Take a Ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Fall is the best time for a ride, when the leaves are at their autumnal peak.
Every week, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad fires up its restored engines to carry visitors down two scenic stretches of track — through the leafy Nantahala Gorge or along the Tuckasegee River — and back to the depot in Bryson City. Although trains run year round, perhaps the best time for a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is in mid-fall, when the leaves are at their autumnal peak.
Ride the Rails
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad riders have two options: the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, a 4.5-hour trip along the Nantahala River, with a pit stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center; or the Tuckasegee River Excursion, a 4-hour ride through the countryside with a stop in historic Dillsboro. Trains leave from Bryson City, located about 65 miles west of Asheville. During peak leaf-peeping season, and for the railroad’s special events, it’s best to book your tickets in advance, as seats frequently sell out.
Enjoy the Layovers
The Nantahala excursion stops at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where two riverside restaurants serve up standard fare like barbecue and burgers. There’s not much time for exploring during your break, but there is time to sit by the water and watch rafters and kayakers go by, or stay on the train and watch as the engine is pulled to the other end of the train for the return trip. If you hustle (and plan ahead), you could take a turn on the high ropes course or fly down the zip line. (Note: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad does offer a package that includes a train ride to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a whitewater rafting trip, and a return ride to Bryson City.)
There are many lunch options in historic Dillsboro, where the train stops during the Tuckasegee excursion. Don’t miss Haywood Smokehouse, where brisket and pork butt is smoked in hickory-fired pits and arrives sans sauce. Shoppers will appreciate the town’s local artisans, who make everything from pottery and quilts to glassworks and jewelry featuring locally sourced gemstones.
Explore Bryson City
Bryson City is a quaint town surrounded by mountains, and it’s worth exploring before or after your train ride. Parents seeking a caffeine fix can order coffee or an espresso at Cork and Bean, a bistro inside a former bank that also offers wine, North Carolina beers, and a broad selection of crepes.
Directly across from the Depot sits Nantahala Brewing, which has lots of space and lawn games for the kiddos, frequent live music, and a selection of award-winning beers. The brewery doesn’t serve food but lets you bring whatever you’d like — or you can BYOB (bring your own burgers, that is) and grill out on the deck.
Check out several shops offering local crafts, antiques and gifts for sale, including the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad museum and gift shop, which includes a full-service coffee bar and house-made fudge.
Aleigh Acerni is a Charlotte-based freelance writer who enjoys riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad with her toddler daughter.
The Polar Express
Each holiday season, The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers The Polar Express. The excursion includes a 1-hour-and-15-minute ride to the North Pole on a festively decorated train.
Sip hot cocoa and enjoy a sweet treat while you ride and listen to the magical story. Santa Claus waits at the end of the line to greet each child and give him or her a silver sleigh bell.
On the return trip to the Bryson City Depot, sing along to Christmas carols. The 2015 Polar Express rides run Nov. 13-Jan. 3. Tickets start at $28 and frequently sell out, so don’t wait to plan your trip!