Bryson City, N.C.: Town hangs its hat on outdoor adventure
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.