Off the beaten path
March 31, 2021
Find new things to do in Bryson City.
by Allison Andrews
The North Carolina mountains are a favorite getaway for many people, myself included. But after plenty of trips to the beloved Boone, West Jefferson and Blowing Rock, I was in the mood for something different — new views and new things to do. I found what I was looking for just three hours from Charlotte.
Bryson City borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the north and the Nantahala National Forest to the south. This gateway to the Smokies offers what you’d expect from a charming mountain town, along with everything you need for a relaxing getaway.
Have you ever watched the sunset from a bathtub in a treetop cabana? An oversized soaking tub, aromatic salts, candles and soft music greeted me at the end of the wooded path at Lakeview at Fontana. My initial skepticism faded with the setting sun over Fontana Lake. In addition to the soaking cabanas, the resort, which opens for the season on April 1, offers spa treatments; walking trails; one-, two- and three-bedroom suites for overnight stays; and special packages for couples. It’s truly a place to disconnect — guests must be 18 or older, and there are no TVs or Wi-Fi on-site. While Bryson City is full of cabins to rent, another unique choice is Stecoah House at Sky Ridge Yurts. The back wall of this luxury cabin is made entirely of windows, providing a spectacular view from nearly every room.
Dining in the mountains often involves throwing something on the grill at your Airbnb or grabbing a bite at a local hole-in-the-wall. Bryson City has plenty of those (I give the cheese curds at CJ’s Grille a thumbs up). But the Bistro at Everett Hotel was a culinary feast. The blue cheese-stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon and drizzled with local honey, was the first sign this meal would be better than your average fare. The dinner menu covers everything from salads and sandwiches to entrees such as Carolina mountain trout. The hotel opened in 2015 in a century-old building that formerly was a bank. Reservations are strongly recommended, but if you didn’t reserve a table, you can still enjoy a craft cocktail from the rooftop, where the menu highlights North Carolina craft beers and signature drinks made with small-batch artisan syrups and liquors.
As you might expect, the area offers an array of outdoor activities, from kayaking and paddleboarding to canoeing and fly-fishing. There’s even a Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians on Main Street.
If, like me, you’re looking for an adventure that requires no actual skills, try tubing on Deep Creek. For more of an adrenaline rush, the nearby Nantahala River is a whitewater mecca. The Nantahala Outdoor Center launches rafting trips for ages 7 and older, from beginner to advanced.
Back on land, Nantahala Village Riding Stables offers rides for beginners and up in a wooded setting overlooking Fontana Lake. The National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service own more than 90% of the land around the lake. Pro tip: Schedule your ride early in the day, before the horses get tired and it gets too hot.
Experiences like horseback riding can be arranged through Carolina Bound Adventures, a concierge vacation-planning and guide service. If brewery and winery tours are more your speed, the service can provide those as well, along with guided hikes, kayaking and fishing. I discovered too late the pre-arrival grocery shopping service: For $49 plus the cost of groceries, you can order ahead and have everything (except alcoholic beverages) waiting in your rental.
While I especially loved the walk on The Road to Nowhere just outside of town, Bryson City’s most popular attraction is the Smoky Mountain Railway. Trains depart from the depot downtown. If you time it right, you can get a patty melt at the Boxcar Cafe before your journey.
I considered rounding out the trip with golf at the Smoky Mountain Country Club, surrounded by 5,000-foot mountain peaks. But once I was there, I realized the main reason I love the mountains is doing mountain-y things. So instead, I hiked to an abandoned plane crash off Waterrock Knob about an hour away. Clingmans’ Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is another worthy hike just north of Bryson City.
Bryson City did serve up more of what I wanted — and proved you can have a big vacation in a small town. SP