail will stay lit every evening from dusk until dawn through January 2, 2022 for all to enjoy.

Five of our Favorite Museums in the Smokies

Not all Great Smoky Mountain adventures have to be outdoor excitement. Sometimes the best afternoon is spent at a museum, learning about the region’s Native American history, becoming an expert on gems and minerals, or strolling through galleries filled with Southern Appalachian craft. Whether it’s a rainy day in the mountains or your family wants to take a break from outdoor excursions, these are our five favorite museums to tour.

Museum of Cherokee Indian group photo
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian

This museum preserves the history and culture of the Cherokee people with exhibits like “The Story of the Cherokees,” which uses artifacts, artwork, life-sized figures, and computer-generated animation to tell the story of the Cherokee people and their long life in the southern Appalachians.

Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum

Interested in the study of gems, rocks, minerals, and the sciences and arts related to them? This is the place for you! Located in the Old Jail, the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum features eight rooms filled with gems and minerals from all over the world – one of the largest collections in the Southeast – plus a gift shop where you can purchase jewelry made by local volunteers!

The Wheels Through Time Museum

For all things auto, visit the Wheels Through Time Museum, home to the world’s premier collection of rare American motorcycles, memorabilia, and a distinct array of unique “one-off” American automobiles. This museum houses a collection of over 300 rare machines!

display at the Southern Applachian Fly Fishing MuseumFly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians

This Bryson City museum features everything you could want to know about Southern Fly Fishing! Through exhibits and videos you’ll learn about the history of fly fishing in the Southeast, plus the evolution of rods and reels, basic knots, fly-tying, types of gear, types of gamefish, regional fishing waters, and more!

The Bascom

The Bascom is the center for visual arts in the Great Smoky Mountains. Experience visual arts that inspire and empower individuals and communities. Not only can you peruse various galleries and nature trails on campus and visit the gift shop to take home a piece of art, you can also get hands-on with art classes and workshops. The Bascom is a museum that can’t be missed!

Honorable Mentions

Looking for more inspiration? Here are some other great museums worth exploring.


Elk Viewing in the Smoky Mountains

elk in the great smoky mountain national parkAn amazing wildlife viewing experience is available in the Smoky Mountains. On any given day you can find dozens of elk in the heart of the Cataloochee Valley.

Here the elk roam freely through the valley’s open fields. The elk are most often seen in morning and late afternoon. Bring a camera to take photos, but keep a safe distance — as with any wildlife encounter, respecting the animal’s space is important.

A good rule of thumb is to stay 50 feet or more from the animals and to stay close to your car in case you need cover. If you get close enough to alter the elk’s behavior or make them stop what they’re doing, then you’re too close.

This is especially important in the fall during mating season, which is also known as “the rut.” This is when bulls (males), with their large rack of antlers, will let out their bugle call to get the attention of females. These bulls are incredibly territorial and you may see them butting heads to win the chance to mate. It’s this territorial aggression you’ll want to avoid.

From the Brink of Extinction

Elk at CataloocheeAmerica’s elk population was decimated from over-hunting and loss of habitat in the early 1900’s. They were nearly wiped out altogether. Efforts to revitalize the species have slowly paid off and now the numbers of wild elk are beginning to grow.

In 2001, the National Forest Service introduced 25 elk into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then a year later 27 more elk were added. Now, two decades later, current estimates of the elk population are around 200.

How to Find the Elk

From Waynesville, take US Hwy 276 north about 10 miles to Cove Creek Road, which leads to the Cataloochee Valley park entrance. Here you’ll find elk grazing in their habitat and plenty of places to pull over and get a photo. In this area you’ll also find trails for hiking and you can take a self-guided tour of several historic buildings.

Where to Find Beautiful Fall Color in the Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina offers stunning natural beauty year-round, but fall is an extra special time to visit the region to see autumn’s colorful quilt covering the ridge tops. Thanks to the extreme variations in elevation, the Smoky Mountains enjoy one of the longest leaf-peeping seasons in the country. The first pops of color begin in late September along the highest elevations (over 6,000 feet) and continue through early November as color rolls down to the foothills. This means you can find stunning fall color at any point of the season.

2021 Fall Color Forecast

According to local biologists and fall foliage experts, the Smoky Mountains should experience a bright and colorful season. Warm dry days and cool nights are the recipe for stunning autumn hues, which the mountains have been experiencing since the first days of fall this year. While parts of the country experienced warmer than usual summertime temperatures, summer in the Smoky Mountains was relatively moderate so the trees aren’t as stressed as we head into leaf season. For fall leaf prognosticators, all eyes are on the La Ñina system in the Southern Hemisphere. The warmer temperatures from the system could cause a slight delay in color development.

Where to look for early fall color

Nantahala LakeDuring the earliest part of the season (late September – early October) you typically need to go above 4,000 feet in elevation to find fall color. Drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the higher points. Areas that tend to transition first along this scenic drive are Waterrock Knob (elevation 6,293’), the 16th highest peak in the eastern United States, Graveyard Fields (elevation 5,020’), a popular hiking spot with easy trails and multiple waterfalls, and Black Balsam Knob (elevation 6,214’), which offers near-360 views of the surrounding mountains. Another scenic drive to explore is the Cherohala Skyway near Lake Santeetlah. It spans the Great Smoky Mountains from North Carolina to Tennessee, connecting mountain peaks with elevations up to 5,390 feet at its highest point.

October is when fall color begins to accelerate across the mountains. Cooler nights and warm days provide the Smokies with the perfect weather conditions to produce peak season colors. When exploring for trees in transition, be sure to look down to find wildflowers adding their own pops of color to the season.

Typically around the second week of October is when Highlands, NC (elevation 4,117’), begins to see color emerge. Oaks, red maples, black cherries, and birches are all typically the first to turn. Blueberry bushes at the higher elevations will turn a brilliant red. A scenic drive along US Route 64 from Franklin to Highlands offers a beautiful way to see the color and some waterfalls along the way.

Top picks for mid season fall foliage

cherohala-skywayIn mid-October, you’ll find fall color heading into elevations around 3,000 – 4,000 feet. During this time you should visit Cashiers (elevation 3,484’), located in the heart of Jackson County. Nearby you can hike Whiteside Mountain, a 2.2-mile hike with gorgeous long-range views.

Around the North Carolina Smoky Mountains you’ll find fall foliage appearing around small mountain towns like Andrews and Maggie Valley. This is a great time to check out the Joyce Kilmer National Forest, a popular hiking spot near Robbinsville in Graham County. The combination of towering old-growth poplars and fall color make this a sought after spot for color hunters. Nearby you’ll find Lake Santeetlah, one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, thanks in part to the Nantahala National Forest that borders it.

In late October, fall color will encompass areas below 3,000 feet in elevation. You’ll find beautiful foliage throughout many of the mountain towns around the Smokies including Sylva and Franklin. Make a trip to Cataloochee Valley to see the majestic elk roaming the pastures to graze in the evening. As with any wildlife experience, keep a safe distance from the elk. You can also find elk at Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee.

End of season autumn hues

Great Smoky Mountain RailroadOnce November rolls around, you’ll find fall color creeping below 2,000 feet in elevation. This is the time to visit areas like Chatuge Lake in Haysville and Fire Creek Falls near Murphy. In Dillsboro, climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and get a scenic tour of fall color.

In Cherokee take a quick out and back hike to Mingo Falls, offering a stunning 120-high foot waterfall.


Happy leaf peeping!

Exploring the Waterfall ByWay

The Waterfall Byway begins just north of Brevard, NC, famous for its music center and white squirrels and nicknamed the “Land of Waterfalls.” The 98-mile drive follows Rte. 64 from Rosman to Murphy, NC, with more than 200 waterfalls along the byway. Here’s what to expect as you take this journey to see some of the Smoky Mountains’ most beautiful natural wonders.

Toxaway Falls
“Toxaway falls” by Jeff Heard is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Toxaway Falls

Ironically, the first waterfall you come to on the Waterfall Byway, Toxaway Falls, is the only one not created without human intervention, be it accidental. When 24 inches of rain fell over a few days in 1916, the man-made dam holding back nearby Lake Toxaway was breached and over five billion gallons of water tore the once verdant and lush gorge floor down to its stunning striped bedrock.

At the falls, there is a gravel-covered pullout that serves as the parking area and can fit 3 to 4 cars. If coming from the opposite direction, you’ll have to pass over the falls and turn around to park. You must then cross several lanes of roadway on foot and press against the far side of the bridge, under which flows the 150-foot waterfall. Considering the need to cross a busy road and no defined look-out point, this may be one for the more agile adults.

Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park
“Rainbow Falls” by alexanderglerch is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Hidden Falls

Farther on in Sapphire, NC, you will come to a trio of stunning falls in the Gorges State Park: Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Hidden Falls. The three share a state-of-the-art visitors center with immaculate restrooms, a gift shop and a small museum.

Several trails of varying length and difficulty snake through the grounds from the visitor’s center to the trailheads, allowing you the option of a longer hike. But, if you are interested in saving time and energy,  you can also drive to the trailhead. There you will find a spacious parking lot, sheltered picnic tables with charcoal grills and more restrooms. Camping is also allowed on the grounds.

The trail to Rainbow Falls is 1.5 miles long, sometimes through a smallish creek. The cascade, named for the rainbow you can sometimes spot in the mist, stands at a majestic 150 feet. Getting there takes less time, as it is mostly downhill, but you still have to hike your way back out.

To reach Turtleback Falls, you continue on the Rainbow Falls trail an additional quarter of a mile. With a more gradual slope reminiscent of a turtle shell, these falls were once a popular place to go sliding. However, with an increase in injuries and even fatalities, visitors are cautioned not to attempt it. It is definitely not safe for children. However, just a few feet from the trail is Hidden Falls. With a small 10-foot-tall waterfall and a calm swimming hole, this is the perfect place for the whole family to enjoy.


Back on the road, you will pass through Cashiers (pronounced “Cashers” by the locals). The road becomes narrow with tight curves and uneven pavement here. Eighteen-wheelers are prohibited and buses and RVs are strongly discouraged on this part of the drive.

Now would be an ideal time to swing into Sugar Cloud Baking Company for gourmet donuts made fresh daily. You can practically smell them from the road! Once you’ve replenished your energy, you will continue on Rte. 64 until you reach Highlands, a well-heeled tourist community with rows of shops, boutiques and restaurants. Wild Thyme restaurant, with an impressive wine list and four full walls of wine, has a vibrant outdoor patio that is pet friendly.

Bridal Veil Waterfall in the Smoky Mountains
Bridal Veil Falls outside of Highlands.

Bridal Veil Falls

Once you are back on the road, you will travel a short 2.6 miles to Bridal Veil Falls. Situated literally along the side of the road, these falls are unique amongst the rest. There is off-road parking and no walking required. Named for the way in which the falls lightly cascade off the rock formation overhead, these falls allow you to stand behind them and stay dry. This is a really cool place to take selfies and family photos.

Dry Falls in the nc smoky mountains

Dry Falls

About a mile ahead on the Waterfall Byway, your next destination is Dry Falls, which offers a well-tended parking lot with restrooms, and the trek to see the falls is less than a quarter mile. However, there are dozens of stairs, often at relatively steep inclines, that may prove difficult for those who get winded easily.

The stepped walkway runs alongside the waterfall, so you are enjoying its beauty the entire time you approach. Once at the base, there is plenty of room in the large cave-like area behind the cascade. The falls are magnificent as they thunder overhead, creating an echo chamber that delights the kiddos.

The optimistically named Dry Falls spits and drips enough on you behind the falls to cool you down for the climb back out. For those who can’t venture down, there is a wheelchair-accessible ramp that leads to an overlook with views just as breathtaking.

Bust yer butt falls
“Quarry Falls” by Jim Liestman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Drift Falls (Bust Yer Butt Falls)

Three miles after Dry Falls you will discover Drift Falls, situated on the Waterfall Byway but on privately owned land. Most locals and visitors know these falls and sliding rocks as “Bust Yer Butt Falls” and do not seem to make the distinction that the land is not publicly owned. There is room for about 10 cars parked on both sides of the road, and there also seems to be more parking opportunities in front of some of the boarded-up buildings flanking the trailhead.

Cullasaja Falls in the Nantahala National Forest
“Cullasaja Falls” by Frank Kehren is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Cullasaja Falls

Your next waterfall destination is Cullasaja Falls where your endurance will be put to the test. There is no official trail to speak of, but waterfallers brave the almost-vertical climb in and out to visit the breathtaking cascade. With a small pullout with room for no more than 4 cars on the shoulder of Rte. 64, it gets a little dicey navigating the edge of the narrow two-lane road.

Glen Waterfall in the Smoky Mountains
Glen Falls

Glen Falls

Glen Falls is your final waterfall destination and a very short drive off of Rte. 64. When you leave the main road, you will take an immediate right down a hard-packed dirt road to the trailhead. The sign is visible, but you may question if you’re going the right way. You are.

A beautiful hike through the fragrant forest, the trail is about 1 mile each way and one of the most popular waterfalls on the Waterfall Byway.

When the Waterfall Hunt is Over

When you emerge from the final trek to Glen Falls, you will be ready for a tall cold beer, and just a short way up the road, Franklin’s Lazy Hiker Brewery hits the spot. Situated on Rte. 64 and just off of the world-famous Appalachian Trail, this stop is very popular with waterfallers, visitors and thru-hikers on the trail.

The brewery boasts a 15-barrel brewhouse, a disc golf course, an outdoor music venue, outdoor seating and a healthy number of beer taps named for sites you recognize, such as Bridal Veil Pale Ale and Dry Falls Doppleback.

On the wall at Lazy Hiker is a board inviting  thru-hikers on the world-famous Appalachian Trail to leave a message for other hikers. It’s a very cool read. And the ceiling is hung with the hiking boots of those who were injured or defeated and quit the Appalachian Trail.

Parked just outside, the Hiker’s Kitchen food truck is a popular destination in its own right, and the owner, Joe P., is always happy to show you how he rolls whole potatoes with the skin on to make his perfectly seasoned, hand-cut fries.

Even with stopping to explore all of the cascades along the way, this road trip can be accomplished in a day. You can tailor your personal experience to your interests, activity level, adventurous spirit, and abilities. But even those who just take the drive and admire the waterfalls from the roadside, lookouts and parking lots will appreciate the wonder and beauty of this mesmerizing land and enjoy the full experience of the Waterfall Byway.

Sylva Exploration Guide – Top Things To Do

Sylva Mural

Part of the charm of exploring the Great Smoky Mountains is found in the small towns tucked into the mountain landscape. Sylva is one such town, located in the heart of Jackson County (population approximately 2,500). It’s central location in Western North Carolina makes it a perfect base camp to explore the region, but you don’t have to travel far to be immersed in natural wonders.

Top Things To Do In Sylva

Greening up the Mountains festival. Downtown Sylva.
Greening up the Mountains festival. Image courtesy of Jackson County TDA.


Sylva has a walkable downtown area that includes a collection of delicious eateries, breweries, and shops. Visit the historic Jackson County Courthouse and take a stroll through Freedom Park, all with a beautiful mountain backdrop.

Enjoy antique shopping excursions at any of the five antique shops in town, plus you can find all you need to read at one of the three bookshops.

Several festivals take place throughout the year celebrating arts, heritage, live music, and nature. Check the Discover Jackson County NC events calendar to see what’s happening during your trip.

Dining options in Sylva are eclectic and delicious! Visit Lulu’s on Main, named Southern Living’s Favorite Restaurant in the Region, for an edgy, retro flare and fabulous cuisine. Guadalupe Cafe seats visitors from across the country at their unique farm-to-table restaurant.

Guadalupe Cafe, Sylva, NC
Guadalupe Cafe. Image courtesy of Jackson County TDA.


Jackson County Ale Trail
Image courtesy of Jackson County TDA.


Thanks in part to the quality of the mineral-rich, soft water flowing through the Smoky Mountains, this region has become a hot spot for craft breweries. Grab a pint, or a flight, at one of the breweries in town. There are four to choose from – with plenty of locally crafted brews on tap!

  • Innovation Brewing
  • Nantahala Brewing
  • Lazy Hiker Taproom
  • Balsam Falls Brewing

Check out the Jackson County Ale Trail if you want to explore more breweries in the region. If beer isn’t your thing, then there’s also wine and cocktails bars available.

Sylva’s Outdoor Adventures

Bear Trap Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Bear Trap Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Robert Stephens


The mountains surrounding Sylva are full of opportunities for outdoor exploration. Take a stroll through the town’s Tree Walk, which features more than 50 different tree species, or explore some of the more adventurous trails throughout the mountains.

Popular Hiking Spot

For the adventurous spirit, Pinnacle Park has hikers climb over 3,000 feet in elevation along a 7-mile hike. It’s a long journey, but worth it to find amazing panoramic views of the Smokies. Pack a picnic and plenty of water for this hike.

For an easier challenge take a hike at Bear Pen Gap, located off of the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 427.6. Here you can take a 2.5 mile out-and-back trail to a mountain bald. From Sylva, head north on US-74 to Balsam, and then head north on the Parkway. You’ll find parking at the overlook and the trailhead is on the furthest left hand side.

Fishing and Boating Expeditions

Jackson County NC Fly Fishing
Image courtesy of Jackson County TDA.


If you’re looking for a more relaxing activity, fishing is Sylva is second to none! Jackson County is designated as North Carolina’s Trout Capital, and Sylva is a large part of the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail. Reel in trout on Scott Creek, which runs right through downtown Sylva!

In nearby Tuckasegee you’ll find Wolf Lake, which is popular with anglers and boaters.

Tuckasegee River is another popular spot for fishing, swimming, and tubing. It’s mostly a lazy river, but does have some class II rapids, which are fairly easy to navigate – even for the younger ones.

What’s Nearby?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Mary Anne Baker.


In Sylva, you’re only a short drive away from nearby towns like Dillsboro, Waynesville, Cashiers, all of which make exciting day trips for you and your family.

Only a twenty-minute drive from downtown Sylva is the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway at Balsam, the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Additionally, Cullowhee, home of Western Carolina University, is only a ten-minute drive from downtown Sylva. Enjoy a basketball, football, or baseball game at WCU and cheer on the Catamounts!

Book Your Stay in Sylva

The Laurel Bush Riverfront Cabins in Sylva feature rustic cabins for families of all sizes! Laurel Bush cabins offer the perfect vacation getaway plus a small-town feel that you can’t find anywhere else.

If you prefer to stay at a campground, Moonshine Creek Campground is exactly where you want to be. Enjoy the great outdoors in this cool, secluded, traditional campground!

Of course, there are also plenty of hotels nearby where you and your family can kick back and enjoy modern conveniences!


Header image of Sylva mural courtesy of Jackson County TDA.

Family Fun for the End of Summer

family hiking in the smoky mountains

Make the most of the last days of summer! From hiking and biking to ziplining and rafting, there are plenty of ways to take advantage of the beautiful mountain weather during the final weeks of the warmest season.

Below you’ll find some of the top ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out our complete listing of family attractions in the Smokies.

Rafting at the Nantahala Outdoor Center

Whitewater adventure awaits! Take a rafting trip with the crew at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) where you’ll wind through a beautiful gorge on the Nantahala River. This rafting adventure offers some fun class II and III rapids you’ll ride along the way, making it the perfect river trip for families with kids over 7 (and over 60 pounds). The NOC offers other outdoor adventures including guided trips on other rivers throughout the region, ziplines, tubing and kayayaking.


Guy ziplining in the Smoky Mountains
Ziplining with the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Want a bird’s eye view of the Smoky Mountains? Ziplining will take you up in the tree tops where you’ll then fly through the forest canopy. This thrilling experience provides breathtaking views of the mountains and is a safe and daring adventure the whole family can enjoy. Highlands Aerial Park offers special courses courses for kids ages 4-10 that include zip lines, suspension bridges, balance beams and other safe challenges. Wildwater Rafting also offers zipline tours for kids ages 8 and up as long as they’re at least 60 pounds. They boast the longest zipline course in Nantahala.

River Tubing

Grab your your swimsuit, sunscreen, and a dry bag, and then head out for a relaxing day on the river on a tubing excursion. Get paddling on some of the area’s best spots for a float including Tuckasegee River. Check out Deep Creek Tubing & Campground in Bryson City for a fun day on the water followed by sleeping under the stars. You can also float down the gently flowing Oconaluftee River in Cherokee with Smoky Mountain Tube & Raft.

Gem Mines

family gem mining in the smokiesSearch for treasure while enjoying a unique experience in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. Come gem mining in North Carolina, and you’ll have some good clean fun in the dirt. Your kids will love searching for treasure and getting to take home a unique piece of the Great Smoky Mountains. With outdoor and indoor flumes, Gold City Gem Mine is a great spot to treasure hunt no matter what the weather is outside. With a covered outdoor gem hlume along the Little Tennessee River, Primitive Outback Kayaking and Gem Mine is a place to discover many different gemstones and fossils including topaz, rubies, amethyst, and emeralds.

Waterfall Hikes

While there are hundreds of waterfall hikes to choose from in the Great Smoky Mountains, there are a few that are easier and shorter for those with small kids. If your kids are older and can handle a bigger hike, then check out this page for more ideas!

  • Mingo Falls: a 200-foot scenic waterfall, and only a five-minute walk from the Mingo Falls Campground on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
  • Tom Branch Falls: only a quarter of a mile from Deep Creek Campground.
  • Big Laurel Falls: an easy half-mile trail brings you to this 30-foot cascading waterfall that tumbles into a small, placid pool.