All aboard! The Polar Express has arrived in Bryson City and is ready to take you on a magical journey to the North Pole.
We found ourselves in this small mountain town in the North Carolina mountains to experience the magical Polar Express train ride, which is based on the popular book and movie of the same name.
We visited in partnership with Explore Bryson City and used it as an opportunity to explore this outdoor adventure town and experience some of the fun things to do in Bryson City, NC.
Since relocating back to the US in 2017, we’ve spent every Holiday season experiencing special Christmas events. It’s a wonderful way to create memories as a family, which lasts way longer than shiny, wrapped presents.
We always say make your travels an experience, especially during the Holiday Season. When you visit Bryson City, be sure to get your family photo in front of the Caboose in downtown.
We were fortunate to arrive on opening night of the Polar Express (early November), which meant we were just in time to catch the last of the Fall colors. It was past peak time, but still spectacular on the lower levels of the mountains.
Fall colors, Christmas lights, and Santa, can you get a better family vacation?
Where is Bryson City?
Bryson City is tucked into the North Carolina mountains and sits on the southern doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It’s known as the Quiet Side to the Smokies. In case you didn’t know, the Great Smoky Mountains national park is the most visited in the USA. I’ll take this quiet side any time of the year!
If you’ve ever visited this ancient, forested USA treasure, you’ll understand why. The Smokies is one of my favorite areas in the country, and I always feel a sense of calm and connectedness whenever I wander any one of the nine hundred miles of trails it offers.
Bryson City is an easy road trip destination in Western North Carolina as it’s just over an hour to Asheville; three hours from Charlotte, Atlanta, and Chattanooga; and five hours from Raleigh.
Two Day/ Three Night Itinerary Guide
Down below are the things to do in Bryson City in the Fall and holiday season.
We’ve organized these Bryson City things to do tips into a three night, two-day itinerary.
Adapt it to fit your circumstances considering your accommodation location, travel style, and budgetary needs. This itinerary incorporates top Bryson City attractions, and can suit almost any season (except the Polar Express and Fall colors).
Where to Stay in Bryson City?
Looking for a peaceful mountain retreat for your Bryson City vacation?
We stayed in a cozy mountain cabin with spectacular views about 30-minutes south of Bryson City. We loved the open plan and loft bedroom for the girls. It was well stocked with videos, games, and kitchen appliances and cookware. Plus, there was a fireplace, huge deck and fire pit area.
It’s the perfect accommodation if you plan to stay for several days with some downtime to enjoy the cabin!
Because we were so busy exploring the Bryson City region, we didn’t get much of a chance to experience the cabin. We made sure to leave time on our departure morning for soaking up the views and playing games of checkers with the girls over coffee.
The extra 30-minute mountain drive is a little challenging if you have a busy schedule. If that is you, Bryson City vacation rentals closer to downtown might be a better option. (see available options here or here.)
Or, Savannah and I stayed at the new Stonebrook Lodge in downtown Bryson City when we passed through here for a night on our Chattanooga Road trip. It’s a great accommodation option
Bryson City: Arrival into a Magical Christmas Town
We left Raleigh straight after the school bell on Thursday afternoon, which meant we arrived in Bryson City around 8pm.
Driving into Bryson City during the holiday season at night was a magical surprise. The town is all lit up in the Christmas Spirit. They decorate all the buildings with light displays to create a magical Christmas Mountain town to match the Polar Express experience.
First Stop Dinner: Anthony’s Restaurant
One of the popular Bryson City restaurants is Anthony’s Restaurant. This family-friendly restaurant dishes up American and Italian favorites such as burgers, pizzas, and wings. You’ll find delicious food at an affordable price with excellent service.
We arrived right on closing, and they were gracious enough to stay open and feed our empty bellies. We are so grateful for the friendly and accommodating staff. They have a lovely terrace you can sit on to watch the trains depart the station and enjoy the festive lights.
Day 1: Deep Creek, Bryson City, & Polar Express
Catch a glimpse of the sunrise waking up the mountain from your cabin deck before driving into Bryson City. Today is a nice mix of nature, town explorations, and fun attractions.
7:30am: Deep Creek Guided Hike with Carolina Bound Adventures
If you are looking for hiking near Bryson City, don’t miss an early morning hike in the Deep Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As we are experienced hikers, guided hikes are not something we typically consider, but we really enjoyed our 4-mile loop Deep Creek hike with Mark, owner of Carolina Bound Adventures.
It helped us connect more deeply to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the planet, as he shared with us so much about the flora, fauna, and history of the Great Smokies.
If we were on our own, it would have just been a beautiful hike through the forest. With Mark, he stopped to show us unique geographical features, where pioneers would have once had their homesteads and where loggers once dragged out their giant trees.
We explored the different leaves that drop from any of the 150 species of trees in the park, and learned different kinds of ferns and about the 31 species of salamander that live here (more than anywhere else in the world!)
Mark took us on a loop walk that went past three waterfalls: Juney Whank Falls, Indian Creek Falls, and Tom Branch Falls. The trail was resplendent with vibrant Autumn colors.
The best time to go on this guided hike (or any hikes) is 7:30am. Yes of course it’s worth it! The air will be fresh and crisp, the light soft, and you’ll almost have this trail to yourself.
Mark was a friendly, knowledgeable guide with a calm and centered presence. I loved his passion for the national park and outdoor adventures. He picks up and takes out any trash he finds on all his tours. This stewardship for the land gets our Triple A rating.
This tour was so great that three days later, Savannah is still asking us to quiz her on everything she learned about the park. She remembers it all – and we learned a lot of facts! This warms my heart soooo much!
Deep Creek is only five minutes from downtown Bryson City and is popular for fly fishing for native trout and, in the summer, for creek tubing!
Carolina Bound Adventures also offers guided tours for mountain biking, kayaking, paddle boarding and popular waterfalls and breweries tours!
It really downgrades a national park experience when you share it with crowds of people. So make sure you catch the worm!
Brunch: Elmer St Diner / Bagels @ Mountain Perks
You’ll be hungry after your walk, so head to downtown Bryson City for brunch. If you arrive back in town before 11am, head to locals favorite, Everett St Diner for a breakfast spread with Southern soul.
We could never time it right and so missed brunch every day of our Bryson City trip. Be sure to leave a comment with your favorite dish if you eat there.
A very good alternative for lighter fare is Mountain Perks Espresso Bar and Cafe, known for their New York Style bagels, croissant sandwiches, waffles for the kids, and friendly service. The BLT croissant sandwich is a crowd pleaser. Happy Days for me as they have gluten free bagels.
Note. On Sundays you may have a wait time as they are the only coffee shop open in town. We grabbed breakfast bagels for our return trip home on Sunday and had a 75-minute wait.
Explore Downtown Bryson City
Downtown Bryson City is small town America with a spirit of adventure and connection to friendly locals.
Intersecting the town, is Everett St and Main St and where you’ll find local bookstores, museums, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, an aquarium, galleries, restaurants, boutique stores and breweries.
A few of our favorites:
Bryson City Visitor Center
Housed in the historic courthouse, the visitor center is a great first stop for local information. Upstairs you’ll find the free Swain County Heritage Museum, which is worth visiting to learn more about the history of this region.
One Twenty Main
I loved this store located in a historic, renovated storefront. You’ll find gorgeous artwork from local artist, Ashley Hackshaw (I’ll have one of everything) plus a selection of home décor, journals, and art supplies.
The Chocolate Shoppe
A thing to do in Bryson City for families for sure! I was so happy to see sugar free coconut dark chocolate that had minimal nasty ingredients – and they were delicious! They also serve ice cream, which the girls returned the next day to enjoy!
Bryson City Outdoors
Bryson City Outdoors is the modern, rugged infusion into an ambling old pace world of Bryson City.
The multi-use space consists of a store filled with outdoor gear to prepare you for awesome adventures in the area, a gorgeous outside seating area with firepits, and a rotating selection of 12 draft beers/ciders and 250+ beers/ciders and wine in their rustic looking bottle shop area.
AND, they have gluten free beer that tastes good!!
Bryson City Outdoors was our favorite spot to plonk down after a day of exploring. We visited on both days and could have stayed longer.
They also have rotating food trucks parked out front.
Early Dinner: Nantahala Brewing Company
As it’s Polar Express season, the restaurants will be busy. Hot Tip: Reserve in advance if you can!
The Bistro at the Everett Hotel is a top place to eat in Bryson City. We could not get reservations and so we went for the more casual Nantahala Brewing.
As it was away from the main street, it wasn’t as busy, and service was fast.
This family-friendly brewery has a large outdoor beer garden with a grassed area for the kids to play, plenty of seating, and cozy brick fire pits. They even had live music when we visited. I loved the casual ambiance and our chicken wings and pulled pork meals were great!
From there, it was a short walk to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot for our magical Christmas experience.
The Polar Express
Are you ready for the most popular Bryson City attraction in November and December that 90,000 people visit for each season?
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) historic train depot is in the heart of Bryson City and a favorite attraction all year round.
Each Holiday Season they transform the train into a magical Polar Express Journey to the North Pole to meet Santa. The 1¼ hour round-trip passenger excursion helps you relive the magic of this classic Christmas story.
Expect high energy from your singing and dancing attendees, a cup of hot chocolate (delivered upon song), a snickerdoodle cookie, a magical light display and dancing elves outside the train windows, and a visit from Santa with his gift of ringing bells.
You just have to believe!
If you really want to enhance the Polar Express experience, come dressed in matching pajama outfits. We were wondering why we were seeing groups of people walking around town wearing them, until we arrived for boarding and saw EVERYONE doing the same.
This is a fantastic Bryson City attraction for families with younger kids. It’s a fantastic way to get them into the spirit and believing in the magic of Christmas.
There are train rides year round on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
If the kids aren’t too tired, spend time walking past the stores in Downtown. They decorate them in beautiful light displays to create a more magical town for the Polar Express Experience.
Smoky Mountains Train Museum
Train lovers will also want to stop in at the museum. Admission is included as part of your Polar Express ticket. Leave time before your departure or come back the next day as we did. (keep your tickets).
The museum houses the largest collection of Lionel trains with over 7,000 pieces of locomotives, rolling stock, trackside details and accessories. Some pieces date back to 1918 and are displayed in enclosed floor to ceiling wall length cases.
Kids will love the two large interactive set ups and intricate displays. There’s even a Christmas train with Santa waving on the back.
Uncle Bunky’s Christmas Cottage
Leave time before departure to get your photo taken by the lighted Christmas tree and shop in at the Christmas cottage for a wide variety of Christmas items including ornaments, glassware, home décor, and stuffed animals.
We picked up a Bryson City Christmas ornament for our tree. With each of the Christmas experiences we have on our travels, we collect an ornament to remind us of the stores we have made together.
You can visit here at any time during the day as well.
Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains NP & Nantahala National Forest
Lots of beautiful viewpoints coming up today with a lovely lunch by the river.
7am: Breakfast at La Dolce Vita Bakery
Pick up your bagel breakfast to go early (again) this morning. The La Dolce Vita Bakery creates delicious bagels and biscuits. (They have gluten free bagels).
My pick is the Spicy Southerner: Fried over-easy egg, pimento cheese, bacon, arugula, tomatoes, pickled red onions, and sriracha.
You may want to phone ahead and order your breakfast so you can get to the elk viewing on time.
7:30: Elk Viewing at Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center
You want to get to the elk viewing no later than 7:30 (try earlier if you can. Depends on what you do for breakfast). It is a 30-minute drive from Bryson City.
The elk come out to the fields near the Oconaluftee visitor center at dawn (and then at dusk) and tend to stay out for 60-90 minutes, before retreating into the shadowy forest.
Fall is the season of The Rut, when males preen their horns and start fighting each other for herd dominance, shouting their bugle calls along the way. It is meant to be a Smoky Mountain sight to remember.
Sadly, we had navigation issues and arrived later than we hoped. We only got to see a small herd of happily munching elk and cows on the side of the road and a solo elk in the fields.
Hike the Oconaluftee River Trail
While in the area, take the 1.5-mile riverside trail which follows the Oconaluftee River from the visitor center’s Mountain Farm Museum to the border of the National Park with Cherokee.
You may see elk wading in the river or on the banks so walk carefully and do not go close to the elk. They have been known to charge people.
We were able to see the elk we saw grazing in the fields from behind on the trail and got a much better look at his majestic antlers.
9am: Top of the Smokies Views at Clingmans Dome
A local tip from Mark was to get to Clingmans Dome before 9:30am or you’ll hit traffic jams in the park. (30-minutes from the visitor center or 60-minutes from Bryson City).
Clingmans Dome is one of the most popular attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
At 6,643ft it’s the highest point of the Smokies and, if the clouds have evaporated, you will get spectacular 360 views of the park. And when it’s real windy, just wait 30 seconds and the view can change quickly.
Dress warmly. As you can see from our photos, snow was dusting the tops of the pines when we visited, and the wind was blustering! We had to move fast between rapidly moving clouds to capture the views when it opened for a second or two.
The half mile trail leads to the observation tower. Enjoy the views on the walk up and down as well.
Straddle the State Line Newfound Gap
At the bottom of the road up to Clingmans Dome, you’ll find Newfound Gap, a worthy stop on your Smoky Mountains adventures.
At 5,046 ft high, Newfound Gap also offers stunning panoramic vistas and is where the state border runs between Tennessee and North Carolina.
Enjoy the views, straddle the state line, and take a few strides along the Appalachian Trail that runs through here.
The 2,147-mile Appalachian Trail runs for 71 miles through the Smoky Mountains. Some say it’s the best section of the A.T.
If you have not been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before, you may want to drive over into the Tennessee side to experience some of the short hikes in the Sugarloaf area.
As this is our third visit to the park, we pointed our car back to Bryson City, enjoying a few pull out scenic viewpoints on the way back down to our lunch spot.
Nantahala Outdoor Center and the River End Restaurant
The Nantahala Forest is an outdoor adventure playground.
You’ll find hiking, biking, zip lining, fishing, and white-water rafting. The Nantahala River is one of the most popular whitewater rafting rivers in the Southeast.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center is one of the USA’s largest outdoor recreation companies, and in this original location, they have 500-acres of family-friendly outdoor adventure activities; from whitewater rafting, zip-lining, and mountain biking.
Tours don’t run during the Holiday Season. Craig and I did the whitewater rafting tour years ago and had a blast.
Even though the attractions aren’t open during the holiday season, you can still visit the NOC located on the edge of the Nantahala River in the Nantahala Gorge!
Their River’s End Restaurant is outstanding and worth coming to just for lunch. Order a hot bailey’s coffee, a locally caught almond crusted trout, and enjoy the flavors and beautiful views.
After lunch, we walked around the center and watched the kayakers navigate the wild river course.
I was thrilled to see two of the kayakers, Sam Sharp and Evy Leibfarth, are both USA national slalom kayak champions. Evy participated in the Olympics! (I Googled their names on their kayak after I saw the USA sticker on their kayak).
Drive the Road To Nowhere
The scenic Road to Nowhere (or Lakeview Drive), has beautiful views of Fontana Lake on its six-mile journey through the Great Smoky Mountains to its finish at the mouth of a tunnel.
The Road to Nowhere is so called because of the Government’s broken promise to provide a 30-mile road along the north shore of Fontana Lake from Bryson City to Fontana Dam, which would provide access to the old family cemeteries of the displaced in order to build the dam. An environmental issue ended construction of the road six miles in.
You can walk through the graffiti-decorated tunnel or enjoy any of the three hiking trails from the Road to Nowhere: The Noland Creek Trail (miles round trip), the 3-mile Goldmine Loop Trail and the 42- mile Lakeshore Trail.
We ended up with free time in the afternoon, so in hindsight, I would have pushed our lunch back, and stopped in at Cherokee on the way back from Clingmans Dome to experience the Oconaluftee Indian Village and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.
As we had driven so much this day, after our lunch, and the Road to Nowhere, we went back to Bryson City to relax instead of driving out to Cherokee again and then having to drive back to the cabin after dinner.
Factor in your driving times, especially if traveling with kids, as it can get tiring with those winding mountain roads.
Dinner: Mountain Layers Brewing and The Rice Wagon
Several locals recommended the Rice Wagon food truck as the best food in Bryson City. One beaming patron told me he ate here 3-4 nights a week.
The Rice Wagon is permanently located at Mountain Layers Brewing Company – a downtown Bryson City brewery on the Tuckasegee River.
We ate here on our last night as they had a live bluegrass band playing (Fridays and Saturdays). The food was delicious and the music was great!
I recommend the Yellowfin Ahi tuna served with furikake rice and tropical Asian slaw. Craig devoured his Hula Burger topped with tropical Asian slaw and cilantro lime crema.
We recommend coming to the Mountain Layers Brewery at any time of the day. The views are wonderful from their rooftop bar, and you’ll find a variety of local brews, and gluten free options like cider and delicious wine slushies.
We look forward to return visits to Bryson City NC to experience more activities and events in the different seasons. High on our list is to explore nearby Cherokee, do all the outdoor activities at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and of course explore more of the Smoky Mountains National Park!
If you have any questions on what to do in Bryson City, or your own suggestions for our next trip, leave us a comment below!