Enjoy the low-key pleasure of riding the rails through N.C. mountains

And increase your knowledge about kudzu on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad .

BRYSON CITY, N.C. – Tucked in a valley just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, little Bryson City, population not quite 1,800, is everything you could want in a mountain tourist town.

In the morning, before anything else opens up, first responders pack into the Everett Street Diner for hearty breakfasts. In the evening, if you have the coin, the Bistro at the Everett Hotel is as haute as any nice dining spot in metro Atlanta. Most of the businesses are aimed at visitors, an economy built on fishing and camping equipment, gelato, fancy coffees, enormous burgers and knickknacks by the basketful.

The main draw for out-of-towners — 200,000-plus a year — is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR), a so-called heritage railroad that offers regular daily round trips, plus plenty of specialized jaunts with everything from wine-tasting to a Santa meet and greet.

GSMR offers an abundance of choices: steam locomotive or diesel engine, three classes (first, crown and coach), open cars or air conditioned, and two regular trips in opposite directions. The Nantahala Gorge Excursion travels 44 miles across Lake Fontana and back again. The Tuckasegee River Excursion travels 32 miles round-trip to Dillsboro, North Carolina, where it stops to let passengers off for about 90 minutes to eat and shop.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Much of what draws people to heritage railroads, where the train itself is the point rather than the destination, is the perceived romance or adventure of train travel. Paul Theroux captured the popular fantasy in his 1975 book “The Great Railway Bazaar”: “Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.”

That’s close to what Jessica Green, a first-grade teacher from Statesboro, had in her head before she rode this summer for the first time. “When I think about traveling on a train, I think about the early 1900s or James Bond,” she said. “I think about a trolley coming down the aisle and plush velvet seats.”

That’s not what she got.

“If you are looking for a sexy, romanticized rail trip, this is not that,” said Green who took a ride with her husband and 11-year-old son. “It’s not what I was picturing, but it was a fun family trip. It’s not something a lot of people get to do.”

Credit: Bryan Burton

Credit: Bryan Burton

GSMR is more of a broad, mass-appeal experience that draws an eclectic bunch of passengers, including young and old, families, couples, and groups of friends doing something different for a day. The trains amble along at a top speed of 20 miles per hour, frequently less, as an attendant in each car supplies a running commentary of history, statistics, points of interest and maybe some dad jokes. Sometimes a guitar player in old-timey garb wanders through the car and whips up a singalong.

On a recent ride, my wife and I reserved seats in a crown class car (the middle level) on the Tuckasegee River diesel to Dillsboro. The river was quite pretty (for the people on that side of the train who could see it), but we also rode past a lot of kudzu and some rundown trailer parks.

Dillsboro is even tinier than Bryson City and would not even exist without the constant stream of train passengers who pour in every day. There’s fine high-end coffee and chocolates at the Dillsboro Chocolate Factory and Espresso Bar, a brewhouse, several restaurants and mountain souvenir shops with names like The Corn Crib and Dogwood Crafters.

The origins of the GSMR, or at least the tracks it now runs on, go back to the 1880s, when convicts doing forced labor built the Murphy Branch of the Western North Carolina Railroad between Asheville and Murphy. After World War II, passenger traffic dropped to the point that it was discontinued, but freight traffic continued until 1985. A nostalgia-oriented tourism rail experience came along in 1988, and American Heritage Railways purchased it in 1999.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

On the travel review website TripAdvisor, reviews are divided about the GSMR. Many of the negative reviews bash the boxed lunches the railway sells; if scheduling allows, lunch in Dillsboro would be a smart move.

“There’s only so much scenery you’re gonna see on the trip,” said Joe Scott, who recently moved with his wife into what had been their vacation home in Bryson City. Despite coming to the area for 50 years, they had not ridden the train until this year.

“I think some people were disappointed they weren’t looking at a beautiful mountain landscape the whole ride. But I thought it was nice. You get to ride on a steam engine that is around 100 years old. Clean tables and seats and restrooms, fast pleasant service, decent food. What more can you ask for?”

Carol and John Pharr of Lenox took the steam locomotive to the Nantahala Gorge for their 50th wedding anniversary. “We loved it,” she said. “We had a fantastic guide who was an encyclopedia of information,” she said.

“Who would have ever known there was so much to learn about kudzu?”


If you go

Bryson City, North Carolina, is 165 miles northeast of Atlanta via I-85N to I-985N to U.S. 23N to U.S. 441N to U.S. 74W.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. $58-$109 for diesel engine, $68-$119 for steam engine. Trains run year-round, and trips vary by season. 45 Mitchell St., Bryson City, North Carolina. 800-872-4681. www.gsmr.com

In addition to the regular trips, GSMR offers the following themed trips. Times, dates and prices vary.

Uncorked: For adults 21 and older. Full-service first-class car with a private attendant and dining. A narrator presents four wine pours and discusses each one. Last Uncorked trip this year is Sept 3.

The Polar Express: This 75-minute round trip ride visits “The North Pole” while hot cocoa is served and Christmas carols are sung. Santa boards the train and gives each child a silver sleigh bell.

Raft & Rail: Full-day adventure combines a train trip, lunch and a whitewater rafting trip on the Nantahala River with a guide in each boat.

Tarzan Train: Two-hour train ride into the Nantahala Gorge, lunch, then a zipline tour in Wildwater’s Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours, which has 13 zip lines and eight sky bridges. Adults maximum weight 250 pounds, children 10 and older.

Rail and Trail: Two-hour train ride into the Nantahala Gorge, lunch, then a two-hour driving trip via Jeep to the Appalachian Trail and back.

Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience: For adults 21 and over. Full-service first-class car with a private attendant serving small whiskey samples from North Carolina distilleries, along with barbecue.