Bryson City is surrounded by Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the north, Fontana Lake to the west, Cherokee NC to the east, and the Nantahala National Forest to the south.
So even a shortlist of the best things to do in Bryson City NC could include dozens of exciting activities that would take weeks for the average visitor to tackle.
From major attractions like the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and Nantahala Outdoor Center to lesser-known gems such as Deep Creek, the Road to Nowhere, and the Swain County Heritage Museum, there’s something here for every age and ability level.
Downtown Bryson City is one of the most charming mountain towns we’ve visited. And there are spectacular waterfalls, important historic sites, great fly-fishing for trout, and a fantastic array of hiking trails nearby.
Read on for our in-depth guide to the best Bryson City attractions and activities, including a map of all our favorite places in Swain County NC
READ MORE: The Best Things to Do in Cherokee NC
Best Things to Do in Bryson City NC Guide
- Drive the “Road to Nowhere”
- Explore Downtown Bryson City
- Farm Getaway at the Folkestone Inn
- Go Back in Time at Mingus Mill
- Go Whitewater Rafting on the Nantahala River
- Have a Cabana Soak at Lakeview at Fontana
- Hike to 3 Deep Creek Waterfalls
- Learn History at the Swain County Heritage Museum
- Marvel at the View of Newfound Gap
- Picnic by the Tuckasegee River
- Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
- Sample Bryson City Restaurants
- See the Sights from Clingmans Dome
- Spend a Day at Fontana Lake
- Visit the Appalachian Rivers Aquarium
1. Drive the “Road to Nowhere”
“STOLEN LAND.” If you explore the Road to Nowhere in Bryson City, you’ll see these words on multiple signs.
The road takes visitors on a gorgeous drive into the hills above Fontana Lake, 6 miles into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where it ends at a graffiti-covered tunnel that leads to… well, nowhere.
The road was built in the 1930s and 1940s, when hundreds of people were forced to leave the communities that had been their homes for generations to make way for the creation of Fontana Lake and the National Park.
Old Highway 288– the road to those communities– was buried beneath the waters of Fontana Lake.
The US government promised to replace it with a new road that would stretch 30 miles along the lake’s north shore, providing access to old family cemeteries where generations of ancestors had been buried.
Construction stopped after they ran into an environmental issue and was never resumed.
In 2010, the US Department of Interior signed a settlement agreement to pay Swain County $52 million in lieu of building the road.
Locals still hold a grudge today, reminding me of an old saying: “Think you can trust the Federal Government? Just ask an Indian.” I’m pretty sure the Cherokee people would have a lot to say on the subject of stolen land…
2. Explore Downtown Bryson City
When we started Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide in 2020, we had two goals: To find our future home in the mountains, and to share our favorite experiences along the way.
After 5 days of exploring Bryson City NC, the town had quickly risen to #1 on our list of Blue Ridge Mountain towns. The gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s an immensely charming small town with a population of around 1,700 people.
The downtown area is very walkable, with lots of cute shops (Loose Moose and McClanahan’s Collectibles were among our favorites), excellent restaurants, and the Tuckasegee River running right through its heart.
There are also several great museums (more on those later) and historic buildings that you can see on a short walking tour of the downtown business district.
Some of our favorites included the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot (built in 1885), Bryson City Presbyterian Church (1890), the Swain County Visitor Center (built as a courthouse in 1908), and Gallery Zella (which was built in 1915 and housed the town’s second bank).
3. Farm Getaway at the Folkestone Inn
Located next to a cow pasture filled with wildflowers, the historic Inn is a working farm with chickens, ducks, dogs, and a sweet little Calico cat who was pretty sure she belonged in our room.
Inside, the decor was farmhouse chic, and our “Carson Farmhouse” room was named after the local man who built the historic home 100 years ago.
Owners Toni and Scott Rowe both worked in the culinary industry for decades: Scott is a Culinary Institute of America grad who was formerly Executive Chef for NC’s largest country club.
So naturally their breakfasts were remarkable, made with fresh eggs, vegetables, and fruits that were either grown on the property or nearby.
It’s an amazing place for anyone who loves animals, good food, or simply savoring the peace and tranquility of a relaxing mountain farm.
4. Go Back in Time at Mingus Mill
Located just 14 miles from Bryson City, just inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, historic Mingus Mill was built in 1886 on the banks of Mingus Creek.
The mill was a major hub of both social activity and trade for local Appalachian communities during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Families from all around Western North Carolina would travel to Mingus Mill to get their corn milled, but while they were there they also bartered with others for various goods and services.
Mingus Mill stopped running its commercial operations back in the 1930s. But it still works, and is run by park employees today.
You can even buy fresh-ground cornmeal, flour, and other locally-made products when you visit!
5. Go Whitewater Rafting on the Nantahala River
If you’ve ever wanted to try whitewater rafting, the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City NC is by far the best place to start.
Our guide, Spencer, made it lots of fun by gently “bumping” into rocks and spinning in the rapids every so often. He also took us to a pair of secret caves along the way.
I’d done this trip back in the 1990s, and it was even more fun the second time. The NOC also has a fun adventure area for kids, a world-class kayaking course, excellent riverside restaurants, and a gear shop.
READ MORE: The 7 Best Caves & Caverns in North Carolina
6. Have a Cabana Soak at Lakeview at Fontana
Though our hotel room and the property amenities were all lovely, our favorite part was their “Soaking Cabana” spa treatment, which we scheduled right at sunset.
We made our way up the hill to a spacious cabana that provided a killer overview of the lake.
There was a large soaking tub big enough for two people to share, lots of flameless candles, bath salts, luxury bathrobes, and meditative music that helped to set a mellow, romantic mood.
Surrounded by tropical plants for privacy, it was an INCREDIBLE place to watch the sunset, and a welcome chance to relax and rejuvenate before we began the next stage of our journey.
7. Hike to 3 Deep Creek Waterfalls
We’d been told about the beauty of the Deep Creek section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by our buddy (and longtime BRMTG contributor) Jonathon Engels.
The entire loop is just over 2 miles: Juney Whank Falls is both the smallest waterfall and the shortest hike (just over 0.2 miles). The tall, skinny Tom Branch Falls and the robust Indian Creek Falls are on the same 1.6-mile round-trip trail.
But if you’re visiting on a weekend, or when peak fall colors are popping, we strongly advise getting there early if you want to beat the crowds.
8. Learn History at the Swain County Heritage Museum
The Swain County Heritage Museum is located inside one of the oldest history buildings in Bryson City, a courthouse (the town’s third) built in 1908.
With its gleaming white exterior and gold-domed clocktower, it’s a powerful presence on the landscape of downtown Bryson City.
But what’s inside the building is arguably even more fascinating for those who love Appalachian history.
The museum features an in-depth look at Bryson City history, including an interactive children’s activity area, a video room showing a 15-minute film about Swain County, and lots of historic photos, tools, and memorabilia.
The highlights are exhibits on a one-room schoolhouse, a restored log cabin, some gorgeous traditional quilts, and a room showcasing photos of the North Shore of Fontana Lake.
The two-floor building is also home to the Swain County Visitor Center and the Great Smoky Mountains Association bookstore, which take up a good bit of the first floor.
READ MORE:The 15 Best VRBO Cabins in Asheville NC
9. Marvel at the View of Newfound Gap
Located at an elevation of 5,048 feet in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Newfound Gap offers excellent overviews of the breathtakingly beautiful mountain pass.
It gained fame in 1872, when it was discovered to be the lowest, most accessible pass through the Great Smokies.
Before that, the arduous Indian Gap Road was believed to be the easiest route through the mountains.
The attraction is situated along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina: There’s even a spot in the parking area where you can have a photo taken with one foot in each state!
You can also see the Rockefeller Memorial, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicated the National Park on September 2, 1940.
The Appalachian Trail passes right through the popular tourist attraction, and there are several other short hiking trails that depart from the parking area.
10. Picnic by the Tuckasegee River
Commonly known as “the Tuck,” Tuckasegee River flows 60 miles from the headwaters near Cashiers and runs through the towns of Sylva, Dillsboro, and Bryson City on its way to Fontana Lake.
The river’s name is thought to derive from an anglicization of the Cherokee word daksiyi—takhšiyi, which means “Turtle Place.”
When the water levels are low, you may still spot stone fishing weirs built by early indigenous people.
There are lots of ways to experience the river, which is considered great for fly fishing, canoeing/kayaking, and tubing.
But our favorite way was to pick up a meal from one of the many fantastic Bryson City restaurants (especially the food trucks outside Bryson City Outdoors and Mountain Layers Brewing company) and have a picnic by the river.
There are two great spots we found, including the Bryson City Island Park and the covered picnic pavilion behind the Swain County Heritage Center.
Just make sure to pack out any trash you take in, as there’s lots of wildlife in the area.
11. Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
To say that the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is a “must-do” when you visit Bryson City NC would be an understatement.
The train began operations in 1988, but it currently runs a 53-mile section of the Murphy Branch between Dillsboro and Andrews that was completed by the Southern Railway company between 1883 and 1890.
Their roster of trains date back to 1904, with most dating to the mid-20th century.
So it’s a retro flashback to ride the railroad through some of the most picturesque parts of the Great Smoky Mountains, alongside Lake Fontana and the Nantahala River.
Packed lunches are available along the way, and there’s also a food car with coffee, snacks, craft beer, and more.
It was by far our favorite experience during our time exploring the area. So much so that we can’t wait to return and ride their Polar Express train this Christmas!
12. Sample Bryson City Restaurants
For a small mountain town with around 1700 residents, Bryson City has an insane amount of great restaurants.
From fine dining and cozy cafes to innovative food trucks, we found a wealth of tasty options to choose from.
So many, in fact, that we couldn’t visit all of the highly rated ones despite eating out constantly for 5 days!
And you definitely don’t want to miss The Rice Wagon (pan-Asian) and Sandra D’s Fried Pies food trucks!
READ MORE: The 10 Best Restaurants in Boone NC
13. See the Sights from Clingmans Dome
Known to the Cherokee people as Kuwahi or ᎫᏩᎯ (“mulberry place”), it’s one of the most popular attractions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The wide, paved hiking trail up to the observation tower at the top may only be a 1/2-mile, but note that it is fairly steep and moderately difficult due to the incline. Take your time, and take plenty of water!
The 45-foot concrete observation tower atop Clingmans Dome was built in 1959, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The tower’s circular observation platform can be accessed by walking up a spiral ramp, which rewards visitors with a jaw-dropping 360º panorama that includes Fontana Lake and several other 6,000-foot summits.
14. Spend a Day at Fontana Lake
Located near Bryson City, Fontana Lake is the largest lake in Western North Carolina and forms the southern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Established in the 1940s, the 10,000-acre reservoir was formed by the damming of the Little Tennessee River. At 480 feet tall, the Fontana Dam is the highest east of the Rockies.
Fontana Lake is home to around 400 floating cabins (some of which are you can rent), as well as the remote Fontana Village Resort.
Boats are an important commodity, as many parts of the lake that are inaccessible without them.
Swimming is another popular pastime here, and the hiking trails are great, too. The Appalachian Trail crosses over the Fontana Dam, and there’s also a 35-mile Lakeshore Trail that leads to the Road to Nowhere.
Thanks to virtually no commercial development in the area, we think Fontana is one of the most beautiful lakes in the entire Blue Ridge Mountain region!
15. Visit the Appalachian Rivers Aquarium
The Appalachian Rivers Aquarium isn’t a major tourist attraction in Bryson City, but it is one of the coolest things to do in the small mountain town.
The building is tucked back on a side street downtown, right across from the Tuckasegee River and Bryson City Island Park (which is another great spot for a picnic).
The Appalachian aquarium is a great place to learn all about the fish, salamanders, and other marine life that call the area home, many of which you can see up close.
Our favorite species were the massive Hellbender Salamanders (which can grow 12 to 19 inches long!) and beautifully patterned Tiger Trout (which are popular with fish-stocking programs because they eat undesirable fish). –by Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love and Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted