A Few Hours, Here and There, in Bryson City

Bryson City, North Carolina has gained worldwide attention, especially since the Smithsonian gassed it up as number 10 on the Top 20 “Best Small Towns to Visit” 2016 list.

One of my favourite mountain drives is going south through the Great Smoky Mountains, Newfound Gap, Oconaluftee, to Cherokee and into Bryson City. The round trip takes less than four hours from Knoxville and back, so you will have time to tour each location on a long day trip.

My song for this entry is the appropriately named “Bryson City” instrumental by The Flashbulb.

For my first visit to Bryson City, a friend who knows my love of small mountain towns offered to be my guide in her old stompin’ grounds. She showed me the trails in Newfound Gap and where it connects to the Appalachian Trail on the way.

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We share a love for local breweries and craft beer so, just like our trip to Waynesville, checking out the town’s breweries was paramount. On subsequent trip(s), my friends and I stopped in Bryson City to take in some local culture, shop, and relax by the water.

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This tiny town is surrounded by so many beautiful landmarks that I find myself wanting to return more and more. Just before Cherokee, you will come to the Southern Terminus (starting point) of the Blue Ridge Parkway that goes all the way to Waynesboro, Virginia.

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Bryson City has two breweries here, the Nantahala Brewing Company and Mountain Layers Brewing Company. Unlike Cornelius Suttree in Cormac McCarthy’s famous novel Suttree, we did not swear at the waitresses or get kicked out of any restaurants or bars for raising hell while in Bryson City. We sure did a lot of yelling through all those tunnels, though. 

Nantahala Brewing Company has been in place for over a decade now, first founded in 2009 and in distribution since 2010. Every beer in their microbrewery is made with water from a protected source in the Smokies. 

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They have a taproom, tasting events, live music, and the set-up is quite attractive and glossy. 

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We split a barbecue sandwich and sampled several brews before choosing a full pint. It was the high-gravity Devil’s Courthouse Belgian Strong for me. 

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Mountain Layers Brewing Company is a two-story bar with a cool rooftop deck. They opened their doors in 2017 and just like Nantahala Brewing, they use water from the Smokies to make each of the beers in their microbrewery. 

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An added bonus here is the deck overlooking the town and the Tuckaseegee River. 

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We shared a couple flights to try as many as possible. I loved The Helles You Say, a very light Bavarian style lager, the classic Oktoberfest, and the Czech-style Pettit Pilsner best. 

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They do not serve food but have rotating food trucks parked outside the beer garden in the back. We seriously lucked out with one that sells lobster rolls, hot damn. 

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Bryson City Outdoors is not a brewery but they serve beer by the pint or as a retail purchase.

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BCO also has anything you might need for the great outdoors, given that Bryson City is also known as Western North Carolina’s outdoor sports capital. 

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They have a large patio with bike parking, a variety of food trucks, and lots of happy people with happy dogs.

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On one particular day they were having a sale on all German / Belgian beers.  I absolutely hate IPAs and they always seem to dominate the market where I live, so I gladly took this opportunity to scoop up some new brands.

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You can purchase anything from shoes, clothing, bumper/gear stickers, sunglasses, accessories, body products, backpacks, and even rent kayaks here.

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Bryson City is a CDP (community-designated place) of Cherokee, North Carolina so the two communities share many of the same geographic features and attractions like tubing, rafting, fishing, kayaking, biking, camping, the Nantahala Gorge, Fontana Lake and Dam, and the Road/Tunnel to Nowhere.

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Kituwah is known as the Mother Town of the Cherokee, a village situated between the city of Cherokee and Bryson City. It is thought that Cherokee tribes inhabited this land between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, and the center of the village was where you see the mound. 

During Andrew Jackson’s cruel and horrific Indian Removal Act, nearly 20,000 Cherokee were rounded up and forced westward, or worse. Varying estimates say between 25-50% of them were killed or died because of what they endured. 

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Some survivors returned years later to their homeland, to what is now over 50,000 acres known as the Qualla Boundary. They first had to purchase this land that the government stole from them as part of a trust.

Kituwah was known to be the most sacred place of all Cherokee territory,  where religious ceremonies and rituals took place. Still, it was just outside the land trust territory, and it was not until 1996 that the Cherokee were able to regain ownership. 

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You can drive through this beautiful area right before entering Bryson City. 

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Downtown is centered around the intersection of Main Street and Everett Street, with the Tuckaseegee River flowing right through it.

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You can walk most of the town in just a few hours but keep an eye out for all the quirky statues, embellishments, and memorials. 

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A good place to start during your first visit is the Swain County Heritage Museum. 

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Ground level is a visitors center, gift/souvenir store, library of local authors, and the old one-room school house.

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I have tried twice to get upstairs, but it was closed off already. Arrive daily before 5 pm to see demos of mountain life and learn some more history of the town.

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Outside the museum there is a World War Memorial, and across the street you can visit the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians

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The Everett Boutique Hotel & Bistro, the town favourite for upscale comfort food and clever cocktails, is next door to the museum and there is plenty of free parking nearby.

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You would not guess it, but inside this old brick building is an almost medieval interior with heavy archways and iron candelabras. 

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Another surprise came by way of the delicious She Crab Soup, a well-done rarity outside of the Grand Strand. 

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Of all the decadent offerings, we really liked the bacon-wrapped and honey-drizzled dates. 

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One of the biggest draws to Bryson City is that it is a hub for the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, where you can book a sightseeing or dinner tour of western North Carolina. I long for when I can return and stay long enough to do this. 

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During the winter season they have a special Polar Express tour, and you can visit the Train Museum all year long.

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Just down the block from the Bryson City Depot, a bright red rail car doubles as the most popular photo op for selfies and group photos. 

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I’m not going to act like we just kept walking. 

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This spot is really cute and nostalgic, but I have always been drawn to trains and increasingly, bears. Bryson City is full of bears. 

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La Dolce Vita serves a decadent Horchata iced latte, and another one that tastes like banana bread. This place is no-frills and rather minimalistic aside from what is on the counter.

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The Chocolate Shoppe has every type of sugary confection you could dream of, and against our better judgment we went inside. 

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I was trying to practice discipline by selecting only two or three most irresistible pieces when my friend brazenly declared “YOU KNOW WHAT, I AM GOING TO TREAT MYSELF AND YOU SHOULD TOO!” Being susceptible to such inspired self-care, you can see where that took me:

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Both sides of these clean, pedestrian-friendly streets are lined with unique shops and cafes. 

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The Loose Moose is definitely a favourite, having a mix of home decor and garden trinkets. 

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There are some thrift, antique, and second-hand shops as well as your standard jams and jellies from local crafters. 

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Nantahala Outdoor Center, the USA’s largest national outdoor recreation company, rafting and kayaking, canoeing, paddlesports, fishing, hiking, biking, climbing,  wilderness medicine and river rescue, is located in Bryson City. 

I wish I could say that I have taken advantage of this cornucopia of outdoor activities that Bryson City is known to be, but that has not been my forte. For those of you who have, I would love to hear your stories and recommendations of where to take that first step!

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Fontana Lake and Fontana Dam is just a few miles away also. The dam was completed in 1944, and shortly after a new interstate was laid out. 

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Over 25 years later, after the project suffered a never-ending series of setbacks and problems, it was abandoned. Now it is known as “The Road to Nowhere” and serves as another tourist attraction.

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Leaving Bryson City makes me feel a little blue. Think carefully about which route you take back up north. Case in point, I ended up once again embarking on The Tail of the Dragon when in fact, the first time was one time too many. 

This famous 11-mile thrill route has over 300 hairpin curves, most of them so tight you can not see the car in front of you because it is already going the opposite direction.

It is a popular area for car clubs, race cars, sports cars, motorcyclists, and other wildly insane people that like to whip around blind curves in pitch darkness. #lookbothways #ilovebikers 

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That last time in particular was unnerving because the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort was having some kind of ear-bursting competition event and we kept having to pull off to let dozens of riders pass each time. 

I felt cool in my zippy new black car that I lovingly call Baphomet, but I was basically put in the corner over and over during the entire 11-mile stretch. 

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Definitely go that route if you are a skilled biker or if you want that kind of white-knuckled stress in your life. Otherwise, go home through Gatlinburg.

In the area for a while? Follow me to Cherokee or Waynesville, and don’t forget to subscribe!

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