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If you take Highway 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and are willing to go just a little further, the tiny North Carolina town of Bryson City sits just beyond Cherokee on Highway 19 and offers a getaway within your getaway.
Bryson City – 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. Rides wind through tunnels, across rivers and lakes, through mountain valleys and into a deep river gorge.
There are seasonal rides for fall leaf peeping to the Nantahala Gorge or to Dillsboro as well as dining car rides with themes like BBQ and Brews, Uncorked – featuring Surf & Turf and wine and the “Shine and Dine” car which serves mountain moonshine samples with the meal.
Also very popular are the Great Pumpkin Patch Express – a Charlie Brown themed Halloween ride – and the Polar Express – based on the classic children’s book about a magical train ride to the North Pole. Both of the holiday themed rides are shorter – and significantly less scenic – but offer the perfect opportunity for train obsessed little ones to get into the spirit of the season and get to ride a real train.
The Smoky Mountain Trains Museum
If you go, make sure to allow some extra time for the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, a magnificent model train museum featuring a collection of 7,000 classic Lionel cars, 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, never 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, 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.
The major attraction in Bryson City is, of course, the trains but there are other things to do. Like most small mountain communities trying to draw tourists, there’s plenty of outdoor recreation. Bryson City has fantastic hiking – it’s on the Appalachian Trail. There’s also zip lining as well as tubing, white-water rafting and fly fishing in the Tuckasegee 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 1800’s and in-depth explorations of the history of the sport.
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