The southeast quadrant of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is hot spot for some of the top summer experiences in the N.C. mountains. A nationally-known rail ride and some of the East’s best whitewater rafting is just the start. But before you get too far outdoors, check out vibrant, little downtown Bryson City ( www.greatsmokies.com) for dining spots and shops busy with small town commerce. Download the downtown walking tour ( http://bit.ly/1mZkjYv) and spend at least one afternoon or evening strolling the streets.
There are a lot of places in the N.C mountains to tube your way down a pristine stream, but the experience takes on iconic status when the stream is flowing out of the temperate rainforest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Follow the signs out of Bryson City to the Smokies’ Deep Creek area. There’s a national park picnic area and campground and plentiful places to rent your tube. From the campground, it’s an easy, family-friendly stroll into the park on the road-width Deep Creek Trail. Take your time, and at put-in spots 0.3-mile or almost a mile into the park, pop into gurgling, clean, green Deep Creek for the refreshing ride ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5o7cQ8Ukz4) back to the campground. You’ll bob past Tom Branch Falls on the way as it cascades down into the stream. Just want to watch? That’s OK too, on foot or by bike. This trail is one of only a few in the entire park that permits mountain biking. Camping is first-come, first-serve ( http://1.usa.gov/1iqcbMC). Camping or not, Deep Creek is best mid-week.
Mountain scenery only gets better from the window of a train. Bryson City’s downtown is the start of one of the East’s best scenic rail rides, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad ( www.gsmr.com).
Luckily, there’s a way to tackle the train to suit almost any interest – including those who just want to soak in the sights (and some local beer): The railroad’s two-hour evening BBQ & Brews rides start May 24 (and repeat June 28, July 12 and Aug. 30) and offer a light barbecue sandwich supper with desert and samplings of local suds.
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Or ride the rails and a raft ( http://bit.ly/1qgq5al) in conjunction with the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The railroad ride starts in downtown Bryson City and features lunch at NOC before a rousing raft ride back to town. Other packages pair rail and trail (four-wheel drive tours) and zip lines. There are first-class options too, including your own private caboose party spot for as low as $40 a head with a group of 15 ( http://bit.ly/1jqVmEF).
More than 40 years of water have flowed under rafts and boats piloted by the guides of the Nantahala Outdoor Center ( www.noc.com), one of the country’s top outdoor adventure destinations. The center’s Spring Fling (April 25-26; http://bit.ly/1mZEYfe) is a great way to start the paddling season with a look at the newest gear, free boat demos, and the best of spring’s lime green leaves popping out all over. Take the eight-mile rafting run through Nantahala Gorge ( http://bit.ly/1qgArqI). Or start from scratch and see why the sport of flat-water kayaking is the hottest ticket to family outdoor adventure. NOC’s guides lead the way on scenic Fontana Lake ( http://bit.ly/1gIsm6M), with views of wildlife, streams tumbling into the lake, and opportunities to splash and swim. Anyone can paddle a kayak – even young kids and the outdoor-phobic.
Serious mountain bikers know the Nantahala National Forest’s Tsali Recreation Area has a bona fide national reputation. Just 20 minutes from Bryson City, the U.S. Forest Service Tsali Campground (one of the few with hot showers!) is the start of a lively 40-mile trail system that wanders the coves and crosses peninsulas on the scenic shore of Fontana Lake.
Like some Piedmont mountain biking destinations, Tsali is (for the mountains) relatively low in elevation – so right now is the time to ride (h ttp://bit.ly/1g380cl). Best bet: Go midweek. The Twelve Hours of Tsali mountain bike race is May 17 ( http://bit.ly/1mZKjmK).
The Nantahala Outdoor Center’s newest wrinkle? Two diverse zip line adventures ( http://bit.ly/1mZKIp5) that offer a full day of zipping through the cool air of the Great Smokies. The NOC’s Wesser Zip Line Adventure Park whisks you on a 600-foot course through Nantahala Gorge, then challenges with a multi-level spider web of sky bridges and rope walks that’ll make you feel like Spider-Man. The three-hour, nearly two-mile Mountaintop Zip Line is the best of the mid-air backcountry experience. The half-mile Mega-Zip pairs high-above-the-trees soaring with forested canopy routes—all with great views of the Great Smokies towering overhead.