Bryson City’s Portal to Deep Creek in the Smokies
Bryson City, North Carolina is a quiet town filled with outdoor activities on the water and a historic train next door to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Tucked into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains southwest of Cherokee, Bryson City is a small and adorable North Carolina town that lets visitors explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Fontana Lake and surrounding national forests filled with hiking and water activities like whitewater rafting and paddle boarding.
Bryson City is just three miles from the Great Smoky Mountains’ Deep Creek area. This isolated part of the park doesn’t offer access to other park roads or regions, but it is worth a visit for the incredible waterfalls. Hike the 2.4-mile Three Waterfalls Loop to see Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls. While this trail is often used by folks tubing Deep Creek in the summer, the park service doesn’t recommend it as people get seriously injured every year and even drown.
When the Fontana Dam was built in 1944, the resulting Fontana Lake displaced hundreds of small communities and flooded Old Highway 288, the road that accessed them. The U.S. Government promised to build a new road along the north shore of the new Fontana Lake to allow residents to access their family cemeteries, but the road, known as Lake View Drive, was halted due to an environmental issue. Today, it’s known as “The Road to Nowhere,” and ends in a tunnel inside the park. From Bryson City, head north on Fontana Road, which turns into Lake View Drive just past the park boundary. Three miles from the park entrance is the parking area. From there, grab a flashlight and follow the road through the 0.25-mile tunnel to see its end. Once you see daylight again, you can access several park trails. In 2010, the U.S. Government settled with the county and decided once and for all that the road wouldn’t be finished. The park service ferries family members across the lake each summer to visit the cemeteries.
Climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad at the historic train depot in Bryson City for an unforgettable ride through the surrounding countryside. There are lots of different rides to choose from, including half-day excursions to the Nantahala Gorge where you’ll pass over a historic trestle bridge with views of Fontana Lake, sunset dinner rides and themed holiday excursions. Trains run all year long, but are particularly magical in the fall when the leaves begin to change. Afterwards, don’t miss the model train museum at the depot.
The Tuckasegee River flows right through downtown Bryson City and whether you just admire it from the flower-lined bridge or hop on a paddleboard to spend a day in the sun, it’s obvious that water, whether it be rivers, lakes or streams, are at the heart of this part of the country. Nearby Fontana Lake offers tons of water activities from motorized boat rentals at several marinas, to canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals along the lake’s 29-mile length.
Bryson City’s historic downtown is a great spot to spend an afternoon strolling, shopping and dining. Keep your eye out for the city’s six painted trout statues, several of which are painted accurately to look like the region’s trout species and a few of which break from reality, like the Patchwork Trout that looks like a quilt. Pop into Soda Pops Ice Cream Parlor for some major throwback vibes including a massive collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia.