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Family Field Trip

Family Field Trip

Wasn’t the best part of going to school the field trips? From exploring museums to eating somewhere other than the school cafeteria, field trips always gave us something exciting to look forward to.

Turn your next family vacation into a family field trip and expand your children’s development beyond the classroom and into the mountains! Learn the legends of our mountain heritage, beautifully told through the generations of families that call Jackson County home. Our itinerary, developed by both local educators and students, is designed to help families make the most out of their trip.

Jackson County’s location is only a few hour’s drive from the Southeast’s largest cities. So, load up the family and take a road trip to our mountain towns. Our family-friendly accommodation prices are much lower than the cost in regional destinations, and we have even more adventure to offer and enjoy.

Social Studies

Learn the History of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian

The Oconaluftee Indian Village, located in Cherokee, transports visitors back to the 1760s. This transformational experience immerses you in authentic and rich culture, as you witness authentic demonstrations such as cultural dances, blowgun making, basket weaving, storytelling and canoe building. From early June to mid-August, the Unto These Hills Drama takes center stage. This live performance traces the Cherokee people through the ages, from the zenith of their power through the momentous heartbreak of the Trail of Tears. Enjoy a day at the Oconaluftee Indian Village and follow it up with the drama to tie it all together.

Down the hill from the Indian Village, The Museum of the Cherokee People gives you a chance to vividly experience the 11,000-year-old Cherokee story. This interactive and authentic journey includes intriguing displays full of sensory experiences that paint a vivid picture of the Cherokee people’s spirit of inventiveness, resilience and strength.

In another part of the county, in Tuckasegee, a historical Cherokee treasure is on display for the world to see. Judaculla Rock is a revered Cherokee historical site. This unique landmark contains 3,000-year-old petroglyphs with mysterious carvings and symbols, said to tell the legends of the Cherokee. One of these legends is that the rock served as a landmark for the hunting god known as Tsukalu or Judaculla. Judaculla was a slant-eyed giant who lived high in the Balsam Mountains. He guarded his hunting grounds from Judaculla’s judgment seat, on what is known today as Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Legend indicates the stone even contains the impression of his hand in the lower right side of the rock.

Early Appalachian Life

Today, electricity and running water are unappreciated commodities. Long ago, not only did our early mountain settlers have to do without, but they also faced many challenges that spanned far beyond not having the “Wi-Fi password.”

For a first-hand look into early Appalachian life, visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This enriching experience accurately simulates a 19th-century farm, complete with barnyard animals, live blacksmithing and farming demonstrations. If you and the kids are looking to stretch your legs, take the two-mile Oconaluftee River Trail at the end of the Mountain Farm Museum and stroll alongside the crystal clear river. Keep your eyes peeled for elk and wild turkey, as the grassy field area is a favorite for these creatures to graze. Bring your binoculars and make sure only to take photos from a distance, as regulations prohibit approaching these creatures closer than 50 yards. Feel like you may be too close? A great way to tell is by using the “rule of thumb.” Hold your thumb up to the creature, and if your thumb completely covers it, then you’re the perfect distance!

Inside the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, you will find a museum that complements the mountain farm museum with artifacts, interactive exhibits and even a gift shop if you’re looking to take a souvenir home. For a more structured educational experience, ask about the Junior Ranger Program. Junior Rangers are critical to the success of the National Park Service, as they become learners and leaders in park sustainability and wildlife safety.

Another way to gain insight into early Appalachian life is to learn about the hardships they faced, such as food production. About a mile into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll find Mingus Mill. This 18th-century turbine grindstone mill is only a three-minute, relatively flat walk from the parking lot. Tours are free when available, and this family favorite is a must-visit. Learn how early settlers made the trek to the mill each week to grind their corn for sustenance to feed themselves and their livestock.

Across the county in Cashiers, the Zachary-Tolbert House tells a robust story. Remaining virtually unaltered for more than 150 years, the house, its furnishings and the museum offers an exclusive look inside the lives of the pioneer settlers of the Cashiers Valley. Not only is it home to one of the largest “plain-style” furniture collections in the country, but the grounds are also home to Colonel John’s Cabin, one of the oldest standing structures in Jackson County, a 1920s kitchen dependency, walking trails and an old schoolhouse. Live demonstrations and tours are also available. Although this attraction is free, donations are encouraged.

Early Americana

For an interactive self-guided tour, head to downtown Sylva to embark on the Sylva Heritage Walk. Through historical photos posted on buildings, you’ll learn about early life in Jackson County and how our town of Sylva has changed through the years.

In Cullowhee, Western Carolina University is home to the Mountain Heritage Center. Through exhibits, publications, educational programs and events, you’ll discover the rich traditions of the mountains, see the Appalachian region from new perspectives, and come away with an enhanced understanding of its land and people. A regional museum, the MHC documents, studies and interprets the culture and history of Southern Appalachia. It provides museum services to Western North Carolina, collecting artifacts, building exhibitions and showcasing traditional skills, including crafts and music.

Learn about early American history at Sylva’s Freedom Park. Located at Mark Watson Park, replicas of our nation’s most important documents – the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are preserved under county, state and national flags.

Science & Biology


Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is much more than just a pleasant scenic drive for you and your family. For those looking to dig a little deeper, there is an abundance of discovery paired with education within the park. The GSMNP is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system. Encompassing more than 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, it surpasses all other areas of equal size in a temperate climate in its incredible diversity. More than 19,000 species have been documented in the park, but scientists believe an additional 80,000 to 100,000 species may also call the park home.

Jackson County is the less crowded side of the Smokies. A favorite species to view from afar is the vibrant elk. These majestic creatures live in the area now, but that wasn’t always the case. Years of hunting and harvesting their meat and fur led to the widespread extinction of elk from our region. After being reintroduced in 2000, the elk are now thriving and can be seen throughout the Great Smokies and the surrounding area. Elk can grow up to 10 feet tall, run up to 45 miles per hour, and can weigh up to 1,000 pounds (yes, that’s right!). This is why the best and safest way to view elk is from the comfort of your car with a pair of binoculars. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled while at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, as elk are commonly known to graze the fields and surrounding areas nearby.

Question: What amphibian “hears” with their feet, breaths with their skin, and calls the WNC Mountains home? If you guessed salamanders, you’re correct! These critters are just a bit smaller than elk and may require a magnifying glass as opposed to binoculars for viewing. The Park is known as the center of diversity for salamander species, as it is home to one of the widest varieties of species in the temperate world. Although beautiful, these adorable little critters need protection, so please keep their safety in mind. Never touch them with your skin, as the oil on your hands can harm them. Also, never stack rocks in the river, as this can detrimentally affect their delicate natural habitat.

And tTere’s something fishy about Jackson County. If you ask our local fly-fishing guides, they’ll tell you it’s due to the WNC Fly Fishing Trail®! Our rivers are filled with Brook, Brown, and Rainbow Trout. In many of our smaller rivers and streams, you’ll discover smaller native Brook Trout that have called these waters home for thousands of years. A great way to create lifelong memories while learning about our fish is by booking a family float trip with our guides. Fly fishing is a great way to bond with your family while also learning about these species, their lifecycle, diet and sustainability efforts.

Flora & Fauna

Question: Did you know when you’re in Jackson County, you’re actually in a temperate rainforest? This is why our mountains are home to the most biodiverse ecosystems in the temperate world. In the Great Smokies alone, there are more than 1,500 species of flowering plants. One of the best ways to learn about the unique flora and fauna in our region is by taking an ecology tour with Bigelow’s Botanical Excursions. Options range from a children’s half-day walk to a family full-day course. If you want to create your own botanical excursion, pick up a botanical guidebook from the Highland Hiker, City Lights Bookstore or Black Balsam Outdoors.

A Field Trip Within a Field Trip

A Regional Must-Visit: The North Carolina Arboretum is located about an hour away from Sylva. Located in Asheville, NC, the NC Arboretum has more than 10 miles of trails and family-friendly nature education programs. With 65+ acres of cultivated gardens, the NC Arboretum is one of the state’s most treasured places. Visitors are greeted by the Arboretum’s mainstay exhibits, including the Bonsai Garden, with up to 50 specimens along with native wildflowers and pollinators throughout the landscape.

Also located in Asheville, the historical Biltmore Estate sheds light on one of the wealthiest families in the early 19th century. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, America’s largest home is a 250-room French Renaissance chateau, exhibiting the Vanderbilt family’s original collection of furnishings, art and antiques. The estate is complete with more than 8,000 acres, including renowned gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the Father of American Landscape Architecture.

Pro Tip: Jackson County’s lodging rates are roughly one-fourth of the rates near the Biltmore and the NC Arboretum, so you’ll get more mountains for your money with a little drive. Book your Biltmore visit at least seven days in advance and save on your visit. Visit during the week to enjoy less crowds.

Art & Music

Jackson County is home to a vibrant art scene. From authentic Appalachian art to basket weaving and glass blowing, authentic art is a specialty. You’re sure to find or learn something new in our area. The Jackson County Green Energy Park offers visitors a chance to witness artists safely and efficiently harness greenhouse gasses from the old town landfill. The gasses are used as an energy source to create blown glass, blacksmithing works and pottery creations. The only of its kind in the world, the JCGEP is open for tours and demonstrations for those who want to get artsy.

The artisan village of Dillsboro is home to a wide variety of authentic hand-made crafts. Dogwood Crafters is an artist coalition, offering works of more than 100 local artisans, with a little bit of everything for sale, including handmade quilts, jewelry, paintings, pottery and more.

Western Carolina University is home to the Fine Arts Museum and Bardo Arts Center, both under the same roof. The Fine Arts Museum features four rotating galleries along with ever-changing exhibitions that highlight the works of regional, national and international artists. Another art option is the David O. Belcher Concert Hall. The 1,000 seat-theatre features a calendar of performances ranging from musicals to plays to dance productions. You’ll surely find a program for the family to enjoy.

The Best Part of the Day: Lunchtime!

Every student looks forward to lunchtime. Fortunately, the options will be much more appealing than the traditional school cafeteria meals. From classic comfort food to vegan, organic and gluten-free options, Jackson County has plenty of palate pleasing fare from which to choose, even the pickiest eaters.

Arguably the best grilled cheese (using home-made bread) can be found at Mad Batter Kitchen in downtown Sylva. Mad Batter provides a menu stacked with delicious, healthier options as well as delicious, from-scratch pizza. For something a little more hearty, try The Coffee Shop. This hometown staple has been serving up comfort food such as country fried steak and gravy since 1926. Other local kid favorites are spaghetti from Lulu’s on Main, Slab Town Pizza in Cashiers and, on a cold day, hot cocoa from Bucks Coffee Café.

Cooking at Home

Create family fun by cooking together using locally-sourced ingredients. Find organic produce and much more at our local Farmer’s Markets and produce stands. The Jackson County Farmer’s Market in Sylva is held every Saturday morning, when farmers, growers and makers from throughout the region come together near Bridge Park.

P.E. & Recess

When it is time to stretch those legs, there’s no better place than in the N.C. Mountains. From abundant hiking trails to majestic waterfalls, outdoor recreation is the best way to get moving!

Beginner mountain bikers will love the Kid’s Bike Park at the Tuckasegee River Greenway in Cullowhee. This single-track trail brings the extreme down a notch for younger cyclists. Featuring a 750-foot bike path with tabletop jumps, pumps and berms, the Kids’ Bike Park also features a wooden skills course for those looking to sharpen their balance. If your cyclist is ready to hit the “big kid” trails, make sure to check out the Western Carolina University Trail System right down the road in Cullowhee, or Fire Mountain Trails in Cherokee.

From May through September, paddlers will want to take on the Tuckasegee River’s “Mom approved rapids” on a raft, tube or duckie. Jackson County’s waterways allow for every level of paddler to learn new skills or sharpen existing skills. If rapids are not ideal, take on one of our county’s lakes. Our outfitters will ensure you have the gear you need to paddle to some adventure  – no loading the kayaks or canoes required!

A beach in the mountains? We have that, too! For a quick dip, check out the Pines Recreation Area on Lake Glenville. This sandy swim beach is a family favorite and brings the best of the cool mountain air and relaxing simplicity of the beach (minus the sharks, riptides and saltwater). Many of our waterfalls also offer a scenic swim at the foot of a gentle cascade. For this, make sure to check out Silver Run Falls, Dill Falls, Schoolhouse Falls and Granny Burrell Falls. For those really looking to make a splash, Cashiers Sliding Rock is a must! This natural sliding rock located in the cool mountains brings its sliders down into a crystal-clear swimming hole.

Junior Hikers will enjoy some of our family-friendly trails. These include the Oconaluftee River Trail, Devil’s Courthouse Trail and the Tuckasegee River Greenway. For more seasoned outdoor explorers, we recommend Whiteside Mountain, Waterrock Knob and Black Balsam Trail.

Safety First: Before beginning your hiking or waterfall adventure, be sure to check out our safety guide.

Real-Life Treasure Hunt

Kids often dream of going on a treasure hunt. Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices. The GPS will take you to a “cache” location, where you’ll locate the cache, take out an item, leave your own item of equal value, write your name in the logbook, and re-hide the cache in the same location for another treasure hunter to find. With hundreds of caches located in Jackson County, why not take the kids out and make this treasure hunting dream come true? Not only will the kids love geocaching, but it’s also a great way to bond, explore the great outdoors, and get some exercise. All that’s required is a smart phone with GPS capabilities and a free membership with (we recommend downloading the app.) Check out their website to learn more.

Hit the Stacks at the Library

Standing grandly above the town of Sylva, the 1914 Jackson County Courthouse was renovated into the town’s library. With more than 26,000 square feet of books, rotating exhibitions and state-of-the-art technology, every student will find a book and a nook. The library offers plenty of quiet space, and WiFi both inside and outside on the patio, for your student to get some remote schoolwork done.

A+ Deserves a Sweet Reward

Once your student has spent a day full of engaging in enriching learning activities, it’s time to cash in a reward! Jackson County is home to many “sweet spots” such as ice cream parlors, chocolate shops, bakeries and more. Every A+ student deserves a reward!

“Teacher’s” Pay

Don’t forget to reward the “teacher” as well. Our Jackson County Ale Trail locations are all kid-friendly, offering laid back vibes and a rotation of events and live music for all ages. Feeling tense? Make sure to check out our relaxation and wellness offerings, including spas. Every teacher deserves some “me time.”


After a full day of learning and exploring, it’s time to get some much-needed rest. Our affordable accommodations range from cozy cabins, boutique hotels and vacation rentals. We have a peaceful place for every family budget and lifestyle. Request our FREE Visitor Guide, which covers all 494 square miles of adventure, for an even more in-depth look at all things Jackson County.

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