Refresh your fast-paced family life with a slow song in Bryson City, N.C.
Smoky Mountain music has an all-natural melody that’s heard in the whistle of wind through the oak trees, the white water rushing over the bedrock in Deep Creek or slipping down a waterfall and the giggles from my children as they fly high on a simple tree rope swing.
It’s a melody I like to play often—and take my sweet time doing it—while visiting our family in Bryson City, N.C., which is actually more of a town than a city and borders the southern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the western part of North Carolina. And if you’re anything like our family, you’ll find the peaceful harmony and the slower tempo here a refreshing escape any time of the year.
The Polar Express train comes around the same snow-covered mountain that hosts slopes of skiers, snowboarders and tubers in the winter. But I want you to warm up to the idea of what Bryson City has to offer families in winter’s thaw—away from the sun, sand and circus of Myrtle Beach.
It’s a must to dip your toe in the ice-cold spring mountain waters. Rent an inner tube for a day at any of the rental stations located at the entrance of the park, hike up the trail alongside Deep Creek (with tube in tow) and ride the waters back to your home base. There will be slow standing waters and swift moving currents along your ride, with drops and slides at some turns. Who needs a manmade water park? A couple of tips: Wear some sort of footwear—i.e., old sneakers, strap-on sandals or water shoes—because you will need to walk on slippery rocks of all shapes and angles underwater if you need to reposition or if for some reason you flip out of your tube. Don’t wear jewelry. And because the fact that the water here is only 65 degrees year-round, leave the skimpy bikini at the beach: think wetsuit or one-piece suit, T-shirt and workout shorts instead.
Feel more of a need for speed? Hit the adrenaline rush of white waters on the Nantahala River, where you can rent a raft or a kayak and hit the challenging course of this river. The Nantahala Outdoor Center acts as headquarters, with shops, rentals, training areas, cafes and pubs.
The nearby Fontana Lake offers more water recreation options within its 29 miles, including beaches for swimming, boating (many private marinas will rent boats), paddleboarding and cold waters for good smallmouth bass fishing. Owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the lake also boasts the Fontana Dam, built in 1944 to be the highest in the Eastern United States. My sons were amazed by the dam’s massive 480-feet-tall height alone, as well as some of the interactive exhibits on the dam’s unique history at the Visitor Center.
There’s more to explore by land in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that borders Bryson City, like hiking and biking trails that cut through some of the prettiest forestry and picture-perfect scenes that include gorgeous waterfalls. A special falls in my heart is Tom Branch Falls, the backdrop to where my husband proposed to me. Detailed maps are available at www.greatsmokies.com.
By rail, climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) that departs from the Bryson City station and travels to the Nantahala Gorge (and the Outdoor Center). The boys loved living out the real-life whistles and chugging sounds of Thomas the Train through tunnels and over bridges. GSMR also offers its renowned Polar Express themed excursion around the holidays, a Peanuts Easter Beagle Express, a Dinosaur Train package based on the PBS show in July and a more grown-up Fontana Trestle Train over the summer, which serves slow-cooked barbecue and features beer tastings from local breweries.
On a rainy day, hop in the car for a short trip to Cherokee, only 10 miles down the road from Bryson City. The Qualla Boundary Indian reservation boasts souvenir trade stores selling moccasins, authentic Cherokee arts, weaponry and crafts. Harrah’s Casino is great for the adults and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, a full sensory experience, is perfect for the whole family. I’ve been told by locals that the drama of “Unto These Hills,” performed on stage at the Cherokee Mountainside Theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre carved into the side of the mountain, is a must.
You must also meander down Main Street in downtown Bryson City, where historic charm mingles with trendy galleries, bookstores and boutiques. They close down the streets every Fourth of July for Freedom Fest, a star-spangled celebration that includes festival foods, a 5K, a watermelon eating contest, a Hula Hoop-off, kids’ games, a pet parade, live music, fireworks off Airport Hill and more.
Eat & Stay
Just because it’s a small mountain town, doesn’t mean Bryson City can’t serve up impressive menus fit for a foodie. After working up an appetite in the great outdoors, one of my fave spots to sit down and sup is the Cork & Bean Bistro at the corner of Everett and Main. Rustic wood paneling, hardwood floors and exposed brick fuse with wrought iron light sconces and chandeliers in this renovated bank building that dates back to 1908. Try the steaks, fresh mountain trout or any of the sandwiches.
The folks at the restaurant also just opened The Everett Hotel, which features nearly a dozen luxury suites on the second floor and rooftop terrace.
For a quick bite to eat, park at Na-ber’s Drive In on the outskirts of town on Main Street, where time has stood still since it first opened in 1964, from the prices to the menu boxes and the friendly curbside service. Look out over your dash to the Tuckaseegee River and munch on chili dogs, corn dogs, cheeseburgers and shoestring fries. Throw in a root beer float for dessert. Our bill was under $20 for a party of four.
A final recommendation for a place to stay is the Fryemont Inn, a family-owned mountain lodge situated on a mountain shelf overlooking Bryson City that oozes rustic appeal, from the stone fireplaces to the chestnut paneled walls and timber beams. Choose to stay in one of the stone cottage suites, balcony suites or the larger log cabin that can accommodate up to six guests. A country breakfast and full dinner is included with your room rate.
Here’s hoping that Bryson City, a small town with a personality bigger than the Great Smoky Mountains that embrace it, will strike a chord for you, too. And you’ll want to play that mountain music over and again with your family for years to come.
For more information on planning your trip to Bryson City, N.C., visit www.greatsmokies.com.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELLEN SNODGRASS AND PASSMORE PHOTOGRAPHY
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELLEN SNODGRASS (2) AND HENRY DELL
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KIM ALBERTSON AND COURTESY OF THE EVERETT BOUTIQUE HOTEL AND BISTRO AND THE FRYEMONT INN