The Smokies

Is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Worth It? [2023]

There’s so much to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains.

But if you go just a little further past the state line of Tennessee, you’ll find that the neighboring state also has a lot to offer – especially for train enthusiasts.

Simply take Highway 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and go just a bit further.

The tiny North Carolina town of Bryson City sits just beyond Cherokee on Highway 19 in the beauty of the Western North Carolina mountains.

It offers a getaway within your getaway.

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Is there a train that runs through the Great Smoky Mountains?

Yes, you can take a scenic tour of the Smoky Mountains by train.

Bryson City, NC – besides being the hometown of former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler – is most famous for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

The railroad offers scenic rail excursions through the fairly remote corner of Western North Carolina.

Passengers wind through tunnels, across the historic train trestle over Fontana Lake, through fertile valleys and into a deep river gorge. 

There are seasonal rides, diesel rides and steam rides.

Amenities vary depending on selection.

For example, the all adult first class ride features a dining table in a car with climate control, large windows and a meal full service. Guests receive a souvenir tumbler with free refills of soda, coffee and tea and limited bar service.

From there, you also have a premium open air gondola, crown class, coach class and the open air gondola.

The most affordable option is coach class, which starts at about $58 for adults and $33 for children.

Food options vary by selection. The first class menu features chicken salad sandwiches, pulled pork BBQ sandwiches and more.

Boxed lunch items include ham and turkey sandwiches with chips and a cookie.

What about special event train rides?

Special events throughout the year include the Bunny Hopper Express, Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience, BBQ & Brews, Uncorked and The Polar Express.

You can also book packages. For example, the Tarzan Train includes a ziplining tour. Rafting and Jeep tours are also available.

The Polar Express Christmas special event during November and December – based on the classic children’s book about a magical train ride to the North Pole – is one of the most popular rides that the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers.

It’s highly recommended that you book early if you wish to ride the Polar Express as it is one of the most popular events in the Smokies.

The holiday-themed rides are usually shorter – and less scenic.

But they offer the perfect opportunity for train-obsessed little ones to get into the spirit of the season and get to ride a real train.

Read Also: There’s a real-life Polar Express train ride in Bryson City

first class seating on the great smoky mountain railroad
First class seating, pictured above, comes with a souvenir cup (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

How much does it cost to go on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad?

It depends. Prices vary by season, ticket, age and train experience.

Generally, you can expect to pay between $58-119 per adult, depending on your selection.

Prices for children range from $33-46 per child. View the current schedule on their website.

fontana train cart in gsmr
The open-air gondolas offer unobstructed views and a roof to protect passengers from the elements (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Is the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad worth it?

Worth is always in the eye of the beholder.

Still, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers a unique experience that you will likely remember for years to come.

I like to think of attraction tickets in terms of dollars per entertainment hour. Considering the train ride will take about half of your day out and about, the prices are reasonable.

How long is the ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad?

The regular Tuckasegee River Excursion to Dillsboro, NC is a 4 hour excursion. It travels 32 miles round-trip. On this trip, you see the famous movie set of “The Fugitive”.

The Nantahala Gorge Excursion is a 4.5 hour excursion that travels along the beautiful Nantahala River Gorge. It includes a one-hour layover at the Nantahala Gorge where guests can relax by the river or go sightseeing.

The special event rides are typically shorter. All excursions are round-trip and return to the Bryson City depot.

sandwich with slaw and fruit on the great smoky mountain railroad
Above: The pulled pork BBQ sandwich in a first class car (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Can you take your own food on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad?

No. The company cites safety and comfort reasons. Food and drinks are available for purchase onboard the train and at layover destinations.

Contact the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad at (800) 872-4681 if you have special dietary needs.

Where do you board the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad?

The depot sits in the heart of Bryson City. The parking lot is located at 45 Mitchell Street, Bryson City. Passengers can be dropped off at the depot, located at 226 Everett Street.

bryson city train museum
Guests can visit a train museum after their scenic ride (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

How much is the train museum in Bryson City?

Guests who take a ride on the Smoky Mountain Railroad will get complimentary admission to the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum. Otherwise, admission is $9 for ages 12 and up and $5 for ages 3-11 years. Children under 3 are free.

If you go to Bryson City, I recommend allowing some extra time for the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum.

It’s a magnificent model train museum featuring a collection of 7,000 classic Lionel engines, cars and accessories and two massive rooms with intricate model railroad villages. 

When I was a kid, I’d go to visit my grandparents in Northeast Ohio, and my grandfather would take me to a train museum that featured a large, intricate model train set.

I was never into trains. I’d not heard of Thomas until I was grown, but there was something about following the trains along the tiny tracks, the small vignettes they passed, the switch tracks, the lights, everything.

I found it incredibly diverting, relaxing and fascinating.

That feeling returned watching the museum’s trains wind their way through the tiny tunnels. The closest way I can describe it is a little bit like the feeling you get watching fish swim in a large aquarium. There’s just something soothing about it.

My son – who was really, really into trains for reasons I don’t understand – and I could have stayed in there for hours without ever setting foot on the bigger trains located just outside.

Read Also: Road to Nowhere, the dam road that was never completed in Bryson City 

kayaks along nantahala
Bryson City is also popular for its outdoor activities (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

What else can you do in Bryson City?

One of the major attractions in Bryson City is, of course, the trains. But there are other things to do as well.

Like most small mountain communities trying to draw tourists, there’s plenty of outdoor recreation. Bryson City is on the Appalachian Trail and thus has some fantastic hiking.

There’s also ziplining as well as tubing, whitewater rafting and fly fishing in the Tuckasegee River and Nantahala River.

Bryson City also offers the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians, which, I suppose if you’re really, really into fly fishing, is a place you can go.

The website promises rods from as far back as the 1800s and in-depth explorations of the history of the sport. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers packages if you are interested in additional excursions.

Have you seen the beautiful Western North Carolina mountains by train? Let us know in the comments below.

View the story version of this article here.