Bryson City - Gateway to the NC Smoky Mountains

Bryson City, a charming small community of just under 2000 people in Western North Carolina, is a hub to exploring the southern end of the Smoky Mountains. Along with being home to a very popular scenic train ride, it’s also an outdoor lover’s paradise. With easy access to great hiking trails, whitewater rafting, tubing, mountain biking, and fishing, Bryson City claims the title of “Outdoor adventure capital of the Great Smoky Mountains.” The peaceful natural setting and isolated location make it the perfect base location for enjoying the beauty of the Smokies in a more laid-back setting.

Most tourists choose to enjoy a relaxed ride through the Western North Carolina countryside aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. A number of rides are available including scenic trips through the Nantahala Gorge and a Tuckasegee River Excursion. Special steam trains, food & drink packages, fall foliage tours, and sunset rides are offered at various points throughout the year.

Colorful train mural in downtown Bryson City, NC
A colorful train mural
Photo opp in downtown Bryson City, North Carolina
Great photo opp downtown

While most popular with visitors, there are a number of ways to take in the beauty of the Smokies without paying such a high price tag. Below is a guide to some of the best attractions in and around Bryson City!

Top Hiking trails

Three Waterfalls Loop – This 2.2 mile loop trail in the beautiful Deep Creek region of the Smoky Mountains features 3 incredible waterfalls. A great bang-for-your-buck option as you get to enjoy 3 waterfalls via relatively little effort. The trek is moderate and should be easy enough for most hikers in decent shape. As one of the area’s more popular trails you will want to get here early to ensure parking.

Juney Whank Falls
Tom Branch Falls
Indian Creek Falls
Gorgeous creek scenery

Clingman’s Dome – The highest point in the Smokies (Clingman’s at 6643 ft) is located about an hour outside of the city. A short (0.5mi) very steep walk up a paved road leads you to this magnificent observing area. Yes, it’s a bit of a workout, but worth it in the end for one of the Smokie’s best viewpoints.

Paved walkway to Clingman's Dome - the highest point in the Smokies
Views of the Smoky Mountains via Clingman's Dome - the highest point

Mesmerizing Waterfalls

Mingo Falls – A quick 30 minute drive will lead you to this 200 foot tall waterfall wonder on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The lush natural setting easily makes it one of the state’s most mesmerizing. The hike is short at just over a quarter of a mile. That being said, it would be considered moderate in intensity due to the steep steps (160) early on in the hike.

Beautiful Mingo Falls on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Western North Carolina

Soco Falls – This unique double waterfall is also located in Cherokee. This one is a bit inconvenient as the parking is right off the Hwy and often full on busy weekends. Nevertheless, it’s really beautiful and secluded. A great option for those not interested in hiking as no more than a simple 5 min walk is required to get to the viewing area.

Soco Falls in Cherokee, North Carolina

*Tip – Combine Mingo & Soco Falls, with a trip to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Saunooke Village (local arts and crafts), and The Museum of the Cherokee Indian for a full day out!

Additionally, there are a number of great waterfalls located within an easy daytrip drive. Options include Glen Falls, Dry Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Upper Whitewater Falls, the tallest in the state at 411 feet. These are a bit farther out clocking in at about 1-1.5 hrs. It’s best to combine several for a full day out. Glen Falls is the hardest of the bunch with a moderate (700+ elevation gain) hike of 2 miles. Bridal and Dry Falls are both viewable via the road or a simple walk. Whitewater involves a short quarter mile of a walk along a paved road (plus stairs if you want a better view).

Dry Falls in Western North Carolina
Dry Falls
Upper Whitewater Falls in Western North Carolina
Upper Whitewater Falls

Other Outdoor Attractions

Nantahala Outdoor Center – At the NOC, one of “One of the Best Outfitters on Earth” according to National Geographic, you can enjoy an entire day exploring the wilderness. Fully guided trips on fun and slightly challenging Class II and III rapids make the NOC popular with families and newbies. Numerous activities and packages are available. Check out the Adventure Pass which includes rafting, zipling, mountain biking, and an adventure tree tops course for just under 100 bucks.

Whitewater rafting

Blue Ridge Parkway -Bryson is located just 13 miles or so from the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “America’s Favorite Drive,” as it has been nicknamed, is absolutely beautiful during the leafy green summer and golden fall seasons. Milepost 469 is located nearby Cherokee attractions.

Scenic drive in the Smoky Mountains
Beautiful mountain views on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Downtown Bryson City

Appalachian Mercantile in downtown Bryson City, North Carolina

The small, yet charming downtown is home to a number of local restaurants, coffeehouses, and galleries.

A few places to check out during your visit:

Soda Pop’s Ice Cream Parlor – Take a step back in time to the 50’s at this nostalgic ice cream shop. Treat yourself to an old-time malt, shake, banana split, or waffle cone after a long day on the trails! Super cute retro decor!

Retro 50's decor at Soda Pop's in downtown Bryson City, North Carolina
Super cute retro decor
Delicious ice cream at Soda Pop's in downtown Bryson City, North Carolina
12+ flavors, plus creative special blends

Smoky Mountains Trains Museum – Features a collection of 7,000 Lionel engines.

Appalachian Mercantile – Tourist shop featuring local food goods, hand made soaps, souvenirs, stuffed animals, t-shirts, and more.

Best dining options

Dining on the river at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, North Carolina

Mountain Perks – This cute local cafe serves delicious coffee and pastries in a cozy setting. While the prices are a bit outrageous, the food is good, servers are friendly, and the outdoor patio is beautiful. Treat yourself to a homemade cinnamon roll or NY style bagel topped with homemade cream cheese.

Coffee and pumpernickel bagel at Mountain Perks in downtown Bryson City, North Carolina
Great coffee and homemade pastries
Cozy ambiance at Mountain Perks in downtown Bryson City, North Carolina
Cozy mountain charm

River’s End restaurant – This cafe is located about 20 min outside of downtown at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Lunch at River’s End is the perfect compliment to a day out in nature. Whether or not you are rafting, it’s worth a visit. The restaurant serves delicious food in beautiful setting on the gorge. Take a seat on the breezy covered patio, watch the rafters paddle by, and kick back with a few drinks. Try the Sherpa Rice, a high carb recovery meal consisting of whole grain brown rice, lentils, and seasonal veggies in a soy-ginger based sauce.

Delicious Sherpa Rice at River's End Restaurant at The NOC in Bryson City, North Carolina
Sherpa Rice
Chicken sandwich at River's End Restaurant at The NOC in Bryson City, North Carolina
Best Dam Chicken Sandwich