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By Jack M. Turner

    One of the great tourist train operations in the southern United States stands about two hours north of Atlanta along the edge of the Smoky Mountains.  On a clear and cool morning in early August 2014 we made our way to Bryson City, North Carolina for a day aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR).  The small town was alive with activity, much of it related to the pending departure of two daily tourist trains, one east to Dillsboro, the other west to the Nantahala Gorge.
    The train to the gorge would depart first and we found a good crowd stretching from the depot ticket window to the street waiting to pick up boarding passes.  The line moved quickly and in no time flat we boarded open air coach “Nantahala”, the second of 11 passenger cars trailing a pair of engines and two cabooses on the westbound run.  Seating aboard our car consisted of pairs of seats facing the windows with a convenient cup holder/shelf protruding from the wall below the window.  There was ample room to move about for photography and we would be free to wander among the open air and air conditioned coaches during the trip.  Two interesting pieces of rolling stock were included in the train consist, flat end tavern-observation car 3331, which formerly served Atlantic Coast Line, Seaboard Coast Line (SCL), and Amtrak, and dining car 8015, a veteran of the Seaboard Air Line, SCL, and Amtrak.


Our GSMR train prepares to depart Bryson City for the Nantahala Gorge


The trailing unit wears a different paint scheme


The Bryson depot is served by trains to Nantahala Gorge and Dillsboro

    Departing Bryson City promptly at 10:30am, we enjoyed the sound of the engine’s horn blowing for the many crossings along the western edge of town as well as the warning bells and flashing lights at each street crossing.  The jointed rails made the distinctive clickety-clack sound largely absent on today’s welded rail main lines and the presence of numerous curves would provide good views of either end of the train.  Moments after departure we crossed the Tuckasegee River at milepost 64.9, less than a mile from the depot.  The scene turned completely rural within 20 minutes with forested terrain, pasture lands, and a stereotypical red barn in full view.  US Highways 19 and 74 soon paralleled the railway for a while and by 11:00am the railway was perched on a shelf above the Tuckasegee River. 


Passing the Dillsboro train as it prepares to pull into the Bryson City station


Crossing the Tuckasegee River at Bryson City


Rounding a curve through a wooded area


Following US 19/74 through a small settlement


Passing through terrain covered with kudzu


Many curves along the route provide views of the rear of the GSMR train

    Passage through a rock cut signaled the approximate summit of our uphill climb and within a few minutes massive Fontana Lake came into view between mileposts 72 and 73.   At milepost 74.8 the railway crossed the lake on a steel truss bridge and vistas in both directions revealed beautiful mountains beyond Fontana Lake.  The inviting waters of Fontana Lake were home to numerous houseboats and only the pleasure of riding a train kept me from wishing I were floating on the pristine waters.  Near milepost 75 the community of Almond passed our window at 11:13am. 


Houseboats are visible in many parts of massive Fontana Lake


Fontana Lake is framed by the Smoky Mountains


The train follows the shore of Fontana Lake for several miles


Passengers enjoy the trek along Fontana Lake

    During transit of the captivating mountain and lake scenery our cheerful car hostess Ashley delivered lunch baskets containing chopped barbecue sandwiches, chips, and lemonade.  As the lakefront gave way to woodlands along the Nantahala River we feasted on our lunches while enjoying the passing scenery.  We paused at the popular Nantahala Outdoor Center to detrain passengers holding tickets for whitewater rafting.  About 5 minutes later the train resumed westward for six miles to Wesser where the engines ran around the train.  After a 15 minute stop we headed eastward back to the outdoor center where passengers had an hour to enjoy along the whitewater rapids used as a venue for the 1996 Summer Olympics.


Lunch served at our seats


A clearing in front of a home allows a clear view of the head end of our train.


Running along the Nantahala River


Rafters along the Nantahala River near Wesser

    The return trip departed at 2:10pm and soon Ashley served slices of apple pie and iced tea to our seats.  We were happy that our car had ceiling fans to offset rising afternoon temperatures as we viewed the shimmering waters of Fontana Lake.  The train’s passage through a wooded area just outside Bryson City evoked memories of a motorcar trip between Dillsboro and Murphy several years earlier when a friend’s cap flew off and landed beside the track.  The agile little motorcar was able to stop and allow the hat to be retrieved, something that would not be possible on a full sized train.  A few minutes later we reached the end of our journey at 3:15pm in Bryson City, satisfied by a scenic rail trip along the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains.


Interior of tavern-observation-lounge car 3331 which formerly served ACL, SCL, and Amtrak

    The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad can be reached easily by taking Amtrak’s Crescent to Atlanta and renting a car for the 2 1/2 hour drive to Bryson City.  Amtrak stops in Toccoa and Gainesville, Georgia are about 30 minutes closer to Bryson City, however, rental car availability may be limited.  During our trip, we made overnight stops in four other interesting communities, each within two hours of the GSMR.  Our first stop was in Cornelia, GA, where the busy Norfolk Southern line may be safely viewed from the restored train station platform.  Trackside signals give a heads up when a train is approaching on the double track line and it is easy to predict the arrival of Amtrak’s northbound Crescent since it stops in Gainesville, just a few miles down the line.  A popular eatery, Fenders Diner, filled with 1950s and 60s memorabilia, is located within walking distance of the depot.


The restored train station in Cornelia, GA is a great place to watch passing Norfolk Southern freights and Amtrak’s Crescent


Various vantage points allow excellent train watching at Cornelia as the station platform has several benches and a hill across the track is accessed by a pedestrian crosswalk.  Signals provide a heads up when trains are approaching on this double track line.


The northbound Crescent sails through Cornelia on an early August 2014 evening

    Helen, GA, a popular alpine themed village whose shops resemble German and Austrian establishments, is a “must see” stop that includes activities such as tubing on the Chattahoochee River and putt-putt golf at two courses.  The Hampton Inn hotel is located a block off the main street in Helen and backs up to the peaceful Chattahoochee River providing a restful and scenic place to spend a couple of nights.


The Hampton Inn is Helen’s finest hotel and is located on a quiet street one block from downtown Helen shops and restaurants


Shops and eating establishments in Helen reflect a Bavarian alpine style


Tubing on the Chattahoochee River is a favorite activity in Helen

    Cherokee, NC, located about 20 minutes from Bryson City, is the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has many activities and displays related to the Cherokee tribe.  Another gem in the region and a great place to stay in conjunction with a trip on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is Cashiers, NC located in the Sapphire Valley just over an hour southeast of Bryson City.  The region surrounding Cashiers and neighboring Highlands is known as “The Land of Waterfalls” and the region will not disappoint.  Dozens of beautiful waterfalls are located within a half-hour drive of both towns and most are easily accessible with minimal hiking.  The area is known for its nice shops and a variety of dining establishments.  A side trip to the Biltmore House in Asheville can easily be made from Cashiers.  The Hampton Inn near Cashiers is the place to stay with its attractive structure, spacious rooms, indoor pool, and mountain vistas from guest room windows.


Lower Cullasaja Falls along US 64 between Highlands and Franklin, NC


Upper Cullasaja Falls just east of the lower falls


Dry Falls, also along US 64, is visible from a viewing platform near the highway and from a walkway that allows views from both sides of the falls as well as from beneath the waterfall


A path passes beneath Dry Falls


Driving behind Bridal Veil Falls near Highlands


Cashiers Sliding Rock, located off NC 107 south of Cashiers, NC


Silver Run Falls, a short hike off NC 107


Whitewater Falls, noted as the highest waterfall in the eastern United States, south of Sapphire and Cashiers, NC


Hampton Inn, Cashiers/Sapphire Valley, NC


The stone fireplace is a notable feature of the Hampton Inn, Cashiers/Sapphire Valley

    Any combination of the above stopovers will provide memorable experiences in conjunction with a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.  Summer and autumn visits are especially enjoyable with pleasant weather and longer days to enjoy the sights.

Links to additional information:

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Hampton Inn Cashiers, NC

Hampton Inn, Helen, GA

LINKS | Other Rail Travelogues | Silver Rails Country | American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation