Bryson City, North Carolina
As the southern gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City sticks close to its roots with lots of killer hickory-smoked barbecue and bluegrass music. The five-traffic-light town, completely wrapped by dense forest, still has its old-fashioned ice cream fountain, called Soda Pops; its mountain-crafts shops selling corn-shuck dolls and sourwood honey; and a big, chugging locomotive that runs right through town twice a day.
But in Bryson, you also find a kayak on every roof rack. Outside town is the Deep Creek section of the park – great for trail running, day hikes to a trio of waterfalls, and tubing. Nantahala Outdoor Center is the paddling-rafting nexus of the southeast (if not the country), with a paddling school and float trips on the Nantahala. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad excursion may sound a bit touristy (it is), but the 4.5-hour round-trip is a more laid-back way to see the backcountry. Skip the hotels here, and a book a cabin, like Shooting Star Ridge, outfitted with fire pits, a hot tub, mountain views, and the blessing (or curse?) that is WiFi.
Getting There: Fly to Atlanta; drive three hours north.
For more information, visit greatsmokies.com.