We have partnered with Swain County Tourism Development Authority for this post.
All opinions are our own.
If you’re new to our blog, let us catch you up. We’re a couple of moms with kids around the same age and husbands who are usually up for whatever we have planned. We travel well together and have similar values we’d like to instill in our children, often prioritizing travel and adventure over material things. However, we’re not the “sell the house and live a nomad lifestyle traveling the country in an RV” kind of people because we’re actually pretty big homebodies too, so we try to squeeze in adventure when we can. When choosing destinations for our next trip, some of the important things we look for are:
- Bodies of water
- Quaint downtown area, with some shops and restaurants but not overly busy and bustling with tourists
- Hikes and/or outdoor activities – bonus if we can visit a National Park too
- Sufficient and nice, but affordable, lodging options
After an awesome week in Steamboat Springs, Colorado last summer and Charlevoix, Michigan the summer before, we were looking for something with a similar vibe but a new-to-us location. Some browsing in the Smoky Mountain area led us to Bryson City, North Carolina. Located on the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this town had all the things we were looking for and the tagline “have a big vacation in a small town” sold us.
We just returned home after our road trip (12 hour drive from Madison, WI to Bryson City, NC) and are already discussing next year’s vacation. What we’ve realized is that we find these really great locations with SO much to do and cannot nearly see and do it all, despite spending a full week! While there are so many more things to do in the area, time constraints, weather, and COVID-19 sometimes affected what we were able to do.
Top 5 things to do when visiting Bryson City, NC with kids
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
We did not actually do the rail excursion, but it was a very popular activity! It was fun to watch the downtown area fill with people and families as they climbed aboard and set off with the train whistling. According to the website, this ride was named one of the “Top 10 American train rides” by USA Today. There is a scenic excursion for everyone – fall color tours, adventure packages, the Polar Express during the holidays, along with inclusive food & drink ride options. Visit the website for schedule, tickets, and descriptions of all the ride options available!
Boating on Fontana Lake
Whenever possible, we try to explore by water when on vacation and renting a boat is sometimes the best way to do this. Fontana Lake looked beautiful in pictures but we learned within minutes of arriving that pictures don’t do any justice! The water is clear and such a cool blue-green color. The lake is a reservoir that is 26 miles long. We rented a boat about a month in advance (and it was the last one available!) from Alarka Boat Dock and had a great experience – the owner gave us some really good tips.
Our rental was a 24-ft Bentley pontoon with a 115hp motor from 10am-7pm for $300. Additional cost includes the gas used ($30) and tube rental ($20). The tube was the best money ever spent – the kids tubed behind the pontoon for hours. Another great spot was Forney Creek – a small sand area where we were able to shore up to and swim. The entire lake felt very remote with very few homes, no restaurants/dining that we saw, and minimal boaters. A must do, in our opinion!
Tubing at Deep Creek
Deep Creek is located within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a short 10-minute drive from Bryson City. There are many rental companies outside the park that provide tubes at low cost (we used JJ’s Deep Creek Tubes) , but there are no shuttles so some hiking with the tubes is required. Deep Creek has two options for tube runs with both young children and older, adventure-seekers. We started with the “adventure run” on the first time – 2 of the 4 kids loved it 🙂
Rather than go into all the details, visit the website to learn everything you’ll need and more to have a fun day at Deep Creek!
Even if you’re not there for the tubing, there are many picnic areas and little swimming holes along the creek. We saw several people on benches along creek, near Tom Branch Falls, watching the tubers go by. We also spent a rainy evening splashing in the creek and having a squirt gun fight with ice cream from the nearby shop.
The Road to Nowhere
The vague name of the road had a bit of mystery to it as we set off to explore. We were surprised by the drive alone along Lakeview Drive – a long, winding road with beautiful overlooks (try the Fontana Lake Overlook) through the woods. It’s got to be absolutely breathtaking in the fall!
The road abruptly ends at a parking lot so we got out to explore without really knowing what to expect. We’ll leave a bit of mystery as well – but make sure you bring a flashlight for the tunnel! 🙂 Or don’t, it’s also just as fun.
We did a 2-mile hike beyond the tunnel – it was pretty easy and felt very remote. Our husbands did a run one morning on the “tunnel bypass” trail and loved it as well. The road has quite a bit of history dating back to the early 1900s for the town of Bryson City – click to read more about the road and its significance to residents.
Explore Downtown Bryson City
Wherever we are, exploring the downtown of a new city is one of our favorite activities. We’ll usually reserve some time where the kids are busy with the husbands and we grab coffee or drinks, a good meal alone, and visit the local shops. This year was a bit different due to COVID-19 but many of the stores were great about providing hand sanitizer, opportunities for social distancing, and wearing masks. We happened to be downtown this year around 9am and most shops didn’t open until 10am so we were somewhat limited to our shopping, but the few places were were able to visit were:
- La Dolce Vita Coffee
- Coffee & dessert bakery with great breakfast sandwiches!
- Mountain Perks Espresso Bar & Coffee
- Iced coffees for us, frozen lemonades for the kids
- Humanite Boutique
- A local boutique with great clothing and gifts
- The Loose Moose
- Gift shop for all our Bryson City souvenir t-shirts and ornaments
- Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson, Bryson City
- Picked up a gift for a Harley-loving family member
- Madison’s on Main
- Women’s apparel, gifts, and home decor
- Nate & Nick’s Pizza
- We got take-out here twice – good pizza and apps, along with kids meals
- Nantahala Brewery & Taproom + Burger Bar
- We got take-out here as well, plus the husbands sat down for a couple beers outside
It felt that we had barely scratched the surface of everything Bryson City and the surrounding area offered, despite spending a full week. This town is very kid-friendly and truly has something for everyone whether you’re adventurous or not.
For the ultimate travel guide, including comprehensive lists of dining, activities, shopping, and more, visit the Bryson City – Swain County Tourism Development Authority website or stop by the beautiful historic Visitor Center if you’re in town!