If your family is looking for a quick fall or winter getaway that’s a little easier on the bank account and within a couple of hours of the Upstate, we’ve found a few options in the Western North Carolina mountains. From hiking to waterfalls to fly fishing to history, there is something the whole family will love.
Just north of the Upstate lies the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Land of the Waterfalls, an incredibly beautiful part of North Carolina that is within easy driving distance for Greenville families and full of opportunities to explore the outdoors and make wonderful memories together.
The window between late fall and the end of the winter is the off-season, or Shoulder Season in some places, for the area, when leaf-peeping crowds head home and the chillier weather sets in. This is the time for budget-minded families to hop in the car and escape for an off-season getaway because prices for almost everything are so much cheaper than other times of the year.
Free Things to Do
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited in the country, is just beyond Cherokee, NC or Bryson City. There is no admission costs and while the road to the Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the region, is often closed during the winter, there are free hikes to enjoy as well as the Junior Ranger Program at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.
If you love unexplained mysteries, your family needs to check out Judaculla Rock, a huge boulder with unexplained petroglyphs said to be carved by Indians possibly thousands of years ago. It’s located in Cullowhee, NC.
The kids will remember a trip to the Jackson County Green Energy Park where they will be able to see glass blowers, potters, and blacksmiths all at work harnessing otherwise harmful greenhouse gas from landfills into clean energy to create their art. Pretty cool. Tours are available and the park is located in Dillsboro, NC.
Cashiers is located in the Land of the Waterfalls – we love this area and you can read more about our week-long trip to the area, also called Sapphire Valley – and there are truly beautiful waterfalls to see. During the wintertime, if it’s cold enough the water will turn to ice and the falls become a whole other kind of stunning. Silver Run Falls is essentially a no-hike waterfall, perfect for swimming in the summer but just as pretty in the winter and located right outside Cashiers.
Schoolhouse Falls is in Panthertown Valley and around a three-mile roundtrip hike. The falls empty into a huge pool of water that is popular for fly fishermen and you can also walk behind the falls if the water level is low enough.
Mingo Falls in Cherokee is another stunning waterfall. It’s only a quarter-mile hike to see the falls but you have to climb 161 stairs!
For a more challenging hike, head to Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park, a huge 150-foot waterfall that is amazing. It’s a four-mile somewhat difficult hike, especially on the way back to the car, but totally worth it. I’ve taken my kids, ages 9 and 6, and they were able to do the hike in the hot summer weather, so it depends on your family’s abilities (and patience).
Even though I’ve never fly fished, although I’d love to, I enjoy watching the fishermen on the water whenever I see them during hikes. They look so relaxed. The Tuckaseegee River flows through a scenic mountain valley and several quaint communities up in Western NC. Jackson County is known as the North Carolina Trout Capital and home of the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail. The river is very accessible for fishing and teeming with brown, rainbow, and brook trout – the river is stocked with almost 93,000 fish annually. Winter is actually prime fly-fishing time and because they are often feeding more during the day and since the state stocks the river in the fall, you have a really good chance of getting bites. You can bring your own equipment or rent from local outfitters.
Snow Tubing and Skiing
I’ve just started getting into snow tubing with my kids (partially because I’m terrible at skiing) and it’s so fun. All you need to do is get in a giant tube and slide down a mountain. Most places let even small kids do it so it’s perfect for the whole family. You can see our reviews of Moonshine Mountain near Hendersonville and Wolf Ridge in Mars Hill, NC, and learn about what to do when you go and how to prepare for all the fun you’ll have.
Up near Cashiers is also the Sapphire Valley Resort, which has snow tubing and skiing. Before your visit, check the webcam to make sure the slopes are white. Those who prefer a tube will enjoy the 700-foot, multi-lane tubing run with steep walls on both sides to allow for more control at Frozen Falls Tube Park. Lift tickets are available for $70 for adults and $44 for children 12 and under. Those interested in partaking in the adventure that awaits at the Frozen Falls Tube Park can do so for $30 for a 1.75-hour session. Don’t miss the Outhouse Races in February.
Parades & Holiday Fun
Cashiers has a wonderful Christmas parade near the beginning of December, which is the perfect day trip. We love it so much we have a story about this cute Cashiers’s Christmas Parade.
Other holiday events in Western NC are the Lights and Luminaries in Dillsboro and Christmas in Sylva.
A reader-favorite holiday activity is the Polar Express at the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City. They start rides in November.
It’s a holiday tradition for many families in the Upstate and something both kids and adults alike look forward to. The other fun Polar Express train runs out of the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC – our readers also love this one!
Where to Stay
Lodging options in this region include everything from cabins, hotels, bed & breakfasts, AirBnBs, motels, yurts, and even campgrounds.
I’ve stayed at homes at the Sapphire Valley Resort that was booked through Airbnb and VRBO.com. You can search for hotels and motels online – a quick search for Western NC hotels in early December came back with prices from around $89/night up through the $180s/night depending on lodging options. Almost everything will be far less expensive in summer and fall.
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Check out this Cashiers, NC 2 bedroom cottage, walking distance to downtown Cashiers.
Also in Cashiers is The Wells Hotel, which is connected to Whiteside Brewing Co., so bonus points for not having to go far to dine out.
Up in Dillsboro is the Best Western Plus River Escape Inn & Suites, which sits right on the river and where many of the rooms overlook the waterway. It’s also only 30 minutes from the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has a free hot breakfast every morning, and an indoor heated swimming pool.
A favorite lodging option is Sky Ridge Yurts in Bryson City. Not only are the yurts plain cool and unique, but they are also comfortable, clean, and have amazing views of the mountains. They book up quickly during prime Polar Express weekends but may have some weekday availability, especially during the winter and into January/February.
The Hot Springs Resort is on our bucket list – this is a place where you can soak in natural mineral water. Ahh, so relaxing.
Where to Eat
Slab Town Pizza in Cashiers is a favorite of mine. Their pizza is perfection and they also offer calzones, salads, and sandwiches. Buck’s Coffee in Cashiers is great if you need some hot chocolate or baked goods while enjoying the Christmas parade. Whiteside Brewing Co., also in Cashiers, has a family-friendly atmosphere with good food and drink.
And Papas & Beer near the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville is fantastic. They serve affordable and tasty Mexican cuisine and are only about an hour from Greenville.
Ready to plan your Western NC off-season adventure?