The 8 Best Train Rides in the Smoky Mountains of NC & TN

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The Smoky Mountains are renowned for their spectacular natural beauty. And in our experience, there’s no better way to see them than by taking a Great Smoky Mountains train ride.

Train rides have a rich history in the Southeastern US, and carry a rich sense of nostalgia that bridges generations. 

Sadly, many old passenger trains have gone the way of the dodo, leaving only a few Smoky Mountain trains to carry the 12+ million Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors each year.

Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood theme park is home to the lone Smoky Mountain railway in Tennessee.

The Bryson City train company, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, is the place to go for NC train rides in the Smokies.

Read for our guide to the best train rides in the Smoky Mountains, including Christmas train rides, routes focused on wine or moonshine, and rides offering spectacular views of the Nantahala Gorge and Tuckasegee River.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Smoky Mountains Hotels to Visit in NC & TN


Top Places to Stay for Train Rides in the Smoky Mountains

  1. Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa  (Top 10 Hotel w/free trolley to Dollywood Parks)
  2. Stonebrook Lodge Bryson City  (great location w/24-hour coffee machine)
  3. Relax Inn – Bryson City  (affordable hotel within walking distance to train)
  4. McKinley Edwards Inn  (upscale boutique hotel w/continental breakfast)
  5. Calhoun House Inn & Suites  (4-Brm & 5-Brm vacation suites w/full kitchen)

Popular tours and activities in the Smoky Mountains:

  1. Pigeon Forge: Rocky Top Mountain Coaster Ride (travels up to 30 miles per hour!)

  2. Waterfalls & Breweries Tour from Bryson City NC  (includes 4 waterfalls & 5 breweries)

  3. Bryson City: Mountaintop Zip Line Experience (premiere ziplining tour) 

  4. Bryson City: Fontana Lake Guided Kayak Tour (single or tandem kayak tour w/guide)

  5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park Self-Guided Driving Tour (download app)


Great Smoky Mountains Train Rides Guide

  1. Nantahala Gorge Excursion
  2. Tuckasegee River Excursion
  3. The Polar Express Christmas Train
  4. Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience
  5. Uncorked Wine Experience
  6. Smoky Mountain Beer Run
  7. Bunny Hopper Express
  8. Dollywood Express Train Ride

READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains in Winter


Great Smoky Mountains Railroad History

smoky mountain railway conductors
GSMR Conductors, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

All Bryson City NC train rides begin and end at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad’s Bryson City train depot.

GSMR is part of American Heritage Railways’ goal to preserve railroad history for future generations.

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad involves 53 miles of track, with 25 bridges and 2 tunnels. They traverse rivers, cross mountain valleys filled with wildflowers in Spring and Summer, and pass old mountain towns.

Historically, the rails reached the town of Asheville in 1880, and by 1881 they continued another 116 miles to Murphy NC. They connected the far reaches of Western NC to the world much faster than long, tough wagon rides.

These lines were busiest during WWII, when the Fontana Dam was built. After the Great War ended, the popularity of passenger train traffic dropped off to virtually nothing. By 1985, freight train traffic was also in steady decline.

GSMR trains began to run as a tourist-focused enterprise back in 1988, and today the company carries over 200,000 passengers a year on the top train rides in North Carolina!

READ MORE: The 20 Best Things to Do in Bryson City NC & Swain County


Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Train Rides

45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC • (800) 872-4681

Official Website

Riding the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Nantahala Gorge Excursion in Bryson City NC
Riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

1. Nantahala Gorge Excursion

GSMR’s longest trip is their ever-popular Nantahala Gorge Excursion, which covers 44 miles and takes about 4.5 hours.

This NC mountain train ride runs through the Nantahala National Forest, along the Nantahala and Tennessee Rivers, and crosses a trestle over Fontana Lake.

It departs from the Bryson City Depot, has a one-hour layover at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (famous for its whitewater rafting tours), and returns to Bryson City.

There are several classes of service available. First class has assigned seating, dining, and limited bar service. There are also open-air gondola cars and several other classes of closed cars.

Nantahala Gorge Excursion prices range from $58-$94 for adults and $33-$64 for kids ages 2-12, depending on the class and time of year you visit. 

READ MORE: The 20 Best Lakes in North Carolina (Mountains, Coast & Beyond)

Train Tressel Crossing - Tuckasegee River Excursion GSMR
Tuckasegee River Excursion, photo courtesy of GSMR

2. Tuckasegee River Excursion

Another hugely popular train ride in Bryson City is GSMR’s Tuckasegee River Excursion, which is a 32-mile round-trip adventure to Dillsboro NC.

This trip includes an 80-minute layover in the historic town of Dillsboro, which is known for its charming craft shops, unique restaurants, and a laid-back but welcoming personality.

Classes of service available on this trip include First Class (only in November and December), Crown Class, Coach Class, and Open Air Gondola.

Tuckasegee River Excursion prices range from $58-$124 for adults and $33-$64 for kids ages 2-12, depending on the class and time of year you visit. 

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Sylva NC & Dillsboro NC

Santa on the Polar Express Train in Bryson City NC
Santa on the Polar Express Train, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

3. The Polar Express

Every year during Winter, the Bryson City railroad transforms from a historic mountain railway into The Polar Express train, a uniquely immersive Christmas experience!

This festive 75-minute adventure includes live performers, music from the film, “Hot Chocolate” (both the song and the drink), and a cookie. Once you reach “The North Pole,” Santa climbs aboard to visit with all the kids. 

Dressing in pajamas is encouraged, and all riders receive a silver sleigh bell as a special souvenir. You can also enjoy singing Christmas carols for the return trip to Bryson City.

The Polar Express runs multiple times daily from early November through December, but they sell out well in advance. Tickets run from $44-$62.25 for adults and from $29-$62.25 for kids ages 2 to 12.

READ MORE: 10 Reasons to Ride the Bryson City Polar Express Train

Bryson City train -Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience
Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience, photo courtesy of GSMR

4. Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience

The Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience is an all-adult car offered on select Nantahala Gorge Excursion train rides. In our experience, it may be the most fun of the various dinner train rides in the Smokies!

All guests get a chance to sample craft moonshine from local distilleries on the First Class train car. After the tastings, moonshine-infused cocktails such as Copper Cola and Moonshiner’s Mimosa will be available for purchase.

Early rides come with a choice of Cheesy Shrimp & Grits or Cheesy Ham Hash Brown Casserole. Excursions departing after 2PM will feature Cajun-seasoned Pulled Pork BBQ with Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce.

Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience tickets range from $119-$134, and are available only for adults ages 21 and up. 

READ MORE: 10 Great Train Rides in North Carolina

Bryson City NC train rides - Uncorked Wine Experience
Uncorked Wine Experience courtesy of GSMR

5. Uncorked Wine Experience

Also offered on select GSMR Nantahala Gorge Excursions (though much more sparsely), Uncorked is a unique wine experience that offers a more refined take on scenic train rides in North Carolina.

Guests on this trip get 4 samples of specially chosen wines, plus a 4-course dinner that includes a cheese plate starter, a salad, entree (Surf ‘n’ Turf or Vegetarian), and a dessert.

Noted that special dietary needs can be accommodated with advance notice, and every passenger will receive a souvenir GSMR stemless wine glass.

Tickets for the Uncorked train ride start at $169 per person, and only adults ages 21+ are allowed. 

READ MORE: The 20 Best NC Wineries to Visit

Smoky Mountain train ride - Smoky Mountain Beer Run
Smoky Mountain Beer Run courtesy of GSMR

6. Smoky Mountain Beer Run

Craft beer is huge in the State of North Carolina, and the town of Asheville NC has even been dubbed “Beer City USA!”

GSMR offers a special Smoky Mountain Beer Run on their Tuckasegee River Excursion, serving 2 half-pint pours en route to a layover (and more beer samples) at the Innovation Station brewery in Dillsboro NC.

All beer runs are themed to stir up a party atmosphere, and the food menu for the ride is matched to the theme.

Smoky Mountain Beer Run tickets cost $114 and are available for adults ages 21 and up. 

READ MORE: Exploring The 17 Best Asheville NC Breweries

N.C. train rides - Bunny Hope Express GSMR Bryson City NC
Bunny Hope Express curtesy of GSMR

7. Bunny Hopper Express

There are a few different Christmas-themed train rides in North Carolina, but the Bunny Hopper Express is a rare Easter-oriented excursion.

This family-friendly special event only runs for a couple of days over one Spring weekend (March 29-30, 2024).

It includes train-hopping bunnies sneaking aboard for a free ride, an Easter egg hunt, and a giveaway bag, with lots of fun things to do during the ride.

Bunny Hopper Express tickets run from $59-$87 for adults, and from $35-$61 for kids ages 2 to 12. Infants under age 2 ride for free, except on the First Class car, which costs $19. 

READ MORE: The 15 Best Christmas Towns in North Carolina



Train Rides in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee

Dollywood train Christmas TN
The Dollywood Express Train, photo courtesy of Dollywood

8. Dollywood Express Train Ride

2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge TN • (800) Dollywood

Official Website

Though it’s sometimes listed as a Gatlinburg train ride, the Dollywood Express is actually about 20 minutes north in Pigeon Forge TN.

It’s the only Great Smoky Mountains train ride in Tennessee, powered by a 110-ton, coal-fired steam engine that takes visitors on a 5-mile journey through the area’s stunning natural scenery.

This is the original attraction in Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park, departing from the depot once every hour on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The Dollywood Express train engines date back to WWII. All cars have been designed with old-fashioned brass fittings and wooden seats to reflect the time when passenger trains were immensely popular in the Tennessee mountains–by Jonathon Engels; lead image by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett


Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

After visiting North Carolina for the first time, Senior Writer Jonathon Engels and wife Emma spent 2 years exploring Western NC in search of a homestead property. They first lived in Brevard, where Jonathon taught writing at Blue Ridge Community College and extensively explored the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest. For the last several years they have lived just off the BRP near Elkin, Southwest Virginia, and the NC High Country. The couple also volunteers with the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention, the Elkin Valley Trail Association, and Reeves Downtown School of Music.