There’s a good reason why the Smokies attract 10 million visitors a year, why 250,000 boaters paddle the Nantahala every season, and why Tsali is one of the most beloved mountain bike destinations in the country. Pardon my French, but these adventures are so overwhelmingly popular because they kick ass. And Bryson City is right there, in the heart of the action.
TOP 5 ADVENTURES
1) Get Wet.
Can 250,000 people a year be wrong? It’s no wonder the Nantahala River is one of the most popular whitewater rivers in the country. The ice-cold class II-III river travels through a lush gorge offering some of the most consistent whitewater around. The eight-mile run ends with the Falls, a class III+ slide/drop that always induces carnage right beneath an observation deck. Most boaters take out after the Falls, but check out the Wave beneath the bridge for some killer surfing. www.noc.com.
2) Get Away From it All. Compared to the Great Smokies, the Nantahala National Forest is deserted. Experience the best of this forest with a day hike up the last section of the Bartram Trail from the Nantahala Gorge to Cheoah Bald. It’s a 6.6-mile hike that climbs past a number of waterfalls before ending at the 5,062-foot bald with spectacular views of the entire 100+ mile Bartram Trail.
3) Pull an All-Nighter. The Deep Creek area of the Smokies is one of the most accessible in the park and therefore one of the most crowded, especially during the summer. But most day-hikers stick to the short nature trails near Deep Creek Campground. Get away from the crowds by doing an overnighter along the Noland Divide Trail which will eventually take you to Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies and the second highest in the Southeast.
4) Succumb to Peer Pressure. The Tsali Recreation Area is so popular, the forest system has to control traffic by closing certain trails to bikers on certain days. The system was recently honored by IMBA as an Epic Ride in large part due to scenery: the trails travel on the edge of Fontana Lake over blissfully rolling terrain. Try the Right Loop for an easier introduction to the sweetest trails in the south. www.mtbikewnc.com.
5) Exercise Your Right as a Boater. Unlike the Nanatahala, the Cheoah hardly saw any boaters over the last century. That’s because it was dry. That’s changed over the last year thanks to the efforts of American Whitewater, which negotiated a series of weekend releases on this gem of a river. The Cheoah has the most consistent grade of any river in this area, which means you get continuous class IV water along the 9.5-mile run. Check www.americanwhitewater.com for release dates.
You can get inexpensive lodging in town or at one of the Bed and Breakfast’s on the outskirts, but your best bed is to rough it. Get a spot along the river at Deep Creek Campground (828-488-6055) in the Smokies, just outside of town. For grub, you can’t beat the cheap slices at Anthony’s Italian Restaurant (828-488-8898) next to the train station. They also also have a great selection of local beers and a patio looking out on the town. For that shot of caffeine, hit Mountain Perks Espresso Bar (828-488-9561) and the family-run Soda Pops (828-488-5379) has the best homemade milkshakes around.
Deep Creek starts in the Smokies and runs through downtown Bryson City. There’s a decent slalom course set up on the edge of town, but the real joy of this creek is the tubing. Is lounging on an inner tube while the sun bakes down on your chest and the brisk water passes by a sport? No, but it should be. Do the one-mile section within the park and you’ll get a little bit of “whitewater” and the chance to spend the afternoon at one of the best swimming holes on the river.