NC Weekend Trips: Nantahala River, Fontana Dam, & Cherokee

An overlook of Fontana Lake from the picnic and tent site area. The perfect place to spend one of your NC Weekend Trips.
The view of Fontana Lake from the picnic and tent site area.

Here we go again trying to fit it all in one day. Tyler (my husband) and I spent another weekend in Black Mountain, NC and honestly it was perfect. I think I say that about every weekend though. This time we decided we would try to fit whitewater rafting down the Nantahala River, hiking at Fontana Dam, dinner in Bryson City and seeing ‘Unto These Hills’ in Cherokee all into one long day. Spoiler Alert: One of those items was not accomplished, but we did substitute a couple other things instead. The day was action packed for sure and also one of the most fun. Tyler and I do quick weekend trips like this all the time, so I think I’ll start doing a series on NC weekend trips to show off what this beautiful state has to offer.

Nantahala River with Nantahala Outdoor Center

We booked the 9:15 self-guided trip with Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and if you have not been here it is an event in itself. They offer tons of different activities that you can learn more about here. I’ll go ahead and get all the tips and recommendations out of the way. If it’s everyone’s first time rafting then you may want to take a guided trip, but if anyone has experience then you’ll be fine doing a self-guided one. Tyler and I chose to do a double duckie and we did great. He does have a ton of whitewater experience though. If you can book your trip early in the morning I would highly recommend it. Number one, it gets super crowded later in the day on weekends and number two, the steam rising off the river in the mornings is breathtaking. You feel like you’re in a nature documentary. All that steam is produced because the water is freezing cold though! They do provide wetsuits and splash guards if you want them. I chose to take just the splash guard, and even though it was definitely colder than I would like I got used to the water after a while. I was wearing quick-dry shorts and a tank top and the weather was in the low 80s. Your rentals are for four hours when you do a self-guided trip and towards the end there is a restaurant called Pizza By the River, PBR for short. Make sure you bring a dry bag to put your wallet and phone in so you can make a stop and grab some food.

River's End Restaurant at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The restaurant is perched right next to the river.

Our trip down the river was the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation. Tyler loves huge rapids, like IVs and Vs, and I love flat water. The Nantahala has lots of Class II rapids and one Class III at the end and since we were in a duckie it was fun and middle ground for both of us. The employees at NOC actually call them divorce duckies which we found out as we were carrying it down to the river. Promising, I know. But it worked out great because I sat in the front and just paddled and Tyler was in the back in charge of the steering. The Class II rapids give you some bumps and then during the flat parts you get to enjoy the scenery of the mountains. Nantahala Falls is at the very end and is actually optional to run. But Tyler and I did it and hit the perfect line! You really need to make this part of one of your NC weekend trips.

Tyler and I in our double duckie right after going through Nantahala Falls. Be sure to make this part of your NC Weekend Trips.
This was taken right after going through Nantahala Falls.

After we got off the river all we had to do was return our duckie, PFDs, paddles, and my splash jacket and we were good to go. We stuck around for a while though just because there are so many cool things to see and do! At about 11:30 we got off the river and we were both hungry so we stopped at Big Wesser which has bar food and a long list of beers on tap. We had chips & queso with local beer and sat by the river to watch kayakers compete in the slalom course. Once we finished up we checked out the Outdoor Center that sells anything you would ever need for every outdoor activity, the General Store, and went by their other restaurant, River’s End.

Fontana Dam

We had packed a picnic so we headed towards the dam to find a good place to stop and eat. We passed by many places with beautiful views and a couple picnic tables, but there wasn’t much parking. When we got to a parking lot by the road where the tent sites and bathhouse were we pulled over to eat at the tables, but you couldn’t see the lake because of the trees. The tent sites were the same way which was a little disappointing. Our plan was to hike, but we just didn’t have time to fit that in. Instead we hung our Eno Hammocks up by one of the sites and took a quick nap since we were both worn out. After both of us got up, we hopped back in the car and kept on moving towards the dam.

On top of the observation deack at Fontana Dam you can see the surrounding mountains and river flowing from the dam. You can also backpack in this area during NC weekend trips.
The view of the river from the observation deck at the dam.

I am not as crazy about going to see dams like Tyler is, but he’s an engineer through and through. It was still pretty neat to see how big it is and there was no one on the lake so it was beautiful. I didn’t know this at the time, but the NOC offers kayak and SUP rentals for the lake. This would be the perfect way to enjoy a peaceful day. There is a visitor’s center and small store where you can buy packaged snacks and drinks up at the dam. It also has tons of parking since the Appalachian Trail goes across the dam and this is a popular place for backpacking. Another options for future NC weekend trips.

Bryson City

This is one of those places that I absolutely have to go back and visit. We got there just in time to have a flight at Nantahala Brewing Company and dinner right beside it. This little town is adorable though. I would love to spend time just walking around downtown. There is also lots of hiking in the area and a Train Museum! You can ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and they offer many different specialty rides (like one with wine) that you can check out here.

NC weekend trips aren't complete without craft beer. This flight is from Nantahala Brewing Company.
A flight from Nantahala Brewing Company.

Cherokee

From Bryson City we had to head straight to the outdoor theater in Cherokee. We had purchased our tickets the night before and they were at Will Call. People were already lined up to get in at around 6:45pm and the doors open at 7pm. Keep in mind they have no restrooms outside of the theater, so if you get there early you have no bathroom options until the doors open. Once we got inside we went to the concession stand where they had reasonably priced snacks, candy, and drinks. We got a box of popcorn and a refillable soft drink. You can get water in the refillable cup instead of buying bottled water, but we didn’t know this until we saw another person doing it. There are four different places that you can choose from to sit: Middle Center, Left or Right Stage, and the Terrace. We chose the Middle Center even though it’s the most expensive and you have assigned seats. I would recommend buying tickets in the Left or Right Sections because the seating is first come, first serve and they are cheaper than the Middle. The seats are really high for an average person. I am 5’-6” and my feet did not reach the floor. Staff members stand by the main aisles and offer stools for your feet, but they quickly ran out. It is slightly uncomfortable to sit like that for a long time. If you bring a blanket though you can use it to put behind your back. We went in the beginning of August and didn’t need the blanket for warmth, but I’m glad we brought it.

The backstage tour is held for 'Unto These Hills' right before the play starts. This play needs to be part of your NC weekend trips.
The outdoor theater where ‘Unto These Hills’ is held.

The play itself is sad, but it’s important for everyone to learn about that time in history. Towards the end it is uplifting and has a happier outlook for the future. The time period it covers is from the first settlers arriving from Spain and England until the late 1800s, after the Trail of Tears. I love history and I learned many things during the play that I wasn’t aware of before. This play is probably best for children who are mature enough to understand the history and older. There are a few loud noises that startled even me when they were mimicking gunfire and I know it startled the toddlers around me. If you had a full day like we did before you come to the play, then be sure to get some caffeine before the show. I found myself dozing off after intermission and not because the play was boring. I was exhausted. If you have time, be sure to check out the Oconaluftee Indian Village that is right up the hill from the theater. It is open seasonally and had already closed by the time we got to Cherokee. You can get more information about ‘Unto These Hills’ and Oconaluftee here.

Are you tired yet?

In all of our NC Weekend Trips we try to pack in as much as we can. There is so much to see and do in so little time. I guess that is every trip we take though, not just in North Carolina. This really was a perfect day though, even if it was long and by the end I couldn’t hold my eyes open. The Nantahala River provides the adventure, Fontana Dam the relaxation, and ‘Unto These Hills’ the history and arts. What else could you want in a day?

What do you think about the first of our NC Weekend Trips series? Make sure to subscribe if you don’t want to miss future posts!

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