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, and it offers a getaway within your getaway.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
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” or “Shine and Dine,” which offers mountain moonshine samples with the meal.
Another very popular ride is 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 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.
The prices will range depending on which ride and which class you choose, but tickets cost roughly $65-113 per person. For more information, visit them online at gsmr.com.
The Smoky Mountain Trains Museum
If you go to Bryson City, 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 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 never even 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.
Visit the website here to learn more.
Outdoor recreation in Bryson City
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 1800s and in-depth explorations of the history of the sport.
Have you been to Bryson City yet? Let us know in the comments!