Wasn’t the best part of going to school the field trips? From exploring museums to getting to eat somewhere other than the school cafeteria, field trips always gave us something to look forward to.
Make your family vacation a family field trip and expand your children’s development beyond the classroom. 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 “field trip.”
Load the Activity Bus (or car): Jackson County’s location is only a few hour’s drive from the Southeast’s largest cities. Load up the family and take a road trip to our mountain towns. Our family-friendly accommodation prices are up to a fourth of the price of regional cities, and we have even more adventure to offer and enjoy.
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 historical show 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.
Right 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 the vivid picture of the Cherokee people’s spirit of inventiveness, resilience, and strength.
On the other end of the county in Tuckasegee, a historical Cherokee treasure is preserved 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 up 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. The stone even contains the impression of his hand in the lower right side of the rock.
Early Appalachian Life
Electricity and running water are often unappreciated commodities. Not only did the early settlers of our mountains have to do without, but they also faced many challenges that span far beyond not having the “Wifi Password.”
To get a first-hand look into early Appalachian life, visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This enriching experience accurately simulates a 19th-century farm, complete with barnyard animals and live blacksmithing and farming demonstrations. If you and the kids are looking to stretch your legs, take the 2-mile Oconaluftee River Trail at the end of the Mountain Farm Museum and stroll alongside the crystal clear river. Make sure to 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 along 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, make sure to 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 great way to learn about early Appalachian life is by learning about the hardships they faced, such as food production. About a mile into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll find Mingus Mill. This 18th-century turbine grindstone mill is fully functional and is only a 3-minute relatively flat walk from the parking lot. Tours are free when available, and this family favorite is a must-visit. Learn about how early settlers had to make the trek to the mill weekly to grind their corn for sustenance for themselves and their livestock.
Across the County in Cashiers, the Zachary-Tolbert House has a robust story to tell. Remaining virtually unaltered for over 150 years, the house and museum offer 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 1920’s Kitchen Dependency, walking trails, and an old School House. Live demonstrations and tours are also available. Although free, donations are encouraged.
For an interactive self-guided tour, head to downtown Sylva to embark on the Sylva Heritage Walk. Learn about early life in Jackson County and how our town of Sylva has changed through historical photos that are posted on the buildings showing what life was like then and now.
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, United States Constitution, and Bill of Rights are preserved under county, state, and national flags.
Science & Biology
The 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 over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, no other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park’s incredible diversity. Over 19,000 species have been documented in the park, but scientists believe an additional 80,000-100,000 species may also call the park home.
Enjoy the less crowded side of the Great Smokies here in Jackson County. A favorite species to view from afar is the vibrant elk population. These majestic creatures may live here now, but that wasn’t always the case. Years of hunting and harvesting their meat and fur led to widespread extinction of elk from our region. After being reintroduced in 2000, these elk are now thriving today 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!). It is for this reason that 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 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, we ask that while searching for these adorable little critters that you keep their safety in mind. Please make sure never to 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.
There’s something fishy about Jackson County. If you ask our local fly-fishing guides, they’ll tell you that 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 who 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 that 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 over 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.
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 over 10 miles of trails and family-friendly nature education programs. With over 65 acres of cultivated gardens, the NC Arboretum is one of the state’s most treasured possessions. Visitors are greeted by the Arboretum’s mainstay exhibits, including the Bonsai Garden, with up to 50 specimens along with the 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 a fourth of what rates are near Biltmore and the NC Arboretum, so you can get more mountains for your money. Book your Biltmore visit at least seven days in advance and save $10 on your visit. Make sure to visit during the week to enjoy no crowds.
Art & Music
Jackson County is home to a vibrant art scene. From authentic Appalachian art to basket weaving and glass blowing, you’re sure to find and learn something new and unique 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. These gasses are used as an energy source to create blow glass, blacksmithing, 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 over 100 local artisans, with a little bit of everything for sale from handmade quilts, jewelry, paintings, pottery, and more.
Western Carolina University is also home to the Fine Arts Museum and Bardo Arts Center, all under the same roof. The Fine Arts Museum features four rotating galleries along with rotating exhibitions that highlight the works of regional, national, and international artists. Another option for exploring, is the David O. Belcher Concert Hall. The 1,000 seat-theatre features rotating performances ranging from musicals to plays, classical to rock performances. Here, you can always find a program for the family to enjoy.
The Best Part of the Day: Lunchtime!
Every school student looks forward to lunchtime. Fortunately, these options will be found much more favorable 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 to choose from for 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 also provides a menu stacked with delicious healthier options if it’s time to eat some veggies, or pizza by the slice if you’d prefer to splurge. 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 Classes Taught by You
Another great option is to cook up your own fare together using locally-sourced ingredients. Find organic produce and much more at our local Farmer’s Markets, produce stands, or the Farm at Walnut Grove, which serves specialty meats as well as some of the best produce around.
P.E. & Recess
When it is time to stretch those legs, there’s no better place to get active 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 new 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 newly added 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 water ways 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).
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 the relaxing simplicity of the beach (minus the sharks, riptides and saltwater). Many of our waterfalls also offer a scenic swim underneath 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 to 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 being the one to uncover that unfound treasure! 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 Geocaching.com (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 over 26,000 square feet of books, rotating exhibitions, and state-of-the-art technology, every student will find a book or a nook to learn in. The library also 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.
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 and our mediation center. 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, covering all 494 square miles of adventure for an even more in-depth guide to all things Jackson County.