If you’re dreaming of a winter wonderland, it’s hard to beat Christmas in the Smoky Mountains.
This stunning region in East Tennessee, known for its gorgeous, colorful mountains, transforms during the holiday season. Of course, it’s still just as beautiful, but the entire area embraces the holidays, becoming festive and cozy.
Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a thrill-seeker, or simply seeking a postcard-perfect holiday retreat, Christmas in the Smoky Mountains has something special in store for you.
In this guide, we break down everything you need to know to make the most of your holiday in the Smokies. Bundle up and let’s go!
The Complete Guide to Spending Christmas in The Smoky Mountains
What to Expect Weather-wise
Winter weather in the Smoky Mountains can be chilly, but it might be milder than you expect. The higher elevations get snow, don’t get us wrong. But, accumulation is typically minimal at lower elevations.
For example, Pigeon Forge only gets an average of six inches of snow all winter. Gatlinburg, which sits slightly higher, gets an average of nine inches. The national park also has significantly higher points of elevation — receiving the most snow in the region.
Don’t worry, though, because a fresh dusting of snow adds a picturesque touch to the landscape.
In town, expect daytime temperatures to range from the mid-40s to the low 50s while it often drops lower at night into the 20s. However, an occasional extra warm or cold day is not uncommon. So make sure to pack layers for your visit during Christmas in the Smoky Mountains!
Booking Travel Logistics
The holiday season is a popular time to visit the Smokies bringing in lots of tourism. We highly recommend planning your trip well in advance. Book your accommodation and tours as early as possible to ensure you get your first picks.
Attractions like Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas and the Gatlinburg Winter Magic Trolley tend to sell out quickly closer to the holidays. Early reservations are a must.
Crowds and Traffic
While many people retreat to the mountains for a quiet escape, the holiday season brings a fair share of visitors.
Expect heavy crowds, especially on weekends in popular cities like Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.
Traffic also gets congested during peak hours, so plan your activities and travel times accordingly.
To avoid the rush during Christmas in the Smoky Mountains, consider exploring less crowded areas like Cosby. Quieter corners of the national park are another great option.
Parking in The Smokies
Piggybacking on what we just said, parking in the Smokies can be challenging during the holidays. Again, this is especially true in bustling towns like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Arriving early in the day and visiting on weekdays can help beat some of the crowds. Also, public transportation like the FREE Gatlinburg Trolley helps ease parking stress.
You can find paid parking lots in each town as well as at some attractions. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to have some small change on hand.
Special Holi-Dates to Remember
Throughout the season, you’ll find several major events for Christmas in the Smoky Mountains. Keep these dates in mind:
- November 18: The Island tree lighting with Paula Deen
- December 1: Gatlinburg Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade
- December 1: Christmas at the Courthouse and annual tree lighting in Sevierville
- December 2: Sevierville’s annual Christmas parade
- Second weekend of November: Pigeon Forge Winterfest annual kickoff, although Winterfest runs from November through February
- Early to mid-November: Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas, which runs from November through early January, featuring festive shows, dazzling decorations, and themed food
- Early November: Sevierville’s Smoky Mountain Winterfest kickoff. Like Winterfest in Pigeon Forge, this ‘festival’ includes several events throughout the city over the course of two months.
Where to Stay in The Smokies for Christmas
There’s no shortage of amazing places to stay in the Smoky Mountains. From cozy cabins in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to unique-themed hotels, even the most discerning travelers will find a favorite place.
We came up with our top three recommendations, specifically for spending Christmas in the Smoky Mountains.
1. VAYHAUS Cabin (Gatlinburg)
Experience a magical Christmas in the Smoky Mountains at this contemporary Bauhaus-inspired cabin in Gatlinburg. This new construction gem has a unique modern design with room for 10, making it ideal for holiday gatherings.
It also has floor-to-ceiling windows on multiple levels, so you’ll enjoy continuous views of the winter wonderland outside.
And although it’ll be cold, you’ll want to spend lots of time in the outdoor courtyard.
It has oversized Connect Four and cornhole games, and an outdoor TV for watching holiday classics. And most importantly, heaters!
2. ‘Hapey’ Memories Cabin (Pigeon Forge)
If your main priority is simply connecting with loved ones this season, book the Hapey Memories cabin.
It sits in a great secluded spot just outside of all the hustle and bustle, so you can enjoy plenty of downtime together. It’s also pet-friendly, so your best furry friend can join the fun, too!
Play corn hole outside, watch for deer from the front porch swing and whip up Christmas breakfast in the newly-renovated kitchen.
When you’re ready to relax, cozy up by the electric fireplace.
3. Wilderness at The Smokies (Sevierville)
If you prefer a traditional hotel experience, it’s hard to top Wilderness at The Smokies.
To begin with, it’s home to the biggest water park in Tennessee, which is open year-round.
And best of all, water park admission is included with all stays. That makes this one of the best hotels in the Smokies for families! For those who prefer fun without water, there’s also a mini golf course, arcade, ropes course, and much more.
During Christmas specifically, the entire resort goes all out with festive decor. Santa always makes at least a few appearances, too. The highlight, though, is the ice skating rink. The resort converts part of its enormous wave pool into a magical rink! Not only can you skate, but they have cocoa and s’mores, too.
Top Christmas Activities & Events in The Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains are teeming with holiday activities to make your Christmas unforgettable. Some require reservations and advance planning, while others are totally free!
1. Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas
For starters, over six million lights illuminate the park. Then there are festive shows indoors and out, dozens of stunning Christmas trees, and different themes throughout the park.
Even the rides at Dollywood take on a seasonal theme. New for 2023, there’s also a nightly Christmas drone show!
Those of you who have been to Dollywood know the food is really the star. Come hungry, because the park has a reputation for amazing holiday food! You can even buy a Tasting Pass (and we highly recommend it!).
2. Lights Over Gatlinburg
Billing itself as “the most popular holiday lights event in Tennessee,” you can’t skip Lights Over Gatlinburg!
The Gatlinburg SkyPark is already a must, but during Christmas in the Smoky Mountains, it’s on another level.
The entire park gets decorated for the holiday, but the SkyBridge itself is jaw-dropping. Walk through the “Tunnel of Light,” a literal tunnel of lights, which spans the ENTIRE length of the bridge! Spanning nearly 700 feet across, it’s North America’s longest pedestrian cable bridge.
The best part? Admission to Lights Over Gatlinburg is included with regular SkyPark admission!
3. Winterfest at The Island, Pigeon Forge
From mid-November through January 5th, The Island transforms into Winterfest as soon as the sun sets each night.
It all starts with the annual kick-off event on November 18th. The night will feature live music, an appearance by Santa, and a choreographed fountain show. An icon of The Island, the fountain takes on holiday colors and “dances” to music and lights, alongside three 40-foot-tall LED Christmas trees.
After the kick-off in November, the light and fountain show takes place every night on the hour from 6-9:00 pm. Best of all, the event is totally free!
4. Ride the Polar Express
Over on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, you can enjoy a classic holiday tradition: riding the Polar Express train. Trains depart from the historic Bryson Depot nightly throughout November and December.
On your ride, you’ll head to pick up Santa Claus from the North Pole. Along the way, the onboard chefs and helpers serve hot cocoa and treats. They also sing lots of cheerful songs! On the trip back, Santa himself goes through the train cars handing out gifts.
This unforgettable event is a wonderful way for families to celebrate Christmas in the Smoky Mountains.
Note that tickets sell out well in advance (almost a year out!). However, look periodically closer to the holidays, too. Life happens and people occasionally cancel bookings.
5. Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Looking for a quieter, more natural Christmas experience? Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you covered.
Winter makes the perfect time to explore the park’s pristine trails. Although some individual roads and trails close, the park is open year-round. And best of all, the crowds are practically non-existent during the winter!
Take advantage of the conditions by hiking to some of the best waterfalls in the Smokies. Many of the trails are easy enough for all skill levels. And, if you time it just right, you may get to see a magical frozen waterfall!
Remember to check the park’s official website or call one of the ranger stations for current conditions.
6. Bluegrass Christmas in The Smokies Festival
It’s no secret that bluegrass has deep roots in East Tennessee. And more specifically, the Appalachian region.
So what better way to celebrate the holiday season than at the annual Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies Festival?
The festival comes to Gatlinburg every year for three days in November. Its lineup features more than a dozen local and regional artists. The music styles extend well beyond bluegrass, also. In addition to the headline genre, you’ll hear soul, gospel, folk, and other types of music.
Held at the convention center, you also have the opportunity to explore downtown Gatlinburg. Take in the shows, then head out and explore Main Street!
Restaurants in The Smokies Open on Christmas Day
If you’re traveling over the holidays, you may want to let someone else do the cooking. We did some research to find out which local restaurants are open on Christmas in the Smoky Mountains.
Before finalizing your plans, please call to confirm that this information hasn’t changed.
- Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant & Farmhouse Grill (Sevierville): Super popular Southern restaurant with family-style portions. Open Christmas Eve until 8:00 pm.
- Cracker Barrel (Pigeon Forge & Sevierville): Open until 2:00 pm Christmas Eve.
- Five Oaks Farm Kitchen (Sevierville): Homestyle dishes that everyone loves. Open 8:00 am – 4:00 pm on Christmas Eve for breakfast only, and 12-8:00 pm on Christmas day for dinner only.
- Calhoun’s (Pigeon Forge): BBQ and pub fare, open 11:00 am to 9:30 pm Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
- Gaucho Urbano (Pigeon Forge): Eat-as-much-as-you-like Brazilian steakhouse, open on Christmas Eve and Christmas day 1-10:00 pm
- Smoky Mountain Brewery (Gatlinburg): One of our favorite Gatlinburg breweries, open Christmas Eve and Christmas day 11:00 am to 10:30 pm.
- Cherokee Grill (Gatlinburg): Open at 2:00 pm for lunch on Christmas Eve and Christmas.
Final Tips for the Perfect Christmas Vacation in The Smoky Mountains
Christmas in the Smoky Mountains is unique and magical.
Spend it strolling through Gatlinburg’s dazzling lights or cozy up with a mug of cocoa by the fireplace in a cozy cabin. Or, head to the national park and enjoy a rare quiet scene! Either way, it’s sure to be a holiday to remember.
Here are some final tips to recap everything we’ve shared here. Plan ahead (as early as possible!), count on wildly varying weather, and have a Plan B. Even with the most careful plans, things can change that you simply can’t control. So, it’s smart to have adaptable plans.
Most of all, embrace the holiday spirit and enjoy the charm of the Smokies during this special time of year!
Featured Image Credit: Visit Gatlinburg