The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is easily our nation’s most visited national park with nearly 13 million visitors in 2022, more than the next 2 parks combined (Grand Canyon plus Zion). That’s a lot of people. Most of them visit during peak season (May -October), so if you are here in the winter (Dec, Jan, Feb), you will see a third of the people that you would typically see in July. That’s to your advantage as parking and traffic are becoming real issues in this amazing park which lies within half a day’s drive of most of the East Coast.
In fact, winter is when some of the locals like me enjoy the park the most. We get to hike popular trails and see parts of the park that are too crowded at other times of the year. Plus, there’s snow and icicles and frozen creeks and all the things that generally make winter fun anywhere. Here’s a list of just some of the wonderful winter fun you can have in the Smokies.
Table of contents: ()
- Take A Scenic Winter Drive Through The Park
- Go For A Winter Hike
- Explore One Of The Many Historic Buildings In The Park
- Find A Waterfall
- Cross Country Skiing Or Snowshoeing
- Things To Do Just Outside The National Park
- Tips To Know About Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park In The Winter
- What To Pack
Take A Scenic Winter Drive Through The Park
Enjoy The Most Popular Roads Without Crowds And Get Better Views Too
The views from Newfound Gap Road that connects the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the park are truly spectacular as you climb 3,000 ft to the pass. But on busy days, you can forget about parking at the top or getting a picture without a million other people in it.
The same goes for the Cades Cove Loop Road, another of the most popular drives in the park. It can take two hours to go around this 11-mile loop in stop-and-go traffic in October as hundreds of cars try to cram in to see the fall colors.
But in winter these roads are blessedly free of traffic jams, leaving you free to take in the scenic beauty. Plus, without the haze of humidity so common in the warmer months, you can actually see farther and more clearly in winter.
The only catch is you have to be careful of road closures in the park. Some roads are closed seasonally (usually Dec-March), including popular ones such as the road to Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the park) and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near Gatlinburg. Other roads including Newfound Gap Road are often closed temporarily for weather (mostly ice storms). So always check the NPS’s Road Closure page before you head out.
* Local Tip- Since you can’t get to Clingmans Dome in winter, check out Look Rock Tower off of the Foothills Parkway instead. Not quite the same vista, but still a pretty spectacular 360 view out over the Smokies. And the drive there on the Foothills Parkway won’t disappoint either.
Go For A Winter Hike
Much like enjoying some of the most popular scenic drives without crowds, winter is your chance to hike some of the most popular trails too. Rainbow Falls Trail, Laurel Falls, Chimney Tops, Abrams Falls, Alum Cave, and even the always overcrowded Gatlinburg Trail become much more pleasant places to take a walk in the woods during the winter months.
Also, you get to see a whole lot more once the leaves are off the trees. You might get a nice view from a ridge in winter that you would never see in summer which is another reason winter hikes can be better than summer. Plus, no pesky bugs!
Just beware of ice on rocky trails and on trails that have a lot of elevation gain. Many trails are fine to a certain elevation and then get icy and treacherous very quickly. But it is also quite possible you could have a beautiful sunny 60-degree day and be hiking in t-shirts.
If there is snow on the ground or it is icy, then my favorite trails are the flat and easy trails along some of the larger creeks in the park. The Little River Trail at Elkmont, Middle Prong Trail at Tremont, Deep Creek Trail near Bryson City, and Porters Creek in Greenbrier are great trails for tromping along in the snow while admiring the frozen creeks.
Explore One Of The Many Historic Buildings In The Park
Like so many things mentioned, this is such a better activity in the winter than in summer many times because you can explore the buildings at your own pace without feeling rushed by a million people also trying to squeeze into a tiny log cabin. Also, finding parking is much, much easier in winter.
Cades Cove is probably the best place to explore a historic settlers community, with lots of preserved cabins, a grist mill, and several churches. But there are scattered buildings all around, such as the Bud Ogle cabin on Cherokee Orchard Road near Gatlinburg, Mingus Grist Mill near Oconulaftee, and several buildings in Cataloochee Valley also.
Find A Waterfall
Laurel Falls, Spruce Flats Falls, and Abrams Falls are just some of the fantastic waterfalls in the Smokies. It is not hard to find water in this rainforest. You can even see 3 waterfalls in just 2.4 miles on the Deep Creek Loop Trail. And because everyone loves a waterfall, some of these hikes are much too overcrowded in the busier months to be much fun. But in winter, you can sometimes have the place to yourself to enjoy. Plus, the water levels tend to be the highest in late winter so the falls are the most spectacular.
It rarely gets cold enough in the Smokies for any of the waterfalls to completely freeze over, but they will get tons of great icicles on them if it has stayed below freezing for a few days.
One of my favorite memories in the Smokies is hiking in a foot of snow out to Abrams Falls with my friends just to see that waterfall almost frozen over when I was in high school. It was beautiful and there was no one out there but us.
Cross Country Skiing Or Snowshoeing
Chalk this up to me learning something new every year as I didn’t realize people did this in the Smokies but it makes perfect sense. As mentioned earlier, the road to Clingmans Dome from Newfound Gap is closed from Dec 1- March 31, is never plowed and gets more snow on average than Buffalo, NY (about 100’ a year). It is pretty perfect cross-country skiing conditions.
You can park by the “Road Closed” sign on the Clingmans Dome Road or over in the Newfound Gap parking lot and walk a bit along the road to the turnoff (it’s a busy road but it’s only 0.2 miles to the turnoff from the Newfound Gap parking area). From the road closed sign, you have 7 miles of unplowed road to explore until you get to the parking area for the tower up to Clingmans Dome.
I don’t know of any cross-country ski or snowshoe rental places in the area so you would have to provide your own gear for this adventure.
Things To Do Just Outside The National Park
Enjoy Skiing, Snowboarding, Or Snow Tubing
Okay, I know the “South” and “Snow Sports” don’t exactly go hand in hand but I learned to ski at Ober Gatlinburg as a kid and it still has a warm place in my heart. It only has 10 trails and most of the snow is man-made but the night- skiing can be really fun. It is slightly less crowded than in the daytime, but it can get really chilly up there at night when the wind is blowing so dress warm.
Ober Gatlinburg also has a great snow tubing park, a snow play area for little kids, and indoor ice skating at its base so it really is an all-in-one snow sports funhouse. It even has something called ice bumper cars which I am sure the kids would love to do next time we are up there.
Cataloochee Ski Area is in Maggie Valley, NC just outside the eastern edge of the national park boundaries. It has 18 trails on 50 acres and tends to be a little less crowded than Ober Gatlinburg. It was one of our favorite places to go with the kids when they were learning to ski as they have a lot of beginner trails and the price is reasonable, especially on weekdays. They have a snow tubing place as well, creatively named Tube World, that is located down on the main road that runs through Maggie Valley.
See Holiday Lights
If you are here from about mid-November through the end of December, then you should check out all the light shows in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Just a 20-minute drive from the Visitor Center at the Gatlinburg entrance to the Smokies, Pigeon Forge has a multitude of hotels and restaurants, making it a popular place to stay while visiting the park.
Dollywood is the only amusement park I will consider going to anymore and not just because I think Dolly Parton is one of the greatest people on the planet. She also just puts on a good show and so does her amusement park. The Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival uses 6 million lights, a nightly drone show, and of course, musical performances galore. It is a fantastic way to end a fun-filled day at Dollywood.
Pigeon Forge also has Winterfest, a general celebration of the season that includes a driving tour of the town to see all the best light installations, a free Wonders Of Light walking trail, and a pretty neat choreographed Christmas tree and fountain show at The Island, a free to enter attraction that has rides, restaurants, and shops clustered around its 200 ft tall Ferris Wheel. You can also check out Shadracks at Soaky Mountain Waterpark, a drive-thru light show.
Ride The Polar Express
Take a magical train ride with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City, NC
Bryson City, NC is one of my favorite towns in the southeast and its quaint, small-town feel gets even cozier over winter. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has its depot right downtown and takes one of its trains to the North Pole every day in December to pick up Santa while listening to the book and enjoying hot cocoa. It is an extremely popular event and definitely a kid favorite.
If riding on the Polar Express doesn’t sound appealing, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad also takes a steam engine outing every morning through December and a diesel train outing on weekends only in January and February. In February, they also add an Uncorked ride, a wine and gourmet lunch train ride that is on my bucket list because it sounds amazing. It is a wonderful way to see the scenery of the mountains from the warmth of their vintage train cars.
Tips To Know About Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park In The Winter
Winter Weather In The Smokies
Expect the unexpected, weather-wise. You can have a 50-degree sunny day or a 20-degree day with sleeting rain and ice. And sometimes, that will be the same day. Generally speaking though, highs will be around 50 and lows around 29 in the lower elevations. It will also rain about 10 days a month.
Keep in mind that the higher elevations are usually at least 10 degrees cooler so that rain forecast in the lower elevations will be snow in many places in the park. Newfound Gap gets about 69 inches of snow a year, and Clingmans Dome gets more like 100 inches.
I once left for a December hike when it was 50 degrees and sunny in Knoxville and had to turn around because of an unexpected afternoon rain before I got to Rocky Top at about 5500 feet. What was rain in the valley was wet snow on the trail that then turned into ice as temperatures dropped, taking huge tree branches down all around me.
Where To Stay
General Rule – Stay away from cabins up on mountain tops or ridgelines. Snow plows and salt trucks are not common around here but ice storms are. It is not a good combination for getting down steep driveways or single-lane roads cut into mountainsides.
Gatlinburg is always a popular choice as there are a ton of hotels and cabin rentals crammed into a small area. It is very touristy and overly kitschy to me but lots of people love it. Pigeon Forge is about 10 minutes farther away from the park than Gatlinburg and also has lots of hotel choices, including some wonderfully family-friendly resorts like Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort (I highly recommend this one, we loved our stay) and the Wilderness at the Smokies Resort, which has Tennessee’s largest indoor waterpark.
If you are looking for a little less of the flashing lights and tourist attractions, try a cabin in Wears Valley or Townsend on the Tennessee side, or near Bryson City on the North Carolina side. Just make sure it doesn’t look like you will need an off-roading vehicle to get to it if it snows.
Wildlife In Winter
You probably will not see a lot of wildlife sightings in the winter, especially if it’s cold. Bears will sleep and elk will stay tucked up into the woods and out of the wind. Deer too. But we often get spells of warmer days, so it’s possible to see wildlife out and about if that happens.
Elk will most likely be in the southeastern corner of the park around the Cataloochee Valley or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Deer are commonly seen in the grassy meadows of Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley. Bears can be anywhere along trails as they exit their tree dens and shallow caves for short periods to forage if it has been really warm for several days in a row.
Keep an eye out for road closures and check the park service website before leaving. Snow and ice are the most common reasons for closing but high winds will also close some roads, like Newfound Gap. And again, good road conditions in Gatlinburg or Bryson City don’t mean that the park roads are okay.
To get to Cataloochee Valley, for instance, you need to travel on a gravel road for about 15 minutes so it is frequently closed when there is snow on the ground.
Flooding and even regular maintenance can close bridges and historic structures so it really is a good idea to check the Closures And Alerts page before leaving the house in the morning.
What To Pack
Layers! Since the weather can be so unexpected, you are going to want layers. It will be cold in the mornings, and evenings, and if you hike or drive up any elevation. So be sure to bring your warm clothes. Also, the Smokies are a temperate rainforest, meaning it rains about every 3rd day on average. A raincoat/waterproof jacket is imperative.
Good traction hiking shoes for possibly icy trails and even crampons if you are planning on hiking up to somewhere like Mt. LeConte. (I know this from personal experience and trying to hike there in shin-deep snow without them. We were the only people on the trail without crampons and gaiters and had to hike so slowly.