Looking for a dreamy winter wonderland for your next getaway? Consider visiting the Smoky Mountains in winter!
It’s no secret that the Great Smokies are one of the country’s most popular destinations year-round. But in the winter, specifically, the region is truly magical — not to mention stunningly beautiful. There’s just something about being surrounded by snow-covered mountains!
Aside from the scenery, though, the Smoky Mountains in the winter offer endless fun activities. Indoor, outdoor, relaxing, adventurous, for families, for adults only…there are things to do here for everyone.
Quick note: We also wrote a super detailed guide on spending Christmas in the Smokies.
Rather, this guide will focus exclusively on “winter” rather than holiday activities, although some events or places may have some overlap.
Ready to get into it? Let’s build your winter itinerary!
The Complete Guide to Visiting The Smoky Mountains in Winter
While there are MANY great reasons to visit the Smoky Mountains in the winter, there are some things to keep in mind.
One of the most important considerations is the weather because it has a direct impact on many activities. Since this is a vast mountainous region with countless valleys, the elevation varies a ton. That means, so does the weather.
With that being said, it’s a good idea to prepare for any and every type of weather. Pack a light rain jacket along with a heavier puffer coat, and plenty of layers.
Also, have backup plans, in particular, if you plan to visit the national park. Roads and trails often close, at least temporarily, due to inclement weather or high winds. Planning ahead of time will prevent you from scrambling to find an alternative if you encounter a closed road or hiking trail.
As a huge bonus, crowds are generally a LOT smaller in the winter, since most tourists enjoy visiting the smokies in the fall or summer seasons.
However, there is an exception. The month of December until right after New Year’s Eve is one of the busiest times of the year! After the New Year celebrations have finished, January and February are rather quiet.
Best Things to Do in The Smoky Mountains in Winter
1. Snow Sports at Ober Gatlinburg
Locals wait all year for one of the best things about the Smoky Mountains in the winter — the opening day of the slopes at Ober Gatlinburg.
Ober is the ONLY proper ski resort in the entire state, and it offers something for everyone. Its 10 slopes include beginner, intermediate, and advanced runs, and there’s also a terrain park. Both beginners and seasoned pros will have a blast!
If you’re not necessarily into skiing or snowboarding, you can also go tubing or sledding. And the best part? Ober has onsite gear rentals, offers lessons including “ski school,” and even has a family-friendly snow play area for all ages.
You can also take a break from the snow altogether and ride the Tennessee Flyer mountain coaster. Or, head inside to go ice skating, try out the ice bumper cars, or grab a snack.
It’s no surprise that Ober is one of the most popular winter activities in Gatlinburg!
2. Ski on Clingman’s Dome Road
For a completely different kind of skiing experience, head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The road leading to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and one of its most popular destinations, closes to vehicles from December 1st through March 31st. BUT, it’s still open to foot traffic!
That creates the unique opportunity for adventurous visitors to explore the road on foot. Or, more specifically, on cross-country skis or snowshoes.
The trek from where you’ll leave your vehicle to Clingmans Dome itself is seven miles one way. That’s ambitious for even really experienced skiers, but the good news is that you don’t have to do the full road. Go as far as you’d like, then simply turn around!
In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll see a few people sledding or tubing just off the road (another favorite activity in the Smoky Mountains in the winter!). It’s a short walk to what feels like a private sledding hill.
Even if you do a super short leg of Clingmans Dome Road, it’s a rare, unforgettable moment to enjoy this crazy-busy park with few people around. The only catch is that you need to bring your own gear; there’s nowhere nearby to rent from.
3. Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
All aboard the Winter Express! Take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, departing from Bryson City, North Carolina.
Although the GSMRR doesn’t operate a full schedule during the winter, it does provide a few fun options. And there’s nothing quite like being on a vintage train, slicing through snow-covered valleys!
Of course, in December, the wildly popular Polar Express trains run multiple times a day, every day. Get tickets WAY in advance (as much as a year and, yes, we’re serious!).
Then on weekends in January, you can book the Tuckasegee River excursion. This four-hour trip takes you to the tiny historic town of Dillsboro and back. You’ll have 1.5 hours in Dillsboro, just enough time to explore its shops, restaurants, and brewery.
If you happen to book the Tuckasegee River excursion between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you’ll also get to experience “Appalachian Santa!” This unique experience alone is one of the highlights of the Smoky Mountains in the winter.
On the second weekend of February, you can also go on “Uncorked.” This fun event is described as a “unique rail line and wine experience.” Uncorked is only for passengers 21 and up, and tickets are all-inclusive. They include four wine samples, a surf and turf meal with dessert, and a souvenir GSMRR stemless wine glass.
4. Visit the Popular Anakeesta
Perched high above Gatlinburg, Anakeesta is a year-round gem.
To begin with, you recommend that you ride the “chondola” from downtown Gatlinburg up to the top of the mountain. It feels like you’re in a winter wonderland ski resort from the very beginning!
Afraid of heights or just generally don’t love the idea of the chondola? Anakeesta will also drive guests in 4×4 adventure vehicles.
Once you’re at the top, explore the twinkling mountaintop park. Climb the 86 steps up AnaVista observation tower, the highest point in Gatlinburg. Next, cozy up next to a fire pit or dare to zip line across the wintry landscape.
You can also explore the suspended treetop skywalk, the longest one in North America! The Hellbender mountain coaster also runs year-round, offering an even more thrilling experience in the winter.
Finally, don’t miss Astra Lumina, the first of its kind in the US. You really have to see it to believe it, but it’s essentially an immersive, interactive light and art installation symbolizing the night sky. Special lighting effects, projectors, and sounds create a very unique celestial experience.
Anakeesta is open daily until January 1, then moves to weekends only in January and February.
5. Chase Frozen Waterfalls
Most people don’t necessarily associate the Smoky Mountains in the winter with hiking. But, why not?
We’re specifically talking about waterfalls in the Smokies, and we could argue that winter might be the best season for that!
The winter season transforms the Smoky Mountains into an icy masterpiece, with frozen waterfalls as one of the standout features.
Laurel Falls, Grotto Falls (the one you can walk behind!), Ramsey Cascades, and Meigs Falls all are known to freeze over during the cold winter months. Resembling sheets of icicles standing still in time, it’s an otherworldly sight.
One thing to keep in mind is that hiking to waterfalls often means slippery terrain. In the winter, it’s even worse, so wear shoes with good traction and consider bringing trekking poles or crampons.
6. Play in an Indoor Waterpark at Wilderness at the Smokies
If you’d rather experience the water from a warm, cozy place, head to Wilderness at the Smokies.
The massive resort has so much to offer, you’d have a fabulous time even if you never stepped foot outside the property!
Wilderness has Tennessee’s largest indoor waterpark — Wild WaterDome.
As if that weren’t enough, the waterpark’s roof is clear, which provides the unique opportunity to tan inside! Soaking up that Vitamin D may just be a good enough reason to visit this waterpark during winter!
In addition to Wild WaterDome, Wilderness has a “dry” family adventure park with a 3-story ropes course, mini golf, arcade, laser tag, and more. Plus, through mid-January, you can also go ice skating.
After your busy days spent splashing and playing, you can unwind at one of the resort’s several onsite restaurants or bars. The Firefly Bar & Grill also hosts live music on winter weekends.
7. Sample Moonshine at Local Distilleries
Warm up from the inside out by sampling a piece of the Smokies’ heritage — moonshine! The area is home to a plethora of distilleries, each one offering its unique flavors.
All distilleries offer tastings (many of them FREE!) and retail sales, and some also offer tours.
Ole Smoky is easily the biggest and most famous, but don’t overlook some of the smaller local gems. Check out Tennessee Legend or Old Forge, too.
8. Pigeon Forge Winterfest
Pigeon Forge comes alive with festive lights during Winterfest — and they stick around long after the last of the Christmas decorations have been put away.
The entire town twinkles with millions of holiday lights, turning it into a winter wonderland until mid-February.
Take a drive down the parkway, through light displays depicting the 12 Days of Christmas. Continue on through Gatlinburg, where you’ll see holiday light versions of native animals.
It also creates the perfect setting for winter strolls. Check out some local restaurants and bars, admiring the lights in between.
9. SkyLand Ranch Festival of Lights
One of the Smokies’ newer attractions lets you enjoy the holiday spirit until mid-February. Sevierville’s SkyLand Ranch, a wholesome ranch-themed outdoor theme park, goes all-out for winter.
Half a million lights illuminate the park, starting with the chairlift up to the ranch. Once you hop off the chairlift, walk through several displays, including light tunnels and a life-sized Nativity scene.
There are campfires and yard games set up in several spots, a huge outdoor TV playing Christmas movies, and live entertainment. You can also ride the Wild Stallion mountain coaster, one of the longest in the Southeast!
Also, come hungry, because SkyLand Ranch is well-known for its food. The ranch offers a special winter/holiday menu with favorites like chicken pot pie and Christmas-themed baked goodies.
The drinks are not to be missed either, with everything from specialty hot cocoa to boozy eggnog and wassail.
10. Experience a Dinner Theatre
Winter nights are perfect for cozying up indoors with a hearty meal and live entertainment. And luckily, the Smokies have plenty of dinner theaters that combine both!
Enjoy a night of laughter, music, and scrumptious food, a perfect activity for both families or couples in the Smoky Mountains in the winter.
Choose from several themed options, including:
- Dolly Parton’s Stampede
- Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud
- Pirates Voyage
- Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud
Where to Stay for a Winter Vacation in the Smoky Mountains
Home Movie Theater Cabin — Pigeon Forge
If you’re looking for the perfect cabin for a group, here it is.
This 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom stunner is just one mile off the main parkway, with plenty of space for 12 people. Go enjoy everything the Smoky Mountains in the winter have to offer, then return to endless activities and relaxation here!
For starters, the cabin has a hot tub and a game room with a pool table and old-school arcade machine. But best of all, there’s a sauna and a huge theater room!
“1 of a Kind” Log Cabin — Sevierville
It doesn’t get much cozier than a hand-hewn log cabin perched atop a private mountain! That’s exactly what “1 of a Kind” is, yet it’s just 30 minutes from local attractions like Cades Cove.
Perfect for couples, the cabin has one bedroom plus a futon in the game room. There’s a whirlpool tub and custom walk-in shower with four nozzles, plus a hot tub outside. And, speaking of outside, enjoy 360-degree views from both decks.
Ole Smoky Cabin With Hot Tub — Cosby
This 3-bedroom, 2-bath cabin sleeps up to eight and is on the quieter side of the Smokies.
Cosby is a small town with a deep history tied to moonshine and has lots of cool old restaurants and shops.
At the cabin itself, enjoy the huge enclosed porch, hot tub, fire pit, and covered parking. You can also walk along the creek that runs right alongside the cabin.
What to Wear & Pack for the Smoky Mountains in Winter
- Lots of layers
- Waterproof boots (it rains a lot here, plus there could be some snow)
- Rain jacket and/or umbrella
- Gloves, hat, and wool socks
- Hiking gear, if you plan to hit the trails