America’s National Parks are one of my favorite places to vacation and explore with my family. However, despite a brief visit on a summer road trip in college, I had never quite understood why Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws so many visitors each year. The Appalachian Mountains run from Georgia to Maine — what makes this particular area so special? Honestly, North Carolina’s 5,000-6,500 foot mountains all look pretty much the same to this California girl, raised out west where the mountain ranges are so much more striking.
While visiting Bryson City this fall, I finally figured it out. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not all about the mountains — it’s about the water: the streams, the lakes, the rivers, the waterfalls, and even the “smoky” clouds. When I asked about mountaintop views and rocky hikes at a visitor center in Bryson City, the local behind the counter reached over and pulled out a fisherman’s map and proceeded to point out her favorite rivers across the region. Now I get it; this region has some of the most beautiful, peaceful waterways in all of America.
Water, Water Everywhere
While the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is certainly a popular local and regional favorite, I don’t think the rest of America is in on the secret of how fun and kid-friendly this area is for families. There are three waterfalls accessible within about a two-mile walk (round trip) from a parking area and campground. And, this whole area is only about ten minutes by car from Bryson City, a town with several restaurants and attractions.
The waterfalls of Deep Creek are not the tallest or the most powerful, but there is a certain unique beauty about them. And, it’s not just the falls; Deep Creek itself is simply a lovely place for a walk. The trail by the creek is wide and pleasantly flat, perfect for the whole family from tots to grandparents. Families can also rent tubes at the Deep Creek Tube Center and Campground and float past Tom Branch Falls, one of the three waterfalls in the area. In the early fall, we watched a group of boys floating downriver having a blast racing their tubes through the rapids.
About an hour away from Deep Creek in Cherokee near the main road crossing Great Smoky Mountain National Park into Gatlinburg, there is another waterfall that is a favorite with locals, Mingo Falls. The hike to the falls is less than half a mile, but includes a steep stairway. On the stairway, visitors have written messages from “you’re just getting started” to “almost there.” The falls themselves are quite tall (almost impossible to capture on my iPhone camera), and the water sparkles beautifully in the afternoon light.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The Deep Creek area and Mingo Falls are both located inside the National Park, but they don’t see anywhere near the sort of traffic that the nearby Oconaluftee Visitor Center and adjacent Mountain Farm Museum experience. The Visitor Center is the place to go to learn about the history of the Oconaluftee River Valley and Great Smoky Mountain National Park programs, especially those on the North Carolina side of the park. (While the North Carolina state line and the Appalachian Trail split the National Park in nearly two equal parts, the Tennessee side of the park seems to be both more commercialized and more popular with visitors.)
The outdoor Mountain Farm Museum is home to about a dozen 19th century farm buildings from this area of southern Appalachia. We fully explored the museum as we worked on my son’s junior ranger booklet (available for purchase in the visitor center). We learned about the family who built and lived in the cabin, the importance of hogs and corn to the local diet, and more.
Just up the road from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center my son and I took an hour-long horseback ride from Smokemont Stables. Horseback rides are available from Smokemont on both a reservation and drop-in basis throughout the summer and fall. My kids love horseback riding; it’s such a unique way to quietly and peacefully connect with nature. However, it’s even more special in a National Park. Our one-hour trail ride crossed a creek, went through a tunnel under a park road and though some hilly terrain, before returning back to the stables.
While I do believe that the rivers and waterfalls are the highlight of any visit to North Carolina’s mountains, families really must take the road to Tennessee to enjoy the park’s most sweeping views from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap. At over 6,000 feet these are some of the highest points in the Smokies. Both points sit near the North Carolina and Tennessee border providing that perfect two state photo-op.
Beginning at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, driving Blue Ridge Parkway is really my favorite way to enjoy sweeping views atop North Carolina’s mountain peaks. While the main highway of the national park crosses the mountains, the 469 mile Parkway traces the ridge line as it twists and turns through the mountains. Waterrock Knob, about 18 miles from the terminus of the Parkway at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is likely the most interesting point in the most southern section of the Parkway. There, families will find a seasonal visitor center and a steep .6 mile trail up to the peak.
For the Adventurous
Some of the best adventures to be had in the state of North Carolina can be found 20-40 minutes south of Bryson City along the Nantahala River. Multiple companies raft the Nantahala, and generally they accept children as young as 7 years old on their three-hour guided tour of the river’s Class II-III rapids. If three hours of adventure isn’t enough to satisfy your family, Wildwater’s zip line canopy tours provide even more thrills. Kids ages 10 and up are welcome on the adult course while kids ages 4-10 will enjoy zipping through the trees on the KidZip course.
Photo Courtesy of Bryson City and Swain County Chamber of Commerce
If you’d prefer to stay on the ground and experience your adventure secondhand, make a visit to Nantahala Outdoor Center’s (NOC) complex where you can often view whitewater kayakers honing their skills. Some of these talented men and women have even represented the United States in Olympic and world level whitewater kayaking competitions! While you’re there, eat lunch or dinner riverside at Big Wesser BBQ and Brew; snack on BBQ and watch as the kayakers paddle the rapids.
For a calmer experience out on the water, head back to Bryson City and rent a paddle board or kayak at Bryson City Outdoors located on the banks of the Tuskasegee River. No experience with SUP (stand up paddle boarding)? Not a problem! My son and I had our first experience here in Bryson City. The friendly staff got us started, pointed us up river, and we quickly figured out how to get our boards moving in the right direction. I’m proud to say that I didn’t even fall in the river – not even once!
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
It’s lovely to appreciate the scenic beauty of North Carolina’s mountains on foot hiking through the forest or from a rocking chair on a cabin porch, but a four-hour ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad gives a completely different perspective as it chugs across trestle bridges to the Nantahala Gorge and back to downtown Bryson City. Though a trip aboard the train is more than just a scenic excursion; it’s also a cultural experience. Because, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet Tim Hall on your journey. (If you’re not so fortunate, you should try to find him at the Storytelling Center of the Southern Appalachians just across the street from the train depot as we did.)
Tim Hall, the storyteller, has a way with words that is rarely encountered in modern-day America. With poetic words about walks in the woods, he’s a bit like a modern-day Ansel Adams — but he proudly and authentically represents the people of the Southern Highlands. Whether or not you get the opportunity to hear this legendary storyteller of the mountains, no visit to Bryson City is complete without a chat with the locals – whether the friendly waitress at the Fryemont Inn, the train enthusiast at the Smoky Mountain Train Museum, or Tim Hall the mountain man himself.
Visitors do really have to listen carefully to hear the stories of the Southern Highlands, it’s easy to be distracted by the beauty of the waterfalls and the adventures on the river and miss the history lesson that lies underneath it all. We were fortunate to hear a history lesson put to music at a Saturday night “Tunes on the Tuck” live music event at the town’s Riverside Park. There we heard two mountain dulcimer players retell the story of a man from the town of Judson; they sung of a man who was unable to go back home to the town of Judson after it was flooded, to build the Fontana Dam in 1940s.
Driving Bryson City’s “Road to Nowhere” is also a beautiful, but solemn, reminder of the families that were relocated so the hydroelectric dam could be built to provide the energy for aluminum plants in Tennessee during WWII. The “Road to Nowhere” was originally supposed to go all the way to Fontana Lake so that those who were relocated could visit, but alas, the road remained unfinished and today is little more than a scenic drive in a National Park with several trailheads for families to enjoy.
Where to Eat
Bryson City certainly feels like small town America, but somewhat surprisingly, there are plenty of yummy options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
My favorite meal during our weekend in Bryson City was the apple pancakes that I ate at the Fryemont Inn on Sunday morning as we drove ourselves out to Cherokee and on to Asheville. The Fryemont Inn feels like a classic National Park lodge. I love staying at places like this; it’s National Park nostalgia at it’s very best! We ate our breakfast beside the large rock fireplace in the inn’s dining room – it was that atmosphere that set it apart from the rest.
We also at the popular Everett Street Diner in town. It’s within walking distance of everything in Bryson City and features typical diner fare and friendly service.
For lunch, we followed everyone in town to the Filling Station Deli. It was the only place that we saw crowds during our entire week in North Carolina! We took deli sandwiches to-go rather than staying and waiting for a table; however, based on the popularity of this restaurant, I bet their hot food is even tastier.
We ended our Saturday night at Nate and Nicks with pizza. I ordered a small pizza covered in their classic artichoke-spinach dip and cheese. What a unique concept! It might not have been the healthiest meal, but if you’ve been hiking all day, this cheesy pizza is certainly a great reward.
Where to Stay
Our home away from home for the weekend was the Squirrel’s Nest Cabin at Lands Creek Log Cabins just about ten minutes outside of Bryson City by car. Our cabin was the perfect fit for a family of three with a king bed and sofa pull-out. With 19 cabins to choose from, there’s a cabin to fit just about any family at Land’s Creek.
All photos by Melissa Moore unless otherwise credited.
Disclosure: My son and I were hosted by Bryson City – Swain County Chamber of Commerce during our weekend in the Great Smokies. All opinions are my own.