Asheville, North Carolina, USA at twilight.

9 Smoky Mountains North Carolina Towns to Explore

While Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge get a lot of attention in the Smoky Mountains, numerous North Carolina towns are ready for exploration and adventure!

The state line between Tennessee and North Carolina splits the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in half, and staying on the North Carolina side of the park offers numerous benefits. Visitors will see less traffic, more scenery, the adjacent Nantahala National Forest, and a collection of small towns creating a patchwork of Appalachian charm.

Here are nine Smoky Mountain towns in North Carolina worth exploring…

Asheville, North Carolina, USA at twilight.
Asheville, North Carolina I Shutterstock


Asheville is North Carolina’s answer to Tennessee’s Knoxville as the anchor town of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s also the largest city on the Carolina side, yet it still embraces a small-town feel.

Visitors can explore the Biltmore Estate’s opulent grandeur, known as America’s Largest Home. From the extravagant interior to the impeccable garden, it’s breathtaking.

Asheville also brings an eclectic, artistic vibe to its culinary and bar scene. Downtown Asheville offers more than 50 breweries, weekly drum circles, and daylife or nightlife to fit your social goals.

Outdoor enthusiasts can hike to the summit of Mt. Pisgah for panoramic views, where you’ll ride the Blue Ridge Parkway for more Appalachian views.

Asheville can be a home base for a Smoky Mountain getaway or a stopover on the way.

Bryson City

When you visit the Smokies for scenery and adventures and not dinner shows and Parkway traffic, Bryson City is the epicenter.

Perfectly positioned between the national park and national forest, with the Tuckasegee River and Fontana Lake within rock-throwing distance, four seasons of outdoor activities unfold. Bryson City is famous for its easy access to Deep Creek Loop, with numerous waterfalls along the way.

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad starts its many journeys through the region from Bryson City.

You can also journey on one of the most haunted trails in the Smokies at Noland Creek, which is a former homestead where you pass dozens of cemeteries. If you’re not into ghost stories, the historic buildings and spring wildflowers, along with an easy hiking grade, will offer a great walk anyway.

Aerial View of Cherokee, North Carolina
Cherokee, North Carolina I Shutterstock


Cherokee is so much more than the “North Carolina Entrance” to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This town will touch your soul, intrigue your imagination, and help you re-learn some important American history lessons.

The town is on Indigenous land and a sovereign nation, where the Cherokee lived for thousands of years before settlers arrived. They were forced on the Trail of Tears to walk west of the Mississippi River. The descendants who live here now have turned the community into a 14,000-strong community.

Cherokee will become even more important as the National Park Service plans nationwide to tell a “more complete story of American history” involving the actions forced upon the tribes.

“There are parts of our history that are painful, but they do not define us. We define ourselves by the world we collectively build for current and future generations. It is up to all of us to tell our stories. And not just the stories of the bad times — but of those that we celebrate. Those that show our resilience, our strength and our contributions.”

– Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

In Cherokee, you immerse in the culture dating back 2,000+ years. Whether it’s learning about the Cherokee Nation at Oconaluftee Indian Village or chasing the legendary Cherkee giant Judaculla through the wilderness, no visit to the Smokies is complete with a stop in Cherokee.


Dillsboro is a time capsule of Americana, where unique shops from fudge factories to handmade crafts line the street. You’ll be amazed at how much is packed into just five square blocks. Those rocking chairs on the porch? They are for you.

The city of 212 people has been attracting tourists since the 1800s, as the 2,000-foot elevation was a little more tolerable in the sticky summers than the lower landscapes. It was the railroad that brought those tourists to town, and you can get here the same way on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Several trips stop for 90 minutes in Dillsboro.

You have immediate access to the Tukasegee River with enough whitewater to get your heart pumping but still tame enough for the whole family.

A slice of Hollywood history awaits less than a mile west of Dillsboro, where the famous train crash scene in The Fugitive that sent Tommy Lee Jones on a hunt for Harrison Ford was filmed. That was a real crash, and the remains are still here.

 Fontana Dam is a hydroelectric dam in Swain and Graham counties, North Carolina.
Fontana Dam I Shutterstock

Fontana Dam

Fontana Dam is both a literal dam and a village, centered around a concrete colossus, rising 480 feet above the Little Tennessee River. Completed in 1944, it was a crucial wartime effort, powering aluminum production for aircraft during World War II. Fontana Dam is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains.

But there’s also lesser-known history here as well. The creation of the dam and the resulting Fontana Lake flooded towns and marooned homes. Judson, an underwater ghost town, can be seen during the drawdown of water levels.

Residents were promised a road to help navigate to the places that survived the lake creation, but the popular Smoky Mountains hiking route on the Road to Nowhere shows that never came to pass.

Across the highway, Fontana Dam (also called Fontana Village) awaits with resort rooms, campgrounds, or cabins and a slew of restaurants. Marina access opens the lake to more adventures. The town was built for the workers building the dam, and now it’s a historic slice of Smokies history dating back to 1942.


Not to be confused with Franklin, Tennessee, this Franklin is deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains but connected to the Smokies by more than just roads. If the Cherokee story intrigues you, then you’ll be drawn here.

This sacred site was called Nikwasi, a Mother Land of the Cherokee, and the ceremonial mound is still prominent in the landscape.

Franklin also offers a starting point to chase legends of Judaculla, like the Devil’s Courthouse and Judaculla Rock, adorned with petroglyphs. Do you dare visit Judaculla’s home in the oil fields?

In addition, this small town has three museums and a surprising array of home cooking, BBQ, and savory steaks.

Drone Aerial of Lake Junaluska
Lake Junaluska I Shutterstock

Lake Junaluska

Lake Junaluska shimmers like a sapphire set in emerald with one of the most relaxing experiences in Appalachia. Founded in 1910 as a Methodist assembly ground, it still exudes “Christian hospitality” to anyone who wants to immerse in the serene setting.

Accommodations vary from a modern hotel to a historic inn to campgrounds surrounded by intentional serenity. By design, it’s great for weddings, conventions, family reunions, or other large group gatherings, but it’s just as beneficial for a couple’s or a girlfriend’s getaway.

The location is hard to beat, with easy access to Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville, the Smoky Mountains, and Nantahala National Forest. It’s also open year-round, offering different events and activities in each season.

Maggie Valley

The idyllic intrigue of Maggie Valley starts with a “cringe-worthy” dad story and a huge inconvenience. Maggie’s father wanted a post office in their remote mountain town, but it needed a name. He submitted several names, including his three daughters, and that’s how Maggie Valley, NC, came to pass.

While Maggie was mortified at this news, you have a bunch of reasons to visit. Maggie Valley is sort of the Pigeon Forge on the North Carolina side. You can’t be the close outdoor attractions, like the Cataloochee Ski Area and the elk viewing in the valley. Walk to wonderful waterfalls or join the dance party at Stompin’ Grounds.

In between, you’ll eat hearty home cooking and enjoy revving engines of modern and historic motorcycles in this biker town. Don’t miss the Soco Craft & Tower, where you get a view nine stories high of the Smokies – the best view this side of Clingman’s Dome!

Downtown Waynesville North Carolina NC Skyline.
Waynesville I Shutterstock


In between Asheville and Maggie Valley, the town of Waynesville offers a great compromise. You get lively downtown activities with breweries and more modern restaurants while still being close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Pisgah National Forest.

As the Gateway to the Smokies (on the North Carolina side), Waynesville wraps up everything great about the region into one easy place. You don’t have the traffic of Gatlinburg, but you also won’t feel like you’re trapped in a different century. History buffs will love the revitalization of the Frog Level Historic District.

We even have something for film fanatics near Waynesville. The namesake for the Cold Mountain best-selling book and Oscar-worthy movie is just 30 minutes away.

Get to Know Smoky Mountain Towns in North Carolina

One of the things that makes the Great Smoky Mountains so great is that an experience exists for every person, regardless of budget, fitness level, or vacation goals.

If you like the energy, shows, amusement parks, and thrill rides of the Tennessee side, there’s so much to enjoy. When you want to explore more and see a side of the Smokies not enough people experience, head to North Carolina.

These wonderful Smoky Mountain towns in North Carolina aren’t as far away as you might think. You can get from Gatlinburg to Cherokee within an hour along one of the most scenic roads through the heart of America’s favorite national park!

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