Destination: Bryson City, N.C.
Wildwater’s Jeep tours explore the area’s waterfalls.
Bryson City, N.C., is tucked deep within the mountains of Swain County, a county comprised mostly of federal park lands. The large amount of protected land gives the area its rugged beauty and makes Bryson City, the county seat, the perfect jumping off point for explorations of the great outdoors.
Within a short drive of downtown is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Deep Creek area. The Deep Creek area is celebrated for its streams and waterfalls. Hikers can choose from several loop hikes leading to the waterfalls.
Mountain bikers can take advantage of one of the few park trails where bicycles are permitted. There’s also a wonderful picnic area with terrific sites all around, and a group shelter available for reservation. Deep Creek Campground is open April through October.
However, what Deep Creek is best known for is tubing. Throughout the summer gaggles of locals and visitors can be found renting tubes for an exhilarating float downstream. It’s an inexpensive and family-friendly activity best done wearing old sneakers and shorts to protect tender parts from sneaky rocks. Tubes can be rented from tube outfitters located along the way to Deep Creek, which feeds into the Tuckasegee River that runs through the middle of Bryson City and attracts fishermen along its length.
While the Tuck is a major draw, it’s the whitewater of the Nantahala that many come to Bryson City to experience. The river originates in Nantahala Lake and flows down toward Fontana Lake where it meets the Fontana Dam, the highest dam east of the Rockies. The Appalachian Trail, running more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, crosses the Fontana Dam, and also crosses a footbridge at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
It’s hard to miss the Nantahala Outdoor Center located on the banks of the river where every spring the Bank of America US Open hits the slalom course and USA Canoe/Kayak hopefuls compete for points toward a place on the national team. This year finalists will return to the NOC in October for the USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom Nationals. And in September of 2013 the Canoe and Kayak Freestyle World Championships will grace the waves at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Championship experience is not necessary to run the river; however, it would be foolhardy for the inexperienced to attempt it without a guide. Running the Nantahala is a thrill-a-minute ride. Numerous outfitters make the trip downriver and can accommodate large groups or individuals.
Running the river isn’t the only way to explore the Nantahala Gorge, which is part of the Nantahala National Forest and celebrated its 100th anniversary this March. The forest includes the Wayah District, which is home to Joyce-Kilmer Memorial Forest, Slickrock Wilderness Area, Ellicott Rock Wilderness, and the Southern Nantahala Forest. Getting out on foot is the best way to get close up to nature, but alternate adventures abound. One option is Wildwater’s Scenic Jeep Tour that heads out into waterfall country. The Jeep tour is a great way for a group to explore together or for those who aren’t up to hiking or simply need to give their tired feet a break to enjoy backcountry views.
The first white settlers arrived in Bryson City in 1809, but it wasn’t until the railroad’s arrival in 1884 that the town grew to prominence. The historic railroad depot lies at the center of the town’s shopping and dining district, and is the center of operations for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which now offers scenic rides. The trip into Nantahala Gorge affords a ride over Fontana Lake and to the Nantahala Outdoor Center for a quick lunch overlooking the river. Note that the railroad is indeed a working railroad and not all along the journey is picture perfect; however, the experience of riding a train is half the fun. The train appeals to families, which it is great for, though the youngest may lack the attention span needed for the duration of the ride.
Consequently, special event rides such as the immensely popular Day Out With Thomas, which runs for a week in July, Peanuts’ The Great Pumpkin Patch Express, offered in October, and The Polar Express, running in November and December, target children with costumes, readings, activities, live music and more. September brings Railfest, a weekend made for railroad enthusiasts and history buffs complete with a mountain craft fair, motor car rides and displays, story-telling, singing, dancing, and a special photo excursion train that runs to Andrews, N.C.
For those who are looking more for relaxation than adventure, Lakeview at Fontana’s spa is a place of respite and retreat. Indulge in a Paraffin Pure Results Facial or the Milk and Honey facial, using locally harvested honey. Other services such as the Ultimate Hand and Foot Treatment are specially designed for seniors or first-time massage clients, allowing for a fully clothed experience. Or connect with the river through the hot stone massage to melt away tension. Lakeview also offers yoga retreats and private yoga sessions.
Luxury for any comfort level
Someone who was not a linguist invented the word “glamping,” combining the words glamour and camping into one experience word to describe camping with all the frills. While staying in one of Wildwater’s yurts at the Falling Waters Resort does not come with chef-prepared gourmet fare or spa treatments, the experience is not one soon to be forgotten.
Yurts, modeled after the circular tent dwellings of Mongolian nomads, feature canvas walls, wood floors, skylights for stargazing, and tastefully decorated furnishings, including queen size beds and futons, with outdoor decks, refrigerators, and plenty of electrical outlets.
At the bathhouse, individual bathrooms with hot showers and heaters provide privacy and comfort. After a full day of rafting, zipping and other adventures, the whole family will be ready for a relaxing soak in the village’s large hot tub. For the best views and a little more seclusion, ask for the Waterfalls or Gorge yurts.
Each yurt can sleep two couples or a family of four. Do note the word “sleep.” The yurts are spacious by any camping definition; however, those who need room inside for the family to spread out may wish for larger accommodations.
One of the largest cabin rental companies in the area, Watershed Cabins offers an inventory of more than 60 properties. Rentals range from luxury cabins that sleep 11 to small “tree house” cabins perfect for a romantic getaway.
Find a cozy and historic escape at the Fryemont Inn in downtown Bryson City. Timber baron Amos Frye built the bark-covered hotel in 1923, and it is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The lodge is everything a mountain lodge was intended to be, which is a rustic gathering place where guests mingle as much with one another as whomever they came with. The lodge’s lobby features a huge stone fireplace—large enough to burn eight-foot logs—and is where visitors play games, watch TV, read a book, or head out to take their repose on the covered porch overlooking town. The Freymont’s pool is open during the season. Those sleeping at the inn enjoy breakfast and dinner with their stay.
Play with clay at Pincu Pottery
Elise Delfield, owner of Pincu Pottery, cups her wet right hand around a small ball of clay on the center of a spinning potter’s wheel. She places her right thumb in the center of the ball and pushes straight downward, stopping just shy of the bottom. The clay magically and circularly opens. She locks her thumbs together, crosses her middle fingers over her index fingers—as if for good luck—and reaches into the spinning donut of clay.
Steady but gentle pressure pushes the clay outward and up. Spinning more slowly now, the clay grows more cylindrical with each repeated reach to the bottom and gradual rise toward the vessel’s rim. In no time, clay and a potter’s hands have formed something useful, and those hands in turn are teaching the art of pottery to anyone willing to learn.
Delfield, a member of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, opened her pottery studio off Highway 28 outside Bryson City a year ago, moving into the light-filled space to both showcase her own works and have space in which to teach. She found her love for teaching pottery through Southwestern Community College’s branch campus, which offers a 16-week course in the art.
However, many people who foster a budding interest in pottery may not want to devote 16-weeks to something they may or may not like. And visitors to the area certainly don’t have that kind of time either. So Delfield began offering two-hour classes that allow students to get a feel for the medium and have a finished product to call their own. Within a two-hour lesson Delfield introduces students to handbuilding, which relies on rolled-out clay, molds, and cutters, as well as wheelwork, which incorporates lots of water to mold the clay.
Throughout the process Delfield provides individual attention to each student and encourages him or her to be creative and embrace mistakes. Students typically end up with two to three pieces of their own creation. Student created works range from ornaments to bowls, from whimsical décor to bird feeders, from tumblers to serving dishes.
Once works are completed, they must dry, be glazed, and kiln fired, which means another two weeks until the works are ready to go home with their makers. However, shipping is available and Delfield has stored works for students until the next time they are in town. Lessons are available in private two-hour sessions, informal and fun Friday Goes to Pot events that encourage adults to bring friends and BYOB, as well as Adult Clay Play, Muddy Family, and Kids Classes. All classes require pre-registration.
For more information, visit pincupottery.com or call 828.488.0480.
The Arts in Bryson City
Visitors will find a charming handful of galleries offering exceptional works. Be sure to visit the Allyson Gernandt Gemstone Jewelry, The Artists’ House Studio and Gallery, The Charles Heath Gallery, Cottage Craftsman, and Elizabeth Ellison Watercolors.
On the musical front, open mic night is held at Mountain Perks Coffee House every Friday from 6 to 8 p.m., Wednesdays brings karaoke at the Tuckasegee Tavern, and community music jams are held on the first and third Thursday of the month at the library. From June through October the Music in the Mountains series at the train depot welcomes a free concert each Saturday night. This season kicks off with The Barn Cats on June 4 and features, among others, The Freight Hoppers on July 16, Carolina Bluegrass Boys on Aug. 20, Boogertown Gap on Sept. 17, and Johnny Floor and The Wrong Crowd on Oct. 22.
Additional entertainment can be found at various bars and restaurants within Nantahala Gorge during the high season.
Browsing Bryson City
Be sure to knock around Bryson City’s cool downtown for a while and visit the shops that give the town character. Several shops are arts- oriented and absolutely worth a visit, while others, like Humanite, an eco-friendly women’s clothing store, and Appalachian Mercantile, which offers a slew of free samples daily, round out the experience.
Madison’s on Main features a large selection of upscale home accents, bath and body products, candles, gourmet gifts, jewelry, baby items and specialty chocolates. Look for the cute and breezy robes perfect for summer. Charleston Station is located in a historic home filled with pottery, baskets, old and new quilts, antiques, collectables, and much more. Across the street there is an annex to the store that showcases larger furniture pieces such as antique armoires, bed frames, and school desks.
Bryson General Store and Clampitt Hardware Co. are great steps back in time where shoppers will find a mix of form and function. And don’t miss the Friends of the Library Used Book Store where a good read is sure to be found—make sure to ask if there’s anything in stock by a local author.
Up the street past the train depot is Stoltzfus Bread Basket, an Amish style bakery featuring fresh baked breads, muffins, bagels and cakes and desserts by the slice or uncut. Load up your picnic basket here and don’t miss the dried kiwi sold in bulk or the Jake and Amos Pickled Sweet Tiny Beets, which aren’t local, but the beet itself is as Southern as Gone With the Wind.
Grab a bite and go
Dining out in and around Bryson City tends to be a casual affair. Even at resorts such as Nantahala Village or Fontana Village, visitors won’t find overly fussy environments. The goal most often is simply good food with a view. For a special dinner look to these such properties or Relia’s Garden at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The menu features seasonal dishes and favorites such as Cranberry-glazed trout from Sunburst Farms, Portabella Mushroom Risotto, and Smoked Beef Brisket.
Dinner in Freymont Inn’s historic, wood-paneled dining room is a must—though be sure to call for reservations. Here trout is served five ways along with options including pasta, chicken, and a 12 oz. prime rib. Sides are served family-style. All meals include soup, salad, entrée, and dessert. Kill some time before or after dinner at the Freymont’s bar or on the lovely stone patio or rocking chair lined covered porch.
In downtown, Jimmy Mac’s is known for its burgers—elk, buffalo or beef—served in a dozen different ways. The Filling Station is the place to go for hearty sandwiches; however, orders must be taken to go. The tiny shop only offers a couple of bar stools for patrons to sit on while waiting for their food, which is a good excuse to pack those sandwiches down to the picnic area at Deep Creek.
Microbrew fans will want to head to the newly opened tasting room at Nantahala Brewing Company where the Noon Day IPA, Bryson City Brown are on tap year round. Seasonals include the Appalachian Trail Extra Pale Ale, Eddy Out Stout, Depot Street Summer Wheat, Nanny Gold, Nantahala Pale Ale, Wet Hop Noon Day IPA, and Rivers End Oktoberfest. Try a few varieties and get a growler of your favorite to go.
Wine lovers will want to visit the Cork and Bean, a charming little hang out spot with a nice selection, a house muscadine wine, wireless internet, coffee, fresh baked goods, and fantastic sweet and savory crepes.
On the other end of the spectrum is the BBQ Wagon, which is plain good food. Dig in to a large plate of chopped pork with beans and coleslaw and a big sweet tea. Look for the retro neon sign to show the way, but remember to bring cash—the Wagon doesn’t accept plastic. For a throwback visit Naber’s Drive In where food is cooked to order and brought to patron’s cars, which are parked overlooking the Tuckasegee River. Be sure to try the Mountain Dew Cherry Limeade and a chili dog, which down South is best served with slaw.