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Road Trip Recap: the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina

April 11, 2021

Road Trip Recap: the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina

April 11, 2021

One Week in The Smoky Mountains:

Daily Itinerary in North Carolina with Kids

Who else is ready to think about a summer road trip and life beyond COVID?! *Everyone raises hand!*

2020 may have been the strangest year ever but we managed to make the best of it with a few fun weekend getaways and our week-long road trip to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. These posts get pretty lengthy, so grab a cup of coffee (or whatever, we won’t judge you) and settle in.

For a quick jump to specific blog posts — see below:

Bryson City, NC with Kids: Top 5 Things to Do
Haven in the Woods: Cabin Rental in Bryson City, NC

Check out our highlight bubble, “North Carolina” on Instagram where we have a lot of details and videos as well from this trip! @gatheringtwigs

Planning for the Road Trip

This trip came to fruition the summer prior, after a successful week in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 2019 (read more about that here). We wanted an affordable but new-to-us location for a summer vacation. We needed a place that would check our vacation boxes (water activities, kid-friendly, affordable lodging options, variety of adventures for the whole family, and added bonus = mountains).

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular U.S. National Park, so that seemed like an easy decision. The majority of people enter from the Gatlinburg, Tennessee side, which we were hoping for less “touristy”. We did something similar to this when visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park, by entering from the west side in Grand Lake, CO versus the busier east side of Estes Park, CO. A Pinterest search led us to Bryson City, North Carolina – “the gateway to the Smokies”. We were sold after a bit of research and decided it’d make the perfect summer trip for our two families.

We were debating on flying versus driving but the pandemic made our decision for us. We booked our trusty 15-passenger van through Costco Travel / Enterprise, as we have found them to have great prices, free cancellation, and unlimited mileage + additional driver options.

This is our 3rd passenger van rental over the past few years – more affordable than renting two vehicles and a lot more fun!

Searching for vacation rental homes is one of our favorite pastimes so we loved the challenge of finding a nice home in a good location, while still affordable. Nestled in the woods a few miles outside of downtown Bryson City, we found a cabin that ended up exceeding all expectations. (Read more about our cabin on the post here “Haven in the Woods: Cabin Rental”).

“Haven in the Woods” cabin rental in Bryson City, NC
(click photo for blog post)

Other than the van and cabin rental, we didn’t have much else planned ahead of time. We had a few things we knew we wanted to do while we were there but since it was mostly weather-dependent stuff, we were going to figure it out once we were there. (Note: we did reserve a pontoon boat a few weeks ahead of time but was flexible on their weather policies – more about that a little later in the post).

Tip: the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is free! There is no entrance fee so you can come in and out as many times as you please.

Road Trip: Madison, WI to Bryson City, NC

Estimated travel time + miles: 12 hours | 775 miles

DAY ONE : Travel Day

The day prior to departure, we loaded up the van and had everything ready to go. At the time, we thought it’d be best to wake the kids up super early and hit the road at 3am so they’d sleep for a few hours while we put some miles on. This backfired a bit – they were so excited that they stayed awake for a few hours and eventually dozed off on only a few short naps throughout the drive. It was a 12-hour drive and we made stops for bathrooms and food, but otherwise rallied on and arrived in Bryson City, NC in the early evening. It was a pizza takeout and wine on the screen porch kind of evening since we were all wiped from the drive.

DAY TWO : Getting to Know Bryson City, NC

Justin and Travis woke up early the next day to go for a run on a trail nearby while we had a slow morning with the kids. They’d been anxious to use the hot tub on the deck, so we sipped coffee while they splashed around.

The hot tub at the rental home was a kid favorite

After the husbands got back, we hopped in the van and drove to Alarka Creek Falls to hike along the creekside 1.3 mile trail and see the waterfalls. This hike was not in the national park. We decided to venture the other direction since we would be going to the National Park the next day and we wanted to avoid crowds based on the time of day that we headed out.

(Note: getting around in this area takes longer than you would think because of all the hills and turns, especially when you’re driving a 15 passenger van. Also, we lost service on our way to this hike, so it’s not a bad idea to pin your location and download any trail maps so you will have it in case you lose service too!)

This afternoon was our first clue to what the North Carolina weather (at least in the Smokies) was actually like, as it was perfectly sunny when we arrived and ended in a torrential afternoon rainstorm! We were completely unprepared for rain and it was a long, wet drive home 🙂

It felt like a rainforest while hiking the Alarka Falls trail, especially when it started pouring!
Aftermath of beautiful day turned downpour!

DAY THREE : Fishing the Tuckaseegee River, Tubing at Deep Creek, and the Road To Nowhere

In advance of the trip, the guys booked a 4-hour river float on the Tuckasegee River with a fishing guide service called Fontana Guides. Their guide was Thomas, and they had a great time and said he was awesome (plus, he gave some great recommendations of other things to do in the area).

Fishing on the Tuckasegee River with Fontana Guides fishing service

Deep Creek Tubing is one of the top activities when we researched things to do in the Bryson City area. Located within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Deep Creek is a popular tubing destination for all ages. We rented tubes just outside the park entrance, as they don’t rent tubes or shuttle within the Park. There are many rental companies but we used JJ’s Deep Creek Tubing, as they had a very helpful website and friendly staff that helped us load our tubes into our ridiculous van.


  • Make sure the tubes have bottoms!
  • Wear close-toed water sandals. Katie wore these and her feet were in better condition than the others’. You might get stuck on some rocks depending on the water level and have to push yourself off with your feet. We saw a couple flip-flops floating down the river so even if you don’t have closed-toed shoes, its a good plan to have some that will stay on your feet.
  • Bring a waterproof phone case and dry bag for any important belongings. We also used these to protect our phones and bring them with so we could take some photos while tubing. Here’s a good option for a clip-on waterproof dry bag, also useful when kayaking or boating.

We parked the van at the parking lot (get there early to be closer!) and hiked with our tubes to the water entrance point. You get into the water, tube down, and then get out and hike back to do this again and again, as many times as you want. There are two entrance points based on the type of tubing you want:

Calmer waters: about 1/3 mile walk from the parking lot to the bridge, these waters are calm and suitable for any tubers (the youngest in our group was 2.5 and was fine on his own tube tied to an adult’s tube).
Adventure waters: an additional 1/4 mile from the bridge, there is a sign that says “No Tubing Beyond this Point” near Indian Creek Trail and the water here was choppier with some dips & spins.

We each tied a kid to an adult tube and hiked to the adventure waters entrance for our first tube run – maybe not the smartest introduction, but “go big or go home” 🙂 The majority of the group had a blast, but a couple of the kids didn’t love it so hiked the Juney Whank Falls trail while the others did more tubing. Afterwards, we got back together at a table along the water, had a picnic lunch, and let the kids splash around in the shallower waters.

A more detailed post on Deep Creek tubing is linked HERE

After getting back to the cabin and regrouping, we all headed out to the Road To Nowhere and tunnel. The road (also called Lakeview Drive) is a winding six mile road through the Smoky Mountains (with some awesome overlook points along the way!) that ends at a tunnel. There is a lot of local history to this road and tunnel – more about that here. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect, but parked in the lot and started walking. The Tunnel to Nowhere is a 1,200 foot walking tunnel – the kids thought it was so cool! It was dark and spooky but the kids liked yelling “echo!” and looking at the tunnel graffiti.

Beyond the tunnel, we hiked a few miles out and back on the Forney Creek trail. It was a pretty hike through the woods with some mild elevation changes, not too exciting except for finding some big piles of bear poop!

DAY FOUR : Boating on Fontana Lake

This had been one of our most-anticipated activities, as Fontana Lake looked pretty cool in photos and we always love a day out on the water. We’d reserved a pontoon in advance from Alarka Boat Dock and they were very helpful with some tips of things to do on the lake.

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. It felt extremely safe too, as we were the only people out on the water for most of the day.

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. Photos did no justice for this lake – the water was the craziest blue-green color and had Smoky Mountains in the view all around us. Best day ever!

Swimming at Forney Creek
Swimming at Forney Creek on Fontana Lake

DAY FIVE : Clingman’s Dome Hikes

Another popular hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Clingman’s Dome is located on the “North Carolina side” of the Smokies. It’s the highest point in the Smokies, at 6,643 feet elevation. The drive from Bryson City to the Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center parking lot was probably pretty cool, but the fog that morning was so bad we couldn’t see any scenery.

Foggy morning hid the Smoky Mountain views

A local had told us to hike the 1-mile Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail or “Forney Ridge Trail” to the observation tower, rather than the popular paved uphill path that most people take. Rather than head up the paved trail from the parking lot, we forked left at this sign and went down into the woods. It turned out to be one of the better hikes of our trip – it was a small path through the woods with so much variety of scenery. The fog that morning made for a misty, foggy hike that was unlike any we’d done before!

The trail led us to the Clingman’s Dome observation tower, but it was so foggy that morning it wasn’t even worth trying to catch a view. It was also very busy here and we were trying to avoid crowds due to COVID. We took the paved trail down, which was only about a 1/2 mile but on an incredible steep incline so it was a workout.

DAY SIX : Day trip into Asheville, NC

We’d been wanting to spend a day in Asheville and this was a good day for it (despite 90 degree weather in Asheville!). We missed out on some cool views the day prior and another lookout called Waterrock Knob on the way out of town was supposed to have some scenic views. Again, it was pretty foggy here too, but the kids realized we were hiking “inside the clouds” so they thought that was pretty fun.

Picnic at the top of Waterock Knob

It was about an hour drive to Asheville, but very pretty along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We ended up in the River Arts district at a brewery called Wedge Brewing Company and the next door tent serving food from 12 Bones Smokehouse (apparently a favorite of Barack Obama’s!). We ate outside in the sweltering heat and planned to do a little shopping in the city.

Wedge Brewing Company / 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville, NC

Our husbands dropped us off in the Biltmore Village district so we could walk around and shop but didn’t have a lot of luck. We decided Asheville would be much cooler without kids and without COVID! While we were shopping, our husbands ended up at Hillman Beer and we met them for outdoor patio beers and afternoon appetizers.

Great patio spaces both front and back of Hillman Beer

After getting back into Bryson City late that afternoon, it was again muggy and rainy but we didn’t want to sit inside. The kids got in their swimsuits, floaties, and grabbed their squirt guns and we headed back to Deep Creek in the GSMNP. The kids splashed around in the shallow, rocky area along the creek and had squirt gun water fights. A nearby shop called Creekside Snack Bar sold ice cream cones, which is always a great end to a day!

Snack shop located near Deep Creek in the GSMNP

DAY SEVEN : High Falls in Glenville, NC and the best meal ever!

Our last full day of our trip. Katie and I hadn’t done any shopping at the downtown Bryson City shops up until this point and is usually one of our favorite things to do on vacation. COVID obviously made this more challenging but we did pop into a few shops for some souvenirs that morning, along with some good breakfast sandwiches and coffees from La Dolce Vita Bakery and Mountain Perks coffee shop.

Downtown Bryson City

We’d left this day up to the husbands to plan so Travis took charge of the day. This was a bit risky 🙂 but ended up being one of the best days of our trip.

We made the hour-ish drive into Glenville, NC to the High Falls trailhead. He’d read that it was about a mile hike to some cool waterfalls (although the trail reviews stated it was a moderate-difficult hike at times, despite the short distance). This was pretty accurate, as it was a rocky and steep climb down at times so we hoped the waterfalls were worth it….

It was an unusual hike for us, as we are usually heading up to higher elevation but this hike took us downward. We knew we’d be in for a brutal climb up afterwards! It’s an out and back trail, so we had a lot of encouragement from return hikers along the way to keep going. With some help at times, all three big kids successfully hiked to the falls (with the little guy in a hiking backpack) and it was awesome once we arrived!

We spent a long time at the base of the falls as the kids played around on the rocks and splashed in the cold water. It was a really good time and completely caught us by surprise with how cool it was! (Make sure you catch our stories on Instagram to see/hear for yourself).

After the pretty brutal hike back up to the parking lot, we ran across the street from the trailhead to the public beach on Lake Glenville and launched our sweaty selves into the water. This beach was awesome – had a huge sand area and beautiful water, and was the perfect way to cool off after our hike.

“The Pines Recreational Area” – public beach on Lake Glenville, across the street from the High Falls trailhead

Just when we thought this day couldn’t get any better, we stopped for dinner in the town of Dillsboro at a restaurant called Forager’s Canteen and the next door brewery, Innovation Brewing Company, that had been recommended by the fishing guide the guys had used earlier in the week. The fishing guide, Thomas, said he eats here nearly every day so we had to see what the hype was about. We sat out on the picnic tables of the outdoor patio shared by both establishments and had the best. meals. ever!

Innovation Brewing shares an outdoor space with Forager’s Canteen
Best meals of the trip were at Forager’s Canteen in Dillsboro, NC

Photos won’t do justice from these meals but we each tried something different and shared a bit off each other’s plates, and they were all amazing. We all left hot, tired, and stuffed but happy to have spent our last day making such great memories and eating such yummy food! As Travis said when asked to recap our day:

“It was a big, great day.”

The next morning, we got up around 7am and hit the road for home. We’d planned on driving straight through, although we were in no big hurry. We made our way back to Wisconsin with excellent passengers for all 12 hours of the drive and no major hiccups (except for a projective vomit about 20 minutes into the trip!). A few stops were made for meals, bathroom breaks and to let the kids stretch their legs, but they all did surprisingly well. This 12-hour road trip gave us the confidence to plan more things like this in the future!

Food + Dining around Bryson City

Bryson City, NC :: COVID-19 challenged us on this trip, as we’d normally love sitting out on patios and trying new bars and restaurants, but didn’t feel comfortable this year. We got takeout a few times from local Bryson City, NC restaurants Nick & Nate’s and Nantahala Brewing Company Burger + Bar, otherwise we just cooked meals at home.

Asheville, NC :: While on a day trip to Asheville, we had beers and lunch on the outdoor patio at 12 Bones Smokehouse in the River Arts District.

Dillsboro, NC :: Stopped here on our way home from a hike one afternoon, per recommendation from a local, to eat out on the patio at Forager’s Canteen and the next door brewery, Innovation Brewing. Hands down, we all agreed that the food at Forager’s was the best meal of the trip and better than many places at home! A must-do if you’re in the area.

Shop our favorite items from this trip!

Note, this post contains affiliate links and may provide a small commission to us, at no cost to you. We share and promote only items we use and love ourselves.

Want to see Bryson City as we did? Head over to our Instagram account, @GatheringTwigs, where we’ve got a highlight bubble saved with all our video clips from our trip to North Carolina! Make sure to follow us too and see what the next adventure is!

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