All Aboard: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) and you’ll experience sky-high gorges, valleys rich with colorful harvest, a 100-foot bridge that strings above shimmering Fontana Lake and scores of other natural spectacles.

Located in Bryson City, N.C., the GSMR is three hours from Charlotte but well worth the drive.
Our family’s mounting eagerness to visit the western end of the state, taking in Pisgah National Forest the first day and driving the 45 minutes beyond to the Great Smoky Mountains the next, was gratified in this picture-perfect weekend getaway. Bryson City’s crisp air and majestic peaks cloaked in vivid autumn color welcomed our early morning arrival at the train depot.

Soon, we boarded the vintage rail and found our reserved coach car seats, which boasted picture windows and climate control. However, with the mild temperatures and two rambunctious little boys, we quickly realized we were better suited for fresh-air seating, making our way to an empty bench in an open-air car farther back.

With the toot of the train whistle, we began the escalating chug that felt a little like a journey through time. Passing first through small farming communities and tracing the Tuckaseegee River at the foothills of the Smokies, we then crossed over the Fontana Lake Trestle, which offered spectacular views in every direction. Finally we reached the Nantahala River Gorge, which surrounded us with vivid green vines and then widened to reveal churning rapids with rafters and kayakers who juggled paddling and waving to us as we passed by.

Not surprisingly, our 2- and 4-year-old sons were even more taken with the train than the scenery, giggling every time the whistle blew and craning their heads to catch a glimpse of the big black engine ahead and the wheels running along the tracks. The snack car was also an alluring attraction, offering everything from sandwiches and drinks to candy and ice cream bars.

The Nantahala Gorge excursion was just over four hours with a midway stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where we enjoyed sandwiches at Slow Joe’s Riverside Café and perched ourselves on a bridge overlooking the adventurers below. Were our children a bit older (they recommend at least 7 years old) I would have seriously considered buying rafting/train combo tickets, which can be purchased through GSMR. The “Rapid Transit” excursion, operated by the Nantahala Outdoor Center and the “Raft n’ Rail” excursion, operated by Whitewater Ltd. are both family-friendly options and run from April through mid-November.

After arriving back in Bryson City, we stopped at the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, where visitors receive free admission with their rail tickets. We enjoyed walking through the vintage train layouts and elaborate display of more than 7,000 Lionel engines, cars and accessories lining the walls. My boys also loved the hands-on wooden train tables and the kid-friendly buttons that light up and operate different areas of the train layouts.

Besides the Nantahala Gorge, the GSMR hosts several special events each year. This month (October 10-26), PEANUTS™ The Great Pumpkin Patch Express will once again roll into town. As the Peanuts train travels to the “Great Pumpkin Patch,” chugging along for 45 minutes through a patchwork of fall color, riders will hear a reading of Charles M. Schulz’s classic story, “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Upon arrival, children can meet Snoopy, Charlie Brown and Lucy, enjoy hayrides, bobbing for apples, campfire marshmallows, apple cider, temporary tattoos, a petting zoo, bouncy train, hay bale maze, coloring station and gift shop.

Encouraged to wear their Halloween costumes, kids will be given a special bag to fill with candy from “Trick-or-Treat Street,” lined with “houses” complete with working doorbells. Children also select their own small pumpkin from the patch to take home.

Whether you choose an expedition celebrating holidays or just the beauty of nature, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is an adventure the whole family can get on board with!

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

PEANUTS™ The Great Pumpkin Patch Express
$53/adult, $31/child (ages 2-12)
Departing from Bryson City Depot: Oct. 10-12, 17-19 and 24-26. Friday departure time at 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday departures at 1 and 5 p.m.

Heather Hayes is a freelance writer and mother in Charlotte.