Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on September 28, 2023.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) is a North Carolina icon and many people’s first pick among the best things to do in Bryson City. This historic and family-friendly attraction brings thousands to Western North Carolina each year.
After riding that famed railroad, we can see why. Before you book your trip on this awesome train ride, we want to share everything you need to know about it, along with some important tips.
Here’s how we’ve organized this guide, in case you’re searching for something specific:
- The History of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
- Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Routes, Excursions, and Special Events
- Prices (for Train Rides and Parking)
- Packages (Rafting, Tarzan Train, and More!)
- Train Car Options
- Our Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Tips
- More Things to Do in Bryson City
You can skip ahead to a specific section or continue reading about the history of the GSMR.
History of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountains Railway is a culmination of multiple entities that eventually combined to become today’s Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. It started with The Murphy Branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad, which delivered thousands of mountaineers through the western part of the state.
By the turn of the 20th century, business was so good that several mountain trains were running between Asheville and Lake Junaluska and between Asheville and Murphy.
Once the automobile increased in popularity, the Murphy Branch, which Southern Railway System then owned, discontinued all passenger traffic after 64 years of service in 1948. In 1985, freight traffic dropped and Norfolk Southern closed the Andrews to Murphy leg of the Murphy Branch.
The State of North Carolina then purchased the Dillsboro to Murphy tracks to keep them from being destroyed. 1988 is when the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad formed and the Dillsboro to Nantahala River excursion was created.
Today, it’s one of the most scenic train rides in North Carolina. More than 200,000 annual passengers enjoy train rides on the GSMR.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Routes and Excursions (Plus Special Events)
The Great Smoky Railroad offers a variety of routes and excursions. They range from a 3-hour Tuskasegee River train to full-day excursions
There are also a variety of special events you can attend which we will detail below.
Nantahala Gorge Excursion
This excursion is 4-1/2 hours roundtrip, leaving from the Bryson City Depot and going 44 miles to the Nantahala Gorge. Guests can ride this excursion via steam or diesel locomotive power.
The train goes over the historic trellis bridge, Fontana Trestle, which takes riders across Fontana Lake. Onboard dining is available for those in first class, or you can pre-purchase a box lunch.
There is a one-hour layover once reaching the Gorge, and gives you the opportunity to sightsee.
Read More: The North Carolina Bucket List Book
Tuckasegee River Train Excursions
This excursion is 4 hours, traveling 32 miles round-trip from Bryson City to the quaint town of Dillsboro. Guests on this trip go through the quiet countryside and have a 1-1/2 layover in historic Dillsboro.
This town offers over 50 shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and country inns. Guests can spend the layover exploring its offerings before heading back to Bryson City.
Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience
Enjoy this All-Adult (21+) event and you’ll be served handcrafted, triple-distilled, craft moonshine. Taste moonshine flavors like Apple Pie, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cherry, Peach, and Strawberry.
The experience also offers hand-crafted moonshine cocktails for purchase.
Passengers get the full-service All-Adult First Class ride with an attendant and the opportunity to dine on their popular Cajun seasoned Pulled Pork BBQ with Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce.
During the month of October, 9:00 am departures feature the choice of two different breakfast options.
This Uncorked experience is perfect for wine lovers! Passengers enjoy a full-service All-Adult First Class ride in the First Class cars. A narrator presents each of the four wine pours as well as shares knowledge and history of the wines.
Passengers also get an exclusive sampling of cheeses and a surf and turf meal prepared fresh. Included are a Great Smoky Mountain Railroad souvenir stemless wine glass and a seasonal dessert.
This specialty experience is available on the Nantahala Gorge Excursion only six days out of the year.
Fontana Trestle Train (featuring BBQ & Brews)
The BBQ & Brews Experience on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad gives passengers great food and drinks to go with amazing views. Enjoy slow-cooked BBQ pork and chicken made fresh, and local brewery beer tastings.
This experience takes place on a scenic train that travels to the Fontana Trestle, staying parallel to Fontana Lake and stopping at the perfect viewing spot at sunset. Passengers in Crown Class get a souvenir tumbler with free non-alcoholic drink refills, soft pretzels, and beer and wine for purchase.
The Adult Only car includes a souvenir Great Smoky Mountain Railroad glass and three different samples of local Western North Carolina beer. Additional Mountain beer is also available for purchase.
The Polar Express Train Ride
The Polar Express Train Ride is a holiday season event that includes a 1-1/4 hour round-trip excursion to the North Pole. The ride is set to the sounds of The Polar Express soundtrack and guests are served warm cocoa and a treat while listening and reading along with the story.
Children will find Santa Claus waiting for them once they arrive at the North Pole, and he will present each child with a special gift, just like in the movie.
Passengers in Crown Class receive a souvenir The Polar Express tumbler, those in Premium Crown Class receive the tumbler and one souvenir tote per reservation, and First Class offers an additional specialty treat and the souvenir mug.
The Polar Express
Take advantage of the beautiful scenery and changing colors of the tree leaves by going on any of the available train rides during the fall season.
This prime season for fall colors happens during the month of October, and there is a price change reflected on all available excursions for this time period.
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Prices (and Parking)
- Nantahala Gorge Excursion & Tuckasegee River Excursion: Ranges from $12-$119 depending on age, train car, and locomotive power.
- Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience: ranges from $119-$134 depending on locomotive power and time of the year.
- Uncorked Specialty Experience: $139/person, recommended to reserve ahead of time because of limited seating.
- Fontana Trestle BBQ & Brews Specialty Experience: starts at $102/person, depending on train car and locomotive power. Ages 21+.
- The Polar Express Train Ride: $17-$77/person depending on age, train car, locomotive power, and peak/off-peak season.
- Parking: $6/vehicle or $7/RV in a dedicated lot.
Note that Great Smoky Mountains Railroad prices are subject to change. If they’re more than is reflected here, please contact us and we’ll be happy to take a look.
There are also some interesting themed packages available for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. These train/adventure combos combine half of the GSMR ride with another fun excursion.
For example, you can ride the train one way and raft with a local operator before returning. Another great GSMR package is the Tarzan Train, which takes you to Wildwater’s Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours, Western NC’s original zipline canopy tour.
Another option is to ride in a “Waterfall Jeep” after disembarking and explore waterfalls, lakes, and more.
Finally, if you love trains as much as we do, why not book your own Private Caboose Party? This offers a Great Smoky Mountains Railroad first class experience that’s worth every penny!
Honestly, we think these packages are pretty hard to beat, but the GSMR offers even more here.
Train Car Options
Another cool thing about the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is all the different train car options.
- Open Air Gondola: Features open seating in a car with unobstructed views, half-height walls, and a roof to protect passengers from the elements. This car is perfect for enjoying the scenery and ideal for photography.
- Coach Class: Features open seating in an enclosed car. Windows can be opened for fresh air and pictures, and the car is heated and has ceiling fans.
- Crown Class: Features assigned seating in a climate-controlled car with large picture windows. Passengers two and over receive a souvenir tumbler with free refills of soda, coffee, and iced tea all day. Boxed lunch is available for preorder and 21+ guests can purchase beer or wine.
- Family First Class: (currently not available) Features assigned seating at a dining table in a climate-controlled car with large picture windows. Meals are served by car attendants and limited bar service is available. Each adult couple receives souvenir tote bags and everyone ages 2+ receives a travel mug with free refills of soda, coffee, and iced tea. Children are able to have lunch with one of the train conductors, who accompany passengers on the trip.
- Premium Open Air Gondola (21+): Features assigned seating in a car with unobstructed views, half-height walls, and a roof to protect from the elements. Passengers are served a meal by a car attendant and there is limited bar service available. Each couple receives a souvenir tote bag and everyone gets their own souvenir travel mug with refills of soda, coffee, and iced tea.
- Adult First Class (21+): Features assigned seating at a dining table in a climate-controlled car with large picture windows. A car attendant serves passengers a meal, and each couple receives a souvenir tote bag and each person receives a souvenir travel mug with free refills of soda, coffee, and iced tea.
Is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad wheelchair accessible? One car has a hydraulic lift, one wheelchair-accessible bathroom, and a golf cart for transportation from the parking area. Make arrangements by calling 800-872-4681 and alert the ticket office when arriving so they can help assist.
Our Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Tips
After riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, we think you should know a couple of things. Here are some tips from our trips that we know you’ll find useful.
Our biggest takeaway and tip for riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is about the food. We had ordered a picnic lunch before the train ride, but unfortunately, there was a mix-up, and our order wasn’t fulfilled.
When we stopped at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, we knew we could get in line for food and hopefully eat before the train left.
However, when the train lets out, the line is long unless you’re seated at the front. I was lucky to get food but had to run from the train and back and barely got back on in time.
We understand that this was no one’s fault. Things like this can happen.
We’re just glad to have experienced it so we could give you this tip!
Our best advice is to pick a spot at the front of the train if you want to eat at NOC. Otherwise, eat before or after your Great Smoky Mountains Railroad ride.
Also, we recommend dining at NOC and will explain why shortly.
Choose Your Train Cars Wisely
Our second tip is to check out the open-air cars in the summer! The enclosed train cars can get hot, even with AC, especially in the middle of Summer.
On our return trip, we noticed that a train car had gotten off for rafting at NOC, leaving the open-air car available. It was super cool, and the breeze felt incredible.
Also, if want to know which landmarks the train passes, check out the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad route map!
Ready to Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad?
As you can tell, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is one of the best things to do in Bryson City. Whether you want to make family memories or enjoy one of their adult-only excursion, grab your Great Smoky Mountain Railroad tickets and prepare for a unique North Carolina experience!
More Things to Do in Bryson City (and Nearby)
We’ll share a few of our favorite things to do in Bryson City here. After that, you can choose from a few related posts that cover it and surrounding mountain towns.
Nantahala Outdoor Center
We highly recommend a visit to the Nantahala Outdoor Center. This wonderful place welcomes over a million guests annually on more than 120 different river and land-based adventures.
You can choose from whitewater rafting, zip-lining, kayaking, tubing, and more. Different courses are also offered for those looking to learn or hone in on their outdoor craft.
Deep Creek Trail
Deep Creek Trail is a moderate loop that is open year-round. It is roughly 4.9 miles long and features beautiful streams and three different waterfalls.
The first waterfall, Tom’s Branch Falls, is very popular in the summer for tubing. Visitors can camp along the trail as well as enjoy bicycling or fishing.
The Road to Nowhere
The Road to Nowhere has an interesting past that goes back to the 1930s. That’s when the Federal Government built the dam to create Fontana Lake.
Nearby communities occupied what is now the bottom of the lake, and were displaced to make room for it. The federal government promised to build a road to access family gravesites, but construction was halted due to an unusual environmental issue.
Today’s Lakeview Road ends at a quarter-mile tunnel known as The Road to Nowhere. You can walk through the dark tunnel and even continue hiking through several trails that start from the tunnel.
Lakeview at Fontana
Relax and unwind at Lakeview at Fontana while in the presence of nature. Lakeview at Fontana is an adult-only retreat where guests can enjoy the serenely decorated rooms and indulge in spa, massage treatments, and treetop soaking cabanas.
The cabanas offer a private room overlooking Fontana Lake and the Smoky Mountains, where you can soak all your troubles in their oversized stand-alone tubs.
Bath salts and the option to add on additional items mean no matter what you choose, you’re sure to experience the calm and healing properties of the salt bath.
Those are our favorite things to do in Bryson City, including the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Here are some others, including nearby places in and around Swain County!
Mingo Falls is one of the tallest and most beautiful waterfalls in North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians, worth the many steps you take to reach it!
The Graveyard Fields hike is just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and an incredibly popular trek that’s within an hour of Asheville.
Skinny Dip Falls in Transylvania County might once have been a secret but it’s very popular now.
Soco Falls is a beautiful double waterfall near Cherokee and a few minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s so easy to miss, but not with this guide.
Black Balsam Knob is a popular section of the Art Loeb Trail in Western NC. It’s easily accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 420.
Deep Creek Trail inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best spots for hiking in North Carolina, taking you by three amazing waterfalls.
The Road to Nowhere is now a popular tourist destination near Bryson City. Of course, the history of this part of Western NC should not be forgotten.
Surrounded by the breathtaking Smoky Mountains, Bryson City is a quaint town with many attractions. These are the best things to do in Bryson City!