Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a wonderous place that’s perfect for having one-of-a-kind adventures. But across the national park from Gatlinburg awaits adventures on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.
The railway journey takes you through some of the most stunning landscapes on the North Carolina side – places you can’t easily reach by car. No other option in the Smokies allows you to see so much scenery up close with just a few hours of your time.
Embarking on a whistle-stop tour of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad starts in Bryson City, North Carolina. Chug alongside cascading rivers, cruise along deep gorges, and ride past charming mountain towns.
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad truly caters to every tourist budget and adventure level. There’s also a Hollywood movie set to check out along the way.
About the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
Until the late 1800s, Appalachia was cut off from the rest of the growing United States. People who lived off the land and made everything by hand were suddenly introduced to comfortable fabrics, lamps, and other items considered “luxury” to backwoods residents.
Building a railroad through the rugged Smokies was no easy feat as prisoners were tasked with laying rails and blasting through rocks to do it. The railroad saw success in the early 1900s, but the railroad wasn’t too safe.
Another rail boom came during World War II when the tracks were used to build the Fontana Dam in North Carolina. The dam played a crucial role in World War II by powering both aluminum production for aircraft and the top-secret Manhattan Project research on the atomic bomb.
As technology moved forward, more roads were built and automobiles became the main form of transportation. The railroad struggled to stay on track and stopped passenger rides in 1948 after 64 years of service. Freight traffic stopped in 1985.
North Carolina leaders purchased the land where the Murphy Branch of the Western Carolina Railroad rolled and, in 1988, the railroad was resurrected as a tourist attraction.
Even during its heyday, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was never as successful as it is today and it’s estimated that more than 200,000 passengers travel on it each year.
Getting to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Depot
All GSMR departures leave from Bryson City, North Carolina, which is located near the southern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee.
If you’re coming from Gatlinburg, you’ll drive along Newfound Gap Road for 47 miles. From Ashville, you’ll drive 65 miles. If you’re coming from Atlanta, that’s a 166-mile drive.
A special parking area for train guests is right behind the station. To arrive at the correct parking location, use 45 Mitchell Street, Bryson City, NC 28713, in your GPS.
What to Expect on a Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Ride
Depending on the time of year and the size of seasonal crowds, you’ll have different options to choose from – starting with the type of train.
Both the Nantahala Gorge and Tuckasegee River routes offer steam and diesel-powered engine rides. The steam engine has a rich history and is one of just two of its kind left in operation. The diesel train brings faster speeds and more power to the scenic journey.
Next, you can choose what type of seating you’d like. Each train offers coach, crown, and first class, with the option of an open-air gondola car. Ultimately, you’ll need to consider your preferences when it comes to the following:
- If you want climate control, some cars don’t have A/C in the summer (but do have ceiling fans).
- If you want a meal served in the car; also, what quality of meal you want (restaurant style or grab-and-go or none) matters.
- If you’re traveling with children, some cars are for only for adults 21 and older. Look for the Uncorked car on each ride if you like sampling wine or the Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience, which is a first-class-only experience.
- If you want the best views, you’ll have to pay for more than a coach class.
- All tickets come with restroom access, padded seats, and assigned seating. When you book the ticket, you’ll pick your seat.
You’ll also get free access to the Great Smoky Mountain Trains Museum with each ticket. It features a collection of more than 7,000 Lionel engines, cars, and accessories, a kid’s activity center, and more.
Every ride takes at least 3.5 hours, but full-day options are also available. Ticket prices increase in October when fall foliage is at its peak, but it’s well worth the extra few bucks.
Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Routes
The railroad goes full steam ahead when it comes to options for rides on the railway. You can even parlay a train ride with another activity, like rafting, with one ticket purchase.
There are many popular options offered during the year and the Tuckasegee River Excursion and the Nantahala Gorge Excursion are offered the most.
Tuckasegee River Excursion
The Tuckasegee (tuck-uh-SEE-jee) River Excursion covers 32 miles round-trip over four hours. One of the best parts of this adventure is the stop in Dillsboro, where you can shop and splurge on unique food options. You’ll get almost 90 minutes to explore this charming town.
Along the way, you’ll pass through the Cowee Tunnel, a passageway built by prisoners and the scene of the worst disaster on this line in history.
You’ll also pass the disaster scene of the Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones movie The Fugitive. The train crash was staged (but real), and if you’ve seen the movie, the landscape looks much the same today — with the prisoner bus still resting in pieces on the track.
TRAVEL TIP: You can see the train wreck from the road alongside the tracks, but only when the leaves are off the trees. Otherwise, it’s obscured from plain view unless you’re on the train ride.
Nantahala Gorge Excursion
This four-and-a-half-hour adventure starts in Bryson City and brings views of Fontana Lake before heading to the heart of the Nantahala National Forest. You’ll get a one-hour layover alongside the river (30 minutes in December) but surrounded by nature instead of the charming shops of Dillsboro.
If you’re looking for the exact location of the layover point, it’s at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, 13077 US-19, Bryson City, NC, 28713.
Special Events on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad loves a good holiday theme as much as any place in the Smokies.
Around Easter, look for the Bunny Hopper Express. This is usually a two-day event around Easter where the layover is focused on Easter activities for adults and kids. Buy tickets early, as these will sell out quickly.
Plus, are you really a train line if you don’t have your iteration of The Polar Express Train Ride? These specialty trips run from early November through the end of December.
Tickets are available as of the first of each for the NEXT holiday season. Even with three rides each night, these can sell out as well.
Dining on Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
First-class passengers are treated to a full meal with a staff member attending to all their needs throughout the meal. Limited bar service is also available.
Open-air gondola cars have meals for brunch or lunch that include a sandwich or comparable main dish with a side and dessert; think something like you’d buy at a deli.
If you’re in a coach or crown class, you can pre-order a boxed lunch with your ticket or choose to eat before the trip or in Dillsboro (if you’re taking the Tuckasegee River Excursion).
Picnic baskets and coolers aren’t allowed on the train, but you can always order food onboard if you choose.
Railroad Ride & Other Tour Combos
Outdoor lovers shouldn’t miss the chance to experience the best of the adventure companies and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. One ticket can get you two experiences, allowing riders to a full day of their journey.
When booking tour combos, please note you’ll need to take the Nantahala Gorge Excursion’s morning route.
This popular combo has been enthralling guests for almost 40 years. The train leaves Bryson City and arrives at the gorge. You’ll then take an eight-mile whitewater ride with an expert rafter onboard to help navigate.
Lunch and showers are provided before heading back to Bryson City. This adventure is available from April through October and must be booked by phone. That number is 1-800-872-4681.
This adventurous journey takes you from the rails to the trails, but don’t worry about long hikes. You’ll sit back and enjoy the ride deep into the woods on a Waterfall Jeep tour lasting two hours. Along the way, you’ll explore waterfalls, wildlife, and the famed Appalachian Trail.
A deli lunch comes with the ticket. Book by phone at 1-800-872-4681.
You could call this one the Ride & Ropes excursion. After taking the train through Nantahala Forest, you’ll arrive at Wildwater’s Nantahala Canopy Tours. More than a dozen ziplines await all experience levels along with eight sky bridges. You’ll see all the way to Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Note the age and weight restrictions before booking. Adults can weigh 250 pounds max, with children 10 years and older weighing 70 pounds or more.
How much are tickets for kids?
It helps to know what is considered a “kid” at every Smoky Mountain attraction. At the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, adult tickets are for any person 13 and older. Children aged 2-12 have a discounted ticket price. Some seating classes will charge for kids less than two years old, but others allow them to ride for free.
As noted above, first-class sections are only for those 21 and older. Also, check the Hot Deals section of the website or call 800-872-4681 to ask about specials for kids first.
What about severe or winter weather concerns?
This is an important note for anyone taking a Great Smoky Mountain Train excursion. Newfound Gap Road (U.S. Highway 441) through the Smokies closes for inclement weather often, especially in winter. That will not stop the train schedule, however.
You are responsible for getting to the train station on time. Choose alternate routes beforehand. Try to use I-40 as much as possible, even if it’s a longer route. At least it will be open.
Can I reserve a car for a private event or a large group?
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad loves to cater to large groups (20 or more) and will even give a discount. Call 1-800-872-4681, option 3 to learn more. You can also rent out a car for Private Caboose Parties.
Special discounts are available for military members, front-line workers, and North Carolina residents in Jackson, Swain, Graham, Haywood, and Macon Counties.
Book a Ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
A ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad can be an unforgettable experience, so make plans to book a trip soon. Book your train rides early, as they can sell out quickly. The ride is in so much demand that a new steam engine is expected to debut in 2026.
What is particularly nice about taking a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is that you get to see a whole new section of the Smokies, along with the potential to see the Blue Ridge Mountains and Balsam Mountains.
So book your trip, relax, and enjoy a memorable ride on the railroad. From scenic views to historic sites to quaint towns, these rides offer something for everyone.