3 Weekend Getaways for Family Fun in the NC Mountains
In the North Carolina mountains, family fun isn’t confined to a single season, it’s available year-round: from snow-skiing in January to kayaking in July; from spring festivals in May to fall festivals in October—the gentle Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina provide a beautiful backdrop for a staggering array of family-friendly activities.
Don’t have time for a week-long vacation but need a weekend getaway to recharge your batteries? Early Blue Motel is your cozy home base for weekend adventures that will have the kids—and grandkids—talking about them for years to come.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Start your weekend getaway with a scenic drive to the beautiful mountain town of Bryson City, home of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. In the late 1800s, a railway line was extended 116 miles from Asheville to Murphy, allowing travel and business to blossom in the westernmost region of North Carolina’s mountains. Today, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad operates year-round and offers daily excursions along many of the byways first established nearly 150 years ago. For example, the Nantahala Gorge route offers jaw-dropping views as your diesel-engine locomotive powers across historic Fontana Trestle and into the beautiful Nantahala Gorge. Looking for a relaxing ride through the countryside of Western North Carolina? The Tuckasegee River route will take you to the quaint historic town of Dillsboro, where you and your family will enjoy shops, restaurants, and fresh mountain air. You’ll also pass through the historic (and allegedly haunted) Cowee Tunnel, and ride past the famous train wreck site featured in the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive.
Is your family eager to go whitewater rafting? The Railroad offers a “Raft and Rail” package that Southern Living magazine calls “an ideal adventure for families.” Enjoy a leisurely train ride through the mountains, then embark on an exciting eight-mile trip down the Nantahala River, guided by an expert who accompanies you in the raft from start to finish. Enjoy gentle rapids and stunning scenery as your family journeys among some of the oldest mountains on earth. Transportation to and from the depot is provided, along with a family photo, lunch, and the availability of hot showers after the rafting.
If zip lines are more your style, the Railroad offers a “Tarzan Train” package that includes a two-mile locomotive ride into the Nantahala Gorge, where you will disembark at Wildwater’s Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours and begin your zip line adventure. Choose from 13 different zip lines and 8 different sky bridges. The two highest platforms offer stunning views of Clingman’s Dome, Fontana Lake, and area waterfalls.
Would you and another family enjoy a weekend outing together? The Railroad offers a private caboose package for up to 15 people—perfect for family reunions, birthday parties, and outings with friends. The caboose features heat (for winter trips through the snow-covered mountains), private bathrooms, windows that can be opened, and vestibules at each end for unobstructed views of the gorgeous scenery. A platter of cheese and crackers is provided, along with drinks, though you can bring your own food and enjoy the perfect picnic lunch as you ride the rails.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is open through all four seasons, but daily schedules change from month to month, so be sure to visit their website when making plans.
The WNC Nature Center
Nestled on 42 acres alongside the Swannanoa River, and operated by the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department, the WNC Nature Center is a wildlife park that’s home to more than 60 species of animals that live (or have lived) in the southern Appalachian region. Black bears, red wolves, river otters—there’s even a striped skunk! The Nature Center has several outdoor play areas for the young ones in your family, and educational programs are offered throughout the day that let everyone get close to the animals and ask questions of the experts on staff. You can watch the river otters feed and play, learn about the screech owl, and maybe touch a turtle or a snake!
There’s even gem mining for those who want to take a step back in time and relive the prospecting thrill of the early 1800s. Although it’s not as well-known a fact as it should be, the first gold rush in the United States occurred not in California but in North Carolina. In 1799, a 12-year-old boy named Conrad Reed discovered a 17-pound gold nugget in a nearby creek and took it home to his father, who didn’t realize what it was and used it as a doorstop. A jeweler finally took notice of it and bought it for $3.50 (about $65 in today’s money). Word quickly spread, and thus began the Carolina Gold Rush. While your family probably won’t discover any 17-pound gold nuggets, gem mining at the WNC Nature Center will still be tremendous fun and a unique way to learn about local history and geology.
The Center provides helpful links to activity sheets and scavenger hunts for kids that you can download and print out before you visit:
Language Learning Activity Sheet
Kindergarten Through Grade 2 Scavenger Hunt
Grades 3 Through 5 Scavenger Hunt
Grades 6 Through 8 Scavenger Hunt
If you’re interested in a more personal experience of the WNC Nature Center, you can schedule a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities, and gain insider knowledge of the dedication and care that goes into providing for all the animals at the park.
Pack a lunch and enjoy it in the picnic area of the Center or venture out to nearby restaurants. You can re-enter the park the same day with your ticket receipt.
The WNC Nature Center is open 7 days a week, 361 days a year. Regular hours are 10:00 am to 4:30 pm.
Pearson’s Falls & Glen
You and your family sleep in and enjoy a leisurely morning at Early Blue Motel. You sip coffee while looking out your back door at the stunning view of the Green River Gorge. Then, towards noon, you and your family pack a picnic lunch, hop in the car, and take a quick, 10-minute drive to a gorgeous, hidden world: Pearson’s Falls & Glen.
This unique botanical preserve is 275 acres of rich cove forest, granite, and spring-fed streams. Its most spectacular sight, however, is a 90-foot waterfall at the end of a moderate quarter-mile hike. Unlike some of the more arduous trails in the North Carolina mountains, which boast steep inclines and drops and are for more experienced hikers, the path to Pearson’s Falls is an easily managed trek for the entire family. The path is remarkably well-maintained by the Tryon Garden Club and boasts wooden handrails along any points that might prove challenging to young adventurers.
The Glen is home to over 310 species of wildflowers and plants, including a few that are quite rare. Classified as a deciduous climax forest, the Glen features mosses, lichens, shrubs, and a variety of trees.
You take lots of photos and videos at the falls, then make your way back down the trail to the picnic area, where you enjoy a light lunch.
The sound of the cove is magical. The area has been designated a bird sanctuary, and the chatter of the different species is a conversation you can’t resist eavesdropping on. The spring-fed flow of Colts Creek over ancient rocks is soothing in a way you hadn’t expected. The cove gives the paradoxical impression of being as old as the earth itself yet as new as the present moment. You leave refreshed.
Back at the Lodge, you and your family relax and watch the sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains. You stroll Saluda’s charming Main Street and check out its quaint shops and general store. Getting hungry, your family opts for Green River BBQ, or maybe The Purple Onion, or any one of Saluda’s many fantastic restaurants. You return to Early Blue Motel and enjoy the company of family around the fire pit, basking in the happiness of a truly splendid weekend getaway in the North Carolina Mountains.