Bryson City, NC
A 2 Night Itinerary
Bryson City is a really cute and fun outdoor town. Its downtown is walkable with quaint shops and restaurants and the Great Smoky Mountain train depot is right in the heart of it. Within a 20 minute driving radius of downtown, you have great lakes to swim or canoe, rivers to raft, and hiking to waterfalls. Plus, a brewery, a bookstore, outdoors store, and good restaurants - all downtown. You just can’t beat it.
Our family usually picks a daytime activity and then returns downtown to our lodging in the late afternoon for a snack. Then dinner at home or dining/takeout within walking distance.
You can also check out our blog post about Bryson City "The Best Mountain Town You've Probably Never Visited."
Maps To Help You Get Your Bearings
Where To Sleep in Bryson City
After a day out having fun, we ideally like to come back and park the car until the next day so staying downtown is best.
We stayed in downtown Bryson City in the Aloft in the Smokies condos. Four condos (“lofts”) are located above the McClanahan’s Collectibles store. Park the car and walk to all the restaurants, the Nantahala Brewery, the Train Depot, and shops.
The Lofts were quiet and had a separate sleeping area for our daughters. One king bedroom downstairs and a queen bed in the loft. Full bath upstairs and downstairs. Cooking supplies were limited, so if you plan to cook several meals I would recommend bringing a cutting board, knife, and saute pan. We stayed in Loft D, furthest from the main road. Overall, we had a great experience here and it will be our first lodging choice when we return. $180 a night.
Other Downtown Sleeping Options
The Everett Hotel looks like a nice boutique hotel with a great location downtown and breakfast is included in your stay. $140-$260. They have two suites with 2 beds but the rest appear to be one King bed only. I would like to try it sometime for sure.
Traveling alone or with a spouse? Airbnb: Shiny clean, modern, downtown apartment that sleeps 2. Nightly rate: $150
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Prefer to Stay in a Mountain Cabin?
If you’d rather stay in a mountain cabin with views, these VRBO listings look very nice and are within 20 minutes of Nantahala Outdoor Center, Tsali Recreation Area, and downtown Bryson City. Note: I have not stayed at any of these but would certainly consider them for future trips if not staying downtown.
2 Bedrooms plus a loft with a 3rd bed and full bathroom. VRBO 3849684ha. Mountain views and a covered porch. Within 15 minutes of everything. Average Nightly Rate: $189
A secluded 2-bedroom storybook cottage. VRBO 294787. On 7 acres with hiking trails on property. 6 miles to downtown. Average nightly rent: $229
2 bedroom, fire pit, foosball table, mountain views. VRBO 3991320ha. 15 minutes to downtown. Average nightly rate: $190
Rather Camp in a Tent?
We found the national park campground at Deep Creek to be too crowded. We like the Lost Mine Campground for its excellent location near the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Some sites are more private than others--ask when you call to reserve your site.
Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) Option: The NOC offers cabins, a hostel, and platform tents. The platforms tents would work best for large groups, and the cabins are a bit pricey, but you can’t beat the location.
Lunch at the Filling Station downtown (consider takeout if hiking)
Hike to the waterfalls at Deep Creek (1-3 hours)- 10 minute drive from town
Stroll through downtown
Take out pizza and sip beers at the brewery
The Filling Station is open for lunch (closes at 4pm) and serves yummy sandwiches. We truly enjoyed their turkey rueben. They also serve “frozen sandwiches” (ice cream sandwiches) which looked really good. Consider takeout if you are going to picnic and hike.
Day 1 Activities
Activity: Picnic and Hike to Waterfalls at Deep Creek or Tubing
Depending on your arrival time in Bryson City, these short hikes are a good option to stretch your legs after traveling in the car. The Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is located about 10 minutes from downtown and is known for tubing and hiking trails to waterfalls. It is a popular tubing destination--for us, too popular. We have not tubed but hiked some of the shorter trails to waterfalls which was fun. Hike one or both of these trails.
Juney Whank Falls Trail
See the 80-foot Juney Whank Falls. 0.6 miles roundtrip, allow 1 hour. Moderate in difficulty.
Deep Creek Trail/Indian Creek Falls Trail
An easy 1.6 mile roundtrip hike will allow you to see two beautiful waterfalls. Access the Deep Creek Trail from the same parking area as Juney Whank Falls. This trail allows bikes and hosts lots of tubers. Allow 2 hours. See trail map.
There are several rental places on West Deep Creek Road on your way to the Deep Creek parking area. Here's a list of outfitters renting tubes.
From the trailhead you can walk about 5 min up the trail for a 15 minute tubing trip or you can go nearly up to Indian Creek Falls for a longer float. Remember to bring water shoes for tubing and playing in the creeks.
Directions to Deep Creek:
The parking area is the same for both trailheads and is about a 10 minute drive from downtown Bryson City. This can be a crowded area. Better to arrive earlier than later if you can or on a weekday. Trails to the waterfalls start from the large parking area at the end of Deep Creek Road (across the creek from Deep Creek Campground).
Activity: Stroll Through Downtown Bryson City
Stroll through downtown and let the kids climb on the various stationed trains and pose for keepsake photographs. We always enjoy a bookstore and found one downtown: O’Neill’s Shop on the Corner, 196 Everett Street.
The hats and t-shirts from Bryson City Outdoors are favorites too. They also rent paddleboards and kayaks to use on the Tuckaseegee River that runs through town or out on Fontana Lake.
Here is a link to the city’s downtown travel page with a list of shops, events, etc.
Anthony’s Restaurant serves great pizza. We like to order a takeout pizza from Anthony’s Restaurant and walk next door to the Nantahala Brewery. Ask for plates and grab some forks and napkins. Kids are welcome at the brewery and it’s right across the street from the Train Depot.
Anthony’s Italian Restaurant serves full fare Italian food, but we have always ordered the pizza and it’s delicious. If you can, arrive a bit early (before 6pm) or call ahead for takeout. It can get really busy. Anthony’s also has a nice outdoor seating overlooking the trains at the depot.
Nantahala Brewery has a fun vibe and is in the heart of downtown Bryson City. It has outdoor seating on a deck overlooking the train depot and several tables inside. Our family likes to bring our own game of Jenga and hang out with food and drink. There several screens showing sports too. The Brewery does not serve food but invites you to bring it with you.
Breakfast at Everett Diner
1/2 Day Activity (choose 1 of 3)
Stroll through downtown in the afternoon
Eat dinner and sip beers at the brewery (again!)
Awake and make your own breakfast or walk across the street for breakfast. Everett Diner is located downtown, right across the street from the Aloft in the Smokies Condos. Regular diner fare with fantastic french toast and a kid’s menu. We also enjoyed their biscuits and gravy. Mostly a breakfast place. Recommend that you arrive early if possible.
Day 2 Activities
Activity: Choose from three possible activities:
(I’d dedicate about 4 hours of time for each of these)
Option 1: Canoe or swim on Fontana Lake
Option 2: Take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railway
Option 3: Visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) to raft, paddle, or splash.
Option 1: Canoe or swim on Fontana Lake
Fontana Lake is a beautiful lake. We brought our canoe and a kayak and paddled to the islands for a picnic. Most of the picnic supplies I packed from home.
As you paddle the shoreline, look for signs of camping spots or accessible beaches. We beached the canoe and hooked up the hammocks and had a great time hanging out on the lake, swimming and taking in the scenery. We were there on Labor Day weekend and hardly saw another boat on the lake. The water is clear enough to see your feet when you swim and warm enough to enjoy it.
If you’d like to rent kayaks or SUPs when you arrive in Bryson City, checkout this downtown store: Bryson City Outdoors. You can also rent a pontoon boat from Almond Boat Park and tour all the coves of the lake.
Directions to Fontana Lake:
Park at the boat ramp at Tsali Campground and Recreation area. This area also provides excellent mountain biking if anyone is so inclined. Follow signs to the Tsali Campground and veer right just before the Tsali Trailhead Parking lot. Ample parking is available at the launch. From Bryson City, it takes about 20 minutes. Take U.S. 19 south for 9 miles to NC 28 west. Turn right on NC 28. Go 5 miles and look for the sign on right.
There is also excellent mountain biking at Tsali. In fact, Outside magazine rated this as one of their Top Ten Mountain Bike Trails in the US. There are several trails to take from the parking lot and they alternate days with horse riders, so one trail is always open for bikers. Look at these websites to get an idea of the trails:
The trails are fine for a newbie mountain bike rider in good shape but might be a little much for an occasional greenway rider. The trails are always open to hikers and there is a $2 fee for use. See the Insider's Guide to Tsali from Blue Ridge Outdoors.
Option 2: Take a Ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railway
This looks so fun, but we haven’t tried it yet. Great Smoky Mountain Railway offers scenic train excursion trips through the North Carolina mountains along Nantahala and Tuckasegee Rivers, across valleys and through tunnels.
All of the train rides depart from downtown Bryson City at the depot. Most of the trips appear to be about 4 hours long. Seasonally, they offer fall pumpkin trips and Polar Express trips in the winter.
You can order lunch or a boxed lunch (depending on your ticket class) on the train, but you can’t bring picnics or coolers.
Option 3: Visit the NOC
Located roughly 20 minutes from downtown Bryson City, Nantahala Outdoor Center (aka "the NOC") offers guided rafting trips on Level II/III rapids.
Note: Kids must be 7 years or older and weigh at least 60 pounds. We should meet that criteria next year. I would also say they need to be confident swimmers. The river is fairly tame, especially in a raft, but people do fall out and the current is swift.
I kayak and have swam most of the rapids on this river at one time or another so I can tell you firsthand that you can float through them as long as you don't panic. You are not required to use a NOC guide, you can rent a raft or a duckie (an inflatable kayak for 1 or 2 people) and self- guide down the river. It is not as scary as it sounds but I would pay attention to the safety video required.
The NOC provides all necessary gear and equipment. Make reservations in advance. There are two, large, public bathrooms with changing areas at the NOC and they will rent wet suits and booties. If you are in a raft and it's late summer, I would not worry about renting additional gear but if you are going early or late season in a duckie, I might think about it. The water temperature stays in the low 50's year- round. Your feet get cold.
If the the NOC is packed (and that's almost a guarantee on weekends in the summer), I also like Adventurous Fast River outfitters. They are building a new location upriver this year so I am excited to see how that goes.
If you are not into white water, you can also rent kayaks and SUPs at the NOC for a more leisurely water sport. The 2 hour rentals include gear and transportation to Fontana Lake.
We have also just visited the NOC and hung out--walk the pedestrian bridge over the river and watch the kayakers and rafts come down the river. It's a fun way to spend an hour or two.
The most difficult rapid is just upriver from the NOC so you can watch people wipe out or be thrilled that they made it. It’s a really fun scene and parents can grab a beer at Big Wesser’s BBQ on site and watch the kids splash in the cold, calm water there. Kayakers also like to practice on the rapids right in front of Wesser's picnic tables so there is always something fun to watch.
There is a slightly more formal (meaning has table service and you might throw a sundress over your bathing suit) dining at River's End restaurant across the pedestrian bridge from Wesser's. It's a favorite with the Appalachian Trail thru hikers for its giant rice plates and has been around since the seventies. It has huge windows overlooking the river so the view is outstanding.
Other non-water activities include a Zip Line Adventure and Treetop Adventures, an aerial, net- enclosed playground for ages 3+. The Treetop Adventures is a steal at $15 for a day pass but I would book online to be sure to get one on weekends in the summer. Open May- Oct and weekends in April.
You could spend a half day at the NOC just hanging out or a full day if you are rafting. Parking can get crazy, so allow time for it. You might have to circle a few times or have people get out of the car to hold spots.
Day 2 Afternoon
Return home from your fun activity and grab an ice cream cone. Soda Pop’s Ice Cream counter was a hit with our girls. They serve Mayfield ice cream in a fun old time diner decor. Two rainbow sherbet flavored cones only set us back $5.00 total. A deal for two very sticky, smiley faces.
Day 2: Dinner Time!
Return to Anthony’s and Nantahala Brewery for dinner? We did. Tired of pizza? Check out their other menu items. Remember: If you can, arrive a bit early (before 6pm) or call ahead. It can get really busy.
Other downtown dining option: The Cork & Bean Bistro associated with the Everett Hotel looks so inviting with its rustic cabin woods feel. It’s a pricier option but has gotten great reviews.
Road To Nowhere
If you have time before you hit the road home, I recommend walking the "Road to Nowhere." About 8 miles outside of town, this road was partially built to replace a road flooded when Fontana Lake was formed by the damming of the Little Tennessee River. Funding ran out but not before a 2 lane tunnel was constructed through a hillside.
Take Everett St. north out of town and stay on it for 2 miles until you cross into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. From there, it is another 6 miles until you see the tunnel and the parking area just before it. The tunnel is longer than you think, and many people bring flashlights but I walked through just fine without. Lakeshore Trail continues on the other side of the tunnel and is the second longest trail in the park at about 45 miles.
I only hiked about 2 miles of it, but it is a beautiful trail and is dog-friendly. There is a lot of history associated with the road and the communities flooded by Fontana Lake. Read here for more.
Additional Restaurants Located Downtown
The IGA Supermarket is super close to downtown Bryson City, but I would recommend a car to get to it. It’s located at 345 Main St. and is open until 8pm. If you are in a pinch, a Dollar General is located within walking distance in downtown Bryson City. 255 Everett St. Good for Cokes and chips.
There is a larger Ingles supermarket about a mile outside of town. From Aloft, turn right onto Main St/ Hwy 19 and go about 3/4 of a mile then turn left onto Hughes Branch Road. Ingles is just ahead on your left.
Nearest Airport: Asheville, NC
Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, GA is 3 1/2 to 4 hours south of this area. There are also regional airports at Knoxville, TN (2 1/2 hours north west) and Asheville, NC (1 1/2 hours east), and another international airport in Charlotte, NC (3 1/2 hours east).
Transportation: You will need a car to go to your outdoor activities but once in downtown Bryson City you can walk to restaurants, shops, a brewery, and the train depot.
If traveling from the west to Bryson City, take I-40 East to Smoky Mountain Expressway (Highway 23) if your family is prone to car sickness.
You can take a shortcut from Maryville, TN to Bryson City but Highway 129 to Highway 28 is super curvy and is called the “Tail of the Dragon.”
Another option is to drive through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park via Cherokee, NC. This is not as curvy as “the Dragon” but is still pretty darn curvy.
We took the “Dragon” on the way to Bryson City and the girls were queasy. On the way back, we took I-40 and all were happy. It only added on 25 minutes for our trip home. Priceless!
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