Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans more than half a million acres, and half of those acres are in North Carolina. While Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on the Tennessee side get a lot of attention, there’s a chain of small towns on the North Carolina side that are worth exploring.
The Smoky Mountains North Carolina side comes with the bonus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Nantahala National Forest, not to mention less traffic than its Tennessee counterpart. And, budget travelers will find that the tourism dollar stretches a little bit farther here, and it has a more “down home Appalachia” vibe than the glitzy showcase of the Parkway.
Plus, North Carolina offers incredible outdoor attractions, including hundreds of waterfalls, several rivers for whitewater rafting, and Fontana Lake. Make no mistake about it — the Carolina side of the Smokies is about solitude, wilderness, and nature. The intensity level is up to you, as activities are there for all skill and fitness levels.
About the North Carolina Side of the Smokies
From Fontana Dam in the west to Asheville in the east, the small towns connected by Highway 19 span 95 miles. Long before there was a national park, settlers, trains, or even roads, the Cherokee lived off this land for thousands of years.
18th & 19th Centuries
European settlers began arriving in the late 18th century. Small towns grew around key industries like logging and agriculture. In the 1830s, the Cherokee were forced off their land to Oklahoma, known as the Trail of Tears. In 1888, the Eastern Band gained federal recognition as a distinct tribe, and the establishment of the Qualla Boundary reunited them with their homeland.
The arrival of the railroad in the late 19th Century significantly impacted the region. Small towns became big stops for vital supplies while also introducing luxuries to those who lived in the mountains.
Early 20th Century
As the region boomed, the effort to conserve land kicked off and echoed all the way to Washington, D.C. In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt stood at the state line at Newfound Gap and dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It became an instant hit, drawing in more than 1 million visitors in 1941.
The construction of the Fontana Dam in 1942 by the Tennessee Valley Authority reshaped the landscape, flooding some towns and carving out the majestic Fontana Lake. Hydroelectricity flowed, powering World War II aluminum production and kickstarting an industrial era.
Late 20th Century & Beyond
By 1962, Great Smoky Mountains National Park surpassed 5 million visitors. And, 1987 saw the first 10 million visitors in a year. So, all those people needed somewhere to sleep, eat, and play when they weren’t in the park.
With the Tennessee side in the foothills, with flatter land more adaptable to development, the mega-destinations of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg grew quickly. That side of the Smokies also had roads and railroads before the North Carolina side. The Volunteer State was more accommodating to tourists and more helpful when it came to acquiring land for the park as well.
North Carolina did and still does get more protective of the wilderness and natural surroundings, while the Qually Boundary adds a layer of negotiation between the government and a sovereign nation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
As Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now the most visited park in the entire National Park Service system, you’ll still find two distinct personalities on both sides of the Smokies. Anywhere from 11 to 13 million people visit the park, noted for its stunning fall foliage.
Cherokee still stands at the main entrance on the southern end of the park, connected to Gatlinburg by the 35-minute scenic Newfound Gap Road — also known as the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway.
Cities & Towns on the North Carolina Side of the Smokies
While the hills of the mountains are sprinkled with small towns and cabin communities, a handful of North Carolina cities are benchmarks of tourism and history along the way.
The city of Cherokee is on Qualla Boundary land, which is a land trust between the government and the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Here, you can learn the history of the Cherokee people — from skills passed down through centuries to the trials and triumphs of their ancestors.
Bryson City started as a railroad hub before reinventing itself as a charming gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Scenic waterfalls and lush forests beckon hikers and bikers, while historic downtown streets lined with independent shops and art galleries invite leisurely strolls. Also, it’s the home base of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad tour.
This small town started with a sprinkling of families living in the region and one man who was fed up with driving to a nearby town to get his mail. He petitioned for a zip code and used his daughter Maggie’s name on the application. When the Blue Ridge Parkway was established, more tourists came and still do.
Founded in 1807, Waynesville was a trading point along whatever established trail was made through the mountains. The advent of railroads and cars quickly made it a trading and shipping hub. The town still sparkles with Victorian-era homes but never lost its small-town Appalachian charm.
This village, which is now a resort and tourist attraction, started as housing for the workers on the Fontana Dam. While the creation of Fontana Lake served a wartime need, it is also a recreational oasis for anglers, boaters, and swimmers. The robust Appalachian Trail crosses over the dam. Plus, people come to marvel at the engineering of the dam itself.
Outdoor Things to Do on the North Carolina Smokies Side
You might as well call this side of the Smokies the “Hope You Like Being Outdoors” region because nature has presented an epic playground.
The Smoky Mountains North Carolina side has five entrances — the Cherokee entrance at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the busiest. Nearly 1.1 million vehicles came through in 2023. The Gatlinburg Spur entrance has 10 times as many.
Clingman’s Dome is the high point of the park, towering at 6,643 feet. It’s at the midway point of Newfound Gap Road.
Epic adventures await from the state’s largest waterfall across the largest national forest in the state. The Blue Ridge Parkway winds through this mesmerizing landscape as well. Campsites, day-use areas, rafting spots, and the river gorge cut through this massive piece of public land.
DID YOU KNOW? The name Nantahala means “land of the noonday sun” in Cherokee. It’s aptly named since sunlight can only hit the forest floor at midday.
Bordering the eastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pisgah offers half a million acres of forested and mountain land with the Blue Ridge Parkway expanding to this section as it works its way to Virginia.
All aboard this train that departs from Bryson City on a trip along the Tuckasegee River or through the Nantahala River Gorge. You can add activities at the gorge, like rafting, if you’d like. Fall foliage tours are also possible. Some routes take you to the charming town of Dillsboro, where you’ll pass the train crash scene from the 1993 “The Fugitive” movie.
This engineering marvel was built in just 36 months, which is a fast pace as far as dams are concerned. By comparison, Hoover Dam in Nevada/Arizona took five years. Here, you can tour the top of the dam and learn about the mechanics. Or, pick up part of the Appalachian Trail for a hike.
Another great way to view the lake and take in some rather sinister history is at the Fontana Lake Overlook in Bryson City. When the dam created the lake, it flooded out or surrounded some communities with water.
The government was supposed to build a 30-mile road that led to those communities. Just 6 miles were finished, with an ominous tunnel being all that’s left of what locals call “A Broken Promise – The Road to Nowhere.” This stop also leads to the Noland Creek Trail, one of the most “haunted” in the region.
This Byrson City theme park offers the excitement of Christmas but only during the warmer months from late spring through early fall. Amusement park rides and attractions all harmonize with the spirit of the holiday season and include reindeer games with special visits from “summer” Santa himself.
The epicenter of winter activity awaits at Maggie Valley’s Cataloochee Ski Area. From November through March, ski or snowboard down easy slopes, or try the two black diamond routes. A nearby Tube World allows for family-friendly snow tubing.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs 470 miles between Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee North Carolina. While visiting Cherokee, you’ll learn about tribal legends — like Judaculla, the “slant-eyed giant.” Taking the Blue Ridge Parkway offers several benchmarks along the way of the legend:
- Judaculla Rock: An ancient “footprint” of the giant marked with petroglyphs.
- Devil’s Courthouse: A steep (and ominous) trail takes you 5,720 feet above the mountain where Judculla danced in the very place where the devil handed out death sentences.
- Judaculla Oil Fields: The valley below the courthouse is where Judaculla lived.
Additionally, you can take the parkway 100 miles to reach Asheville North Carolina — which has a metro area that brings another layer of culture and camaraderie to the adventure. Or, keep going into Pisgah National Forest. I’d recommend going as far as the impressive Glassmine Falls in Black Mountain, which is another 45 minutes past Asheville.
With so much wilderness around, you might not feel comfortable grabbing a raft and crossing your fingers or fishing in waters without knowing the best spots. That’s where the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City can help. Rafting, tubing, mountain biking, zip lines.
This outfitter has a wealth of outdoor wonders under its umbrella. You can even visit its Asheville location for river trips on the French Broad River.
The Cherokee people offer several ways to experience their heritage, and the Oconaluftee Indian Village is one of the most immersive and exciting experiences. This outdoor village is designed to take you back to the 1700s and live the Cherokee lifestyle with crafts, foods, and performances that tell stories by Cherokee descendants.
This acclaimed performance is held in the summer in an outdoor amphitheater. It’s an emotional journey through the early days of the Cherokee, through the Trail of Tears, and the triumph of returning to the homeland on the Qualla Boundary.
Many people don’t realize that, to build a national park, you have to move the current residents of the land somewhere else. At times, that was done by force or pressure. This museum is a collection of buildings and homes found in the park and moved to remember the people who lived off the land before the establishment of the park required them to leave.
Catalochee Elk Watching
Don’t let Yellowstone get all the attention for its entertaining elk! The Cataloochee Valley on the North Carolina side of the park is home to magnificent elk who bugle during the rut and provide a wonderful wildlife experience (from a distance).
Indoor Things to Do on the Smoky Mountains North Carolina Side
Although outdoor activities are more plentiful, you can find a handful of things to do indoors while exploring the North Carolina Smokies side.
Once inside, you won’t know if you’re in North Carolina or Nevada. All the thrills of a Las Vegas casino await, alongside restaurants owned by celebrity chefs and some unique shops to explore. The resort has two pools and nightlife scheduled throughout the year.
This newly renovated museum offers the most emotional and engaging tribute to the Cherokee people of the past and the future. Artifacts, video displays, and demonstrations offer a more thought-provoking experience than some of the other Cherokee heritage options.
Right along the river in Bryson City, you also get the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians in addition to the aquarium. The museum is free and shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to explore.
This region is part of Southern Appalachia, and this Dillsboro museum honors the women of the region, including the Cherokee who helped grow, heal, and revitalize through even the toughest of times. Keep in mind that, in the early days, there were no roads, stores, or deliveries made here. Women just figured it out when it came to clothing, toys, and meals.
Do you find yourself wondering, “What’s the difference between Southern and Appalachian?” This is the museum for you! From cultural traditions, Cherokee ceremonial masks, and even details of the deadly Cowee Tunnel Disaster that will make you gasp, this celebration of natural and cultural heritage in Cullowhee is full of discovery.
Soco Crafts & Tower
One of the top gift shops is under a nine-story tower overlooking the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s more of a roadside attraction since people have been visiting since 1947. The Maggie Valley location is right off the main road and is open from April through November.
Restaurants on the North Carolina Smokies Side
The irony of the farm-to-table trend is that Appalachian cooking has always been that way. The people here lived off the land and could always cook up “a mess of” something. Here are a few of our favorite hearty stops on the Smoky Mountains North Carolina side.
This isn’t the kind of region where a Starbucks or Dunkin’ is waiting around every corner, but we know how important that morning cup of coffee is to travelers. Here are some options in the North Carolina Smokies towns:
- Mountain Perks Espresso Bar & Cafe in Bryson City
- Qualla Java Cafe in Cherokee
- Organic Beans Coffee Company in Maggie Valley
- Smoky Mountain Roasters in Waynesville
If you’re heading out on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, make time for breakfast at Everett Street Diner. Its claim is a second-to-none gravy. In Cherokee, a breakfast buffet is served daily at Granny’s Kitchen.
Those on the way to the park can drive through Mabel’s Kitchen or sit down for a spell and savor everything from grits to country-fried steak. When it’s a big stack of pancakes you want, Joey’s Pancake House in Maggie Valley has been greasing the griddle since 1966.
Lunch & Dinner Eateries
Waynesville’s Fat Buddies Ribs & BBQ promises food so good “it’ll make you squeal.” Stews, sides, slabs, and steaks are ready at the table or to go. Blue Rooster Southern Grill serves sophisticated Southern dishes on weekdays in Clyde, near Lake Junaluska.
Some of the best fried chicken on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line is served at Maggie Valley Restaurant. Don’t let the exterior or rusted sign make you think twice. The place isn’t fancy, but the food is fabulous, and breakfast is served all day.
Whether you’re taking the train and have a pit stop or just want to visit, Dillsboro is big on food choices. The River and Rails Tavern comes with a sense of humor (and a bathtub in front — moonshine?) and now serves breakfast in addition to running the gamut of food for lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks.
You’ll smell Haywood Smokehouse from the train, with its “old-school barbecue.” At the same time, Foragers Canteen prides itself on down-home cookin’ that’s served fast so that you can take it on the train.
Hotels & Inns on the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina
Aside from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and the Fontana Dam Village, you won’t find major resorts on this side of the Smokies. You will get a selection of nostalgic motels, historic inns, cozy cabins, and plenty of public land campsites, though.
Maggie Valley Lodging
A nostalgic throwback awaits at the Route 19 Inn, where the mountains surround the vibe of Route 66. Get a creekside room or more space in the two-room suite. Don’t be surprised if you see an elk walk by this Maggie Valley hotspot. The recently renovated Heart of the Valley Motel is another nearby option.
Waynesville is the place to be for the Victorian bed & breakfast of your dreams. Oak Hill on Love Lane provides shabby chic accommodations with spa services available. Another ray of sunshine awaits at The Yellow House on Plott Creek Road. That should be pretty easy to find.
If you are the kind of person who insists on being as close to the national park entrance as possible, we have two great options in Cherokee. The Great Smokies Inn Cherokee and the Bay Mountain Inn are right next to each other and within walking distance of Cherokee’s shops.
More Lodging Options
Bryson City’s spacious and sophisticated Calhoun House Inn & Suites will have you rocking on the front porch chairs in no time. This all-suite B&B has mountain views in every room.
One of the more unique stays, though, is on the east side of the Smokies where you can sleep in a historic caboose surrounded by bison roaming the acreage. A new playground area includes a zip line and rock wall.
FAQs About the Smokies in North Carolina
What is the difference between the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains?
The Smoky Mountains are a subrange of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Both are part of the greater Appalachian Mountains.
Technically, when you refer to the Blue Ridge Mountains, you’re including the Smokies. The distinguishing characteristic is the “smoky” appearance, which is created by the trees releasing organic compounds that mix with moisture, sunlight, and ozone. The light spectrum absorption impacts how the human eye sees the “smoky” mountains.
At the same time, the Blue Ridge Mountains face a similar mixing of compounds and environmental factors, but the wind carries away the resulting “smoke,” leaving that blue hue for miles into the distance.
Are there bears in North Carolina’s Smokies?
Yes. About 2,000 bears are believed to live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and many more could be roaming the national forests and private lands.
You should carry bear spray at all times, know how to behave if you cross paths with a black bear, use bear-proof containers for all food you’re carrying, and report any bear activity to park officials or local police.
I’ve heard Appalachia pronounced a couple of different ways. Which one is right?
If you want to fit in here, you’ll pronounce Appalachia “App-uh-LATCH-uh,” no “App-uh-LAY-shin.” It sounds exactly like you’re threatening someone, “I’ll throw an apple at ya.” North of the Mason-Dixon Line, “App-uh-LAY-shuh” is the pronunciation.
Explore the Smoky Mountains North Carolina Side
Another thing to keep in mind when visiting the North Carolina side of the Smokies is the elevation:
- Maggie Valley sits at 2,792 feet
- Waynesville rests at 2,697 feet
- Cherokee sits at 2,438 feet
- Fontana Dam rests at 1,821 feet
- Bryson City sits at 1,752 feet
On the Tennessee side, the elevation of the cities ranges from 902 feet above sea level in Sevierville to 1,293 feet in Gatlinburg. As a result, you’ll get fall foliage earlier on the North Carolina side and a great chance of snow (and closed roads in winter storms).
Also, consider the benefits of visiting Asheville North Carolina, a city that is growing in popularity each year. Before it becomes busy like Nashville, this is a great time to plan a trip to the south side of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway.