Family Adventure in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains

What could be more fun than hiking, picnicking and splashing around with the family in cold streams in the Great Smoky Mountains? Grab this three-day warm-weather trip, pack up the kids and head for western North Carolina.

Day 1: Franklin and Cherokee

Spend the morning in Franklin mining for rubies, emeralds and sapphires. Bring a plastic bag to carry your treasures home or have your stones set by one of the local gemologists. The area is rich in minerals, and you can learn more about them and precious stones at the Franklin Gem & Mineral Museum located in a circa 1850 jailhouse.

Afterward, enjoy a relaxing lunch at Gazebo Creekside Café, or pick up sandwiches and all the fixings from Fat Buddies Ribs & BBQ and stop along US Highway 441 for a picnic lunch on your way to Cherokee.

People putting on demonstrations while visitors observe outdoors during daytime
Oconaluftee Indian Village

Located at the base of the Smoky Mountains just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee offers the rich heritage of the Cherokee people in museums and in a living history venue. Learn about Cherokee history at the Museum of the Cherokee People and at Oconaluftee Indian Village, then shop for authentic Cherokee arts and crafts at the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual.

Sample tacos for dinner at Paul’s Family Restaurant and cap your day with a performance of "Unto These Hills," an outdoor drama that traces the Cherokee nation from its beginning to the present.

Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and Whitewater Rafting

After a breakfast of coffee and fresh-baked pastries at Mountain Perks in Bryson City, head across the tracks to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad depot and catch a morning train ride through the Nantahala Gorge. Opt to purchase a boxed lunch, then enjoy the one-hour layover in the heart of the gorge.

After lunch, it's time to lean into heart-pumping adventure at Nantahala Outdoor Center. Climb aboard a river raft with your guide and shoot down miles of family-friendly whitewater rapids that feature tons of splashes. Be sure to bring a towel and a change of clothes.

At the end of the day, head back to Bryson City where you can browse the shops and enjoy a leisurely dinner at the Fryemont Inn.

Day 3: Fontana Lake, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Stecoah

Start the day with mountain fly fishing or a peaceful paddle in a kayak on Fontana Lake.

Enjoy breakfast or lunch at River’s End Restaurant, then take a hike in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest to see ancient trees towering above a carpet of wildflowers and ferns. The forest is named for American poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer, most famous for his poem "Trees."

Afterward, head to the town of Stecoah and see the works of local artisans and enjoy a live performance of mountain music at the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center. Watch the sunset over Fontana Dam, the tallest concrete dam in the East, and enjoy dinner at the Mountview Bistro or the Wildwood Grill in Fontana Village.

Updated January 3, 2024
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