I think this is the type of tourist attraction that is a lot more fun if you have kids and/or a deep love of trains.
I took the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, leaving from Bryson City.
From my perspective, the trip was little more than an expensive, glorified car trip to a second-rate, over priced town, with a return trip down the exact track you traveled out on.
As another reviewer noted, there is a road that runs right along the track, which spends a great deal of the time wending its way through scrub trees or rock cuts. There are intermittent glimpses of the lake and the river, through the trees. But that's it. After a while there is only so much waving at rafters that one can do,
And that's it for the view. There is a nice historical commentary that accompanies the trip, but, again, you typically cannot see the things they are describing.
I paid for a seat in the open-air coach ($49), but once the trip started was free to wander into any other car. I imagine in high season this wouldn't be allowed, but no one said anything on my visit. As you pay a surcharge to be upgraded to other cars, this would bother me had I paid for the additional amenities (climate controlled cars, snacks served for free, etc.). See website for full description of rates
The view from the left side of the train is comparatively better than the right. The conductor came through the train and marked our tickets with "L" or "R," to indicate which side of the train we were on. We assumed this was so people couldn't switch from one side to the other and see the same view twice. Particularly when/if the train is crowded.
However, the train simply reverses itself when it reaches the end, and if you were on the right going out, you are on the same side going back. Does this doom the left-side people to the same view? I do not know, as the conductor never came back to check our tickets again (compounding the "sit in any car you like" situation).
There is a concession stand and a dining car on the train. At the concession stand I purchased a hot dog for four dollars, which I had to "make myself," taking a dog from a hot water vat, grabbing a roll from a plastic bin, putting it on a plate.and applying a plastic packet of mustard. For four dollars I'd at least like it served to me.
Two hours into the trip a conductor came through the car with menus and recommended we purchase food from the dining car before the break. I purchased a hot sandwich to take back to my seat -- there are limited # of booths in the car, but imagine that would be a nice thing to do if I were with a small group of people.
For $8.75 I got a rubbery piece of chicken on what was billed as a "hot sourdough" roll, but was in truth a slightly stale white-bread hamburger roll of supermarket quality. There were also a small serving of seasoned potatoes, which were good. I do not eat bread and needed to cut my chicken to eat it. I was told I could not take cutlery from the dining car back to my seat and they were unable to provide a plastic knife or fork.
Shortly afterward we did stop at the end of the line for about 15 minutes. Assuming this was the advertised break, many people went and purchased food. The train began its return journey and about 45 minutes later, the real break was announced. We were stopping for an hour in a local town where there were a number of restaurants and shops.
I really felt that we were misled by the people on board the train. To be honest, I should have done my research better and would have known that an hour break would take place during the trip, and I should have asked someone. But I was unaware and it wasn't made clear why we stopped for 15 minutes mid-way through the trip.
I did not leave the train during the break, but seatmates told me it was a nice little place, albeit overpriced ($3.00 for a soda).
All this being said, if you have kids I'm sure this is a great trip for them to go on. For me, It wasn't a heinous experience, it simply was an unremarkable way to spend five hours of my day and a trip I easily could have made in my own car for less money. For $50 in gas I could have driven every road in the Smokies.
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