Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on October 11, 2023.
Bryson City sits on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, near the Smoky Mountains. It’s also just 70 miles from Asheville to Bryson City. Simply put, this a quaint and adorable mountain town with a lot to offer.
Above all, Bryson City is one of the best places for families, outdoor enthusiasts, and romantic getaway seekers alike. Inside our guide, we’ll cover these things to do in Bryson City North Carolina, and even more to help you plan your stay!
If you’re wondering what to do in Bryson City, here’s how we’ve organized this guide:
- Where is Bryson City?
- The History of Bryson City
- Visiting Today (and Where to Stay)
- Annual Events
- Holiday and Christmas Season Events
- Year-Round Things to Do in Bryson City
- The Best Things to Do in Bryson City (Our Top 5)
- More Things to Do near Bryson City NC (NC Travel Guides)
Whether you’re a new resident, a frequent visitor, or a local, we’re leaving no detail behind. If you live in the Bryson area and are wondering, “What are the best hikes near me?” we think this NC travel guide will help you out!
Where is Bryson City?
Bryson City is the seat of Swain County in Western North Carolina.
The mountain town is within a short drive from quite a few places in Western NC, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. Within North Carolina, Bryson City is a reasonable drive from many of our biggest cities.
- Asheville: 1 hour and 10 minutes away
- Boone: 2 hours 45 minutes away
- Charlotte: 3 hours away
- Winston-Salem: 3 hours and 15 minutes away
- Greensboro: 3 hours and 45 minutes away
In this guide, we will share street addresses when applicable. Some things to do in Bryson City (ex. Deep Creek Trail) do not have physical addresses but all can be found on our Western North Carolina Map.
The History of Bryson City (in 15+ Facts)
Before we dig into things to do in Bryson City, it’s crucial to understand the history of this small town. Here are a few important facts to follow:
- Thousands of years before it became Bryson City, the town and surrounding areas were occupied by Native Americans.
- Kituwa, along the Tuckaseegee River, was believed to be the oldest Cherokee village and its “mother town.”
- In 1567, a minor chief (orata) from Kituwa met with Spanish explorer Juan Pardo.
- During the Revolutionary War, many Cherokee people sided with the British and fought for them.
- Kituwa was burned by American soldiers in 1776. However, after the war, Cherokee remained in the area. Those who avoided removal in the 1830s have descendants who still live in the area as part of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.
- The land that became Bryson City underwent a series of land acquisitions and legal battles before settlement, all beginning in the early 1800s.
- In 1818, a Cherokee chief named Big Bear received a 640-acre reservation of land west of the confluence of Deep Creek and the Tuckasegee River.
- In 1819, Big Bear sold part of his reservation to Darling Belk and another portion to John B. Love in 1824.
- An extended legal battle over control of the land ensued throughout the 1830s between Love and Belk’s heirs.
- Love eventually won control in 1840, and he sold a part of the land to James and Diana Shuler.
- The Shulers then sold parts of their new land to Colonel Thaddeus Bryson and local merchant Alfred Cline.
- A small hamlet known as “Bear Springs” developed here and Cline’s Store was a prominent fixture.
- Due to population increases, Swain County was formed in 1871 from parts of Jackson County and Macon County.
- The Clines were convinced to sell parts of their land by the new county’s commissioners. This land would form the new county seat, which was named Charleston.
- The Western North Carolina Railroad built tracks through Bryson City in 1884, connecting a previously isolated place to its surroundings. You can reminisce about the railroad’s heyday while riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
- The town was renamed to Bryson City in 1889, in honor of Thaddeus Bryson.
- Another huge boon to the area was the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1933. Some of the park’s best-known landmarks sit in Bryson City and nearby, including the Deep Creek Trail.
- In 1944, Fontana Dam was completed and cut off access to a remote area of the Smokies known as the “North Shore.” A new road (Lakeview Drive) was proposed but only 7 miles had been completed by 1972. This “Road to Nowhere” remains unfinished, but is one of many tourist attractions in the area.
Visiting Today (and Where to Stay)
Bryson City recognizes its history and features some of the places we mentioned among its top attractions. Unless you’re taking a day trip from a nearby town or city, you’re going to need a nice place to stay.
Here are a couple of accommodation options in Bryson City:
- The Everett Hotel (16 Everett St) is a wonderful place to stay in downtown Bryson City. You’ll have easy access to the shops and restaurants. Stay in one of the Everett Hotel’s 10 luxury suites and enjoy dinner (or a drink) on the rooftop terrace. Staying here is one of the most romantic things to do in Bryson City NC.
- We’ll mention Lakeview at Fontana (171 Lakeview Lodge Drive) in more detail shortly, but you should know about their relaxing guest rooms. These rooms reflect the former 1950s motor court that once stood here with bright whites and airy windows.
- If you are wanting to stay and play in the same place, the cabins at Nantahala Outdoor Center (13077 U.S. 19 West) are absolutely beautiful and can accommodate (nearly) every group size.
Do you have any favorite places to stay in Bryson City? Let us know in the comments section!
Annual Events in Bryson City
There are plenty of things to do in Bryson City throughout the year, but we think you should mark these down on your personal calendar:
- The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (45 Mitchell St) has incredible events throughout the year. Enjoy the fall leaves and hop on the PEANUTS™ Pumpkin Patch Express in October. From November through the first week of January, Bryson City comes alive with thousands of visitors for the Polar Express Experience.
- Darnell Farms (2300 Governors Island Rd) hosts a variety of events throughout the year, including Strawberry Jam in May. Fall events include Plow Day, the Harvest Festival, and their pumpkin patch.
- Freedom Fest is Bryson City’s Independence Day celebration on the 4th of July.
- NOCtoberfest at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in October is a wonderful Octoberfest celebration!
Holiday and Christmas Season Events
Beyond the Polar Express, Bryson City is still one of the most festive Christmas towns in North Carolina, and here are some of the biggest holiday events to look out for:
- Spirit of Christmas (November)
- Cookies and Hot Cocoa at the Visitor Center (November and December)
- Christmas Parade (The first Saturday in December)
Year-Round Things to Do in Bryson City
After years of visiting the area, these are our picks for the best Bryson City attractions.
- Downtown Bryson City
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
- Deep Creek Trail
- Oconaluftee Visitor Center
- Road to Nowhere
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- More Scenic Roads
- Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
- Nantahala Outdoor Center
- More Kid-Friendly Ziplining
- Fontana Lake
- Fontana Dam
- Lakeview at Fontana
- Coopers Creek Trout Farm
- Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
- Bryson City Restaurants
Downtown Bryson City
Downtown Bryson City is bisected by the Tuckaseegee River and Everett Street runs through the town’s center. One of our favorite things to do in Bryson City is to start downtown, do some shopping, and even grab a meal before plotting our next move.
- The Swain County Heritage Museum (2 Everett St): Also right in the middle of downtown Bryson City is the Swain County Heritage Museum. This historic 1907 courthouse is the site of the Bryson City Visitor Center, and a museum telling the story of the local community. Inside, you’ll find displays for a one-room school, a restored log cabin, an 1887 church organ, and memorabilia from the early settlers of Swain County. This is a must-see if you’re in Bryson City!
- Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians (210 Main St): Even if you’re not into fly fishing, you definitely need to visit the independently-owned Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians. This downtown museum details the history of fly fishing as well as the evolution of rods and reels, knots, and gear. There is something here for everyone to learn, even pros!
- Bryson City Outdoors (169 Main St) is a great spot to grab some gear, and their taproom has plenty of space for enjoying a pint of local beer.
- Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Museum (100 Greenlee St): Continue your train-loving experience at the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Museum (a.k.a. Smoky Mountains Trains Museum)! With a wonderfully curated collection of Lionel trains and interactive exhibits for children, this is a great family excursion. Admission is included with your Great Smoky Mountains Railroad ticket or individual tickets can be purchased.
- For more downtown fun, check out our “Restaurants” section.
Read More: The Best North Carolina Museums
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The next picks for our top things to do in Bryson City are within Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
The highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Clingmans Dome, also the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River after Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig in Yancey County (near Burnsville).
Its namesake observation tower on the North Carolina side of the Tennessee border is an incredible outdoor activity near Bryson City! From the tower, you can enjoy stunning expansive views of the mountain peaks and on clear days, to nearby towns.
Reaching this observation tower is a steep, paved half-mile walk. On clear days, you can see more than 100 miles, but the elevation results in unpredictable weather, so visiting in the early morning is advised.
Deep Creek Trail
Just three miles from downtown Bryson City is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance for the Deep Creek Trail. Along with the Nantahala Outdoor Center, this has to be one of the most popular outdoor things to do in Bryson City.
From this entrance, you can follow a 2.4-mile loop that leads to three spectacular waterfalls. Deep Creek Trail is a very easy hike and has plenty of spots for picnics, fishing, and even tubing!
If you have extra time, pop over to Indian Creek Falls just a few miles further on Deep Creek Trail!
Note: Dogs are not allowed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Read More: The Best Hiking Trails in North Carolina
Oconaluftee Visitor Center (Cataloochee Elk)
Address: 1194 Newfound Gap Rd, Cherokee, NC
At the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, you may want to keep your eyes peeled for some oversized visitors. The Oconaluftee Visitors Center is a well-known area for the elk who roam the Cataloochee Valley.
One of the northbound lanes into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is often blocked off to allow visitors to park and watch the elk safely from their cars, usually in the early morning or at dusk.
Note: It is NOT safe to approach the elk. While they are used to visitors, they are still wild animals and they can attack.
Read More: The Best NC Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes
The Road to Nowhere
Address: Lakeview Dr E, Bryson City, NC
The Road to Nowhere is a tourist destination with an intriguing past. In the 1930s, when the Federal Government built the dam to create Fontana Lake, the nearby communities, lying at what is now the bottom of the lake, were displaced.
The road that allowed these towns access to their family cemeteries went underwater, so the government promised they would build a new road to allow access to these gravesites. The construction of this new road was halted due to an unusual environmental issue.
Today, Lakeview Road ends at a quarter-mile tunnel now known as The Road to Nowhere. It’s one of the best free things to do in Bryson City NC! Visitors can walk through the dark tunnel or continue on to hike through several trails that start from the tunnel.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Many outdoor things to do in Bryson City can be accessed from North Carolina’s great scenic roads.
The Blue Ridge Parkway ends near Bryson City (Milepost 469, 30 minutes away), and you’ll see why you should spend some time near that road’s terminus.
- Waterrock Knob (MP 451.2, 45 minutes away): A wonderful stop for sunset along the Blue Ridge Parkway is Waterrock Knob. Even from the parking lot, this is a perfect spot for a picnic with panoramic views: However, the best views are from the 1.2-mile summit trail. Gaining 400-plus feet in elevation, the trail is strenuous but worth it.
- Richland Balsam Overlook (MP 431.4, 50 minutes away): This overlook is the highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway at 6,047 feet. From here, you can hike to the even higher summit of Richland Balsam (6,292 feet) via a moderate 1.5-mile loop.
- Devil’s Courthouse (MP 422.4, 1 hour 25 minutes away): The short and strenuous Devil’s Courthouse trail is at milepost 422.4. The trail is mostly-paved and takes you to an awesome rock overlook at 5,720 feet.
- Black Balsam Knob (MP 420.2, 1 hour 30 minutes away): Black Balsam Knob is one of our favorite kid-friendly hikes near Asheville. The fact that this 6,000-footer just off the Blue Ridge Parkway is an added bonus!
- Graveyard Fields (MP 418.8, 1 hour 30 minutes away): If you have to use the potty while on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields is one of the road’s few trailheads with a toilet. Beyond that reason to stop, the Graveyard Fields Loop Trail is an easy hike to a spectacular waterfall and a longer hike to another one.
More Scenic Roads
We already mentioned the Blue Ridge Parkway but that’s not the only scenic road in the Bryson City area. Here are some of the most beautiful road trips in North Carolina, beyond the more popular BRP:
- The easiest scenic road to access near Bryson City is US-74, known as the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway. The named portion of this road runs for 43 miles between Bryson City and I-40 (Exit 27). It connects you to the mountain towns of Sylva and Waynesville, and more.
- Instead of continuing west on US-74, you can split off to NC-28, which is known as the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway. Highlights of this road include Fontana Lake, Fontana Dam, Santeetlah Lake, and Santeetlah Dam. The Indian Lakes Byway eventually intersects with US-129, which is also the south end of the famed Tail of the Dragon. Historic Tapoco Lodge in Robbinsville is a great place to stay while exploring this part of the state.
- Continue west on US-74 through Nantahala National Forest and you’ll pass the Nantahala Outdoor Center as part of the Nantahala Byway. Follow that road through the Nantahala River Gorge until you reach Andrews in Cherokee County.
- Another great scenic road nearby is the Cherohala Skyway (NC-143), which is accessible via the town of Robbinsville in Graham County. This high, curvy road is shared by North Carolina and Tennessee and the 18 miles of it in our state is better, in our opinion.
During your drive toward The Road to Nowhere, you will pass Fontana Lake. There are 238 miles of shoreline at Fontana Lake, and much of it is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Address: 45 Mitchell St, Bryson City, NC
Whether you’re traveling as a family or without kiddos, riding the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is one of the best things to do in Bryson City!
Diesel and steam engines chug down this historic route with a variety of different cars for all audiences—including beer and whiskey tastings for adult-only cars.
There are 53 miles of railroad tracks that wind across bridges and through the beautiful North Carolina mountains. Expect your trip to take several hours. Round-trip excursions that range from 3.5 hours to a full day of fun.
Lakeview at Fontana
Address: 171 Lakeview Lodge Drive, Bryson City, NC
Lakeview at Fontana is a not-so-secret hidden gem. The resort sits atop a mountainside with stunning views of Fontana Lake and features two treetop soaking cabanas.
With a variety of packages and soaks, book your tub and relax soaking up the views and vibes!
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Address: 13077 U.S. 19 West, Bryson City, NC
Nantahala Outdoor Center (also known as NOC) is a 500-acre facility in the middle of the Nantahala Gorge. They offer rafting, kayaking, zip-lining, biking, and hiking!
In addition to these outdoor sports options, there are also two riverside restaurants and a gear shop.
NOC is a great place to get your adrenaline on, featuring eight miles of Class II rapids and the Class II Nantahala Falls. Paddling down the river is one of the most refreshing things to do in Bryson City!
As if the NOC couldn’t get any better, the kids have another fun attraction to enjoy—the riverside Treetop Adventure Nets! For ages three and up, this fun outdoor climbing structure was the first 100 percent net-based aerial playground in the United States.
It suspends 20 feet above the ground and offers hours of fun for kids while the parents enjoy a beer in front of the rapids.
Read More: Spring Break Destinations in North Carolina
More Kid-Friendly Ziplining
Wildwater Rafting and Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours (10320 US-19) offers a fun experience for both adults and children! The Nantahala Kid Zip is for children aged 4 to 12 and offers three courses for kids to choose from.
This is the only zip-line course in Nantahala for young children and definitely a fun experience! Children can do the course as many times as desired within a two-hour period.
Prices are reasonable and you can even bundle a zip and raft together for a full day of fun!
Fishing at Coopers Creek Trout Farm
Address: 3365 Coopers Creek Rd, Bryson City, NC
Looking to escape to babbling brooks and crystal clear creeks? Head to Coopers Creek Trout Farm to enjoy 70 acres of beautiful North Carolina mountains. Fish in the pond or hike to Little Creek Falls.
The Cooper Creek Trout Farm is a year-round outdoor activity for the whole family!
Fontana Dam, the highest east of the Rockies, is a major attraction, as you can walk or drive across it. This 480-foot tall dam, a crossing point along the Appalachian Trail, is equivalent to a 50-story building.
Read More: National Parks Sites in North Carolina
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Named for the poet Joyce Kilmer and located in Nantahala National Forest (just before the Cherohala Skyway’s start), the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a rare collection of old-growth trees unique to the Appalachian Mountains.
With trees that stretch over 100 feet tall and a circumference of 20 feet, the 3,800-acre property boasts 400-year-old poplar, hemlock, oak, beech, and sycamores. Hike the easy two-mile nature loop to see these magnificent trees!
Eat at These Bryson City Restaurants
Eating out is one of our favorite things to do in Bryson City. There’s a great selection downtown and around, and here are a few of our favorite restaurants.
- Cardinal Coffee (22 Needmore Rd): Along with some amazing coffee, start your day with a New York bagel or a smoothie!
- Mountain Perks (9 Depot St): Grab some yummy coffee (Peppermint Dream!) and even better food at Mountain Perks downtown.
- Everett Street Diner (126 Everett St): Enjoy a meal any time of the day at Everett Street Diner. Just don’t miss breakfast because this is where you might find the best biscuits in North Carolina.
- The Snak Shak (125 Everett St): This local restaurant serves amazing burgers, wings, sandwiches, homemade desserts, and more.
- Guayabitos Mexican Restaurant (236 Hwy 19 S): Dig into some delicious Mexican food from Guyabitos’ Bryson City location.
- Boxcar Cafe and Cones (26 Fry St): Ice cream after a meal at Boxcar Cafe and Cones sounds about right for an ideal day!
- Nantahala Outdoor Center (13077 U.S. 19 W): There are two dining options at NOC (River’s End Restaurant and Big Wesser).
Stay tuned for a deeper dive into the best restaurants in Bryson City. If you have an honorable mention to share, let us know in the comments or by email!
Drink at Bryson City Breweries
What better way is there to get to know the area than through a pint glass? With two local craft breweries, sipping hops and enjoying the mountains is our favorite way to travel.
Order a burger (or some barbecue) and a pint from Nantahala Brewing (234 Deep Creek Rd) or head to the rooftop beer garden overlooking downtown at Mountain Layers Brewing and enjoy the taste of local beer.
Read More: The Best North Carolina Breweries
The Best Things to Do in Bryson City (Our Top 5)
We made some tough decisions when picking our favorite things to do in Bryson City. Nevertheless, here’s what we think are the best of the best:
- Deep Creek Trail
- Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
- The Road to Nowhere
- Nantahala Outdoor Center
- Lakeview at Fontana
Ready for These Fun Things to Do in Bryson City?
We recommend staying for at least a weekend and making it an annual trip to Bryson City. Why? Because no matter what you decide to do, there’s always going to be more to explore here and elsewhere in those breathtaking Smoky Mountains nearby!
This is the perfect escape for couples, families, and outdoor lovers. Whether you are hitting the rapids in a raft, hopping on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, or just soaking up the views from Clingmans Dome, there are so many fun things to do in Bryson City.
Have you ever visited this awesome part of the state? What are your places to go in the area? If you haven’t been yet, we’d love to know what you’re doing first!
More Things to Do in Bryson City (NC Travel Guides)
We’ve created many more NC travel guides that cover these things to do in Bryson City. Here are a few of them.