By Guest Blogger Lauren Warren

This year, we made the trek to Bryson City, NC, to ride the Polar Express train through the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. The train is based on the book “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsburg. No one had ridden a Polar Express train before, but we had seen the magical photos of friends and family.

On the day of our train ride, the rain was pouring (of course). However, the weather did not deter the kids. Although our train ride was not until 8:20 that night, we opted to explore downtown Bryson City earlier in the day. I am thrilled we did. There was little to no crowd, and my kids could spend time at each activity. We were also able to get some cute photos in the daylight!

One of our favorite activities was the Smoky Mountains Train Museum, which is attached to the Polar Express gift store. Admission is free with your Polar Express ticket (they just took our word for it and let us in). They have hundreds of miniature trains on display, but the best part was the moving trains you could control. My children loved pressing all the buttons that moved the trains. A button even caused a “Wizard of Oz”-like tornado to spin. Miraculously, we were able to avoid the gift shop without any purchases.

Polar Express

Riding the Polar Express

After exploring, shopping, and eating, we returned to the place we were staying to eat (again) and get ready for our train ride. Our boarding time was 8:05 PM, with the train leaving at 8:20 PM. Unfortunately, the boarding went differently than planned. We had to wait for them to unload the train before us, clean it, and set it up for our trip. So, it was well after 8:20 when we finally got on our train, and our children were not the only ones becoming extremely antsy.

Once the conductor yelled, “All Aboard!” however, it was game on. We boarded quickly, and because of the assigned seats, we had no issues with seating. The table had a cute display with our golden tickets, chocolate bars, and souvenir napkins when we sat down. Our train had two waitpersons, and they were high-energy and entertaining. They led us in songs, handed out hot cocoa and cookies, and held up “The Polar Express” book while a narrator read it over the speaker system.

Then, we arrived at the North Pole. We saw Santa and his elves wave at us from his sled and saw a tour of the town from the train. When the train reversed to head home, Santa was gone. The waitstaff went to look for Santa. Eventually, Santa did appear on our train car to the screaming excitement of all the kids, and he handed out a bell to everyone. The kids were thrilled, and Santa did stop and spoke briefly with each child.

After we got off the train, we quickly walked back to our car as the kids jumped over puddles. We were all super exhausted, but luckily it was just a short ride back to our rental house. The kids had a wonderful time and cried when we left Bryson City. We will probably not make this a yearly tradition, but we will be back sometime soon!

Polar Express

Tips and Tricks

Travel Tips

Bryson City, NC, is approximately a four-hour ride from the Triad area. While you could make this a day trip, I recommend staying at least one night in or near Bryson City, NC. It is an adorable town with plenty to keep you occupied for 24-48 hours.

If you can avoid it, try not to get off any of the Asheville exits for food, gas, or any quick bathroom breaks. We got off one exit and were stuck in Biltmore estate traffic until we could hop a median to get back on the highway and find another exit further down.


If I could offer one word of advice, BUY TICKETS EARLY! Tickets go on sale in early Spring, and people jump all over those things. We planned this as a last-minute trip and bought tickets in November. Hence, the 8:20 PM train ride. Not ideal with younger kids. However, getting tickets for a train ride in the dark would be optimal.

We got First Class Premium tickets, which I enjoyed. Our train was the “Cherokee.” I liked that we could open our windows, there was a bathroom on the train, and the seats were comfortable. Some of the trains do not have assigned seating; in speaking with others, assigned seating is worth the extra money. We sat on the left side of the train. I will buy tickets for the right side if we do it again. The left side offers a better view of the river; however, you get a better view of Santa and the elves on the right side. I do not think you can go wrong either way.

The Polar Express offers add-ons you can purchase with your tickets, such as a stuffed animal or lanyard. We opted to get a copy of the book signed by Santa Clause, as we did not already have the book at home.

The Train Trip

Oh my, the sugar. If your kids are not used to a lot of sugary snacks right before dinner time, go ahead and set the expectations your kids will not be eating everything laid in front of them. Or you can be brave, let them eat it all, and then please pray. We had a full-sized milk chocolate bar for each person, delicious hot chocolate that was super thick and creamy, and a saucer-sized cookie that even Santa would probably think twice about eating due to the sugar content. The cookies are individually wrapped and pre-packaged, which I appreciated due to germs and whatnot. Please test the hot chocolate for your child first. My daughter went straight for it before I thought to try how hot it was. There were a lot of tears for a few minutes due to a burnt mouth.

Dining Options

One of the things I loved about Bryson City was how quaint, yet very cool, the town was. There are a lot of great restaurants to try. We tried two excellent food trucks that I recommend, the Big Laurel and the Rice Wagon. Also, we tried and loved the Everett Street Diner. It was very kid-friendly, and your child can color art for their wall.

I recommend Honey Bear’s Cupcakery for its cupcakes. They are some of the cutest and most festive cupcakes we have seen. And if you can sneak away from the kids, try Mountain Layers Brewing Company. They have several award-winning craft beers, and the views from their rooftop terrace are great.

Places to Shop

Bryson City feels very much like Blowing Rock. There are several cute stores, from boutique clothes to ornaments to Bryson City swag. One store that stood out for its excellent toy selection was MRKT on the Square. They had quality brands and toys for all ages.

Bryson City Shopping

Lodging Options

We opted to stay in a home we rented from But, we had close friends that went a few days after us and stayed in the Best Western in Dillsboro. This town is only 15 minutes away from Bryson City; it is on the river with great views, offers breakfast during your stay, and has an indoor swimming pool. You had me at the indoor swimming pool. If we go again, this is where we stay. We also saw two hotels in downtown Bryson City: ALoft and The Everett Hotel.

Other Things to Do in the Area

If the weather cooperates for you, there are a lot of hiking trails near Bryson City that I would love to check out sometime. We did take Fontana Road to the “Road to Nowhere.” It has a fascinating history, and you can walk through a tunnel at the end. Unfortunately, on the foggy, dark day we went, no one in my family was brave enough to walk to the end of the tunnel.

There is gem mining nearby, and Cherokee, NC, is a very short drive. The Fontana Dam is close and will be added to our list for the next trip also.

Gem Mining

Have you been to the Polar Express in Bryson City? If so, how did you like it? Please leave your comments below.

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