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.

Cashiers

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.

Cheers!

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.

Ziplining

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.

Can’t Miss Adventures in the Smokies

The Smoky Mountains of North Carolina are a dream destination for lovers of the great outdoors. With stunning year-round views that stretch for miles, thrilling whitewater adventure, Southern Appalachian culture and live entertainment, it can difficult to squeeze everything in to only one weekend. Here are some ideas to help you maximize your time while exploring the region.

Explore the Outdoors

man fly fishing in the smoky mountainsIt’s not a trip to the Smokies without heading outside to enjoy the scenic beauty of the mountains.

Smoky Mountain Hiking

Start your journey by visiting some of the more breathtaking vistas. In Swain County you’ll find the access to Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s said you can see seven states on a clear day from the observation platform. Just north of there, straddling the North Carolina and Tennessee state line, is Newfound Gap, which offers similarly stunning views.

Heading east into Jackson County, there’s a fantastic 2-mile loop hike called the Whiteside Mountain Trail, which features a view of the highest vertical drop in the Eastern United States (750 feet!).

In Graham County you should plan to visit the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail, which offers an incredible hike through an old-growth forest. Here, follow a two-mile loop to discover towering trees up to 100 feet tall and twenty feet in circumference. Some of these trees are over 400 years old!

Blueways and Waterfalls

The Smokies are home to hundreds of stunning waterfalls, and no trip to the mountains would be complete without visiting at least one of them. North of Robbinsville, near Lake Santeetlah, you’ll find Yellow Creek Falls. You’ll hike a short trail through a lush forest to find the falls. There’s also a swimming hole so bring a towel.

There are a couple of natural water slides to explore the in the area as well. Quarry Falls, aka Bust Your Butt Falls, is found along the Cullasaja River near Highlands. On days when the river isn’t running too high you can slide into a refreshing swimming hole. There’s also  Sliding Rock located off US Highway 276 near the Blue Ridge Parkway. This 60-foot natural water slide is incredibly popular so expect lines during the summer months, and especially on the weekends.

There’s also an abundance of river and lake adventures. Take a rafting adventure down the Nantahala River with the guides of NOC, find the perfect spot for some of the best trout fishing in the US, or rent a Stand Up Paddleboard and explore our beautiful mountain lakes at your own pace.

Explore the Wild Side

See wild Elk in their natural habitat in the Cataloochee Valley. Located on the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Haywood County, you’ll find these majestic creatures grazing in the field in large groups. The Elk had to be reintroduced the region after years of over-hunting and habitat loss. The herd has more than tripled in population since 2001. It’s possible for you to spot them across the NC Smokies, but will have a greater chance of seeing them by visiting Cataloochee Valley. One word of caution though – stay more than 150 away. Not only is it the law, but these are wild animals with large pointy antlers. Keep a safe distance and don’t do anything that disturbs the animal or makes it change its behavior.

Take A Scenic Ride

forest heritage scenic byway in the nc smoky mountainsAfter a day of exploring on foot, take a load off those tired toes with a drive or ride on some of these scenic trips.

Travel by Car

The Smokies boast incredible vistas from along the scenic roads and byways carved throughout the mountains. Starting in Cherokee, head north along the Blue Ridge Parkway to see some of the more dramatic views of the entire 469-mile road. There are multiple overlooks where you can pull over to capture a photo. Similarly, the Cherohala Skyway is a 34-mile scenic route connecting Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Plains, TN. Along the way you can pull over for a picnic and explore sections of the Cherokee National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest.

Travel by Motorcycle

The winding open roads of the Smokies is a huge draw for motorcyclists. Of all the routes through the mountains, the Tale of the Dragon is one of the most popular. Starting at Deals Gap you’ll traverse 318 curves in only 11 miles! Once you’ve conquered it, there are many more to explore. Check out our guide to the best motorcycle routes to learn more.

Travel by Train

All aboard! Ride the rails with The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Starting in Bryson City, you’ll take an excursion through gorgeous mountain scenery to select destinations. They offer tour add-ons like canopy zipline adventures, waterfall tours, and rafting trips making it a great way to spend the day with your family. If you’re looking for an adults-only experience they offer a Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience and special events like Uncorcked where you can enjoy an exclusive sampling of cheeses and a surf and turf meal prepared fresh.

Arts, Culture and Shopping

Carmen Haynes/Pine Needles and Things in BrasstownThe mountains are home to rich history, cultural adventures, and quaint small towns showcasing local wares and art.

Visit Cherokee

Explore 11,000 years of history in Cherokee, North Carolina. Home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, visitors can learn about the cultural heritage of the tribe at The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Discover beautiful work of Native American art for sale like pottery, baskets and beadwork at multiple shops throughout the town. When evening comes catch an outdoor performance of Unto These Hills followed by an evening of gaming at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.

John C. Campbell Folk School

The nation’s oldest folk school, founded in 1925, is located in Brasstown, NC. Crafts, music, dance, and other Appalachian traditions are taught during one-week or weekend classes year-round. You can visit even if you’re not taking a class to walk the trails or buy handmade works of art at the craft shop. The Folk School is one of the many locations you’ll find by traveling the Blue Ridge Craft Trails.

Scottish Highlands

Back in the 1700’s, many Scots-Irish families migrated to the Smokies and established homesteads. With them the settlers brought agriculture, music, craft, and storytelling traditions of their homeland. The influence of Scot-Irish settlers in the Southern Appalachians can still be found in local music, art, and craft. You can learn more about their history at The Scottish Tartans Museum, which contains the official registry of all publicly known Tartans. Visit the museum, and peruse the gift shop to find Scottish foods, clothing and specialty items.

How to Beat the Summer Heat in the Smoky Mountains

Escape excessive summer heat and instead enjoy cool mountain breezes, and the even cooler waters of the Smokies. Here’s how you can beat the heat on your next summer vacation.

Discover the Highest Peaks

layers of mountain peaks in the smokiesFrom the Smoky Mountains to the Blue Ridge, Western North Carolina has the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi River. Atop these mountain ridges you’ll notice the temperature drops considerably compared to the lower valleys.

Clingmans Dome – The highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the North Carolina and Tennessee border. At 6,644 feet in elevation, it’s the region’s second highest peak.

Black Balsam Knob – Located in Haywood County, this mountain bald can be accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 420. It’s the second highest mountain in the Great Balsam Mountains at an elevation of 6,214 feet.

Mount Mitchell — Towering at 6,684 feet above sea level, this mountain is the tallest point in the region. Here you’ll take in the 360-degree view and breathe in the scent of the spruce forest. Even though it may be summer, pack a jacket for your trip to the summit, as you may find yourself in the middle of a cloud once you get there.

Waterfall Hikes

Revel in the awe-inspiring beauty of a mountain waterfall and feel refreshed from the cooling spray. Check out this guide to area waterfalls, including the popular Cullasaja Falls.

Remember, these natural wonders are best observed from below. While some waterfall areas may have wading areas at the base of the falls, you should always obey posted signs and NEVER attempt to climb a waterfall or enter a stream above the falls. Here are some other waterfalls to check out.

waterfall in the smoky mountainsGlen Falls – A one-mile steep, rough trail brings you to this triple waterfall, each dropping about 60 feet. Located in the Nantahala National Forest.

Rufus Morgan Falls – Located near Franklin, you’ll take a short walk to these near-vertical 65-foot falls near Wayah Bald.

Yellow Creek Falls – Travel U.S. 129 North of Robbinsville. Go two miles past the Yellow Creek Road intersection and the parking area and trailhead/sign will be on the right. Walk 0.33 miles to falls.

Ice Cream & Craft Beverages

Stroll down the sidewalk in charming Franklin, Sylva, and Waynesville and you’ll find a sweet — and chilly — treat from Jack the Dipper. At Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Johnny Rockets offers their famous milkshakes.

Enjoy a cold pint of craft beer from a local brewery like Hoppy Trout Brewing Company in Andrews or Franklin’s Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. Or cool off with a cocktail or glass of wine at a local distillery, or winery.

Keep cool while you hunt for buried treasure! Plunge your mined ore into a flume of cold mountain water to sift out the gold or gems hidden inside. There are several gem mines to explore while you’re in the area. This is also a perfect rainy day adventure for the family.

Want to make this adventure even cooler? Combine gem mining with a kayaking or rafting adventure. Nantahala River Gem Mine in Bryson City and Primitive Outback in Otto are two local outfitters that offer river trips as well as gem mining in North Carolina. Kayak or go whitewater rafting and then pan for treasure.

Lakes & Rivers in the Smokies

paddler in the smokiesSplash in the refreshing waters of the many lakes and rivers that make up the Blueways trail through the Western North Carolina Smokies. Each of these offer a fun and scenic way to cool off outdoors.

Lake Santeetlah – This lake offers 76 miles of shoreline and is surrounded by the unspoiled beauty of the Nantahala National Forest.

Tuckasegee River – Most days you can enjoy a lazy float down this river on a tube, raft, canoe, or kayak. It’s also a great river for fly fishing.

Fontana Lake – Perfect for smallmouth bass fishing and boating, this lake offers access to some of the most remote areas of the Smoky Mountains National Park.

Little Tennessee River – Along the southwestern border of the the national park, this river is popular with avid fisherman and boaters. There’s also a greenway along the river bank in Franklin.

 

Best Motorcycle Routes to Explore in the Smokies

The stunning mountain views and twisting scenic byways of the North Carolina Smoky Mountains and surrounding area offer one of the best places in the world for a motorcycle adventure.

Whether you prefer to travel with your own bike or rent one when you arrive, local shops, dealerships and guides are ready to help make your motorcycling vacation a memorable one.

motorcyling in the nc smoky mountains11 Top Motorcycle Routes in the Smoky Mountains

The mountains of Western North Carolina are home to several routes popular among motorcycle enthusiasts. Check out a few of our favorites:

  • Tail of the Dragon: One of the best-known motorcycle routes, “the Dragon” is located in Deals Gap and boasts 318 continuous curves packed into 11 miles with no intersecting roads or driveways,
  • Six Gap: Located just across the Georgia border, this figure-8 loop stretches for 77 miles, passing through six mountain gaps and intersecting the Appalachian Trail at four points along the way.
  • The Snake US421: This 37-mile route offers 489 curves across three mountains and one stunning valley in Johnson County, Tenn. and Washington County, Va.
  • Moonshiner 28: Named for the moonshine runners who once frequented the road, this route winds 103 miles south from Franklin and Highlands to end in Walhalla, S.C. Look for breathtaking vistas, waterfalls and remote mountain lakes.
  • Foothills Parkway: Trace the ridgeline of the Smoky Mountains for 33 miles from Chilhowee to Wears Valley, Tenn., and enjoy the spectacular view from several pull-off overlooks along the way.
  • Smoky Mountain Loop: This 143-mile loop connects the Foothills Parkway with US 441 through Great Smoky Mountains National park before passing through Cherokee and Bryson City and past Fontana Dam.
  • Devils Triangle: Located just north of Oak Ridge, Tenn., this 44-mile route is recommended for experienced riders, thanks to its deep gullies, steep drop-offs and tight switchbacks.
  • The Gambler: Also known as “the Rattler,” this 25-mile route follows NC 209 from Ferguson’s Market north of Waynesville over to picturesque Hot Springs, N.C.
  • The Diamondback: Tracing a 38-mile diamond-shaped loop, this route is located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and Boone.
  • Cherohola Skyway: Designated as a National Scenic Byway, this 43-mile road connects Tellico Plains, Tenn. to Robbinsville, N.C. as it winds through uninterrupted forests and wraps around mountainsides. You don’t want to miss the views on this one.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway: “America’s Favorite Drive” is great for two wheels or four. Explore this 469-mile byway from its southern end in Cherokee, and enjoy stunning views of the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains from scenic overlooks.

Accommodations for Your Motorcycling Vacation

The N.C. Smokies are the perfect home base for your two-wheel explorations.

The Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort on the N.C./Tenn. border caters to “Dragon” riders with a motel and campground, plus a pub and grill, store and calendar of exciting events throughout the year.

Several local campgrounds welcome motorcycle travelers and groups including Moonshine Creek Campground near Sylva and The Great Outdoors RV Resort in Franklin.

Or choose from several lodging options from favorite national brand hotels to historic inns and luxury vacation rentals.

Waynesville Exploration Guide — Top Things to Do

Located in the heart of Haywood County, Waynesville is the largest North Carolina town west of Asheville (population approx. 10,000) . Waynesville’s historic downtown and Main Street invites visitors to stroll the brick sidewalks, shop in boutiques and galleries and pull up a chair at a local pub or taproom.

Waynesville offers easy access to outdoor adventures on the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Cataloochee Valley area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Situated right between Asheville and Cherokee (each is about 25 miles away), the town is a picturesque gateway to your next mountain vacation.

Things to Do in Waynesville

shops in downtown Waynesville NC
Downtown Waynesville

Historic downtown Waynesville has been welcoming guests for more than 200 years, and Main Street is lined with charming historic buildings that house art galleries, antique shops, and specialty boutiques of all kinds. Shop for a unique souvenir made by a local artist, or tak a step back in time as you visit Mast General Store for outdoor gear, nostalgic toys or barrels of candy.

When it’s time to eat, enjoy traditional Southern flavors at Fat Buddies Ribs & BBQ or sample farm-to-table fare at a downtown eatery. Visit a local brewery for a flight of craft beer, or order a tap at one of several area pubs to accompany a delicious artisan burger. And be sure to save room for dessert — Jack the Dipper scoops up old-fashioned ice cream cones, shakes and sundaes for the whole family.

Waynesville is home to Folkmoot USA, which hosts an international folk festival each July, filling venues all around town with music and dancing from Appalachian, Cherokee and worldwide traditions. If you would like to take part in some dancing for yourself, check out the weekly Mountain Street Dance held on summer Friday nights in front of the historic Haywood County Courthouse.

Outdoor Adventures for All Seasons

Whether you want to explore the N.C. Smokies on a hiking trail, on horseback, on a ski slope or by car, Waynesville is never far from your next adventure.

Elk at Cataloochee
Elk at Cataloochee

Exploring Cataloochee Valley

The Cataloochee Valley area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a favorite spot for hiking and for a self-guided tour of several historic buildings. But the most popular attractions here are the elk that graze 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 animals’ space is important. From Waynesville, take US Hwy 276 north about 10 miles to Cove Creek Road, which leads to the park entrance.

Blue Ridge Parkway Adventures

Near Waynesville, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds through some of the highest and most breathtaking terrain of all its 469 miles. Scenic travel along “America’s Favorite Drive” is beautiful in all seasons, especially when wildflowers begin to emerge in spring and when fall foliage lights up the mountainsides in autumn.

Favorite stops along the Parkway include:

  • Richland Balsam (milepost 431.4) — the highest point on the Parkway at 6,053 feet; drive north about ⅓ mile to fine the trailhead for a 1.5-mile loop hike through spruce forests
  • Devil’s Courthouse (milepost 422.4)  — a strenuous half-mile trail to a 5,720-foot peak with panoramic views
  • Black Balsam Knob (milepost 420.2) — multiple hiking trails traverse spectacular mountain balds
  • Graveyard Fields (milepost 418.8) — a very popular loop trail featuring two waterfalls
  • Skinny Dip Falls (milepost 417) — a refreshing ¾-mile hike ends at a cool waterfall and swimming hole
  • Cold Mountain (milepost 411.9) — overlook offers a glimpse of the mountain featured in Charles Frazier’s acclaimed novel and film; those up for a strenuous adventure can make the 10.6-mile hike to the Cold Mountain summit from the trailhead at Camp Daniel Boone in Canton (25 min from Waynesville)

Ski & Snow Tubing Adventures

In winter, head to Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley for 18 ski slopes of varying difficulty levels and great views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Nearby, Tube World offers snow tubing fun for the whole family!

Create a new holiday tradition with a visit to Boyd Mountain Christmas Tree Farm to choose and cut your very own Fraser fir Christmas tree!

Places to Stay Near Waynesville

Lake Junaluska
Lake Junaluska

From luxury resorts to historic cabins and a working bison ranch, there are variety of accommodations options to complete your next Smoky Mountain getaway.

Enjoy the historic charm of a 100-year-old B&B at the Andon-Reid House, or plan a romantic escape amid the natural beauty of The Swag resort. Book an authentic log cabin, beautifully restored at Boyd Mountain Log Cabins or choose between historic and modern cabins at Country Cabins in nearby Maggie Valley.

Experience a unique retreat at Buffalo Creek Vacations, which features bison, donkeys and llamas alongside its log cabins, plus fishing and a family-friendly playground on the property.

And if it’s simplicity you’re after, book a room at a locally-owned hotel like Oak Park Inn or Hearth & Home Inn, or choose a trusted national brand like Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn.

Learn more about Waynesville, N.C., and begin planning your vacation today.

Our Five Favorite Spring Hikes in the NC Smokies

Spring is the perfect season to get out on the trails and immerse yourself in the scenic beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Wildflowers are in bloom, wildlife is emerging from winter dens, birds are singing from the tree branches, and waterfalls are gushing with the spring rains.

Here are five of our favorite hiking trails to explore this spring:

family hiking in the smoky mountains1. Graveyard Fields

One of the most popular stops along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields (at milepost 418.8) has it all — wide open meadows that show off blue skies, two breathtaking waterfalls, and thickets of native wildflowers like flame azalea and mountain laurel that bloom in May and June. Take a short hike to the lower falls (great for cooling off on hot days!) or choose the 3.5-mile loop trail to see the whole area.

2. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail

Experience spring in a virgin forest along this 2-mile moderate loop trail that twists through a pristine mountain cove. The trees here are hundreds of years old, and some are more than 100 feet tall! The trail climbs gently and crosses the creek via several wooden bridges. Keep your eyes open for wildflowers on the forest floor, and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy among the trees.

waterfall in the smoky moutains3. Oconaluftee River Trail

This pet-friendly hike is located just outside Cherokee, N.C., and is easy enough for the whole family. The 1.5-mile trail follows the Oconaluftee River and begins at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which offers public restrooms and maps of the area. Look out for elk enjoying the cool water of the river or the open meadow near the visitor center.

4. Kephart Prong Trail

This trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park combines natural beauty with national history along its 4.2-mile out-and-back route. Find the trailhead located on side of the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) about 7 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. Enjoy the rush of the scenic Kephart Prong creek and explore the ruins of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was stationed here from 1933 to 1942. The Kephart Shelter marks the turnaround point at the end of the trail.

5. Whiteside Mountain Trail

Whiteside Mountain’s sheer rock face is an iconic sight in the Nantahala National Forest near Highlands and Cashiers. A moderate, sometimes steep 2-mile loop trail leads from a parking area to the top of the 750-foot cliffs and boasts breathtaking views of the surrounding valley. Wildflowers such as false Solomons seal and white snakeroot bloom here, and keep an eye out for peregrine falcons — these endangered birds like to nest among the rock faces in spring.

 

Find more area hiking trails here.