Did you know that over half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies within North Carolina? Many are familiar with the Tennessee side of the national park and write it off as a tourist attraction, but there are plenty of hidden gems to explore on the North Carolina side. And, most of those areas fall within Swain County, making Bryson City the perfect destination for adventure in the park.
Bryson City is home to six access points to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s simple and easy for visitors to grab a cup of morning fuel at La Dolce Vita or Mountain Perks in the quaint, historic downtown and head off for a day of adventure in the park only a few miles up the road in most cases.
Here’s your guide to our favorite spots to access the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Bryson City, and all of the adventures that each location offers.
Deep Creek: The Perfect Park Adventure Only Minutes from Town
Want to spend less time in the car and more time getting into your favorite outdoor adventure? Deep Creek is the place for you! It is only a 2.5 mile drive outside of Downtown Bryson City, leaving you plenty of time for mountain biking, hiking, or horseback riding when you arrive.
Deep Creek might just offer more activities than any other area of the park, from tubing down pristine streams, to fly fishing near cascading waterfalls, or sleeping under the stars at the campground. The main highlight of Deep Creek are the three waterfalls that can be viewed easily with a short 2.4 mile round trip hike: Juney Whank, Thomas Branch, and Indian Creek Falls. You can also opt to hike the longer, 5 mile loop if you are craving even more National Park scenery.
Local Tip: Want to see waterfalls and expansive views on the same day? Take the 6.6 mile round trip hike to Lonesome Pine Overlook from the Deep Creek parking lot for some solitude in the Smokies.
Explore the “Broken Promise” of the Road to Nowhere
Still have a little time in your day after exploring Deep Creek? Grab your headlamp and take the scenic route up Lakeview Drive or “The Road to Nowhere”. This winding road provides beautiful glimpses of Fontana Lake below and ends at a mile-long abandoned tunnel, hence the nickname, “The Road to Nowhere – A Broken Promise”. The road is a popular scenic drive for vehicles, motorcycles, and bikes.
You can simply enjoy the drive up and walk the art and graffiti-filled tunnel, or wander one of the many hiking trails that branch out from the Road to Nowhere. The 33 mile point to point Lakeshore Trail, which originates by walking through the tunnel, is a journey that will take you deep into the National Park until it reaches Fontana Dam. It is a great choice for those who want a multi-day backpacking experience in the park or a long day hike. Looking to do some fly fishing? Head down the Noland Creek South Trail towards Fontana Lake for an easy 2 mile round trip hike that is a popular spot for casting a line.
Fontana Lake: 240 Miles of Secluded National Park and Forest Shoreline
Speaking of the Lake, it is one of our favorite spots for a unique spin on a Great Smoky Mountains National Park adventure. Fontana Lake is the largest lake in Western North Carolina and the only lakeshore within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, the lake divides the National Park and the Nantahala National Forest.
With incredibly diverse fish populations, Fontana Lake and its tributary rivers and streams are an angler’s paradise. You can also grab a kayak or SUP rental for a day of paddling or jump on a guided boat tour if you want a more leisurely lake experience. The nearby Tsali Recreation Area, nestled along the lakeshore, is rated one of the top 10 places to mountain bike in the USA! Make it an overnight adventure and camp and one of the National Park backcountry camping sites on the lakeshore.
Local Tip: Hazel Creek and Eagle Creek are the Smoky Mountains’ most storied trout streams and an opportunity to experience the land that time forgot. They can be accessed by boat from the lake or by hiking trails.
Oconaluftee: Elk Viewing at the North Carolina Gateway to the Park
One thing you won’t find on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the opportunity to view elk! About 20 minutes away from Bryson City, in neighboring Cherokee, NC, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum are home to trails and historic buildings along the Oconaluftee River. This is a premier spot to go for elk spotting as they are often found in the streams, fields, and along the trails of this area. Head out in the morning or evening for the best chance of spotting these majestic animals.
Other adventures in this area include horseback riding at the Smokemont Riding Stables, exploring park history at Mingus Mill, or setting up camp at Smokemont Campground.
Local Tip: Remember that even though you are at a Visitor Center, these are still wild animals. Keep a distance of at least 150 feet. Do not approach or corner the elk. Do not block traffic or pull onto residential property.
Clingmans Dome: The Highest Peak in the Park
Known by the native Cherokee as “Kowuhi”, Clingmans Dome is a “can’t miss” site if you want to head further into the Park from the Oconaluftee entrance. Roughly a one hour drive away from downtown Bryson City, this destination makes for a great day-trip that you can pair with a hike. If you are looking to reach the views from a more adventurous route, you can also reach Clingmans Dome by foot! Clingmans Dome is the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, so you can start at the Fontana Dam and take the 30 mile point to point hike along the AT until reaching your final destination.
Local Tip: Once you are finished with the 360 views at Clingmans Dome, drive a little further down 441 and you can straddle the Tennessee/North Carolina state lines at Newfound Gap and head out on the 8.1 mile round trip Charlies Bunion hike.
There’s so much to explore in the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so head to Bryson City to experience it all!