It had all the promise of a beautiful, cool fall weekend, and Laura and I decided to take advantage of it. Saturday afternoon we drove up to Cullowhee, North Carolina to savor a delicious victory as Furman beat Western North Carolina 47-21 in football. We stayed overnight in Bryson City, and that Sunday we were able to do something both of us had wanted to try for quite awhile – take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
I had booked our tickets as soon as we decided on a plan of action for the weekend. It was a good thing I did, too, as CNN featured the railroad as its #2 leaf-viewing attraction on its website. We were also just beating the peak fall foliage crowds, so there were tickets to be had. There are several travel options, ranging from first class down to mere mortal. Even though it was supposed to be chilly, we decided on the open-air car, which was described as follows on their website:
The Open Air Gondola is perfect for those photographers craving that perfect scenic shot! Plenty of space to see the great outdoors! Created from retired baggage and flatbed cars, these open cars feature long padded outward-facing seats, perfect for the panoramic views. A great car for capturing the scents and sounds of nature!
More on that choice in a bit…
The history of the railroad is described in full detail on their website, so I won’t go into detail here. I’ll just describe our experiences on the trip.
We arrived at the Bryson City depot fairly early, and were given our tickets and told where we would be boarding the train. As we waited, I wandered down the train looking at the various cars. I spotted one open-air car, and wondered it if would be ours.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t looked closely at my ticket. Ours looked more like a cattle car, complete with ramps for loading livestock. It was obvious that the description quoted above was designed to put the best positive spin on the situation.
As we waited a large tour group with name tags gathered. A trio of bluegrass musicians set up and started playing for tips and CD sales.
Eventually “All Aboard!” was called, and we lined up to board our cattle car with a minimum of mooing. Turned out that it wasn’t all that bad. The seats were OK, and there was much, much greater visibility than the other cars. This also meant that it would be much, much colder when we got up to speed and the wind picked up. A railroad worker named Mike came through to make sure we were seated, and also let us know that on today’s trip there was room in the closed car, if we got too chilled.
There was a blast from the train whistle, and we were underway. We waved to those on the streets of Bryson City as the train pulled away from the depot. As we left we passed a siding where unused cars for the railroad are kept.
The conductor came through and punched everyone’s ticket. He was wearing traditional attire, and I’m sure that checking the tickets in such a fashion was meant to add to the experience, rather than any other practical consideration.
Heading out of Bryson City the train crosses the Tuckasegee River, then heads into the Western North Carolina countryside. We passed through kudzu canyons and ran along several highways and farms.
One thing I’ve noticed riding on trains is that people dress up their property for curb appeal, but not necessarily for “rail” appeal. The view from a train is much, much different from that of a car on the highway. You get an unexpurgated view of the world traveling by train, including all the little things some folks would rather keep hidden.
The open air car we were in wasn’t too bad. It was chilly, but it certainly did have the best views on the train. I was able to move from side to side to get the best views. We started out mostly on the left side of the train. From my overview of the route on Google Earth, I’d figured that this would give us some of the best views.
Soon the train reached Lake Fontana. Out of the right side of the train we could see the water, and see that it was very, very low. While there has been a drought, the low water levels looked quite severe. I’ve since learned that TVA lowers the lake levels significantly in September to accommodate additional rainfall and melting snows in the winter. Even so, this is much lower than normal.
Also along the lake was spotted lots of floating cabins. There is very little development on the lake, and I wondered if these were a way to get around some restriction, kind of like the squatters’ cabins on Lake Marion. However, these looked much better maintained than that lake shanties on Marion. I’m still unclear about the legality of the floating cabins, but apparently you can rent these from the marina at the upstream end of the lake for as little as $100 a night.
The train crosses the lake on a dramatic steel trestle. We spotted a couple of kayakers out on the lake braving the wind and cool water. Our track continued with the lake now on our side of the train, and with views back towards the mountains and the trestle we had previously crossed.
We passed under a major highway bridge and found ourselves at the former whistle-stop station of Almond. Beyond that this branch of the lake begins to narrow and take on a more river-like quality. The banks along the train track were covered with less and less kudzu, and more exposed rocks. We were starting to enter the Nantahala Gorge. Soon we found ourselves passing by a roaring waterfall – Wesser Falls on the Nantahala, and we were at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
The train pulled slowly through the NOC, blowing its whistle frequently. We passed by the paddling take-out at the base of Nantahala Falls. A slolam course had been set up through the falls, and racing kayaks and C1s were paddling through the course.
We had a great view of the river from our side of the train, and I knew I had picked correctly. We continued on several miles past the NOC, and past the rock quarry in the gorge.
The train eventually reached a siding and came to a stop. At this point they take the engines from the front of the train and move them along the siding to the back (now front) of the train for the return trip. Everyone leans out to watch the process.
We were stopped for about 15 minutes, which gave me time to grab us some lunch from the club car. The prices were reasonable, and the burgers quite good. The train started back up as I was walking back with our food. Our speed was about the same as my walking speed, so it was a bit disconcerting to watch as I seemingly stayed in place next to the same tree as the train moved under me.
At this point we were asked to switch sides so that others could have a view of the river. I didn’t mind too much. Actually, I was suffering – longing to be on the water myself with my kayak, regardless of how cold it might be.
When we got back to NOC we came to a complete stop. The train would remain here for about an hour, allowing folks to shop at NOC and get lunch at one of the little places. Since I’d already gotten lunch for us, Laura and I decided to stay on the train. We were parked right next to Wesser Falls, which provided a calming soundtrack after the racket of the train.
Laura and I took the opportunity to explore some of the other cars. We loved the Cherokee coach, with its ceiling fans and restored wooden paneling.
The other coach car seemed a bit more utilitarian.
Laura was talking with one of the rail workers, Mike, who was quite friendly and informative. She asked about each of the cars, and Mike was willing to take her for a tour of the First Class coaches, even though we weren’t really supposed to be there. I stayed back with our gear. There was a luxury version of our open air coach – the one I had hoped we were in when we first got underway. There was also a nice car with chairs and tables.
Of course, those amenities cost quite a bit more.
Soon we heard the horn blasts indicating it was time to re-board. One more blast, and we were underway back toward Bryson City.
Right at the entrance to the Nantahala Gorge is a long curve. On the way in the train slowed drastically to negotiate the curve, and did so on the way out. At that point there is quite the screeching of iron against iron as the wheels make the turn. Laura and I both wondered if the passenger cars now used on the train are just a bit longer than optimal for this particular stretch of track. That would explain why they have to go so slow and why there is so much noise.
The wind had picked up, and it was actually chillier than the trip out this morning. Combined with the noise from the wheels, it was a bit overwhelming. We decided to try the coach car. The seats were comfortable, but the clacking windows and swaying of the cars seemed even worse that the open-air car. We were starting to get tired AND motion sick.
Soon enough we were back at the station. Even with the uncomfortable bits, it was a great trip, and we enjoyed it thoroughly. The trip was almost, but not quite, too long. If it had continued much longer, we probably really would have been tired and uncomfortable. We definitely want to do this again, perhaps splurging for one of the first class cars next time.
Here are all of the photos from that trip…