The famed Great American Road Trip would be incomplete without visiting a few national parks along the way. From Yosemite’s awe-inspiring waterfalls to the wooded respites of the Great Smoky Mountains to the narrow crevasses of Zion, the lands under the purview of the National Park Service are unparalled in their beauty.
Outside of these parks, home to stunning vistas and breathtaking wonders, are “gateway” towns: small communities that cater to the annual crowds with charming hotels, greasy spoons, local culture and innovative museums that tell fascinating stories. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, a nationwide celebration of America’s greatest natural resource, we have focused this fifth annual edition of our 20 Best Small Towns to Visit around the National Parks.
Each of these communities offer their own distinct and diverse histories, cultures, food and art—as well as happening to be close to the entrances to some of the United States’ most prized heritage locations.
To narrow down the numbers, we once again enlisted the help of the geographic information company Esri to sort the nation’s small towns (those with a population under 20,000) that were in driving range to a national park or a designated National Park Service location. This year’s list traverses all the way from a secluded Alaskan hamlet in the shadow of glaciers to a sunny harbor in the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. Enjoy, and safe travels!
Bryson City, North Carolina
A “Road to Nowhere,” has perhaps never led somewhere better than the dead-end road out of Bryson City. After the United States created the Smoky Mountains National Park in 1930s and Fontana Lake in the 1940s, the government was supposed to build a road from the town to the Fontana Dam area, but it was never completed.
Lakeview Drive, the eastern section of what was to become the "North Shore Road" only was built out 7 miles (along with a tunnel) before progress halted on it permanently. Now the scenic route, which ends at the tunnel, serves as a destination of its own for visitors, many who take flashlights and then go on foot through the tunnel.
Home to a piece of the Great Smoky Mountains, the town has everything an outdoors adventurer could want, as its chamber of commerce sums up nicely, “creeks for tubing, trails for hiking and horseback riding, and beautiful waterfalls.”
Soak in the scene by boarding the scenic railroad that departs from Bryson City or get a bird’s eye view by ziplining through the forest on a Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tour. Bryson City is a whitewater rafting mecca (it even hosted the International Canoe Federation World Championships in 2013). Though the Class II and III rapids on the Nantahala River tend to demand one’s full attention, make sure to look up every now and then to catch some stunning views, as the river traces through the Nantahala National Forest.
So long as having a television isn’t a priority, a convenient place to book a stay in Bryson City is the Fryemont Inn, which has been around since 1900s. The historic lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a great jumping point to downtown Bryson, full of small town charm. Take a walking tour starting at Main Street and brush up on your history of the town at the Swain County Visitor Center and Heritage Museum, where you can learn about Bryson City’s original inhabitants, the Cherokee.
Though many Cherokee were pushed out of their homes following President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, some rejected the order, hiding out in the remote Smoky Mountains. Ten miles from Bryson City now lies a Cherokee reservation, home to many descendants of those resisters. It’s worth a visit, if only to check out work from the longest-running Native American Arts cooperative in the United States, which has been around since 1946.
Road Trip Destinations: