Tennessee and North Carolina get their share of snow in winter and some of the national park’s interior roads such as the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are seasonally closed. That just makes it more of an adventure. Take a look at our list of to top things to do in winter – one of which is just a fun way to get around.
In the Park Winter Adventures
Hiking isn’t just for the summer months. In the winter, there are fewer crowds and more pleasant temperatures and humidity for hiking. About half the days in winter have high temperatures at more than 50 degrees F, and in the low elevations it only snows more than one inch one-to-five times per year. Yet, higher elevations are cooler and trails that are shaded can get snow-packed and icy. We recommend that you wear microspikes or trail crampons on your hiking boots to give you a sure-footed stride. (What are microspikes? Here is a good selection available at www.rei.com.)
Suggested trail: The 100-year restoration of Alum Cave Trail finished a few years ago in 2016. The five-mile one-way, out and back path goes from Newfound Gap Road to to the top of Mount LeConte. Along the way you’ll cross log bridges, step up new stone stairways, and pass Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, and Alum Cave. The later is really an overhanging cliff, not a cave. Watch out for falling icicles on cliff edges.
See a Frozen Waterfall
Most nights in the park from December through February reach temperatures below freezing. The days typically warm up. This freezing and thawing can make for an incredible waterfall display of dripping ice. Laurel Falls is a moderate hike on the north side of the park whilest Mingo Falls (just outside of the park) and Tom Branch Falls are easy to get to in the southern region. One waterfall you can drive to is Meigs Falls along Little River Road 13 miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Tucked on the far side of the river, you have to watch for it or you’ll drive past.
Winter Fun Nearby the National Park
Take a Winter Train Excursion
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad operates through January 1st. Adventures departing from the Bryson City depot include rides along the Tuckasegee River that pass by the movie set of The Fugitive, and a Polar Express train ride through the quiet wilderness with a stop at the North Pole. For an added treat, check the train schedule for dates the old steam engine is running. www.gsmr.com
Go Downhill at Ober Gatlinburg
It’s the area’s only ski resort and the place where vacationers head for the hills. You’ll find the usual skiing, snowboarding and tubing terrain and an ice skating rink, but there is also the unexpected. At Ober Gatlinburg’s Wildlife Encounter, meet a black bear family, see otters playing underwater, and spot bobcats, birds, and and other animals that make their homes in the Smoky Mountains. (Remember that some animals hibernate in the winter so time your trip accordingly.) obergatlinburg.com
Need a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Great Smoky at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, geologic history and much more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.