This Scenic North Carolina Train Is the Best Way to Explore the Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers beautiful views, plus a “shine and dine” moonshine experience.

If you’ve ever visited the Great Smoky Mountains, spanning East Tennessee and North Carolina, you know the spectacular beauty that this region holds. Millions of visitors explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park on foot each year, but there’s one unique way to take in all the sights. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is a year-round scenic train ride spotlighting one of America’s most stunning landscapes. Guests climb aboard either a steam-powered or diesel locomotive as they explore the remote corners of North Carolina. It’s like riding a piece of history as its steam locomotive dates back over 80 years and is one of only two remaining in the United States.

Close up of black train

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Riders travel along the valleys of the Tuckasegee and Nantahala Rivers as they take in unobstructed views of the natural wonders of the region’s many mountains, lakes, rivers, and forests. The voyage offers breathtaking vantage points of extraordinary locations inaccessible by foot or car, like the historic Fontana Trestle.

Featuring both vintage open-air cars and climate-controlled cars, the multi-hour, round-trip experience departs from a historic depot in the heart of Bryson City, North Carolina. Throughout the year, it also features special themed journeys, like the popular Polar Express that recreates a journey to the North Pole. It’s ideal in the fall for sweeping views of the dramatic foliage as the landscape welcomes crimson-colored trees and crisp mountain air.

All trips offer the option to upgrade to the luxe first-class car featuring large picture windows. Here, guests have exclusive access to a stunning vintage 1940s-style bar and an attentive staff.

a black train going by a lake in the Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience

For a journey like no other, adults 21 and over can hop aboard the Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience and sip the region’s well-known liquor while gawking at the surrounding sights. For this journey, one of the train’s first-class cars is transformed into the Moonshine Car. During the “shine and dine,” guests will learn about the fabled moonshiners of the 19th century and the traditions surrounding the origins of moonshining in North Carolina.

A woman's hand holding samples of moonshine in the Moonshine Car

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

While cruising on the Nantahala Gorge journey, guests are treated to handcrafted, tripled-distilled shine from some of the region’s best craft distilleries and can enjoy expertly crafted moonshine cocktails. The experience is rounded out with a meal featuring the train’s original pulled pork barbecue that’s been slow roasted in their signature blend of spices. 

How to Book a Trip on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Wide shot of train going through a field

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

All excursions are available to book online or by phone, and advanced reservations are suggested. When booking, guests can choose between a steam-powered or diesel locomotive as well as which excursion they’d like to experience. 

The Nantahala Gorge Excursion is a 4.5-hour round-trip journey that travels along the Nantahala River and crosses the historic Fontana Trestle. The Tuckasegee River Excursion is a four-hour round-trip journey that travels deep into the quieter countryside of western North Carolina and includes a layover in the historic small town of Dillsboro, home to local shops and restaurants. Specialty train excursions are held at select times throughout the year. 

A conductor high fiving a child who is on the train with his family

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

At the time of booking, guests can pick from a range of car classes for their journey, and all ticketed passengers have access to the Smoky Mountains Train Museum, featuring a collection of 7,000 model train cars, engines, and accessories. The historic train depot is located on the south side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park about one hour from Asheville, North Carolina and two hours from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

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