Day Trip to The Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, NC

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Thinking about a day trip to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, NC? KAG Guest Contributor Lauren Justus visited to the Nantahala Outdoor Center with her family. She’s telling us all about their adventures, with recommendations on things to do and where to eat near the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

I want to tell you about the perfect family day trip to the NC mountains. We left Greenville, SC one Sunday morning, heading toward the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City, NC. This was exactly a two-hour drive for us. It was most definitely worth it. We spent the day enjoying the beautiful sights and sounds of the NOC campus, restaurants, and outfitters store and ended our day with an adventurous tubing experience. 

This article includes:
Dining at the Nantahala Outdoor Center
Whitewater Rafting at NOC
Things to Do With Kids at Nantahala Outdoor Center
More Things to Do at NOC
Deep Creek Tubing
Tips for Visiting NOC With Your Family

Nantahalla outdoor center water fun

Find a place to stay in Bryson City, NC. This article contains Stay22 affiliate links.

Dining at the NOC

There are two great riverfront dining options at the NOC. We opted for River’s End Restaurant, open daily. We arrived as the restaurant was opening for lunch and were able to sit outside on the covered porch overlooking the river. The weather was perfect! There was a really nice breeze, as the restaurant sits up high overlooking the river. Get there early to grab a prime seat on the patio – it filled up quickly on a Sunday. With a menu ranging from burgers, salads, pizza, and sandwiches, there is definitely something for everyone.

If you’re looking for a more casual option, order food for pick up at Big Wesser, directly across from River’s End Restaurant, where you’ll take your food to a table (first come, first served) with also great views of the action on the water! 

NOC Whitewater Rafting

The NOC is known for their exciting whitewater rafting adventures. This wasn’t part of our trip since our preschool-age children were with us, but I highly recommend those with older children who are at least 7 years old or 60 lbs. look into a guided rafting trip down the Nantahala River.

This 8-mile trip is a great option for first-time rafters, led by an experienced NOC guide to help navigate the river and successfully glide down the Class III rapids at the very end of the course. Talk about an adrenaline rush! All safety gear is provided for you, just be sure to bring your water shoes, a towel, and some dry clothes to change into.

The NOC will transport you up to the top of the course by bus. Prepare yourself for this three-hour adventure, the Nantahala River is the coldest whitewater stream in the Southeast with an average temperature barely reaching the 50’s.   

Things to do at the NOC For the Little Ones

After lunch, we walked around the NOC grounds to explore. Our boys (ages 3 and 5) spent well over an hour wading in the crystal clear water watching brave kayakers and rafters navigate the river. There is a very shallow area next to the restaurants with plenty of room to space out and get your feet wet. The 50-degree water didn’t stop my three-year-old from getting soaked from head to toe!

Your kids will also love this: walk (upstream) to the back of River’s Edge Restaurant. You’ll see a sidewalk that will take you uphill to an overlook. It’s a very short walk. Here you will find an entertaining view of the Class III rapids at the end of the rafting course. Around 12:30 pm we were able to watch dozens of whitewater rafters and kayakers making their way down the final (intense) falls! Our children found that very exciting. We watched many rafters fall out and successfully get rescued by other rafts in the fleet!

At the NOC watching rafters

Also on that Sunday afternoon, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad (GSMR) stopped at the NOC for a one-hour layover, and how I wish I could have caught my boys’ expressions when they saw that train coming to a stop right as we were walking by! The GSMR posts its daily schedule on its website, so check that before you plan your visit to the Nantahala Outdoor Center to see if that can work out for your day trip.  

More Things to Do at NOC

Hiking the Appalachian Trail
If you’ve ever dreamed of setting foot on the Appalachian Trail, you can do just that at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Just a quick walk over the train tracks you’ll see signs pointing you to the trail. We didn’t venture too far, but it was really fun to experience that!

Zip Lining
If you are looking for more adventure, check out the NOC’s guided zip line tour. You’ll travel through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and have prime views of Fontana Lake.

Deep Creek Tubing

As we departed the NOC and headed back to Greenville, we stopped at Deep Creek Tube Center and Campground (directly on our route home). My five-year-old was asking for an adventure, and did we ever find it! We rented tubes for $7 per person, tied them to the top of our car, and drove about a mile into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Deep Creek is a one-mile stretch with the upper section more appropriate for older children and adults. We opted for the lower section which is wider and much calmer, but still very exciting. I was able to tube independently while holding a rope attached to my son’s tube. He was always beside me. You’ll park your car and walk while carrying your tubes the half-mile journey (via sidewalk) where you will see many places to put your tube in and start the fun! We went down the half-mile (lower section) three times before heading home. The water is shallow, about 2 feet deep. Tubing season ends after Labor Day weekend.

Tubing at Deep Creek

Pro Tips for Visiting the NOC

Arrive early to the Nantahala Outdoor Center if you plan to visit on a weekend. When we arrived, the main parking lot to the NOC was already full at 10:30 am (mainly from rafters who arrived early for their guided tours). There are signs that point you to alternate parking areas but I can see how those would also fill up quickly.

Pack a towel and change of clothes for everyone, even if you aren’t participating in the white water rafting. My kids really wanted me to join in on the fun of feeling the “take-your-breath-away” temperature of the Nantahala River! With that said, bring your water shoes! There are really nice changing facilities available next to the Big Wesser Restaurant and rafting check-in area.

Checking out trains at Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

Check the Great Smoky Mountain railroad schedule online to see if you can expect a visit from the train during your exploration of the NOC!

Pose for a family photo on the NOC bridge, you can’t miss it!

I hope you enjoy the atmosphere of the NOC as much as we did. It was just what our family needed, and good for the soul to breathe in some fresh mountain air! 

About the Author
Lauren Justus lives in Greenville, SC with her husband, Chris, and two sons, Mason (5) and Parker (3). When she's not chasing around her two boys at home, she is always working on planning their next family adventure. Growing up on the Georgia coast has her eager to explore the beauty of the western NC mountains, and residing in Greenville has opened the doors to do just that. Lauren and her family have been living in the Greenville area since 2013.

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