Exploring the North Carolina Side of the Great Smoky Mountains

Fall is a great time to explore the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains. We spent a month on the Tennessee side and wanted to see what the North Carolina side was all about. (See the links at the end for our Tennessee experiences.)

The drive down I-40 afforded some pretty spectacular views of the fall colors as we drove further into the mountains. The biggest difference we noticed from the Tennessee side to the North Carolina side was the amount of forest. North Carolina is dotted with small towns that are surrounded by lush forests, providing a large canvas of fall foliage to enjoy.

Where we Stayed

We stayed at Flaming Arrow Campground in Whittier, North Carolina. This privately-owned campground was located a few miles from Cherokee and the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition, it was near many of the small towns we wanted to explore.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Bryson City was a short drive from the campground and where the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad began. The Nantahala Gorge Excursion and the Tuckasegee River Excursion took riders on different routes, depending on whether one wanted to explore the Nantahala Gorge Region or the Tuckasegee River Region. And, depending on the time and day, there were options for dining on board.

Before hopping on the train, we explored the toy train museum, which was located in the gift shop near the start of the ride and included in the ticket price. Next to the Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, PA (Check out that post here), this was one of the largest toy train displays we’d seen.

We had to get some shots of the beautiful scenery around town.

Tuckasegee River Excursion

This four-hour round-trip ride took us along some beautiful Tuckasegee River scenery on our way to the quaint town of Dillsboro. As we wound our way along the river, the conductor explained the sites along the route. He also cautioned us that we would be traveling through some very narrow passages and to keep everything inside the car, lest we lose it!

This was also the location where the famous train scene from the movie, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford was filmed. We hadn’t seen the movie, so we took the conductor’s word for it. However, if you’ve seen it, you’ll recognize this as where Harrison Ford becomes The Fugitive.

After a 1-1/2 hour layover to explore the town and have dinner, the train began the return trip to Bryson City. We learned that in the forties and fifties, the powers that be in North Carolina used wrecked cars to shore up the banks of the river to decrease erosion. This practice was stopped at the end of the fifties, but it must have worked because the cars are still there and so is the river bank.

As we were approaching Bryson City, the sunset was spectacular.

We would highly recommend taking a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, especially in the fall. You won’t be disappointed.

Hiking the North Carolina side of the Smokies

While most people equate hiking the Great Smoky Mountains with the trails in Tennessee, North Carolina has its share of good hiking as well. We chose two hikes–one a little easier, and one that was more challenging.

Three Waterfalls Hike in Bryson City

The Three Waterfalls Hike was a great hike to start with. We hiked to all three falls (Tom Branch, Indian Creek, and Juney Whank) and hiked 4.3 miles. The first two were easily accessible. Juney Whank was more strenuous because it was a bit steeper, but it was doable. Personally, the last was not as impressive as the others, but we got more of a workout getting there.

Pack a picnic lunch and dine by Deep Creek before or after your hike. There is plenty of parking and places to picnic. Of course, that depends on the time of day and season. We were there in late October and it was mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, so it wasn’t too bad.

Waterrock Knob along the Blue Ridge Parkway

We took the Blue Ridge Parkway from Cherokee north to Waterrock Knob. This 17-mile stretch at the southern end of the Parkway had some spectacular views of the Smokies.

The Waterrock Knob Visitors Center is at almost 6,000 feet in elevation, making it the highest visitors center along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

You could sit at the visitors’ center and enjoy the almost 360-degree views, or you could do like we did and hike the pretty steep trail even higher. While this trail was only about .6 miles, it was not the easiest hike to do. However, the view from the top was worth it.

Funny thing though – as we were taking this wonderful photo thinking we were done and going to be heading back down, some other hikers asked if we knew where the plane crash was.

We’d heard about a plane crash, but had no idea how to find it. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you looked at it, another couple came along and they knew how to find it. They were told it was just a couple of hundred yards away (or so we heard them say). Wrong. It was about half a mile away through some very rough terrain. It crashed on the side of a mountain, so obviously there wouldn’t be some nice walking trail to get there!

So, along with our new friends, Zach, Carter, baby Graydon, Bri, Elizabeth, and their dog Luna, who was busy exploring in this photo, we trekked over the mountainside and found the Waterrock Knob Plane Crash.

It was quite an eery site to see the wreckage strewn down the side of the mountain, and it was no wonder the bodies weren’t found for a week.

The trek back to the main trail wasn’t any easier, but we finally made it back and took the main trail down to the visitors’ center.


Along with the railroad and hikes, we were able to visit the quaint small towns of Sylva, Bryson City, Franklin, Dillsboro, and Cherokee. If you’re thinking about heading to this area in the fall, late October seems to be a great time to see the fall foliage.

We enjoyed our time on the North Carolina side of the Smokies and highly recommend you check it out.

Additional links to the Tennessee Side

One More Thing!

My new cozy mystery, Death by Golf Cart, is now available on Amazon! Head to www.jenniferskinnell.com for all the details and a preview of this mystery set in a 55 & over RV resort in central Florida.

We’re Mike & Jennifer Skinnell, and together we are The Rambling Quilter. We travel the country full-time in our 41ft. fifth-wheel pulled by our F-350 – affectionately named Beauty & The Beast. Mike still works part-time, and Jennifer writes our blog, travel articles, and contemporary fiction. Our blog is purely for information and entertainment purposes. However, if you’d like to support Jennifer’s writing career, her author link is below.


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