The biggest batch of mountains in the South, 800 square miles of the Great Smokies, hulk above Bryson City, and the rippled realm of the Nantahala National Forest lies to the south. That wealth of vast watersheds offers some of the South’s best whitewater adventure, a fact that’s seen the Nantahala Outdoor Center ( www.noc.com) grow from river-rat outpost in 1972 to one of America’s biggest adventure outfitters. If you can take your eyes off the Class I, II and final Class III rapids of Nantahala Falls, the 8-mile run on the Nantahala River ( http://bit.ly/1w0Yaxs) is one of the best introductory rafting rides in the East.
You can also decrease the challenge and easy-paddle kayaks along the placid, colorful shores of Fontana Lake. Standup paddleboards are another flat-water option.
Nantahala Outdoor Center’s offerings have morphed to outdoor circus status (in a good way), all of it delivered by seasoned professional guides. NOC has embraced zipline adventures ( http://bit.ly/1lELX12) – an exciting aerial pursuit that’s perfect for autumn color season. More sedate experiences at the outfitter’s Zipline Adventure Park are based at NOC’s riverside location, but the true foliage fan will opt for the 2-mile Mountain Top Zipline Tour, a ridge-to-ridge, half-mile soar called the Mega-Zip, all of it 500 feet above the Nantahala River Gorge with the scintillating reds and yellows topping the skyline.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad ( www.gsmr.com) is one of the East’s best scenic rail rides (says CNN), and tracks its way west from Bryson City along the Tuckasegee River or Nantahala River on a variety of trips, each with a number of food, drink and theme options. The Nantahala Gorge Excursion ( http://bit.ly/1qVbiji) cuts through a colorful mountain corridor, then follows the shore of sparkling Fontana Lake to explore Nantahala Gorge. The ride features a layover at the NOC before the ride back to Bryson City. Best option: Enjoy the fall color on the train, then grab a paddle or raft your way back downstream.
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Autumn gets the railroad’s nod throughout October as the 44-mile Nantahala Gorge Excursion and the 32-mile Tuckasegee River Excursion pull out at various times throughout the day. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October, kids will love the Peanuts Pumpkin Patch Express ( http://bit.ly/1s7BzyR). You’ll hear Charles Schulz’s “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” story on the train, then spend a few hours in the pumpkin patch for hayrides, music, campfire treats and more. Nov. 7-Jan. 4, 2015, the train turns into “The Polar Express” ( http://bit.ly/1eiQC4B). Randy Johnson