6 Top Things to Do on the North Carolina Side of the Smoky Mountains

large bull elk with mountains

Elk are usually found on the North Carolina side of the mountains. Pictured: A bull elk in Cataloochee Valley, North Carolina (photo by Kelly vanDellen/shutterstock.com)

A Smoky Mountain shares his favorite spots to visit in North Carolina

As someone who’s been to Gatlinburg hundreds of times over the past 35 years of living in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, I’ll admit it will always hold a special place in my heart. Especially when it comes to magnificent views of the Smokies. But some of the most breathtaking sights, in my opinion, happen to be on the North Carolina side of the mountains. There are also a ton of unique attractions and things to do – like the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. If you’re planning a trip to the “other side” of the Smokies, allow me to offer a few suggestions on things to do.

Bryson City train
Bryson City is best known for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

1. Visit Bryson City

This quaint, beautiful mountain town is best known for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and the Nantahala River. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers scenic train rides through the mountains of Western North Carolina. It features seasonal excursions and special events during holidays. At the Nantahala River, the most popular activities include whitewater rafting, fishing and kayaking. Here, you can also do Jeep tours, horseback riding and ziplining. It’s a great mountain town and one of the best places to visit in North Carolina.

Blueridge Parkway with a blue sky
The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina is a famous highway that runs from Cherokee to Afton, Virginia (photo by Vladimir Grablev/stock.adobe.com)

2. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway

Didn’t get enough scenic driving on the way through the mountains? Check out the Blue Ridge Parkway, or at least part of it. The famous highway runs from Cherokee to Afton, Va. and passes four national forests. However, there are several exit points in between that you can use to create a loop back to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It’s one of the best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains.

Buildings at the Mountain Farm Museum in Oconaluftee Valley
The Mountain Farm Museum is located along 441 and features historic farm buildings, a farmhouse, a springhouse and a working blacksmith shop (photo by Jon Bilous/shutterstock.com)

3. Visit the Oconaluftee Center and Mountain Farm Museum

This one’s easy. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum are located right on 441 just before you exit the park. It’s the perfect spot to get out, explore and stretch your legs and picnic. The Mountain Farm Museum includes farm buildings, most dating around 1900, which were moved from their original locations throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to create an open-air museum. Visitors can also explore a log farmhouse, barn, apple house, springhouse and a working blacksmith shop to get a sense of how families may have lived 100 years ago.

It’s also a great place for wildlife viewing. The first time I saw an elk after they’d been reintroduced to the park was near here. Elk often appear in the large meadow behind the visitor center in the morning or the evening. If you want to see wild elk – still a rarity even for us locals – this is one of the best spots to do it.

Harrah's casino in Cherokee
Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee has been a boon for the town (photo by Billy F Blume Jr/shutterstock.com)

4. Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee

It may not be Vegas, but the Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee has, from an outsider’s point of view, been a boon for the town, the Cherokee people and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Much like Vegas or Atlantic City, Harrah’s Hotel and Casino regularly offers dining and entertainment. The casino features table games such as poker, craps, blackjack and roulette. There are plenty of slots and video gaming options.

a walkway in the bamboo forest
A walkway in a bamboo forest in Cherokee, North Carolina (photo by Wildnerdpix/shutterstock.com)

5. Visit the Oconaluftee Islands Park

A couple of years ago, my oldest daughter played with a travel softball team that had several tournaments in Cherokee. And while we didn’t necessarily want our day to end early, if it did we had a fantastic consolation prize. We’d take the girls to this park and let them wade, swim and beat the heat from an afternoon on the diamond. The river flows fairly shallow through the park so there are plenty of places for smaller kids to wade and enjoy the water. But there are also deeper areas with strong currents, so keep a close eye.

The park is beautiful and spacious. It’s a popular event destination. We accidentally crashed a wedding there once, but that’s a story for a different time. There are plenty of places to get in the water on the Tennessee side of the mountains for sure, but Oconaluftee Islands is unique and worth a visit if you’ve already made the trek across the mountains.

Abandoned Ghost Town Village in Maggie Valley
Maggie Valley is best known for being home to the abandoned Ghost Town Village (photo by Gregory Simpson/shutterstock.com)

6. Maggie Valley

About half an hour from Cherokee and also Asheville is Maggie Valley, NC. It’s a popular destination for hiking, shopping and more. The Wheels Through Time Museum, for example, has classic motorcycles and rare cars on display. And there are plenty of historic buildings to explore as well.

Connected to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Maggie Valley has crafts, antiques and lots of outdoor adventures. Be sure to check out the Blackrock Mountain if you’re up for some serious hiking. You may even spot some deer or black bears. Spend some quiet time in some rustic cabin lodging or stay at a campground. Visit some waterfalls, go horseback riding, go biking and take in the mountain peaks. The valley is certainly recommended for the vacationer who enjoys getting away from the “Madding Crowd”. The Blackrock is a high-elevation hike, so depending on the time of year, make sure that the Parkway is open. Maggie Valley is also home now-defunct Ghost Town in the Sky, one of the most well-known abandoned attractions in the Smokies as the real-life ghost town up on the mountain.

Where are your favorite places to visit in North Carolina? Let us know in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “6 Top Things to Do on the North Carolina Side of the Smoky Mountains”

  1. When I was younger I really loved Santa land, tweesie railroad, ghost town now closed, and the Indian reservation crafts, dances, Pic nics by the stream.


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