Stories from the Smokies

Deep Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A favorite family destination for generations, the Deep Creek Recreation Area is just 5 minutes from downtown Bryson City. An easy 2.5-mile round trip hike takes you to three majestic waterfalls. Or just take the quarter-mile walk to Tom Branch Falls and sit on the benches for a while at this 60’ high falls. For the more adventurous, the 5-mile loop hike is a great trek though the woods and along the creeks. Or even make the climb to Lonesome Pine for magnificent higher elevation views. Deep Creek trails map.

This recreation area is also a mecca for fishing, tubing, horseback riding, camping, biking, or just getting your feet wet in a cool mountain stream. Local tip: This is a year-round recreation opportunity; many people love this hike even in the winter. During the busier summer months, plan to get there early as parking lots tend to fill up. 

Road to Nowhere

It’s a gorgeous scenic drive into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a scenic overlook of Fontana Lake, and there are numerous hikes along Lakeview Drive for all kinds of skill levels. Noland Creek Trail is a very refreshing hike. A local calls it “Deep Creek without all the people.” It is a very easy, rolling hike along a wide trail that runs along the rushing creek. Heading north on the trail, it is an “out and back” hike; walk as far as you want and turn around to walk back to the parking area. Or continue south from the parking lot, and you’ll arrive at a Fontana Lake cove. More about GSMNP trails. More about the Road to Nowhere.

Walk through the tunnel at the end of the road if you dare. It’s a favorite photo op spot. On the other side, continue a short distance to the Goldmine Loop trail which takes you on a downward slope to a Fontana Lake cove. Then you will loop back up to the tunnel and parking. That trek is about 3 miles. Map PDF.

Fontana Dam

This engineering marvel is one of our top picks just due to the sheer size of the dam and the fact that you can drive or walk over it for spectacular scenery. On one side you have the impounded Fontana Lake with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park behind it, and on the other side you’re looking 480 feet down the side of the dam to the basin below. The Dam is also part of the Appalachian Trail so if you walk across it, you can say you “hiked the AT.” Map PDF.

The history of Fontana Dam and the North Shore is very intriguing. Many Swain County families gave up their homes and land for the building of the Dam, which helped diminish flooding in the area and also generated power for the World War II efforts at Oak Ridge TN. The North Shore Cemetery Association has been instrumental in preserving the graveyards and general history of the Fontana Lake North Shore and works with the National Park to gain general access to the cemeteries for spring-thru-fall scheduled decoration days, which are open to the public.

Fontana Dam is often mistakenly thought of as the “Fugitive Dam,” – the site of the movie jump by Harrison Ford. However, that scene was filmed at the nearby Cheoah Dam, which is also worth a visit.

Local Tip: There is a visitor center at Fontana Dam, and we strongly encourage you to stop in and learn more about the history. The Dam is open year ‘round, however the visitor center is open from April – November.

Clingmans Dome

The tallest point in the Smokies is also one of the best places to see the long range views that the Smoky Mountains has become so famous for. Clingmans Dome is definitely worth the drive. There is a short, paved hike to the observation tower. It is steep but it does have benches along the way. Please note: At that elevation of 6,644 feet, it is about 15 degrees cooler than Bryson City. 

Hike idea: Andrews Bald is accessed via the Forney Ridge Trail, which is located at the far end of the parking lot. It’s a moderate 3.5 mile hike on a well-maintained trail. The bald’s grassy meadows provide spectacular panoramic vistas that include Fontana lake.

Local Tip: You don’t need to climb to the tower to see fabulous Smoky Mountain views. Bring along a couple of chairs and sit along the south side of the parking lot for unobstructed, long-range views. And there are vault toilets here. Photographers take note: Clingmans Dome is a top pick for sunset photography, from the far, right end of the parking lot.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Visitors often ask us about the train rides that originate from the Depot in downtown Bryson City. You will see the Smokies like you’ve never seen it before, passing through remote areas, countryside vistas, a tunnel, and a few trestles

When visitors ask us about the two destinations and which is better, it really helps to know what you’ll see on each one. On the Nantahala Gorge excursion, you’ll see parts of Fontana Lake and the Nantahala River that you can’t get to by car. The view from the Fontana Lake train trestle is breathtaking. Your one-hour layover is at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where you can catch a bite to eat, or drink a beer, or watch the kayakers and rafts on the river. Local Tip: Sit on the left side of the train facing forward (the side you board on) for the best river views. 

On the Tuckasegee River excursion, you’ll travel along this historic river, go through a tunnel (which is really cool on the open-air car), and go past the abandoned train wreck from “The Fugitive” move scene. The layover at the quaint town of Dillsboro is sweet with dining and shopping options. 

Local tips: For the best overall experience on either excursion, we recommend booking an open car with the dining option. And be sure to book Polar Express early in the year for prime dates and times. 

The train also has some specialty cars and dinner trains — BBQ & Brews, ‘Uncorked’ Wine Pairing, and Moonshine experiences offered by schedule throughout the year. In the colorful fall there are ‘leaf looker’ trains and the Peanuts Pumpkin Patch Events. In November & December the town and ‘North Pole’ (undisclosed location) are transformed for The Polar Express train ride.

Lodging — In the Bryson City area you’ll find a wide variety of lodging, from familiar hotel chains to unique lodges and inns to mountain cabins and campgrounds. Our lodging directory is where you’ll find the perfect accommodations for your Smoky Mountains getaway.

Stop In And See Us!

We hope you will come by the Visitor Center when you are in town and say ‘hi’. (there’s cookies and cocoa every day during the Polar Express – just sayin’)