Asheville may be North Carolina’s most famous mountain destination, but there are plenty of other cool and scenic towns in the western part of the state that are well worth the drive.
For variety and convenience, you can’t beat the cluster of towns situated along the Tuckasegee River and only about three hours from Charlotte.
Here you’ll find outdoor adventures, funky shops and art galleries, a bustling brewery and restaurant scene as well as the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, a one-of-a-kind way to explore the scenic and remote countryside.
Riding the rails in Bryson City
You catch the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad at the historic depot in Bryson City. There are two round-trip excursions available, including a 4.5-hour trip that runs alongside the roaring Nantahala River and crosses over scenic Fontana Lake.
For an added bonus, sign up for the “Shine and Dine” experience, during which you can kick back in a first-class fleet car and munch on pork barbecue and sample a variety of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson’s moonshine — it doesn‘t get much more authentically Southern than that.
During our recent mountain trip, my wife Kimiko, 7-year-old daughter Lily and I embarked on the Tuckasegee River Excursion, a 4-hour round-trip with a layover in the historic town of Dillsboro, which is chockfull of art galleries, pottery stores, shops and restaurants.
On the train ride, as we rumbled along the river past cane, strawberry and tomato fields, Lily grew a little restless but was fascinated by Tim Hall.
Sporting a long gray beard, knotted walking stick, a buck knife on his hip, and a red fox tail on his hat, Tim regaled passengers with stories about the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Eating in Dillsboro
While in Dillsboro, a great place to grab a bite to eat is The Well House, a cozy little deli just off Main Street in the Riverwood Shops, which is also home to a few art galleries and a pottery studio.
We lucked out and had dinner there Friday night, when they have a prime rib special (served with a behemoth-sized baked potato).
If you’re staying overnight, the Best Western is affordable, conveniently located and situated right on the river.
It’s nothing fancy, but it does have an expansive deck where you can kick back and enjoy the view. During our stay, we saw several anglers pull nice-sized trout from the water.
Eating and drinking in Sylva
Located just a few miles east of Dillsboro, Sylva is another great little mountain town with lots of cool places to explore.
One of the more popular destinations is Innovation Brewing, a dog- and kid-friendly brewpub with more than 30 handcrafted beers. Grab a table at one of the outside picnic tables that overlooks Scott Creek and order a mouth-watering burger from the Cosmic Carryout food truck, which is parked next door.
Lulu’s On Main has a funky bohemian vibe with colorful artwork and décor and is great option for lunch or dinner. The restaurant specializes in fresh seafood and farm-to-table proteins.
We sampled the cedar plank salmon and, my favorite, chicken piccata, served over smashed potatoes with white wine garlic butter sauce.
For breakfast, City Lights Café is your best bet. This cozy, laid-back spot has plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, including a couch and several overstuffed chairs, and is popular with students from nearby Western Carolina University.
City Lights has a great Sunday brunch — think crepes, quiches and paninis — along with $6.50 mimosas and bellinis. I opted for the breakfast grits bowl, served with scrambled eggs and Maplewood smoked bacon.
After you eat, wander upstairs to the City Lights Bookstore, which specializes in regional titles and hosts regular literary events.
Fresh air at 3,487 feet in Cashiers
From Sylva, head south along winding Highway 107 (scenic pitstops include Pines Recreation Area and East LaPorte Park) to Cashiers, located on the highest plateau of the Blue Ridge Mountains at 3,487 feet.
Head straight to Ugly Dog Pub, which opened last year.
With lots of outdoor seating, a couple of big-screen TVs, a stylish zinc bar and stained concrete floor, Ugly Dog feels more modern and contemporary than many of the other local watering holes. In addition to dozens of regional beers and plenty of yummy munchies, be sure to try Bloody Mary Station, where you can craft your own concoction.
For nature lovers, a couple of not-to-miss destinations in Cashiers include the 4,930-foot Whiteside Mountain, where you can hike along a 2.5-mile loop trail with sheer, vertical cliffs that tower above the valley below.
There’s also Silver Run Falls, which is easily accessible via a short hiking trail. This picturesque spot is a great place to soak up the sun and dip your toes in the water.