There’s honestly no BAD time to visit the Volunteer State, but winter in Tennessee holds a special place in our hearts.
Once the last of the colorful fall leaves finally drop, you’ll discover a whole new world waiting to be explored. Sure, there’s plenty of live music, BBQ, and rolling hills, but that’s only the beginning.
Tennessee winters deliver a mix of snowy, picture-perfect landscapes, cozy cabin getaways, outdoor recreation galore, and much more. Of course, along with a generous dash of Southern charm!
So, throw on your warmest sweater, make a hot drink, and join us as we dive into Tennessee’s best winter experiences!
Fun Things to Do During Winter in Tennessee
1. Visit Tennessee’s ONLY Ski Area in Gatlinburg
Being the only proper ski area in the entire state, Ober Gatlinburg offers (almost) every winter activity possible!
Visiting Ober is also one of our favorite things to do in Gatlinburg!
To begin with, getting there is an adventure in itself. Choose between taking a scenic 17-mile drive up a winding road, or, elevate your experience (literally!) and take the aerial tram from downtown Gatlinburg.
Step off the tram (or arrive via the road), and you’re suddenly in Ober’s winter wonderland. It’s no illusion; Ober goes to impressive lengths to bring in and accumulate genuine snow over several weeks. So that glistening winter wonderland? It’s real.
Skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts will be in heaven, with multiple runs of varying difficulty levels. Ober offers far more than just thrilling downhills during winter in Tennessee, however.
The whole family can enjoy endless activities. For example, there’s tubing, a mountain coaster, and everyone’s favorite, bumper cars on ice. Also, you can glide gracefully…or not so gracefully…across the ice skating rink. (We’re not the best at ice skating!)
For family-friendly activities at Ober, head over to the snow zone — a playful kiddie area with snowy obstacle courses, small sledding hills, and more.
2. Chase Frozen Waterfalls in the Smokies
If exploring on two feet is more your style, head for America’s most popular national park.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is accessible year-round—and somehow even more majestic under snow, too, making it one of the best places to visit in Tennessee during winter.
But what takes this adventure to the next level is that several waterfalls in the Smokies freeze in the winter.
In particular, Grotto Falls, the only waterfall in the park you can walk behind, is spectacular in the winter. As the water freezes, it forms sparkling “curtains” of ice!
To get to Grotto Falls in the winter, you’ll have to double the warm-weather hike. When Roaring Fork Motor Trail closes (right around Thanksgiving, until April), you have to start from the Rainbow Falls trailhead.
Another must-see frozen cascade is Ramsey Cascades, the tallest waterfall in the park. In the winter, this multi-tiered, 100-plus-foot-tall waterfall freezes into sheets and massive icicles.
Hiking to Ramsey Cascades is challenging even in ideal weather. It involves about 2,000 feet of elevation gain! However, the reward of witnessing this huge frozen waterfall up close is well worth the effort.
Plus, as a bonus, the park is slightly less crowded in the winter months.
3. Speedway in Lights — Bristol
One of the most unique events during winter in Tennessee is the Pinnacle Speedway in Lights.
The iconic Bristol Motor Speedway hosts this dazzling drive-through, featuring over three million twinkling lights.
You’ll drive a 4-mile route through the lights, starting in the parking lot. Eventually, you’ll end up on the legendary track itself, affectionately called the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”
Yep, you’ll actually get to drive a lap on the Bristol Motor Speedway yourself!
Pro tip: Buy your tickets in advance. The lines are LONG, even on weeknights and for folks with tickets in hand. If you prefer, purchase “Fast Lane” tickets for an extra fee, which, allows you to skip the lines.
Whether you make it to Speedway in Lights or not, you can also lace up your skates and take a spin at the Tri-Cities Airport Ice Skating Rink. It’s also located at the track.
4. Reelfoot Lake State Park Eagle Fest — Tiptonville
In the far northwest corner of the state, you’ll find a truly unique winter in Tennessee experience. During the Reelfoot Lake Eagle Festival, you’ll have the rare opportunity to spot bald eagles up close.
Reelfoot Lake, the largest natural lake in Tennessee, sits along the Mississippi River, a major natural flyway. It serves as an important winter home for bald eagles, along with other waterfowl.
Because they generally stay in this area when it’s cold, winter is an excellent time to watch them feed and majestically soar. The 3-day weekend event in February is also a photographer’s dream!
During the festival, the park offers bus tours and photography workshops. While these are the main draws, you can also participate in other activities. These include art contests, live birds of prey demonstrations, and children’s activities, like duck decoy painting.
5. A Country Christmas at the Gaylord Opryland Resort — Nashville
No matter how old you are, where you’re from, or what you’re into, Christmas at Gaylord Opryland is one of the highlights of winter in Tennessee.
This sprawling Nashville resort never fails to impress, but it majorly steps up its game during the holiday season.
ICE! is the resort’s signature winter event, an immersive experience with a Polar Express theme. The attraction uses over two million pounds of ice to carve unbelievable, larger-than-life sculptures.
It’s only 9° Fahrenheit inside the exhibit, so the resort provides parkas on hand to keep guests warm.
In addition to ICE!, Gaylord Opryland also has other fun activities such as snow tubing, ice skating, icy bumper cars, and even river cruises. Plus, the stunning resort puts up over three million twinkling lights and elaborate decorations.
6. Watch the Marching Ducks at The Peabody Hotel — Memphis
Embrace the whimsy of winter in Tennessee at The Peabody Hotel, where the famed daily “duck parade” draws onlookers year-round. However, the entire scene is on a whole different level during the holidays!
When winter sets in, the Peabody transforms into a glittering holiday hotel. The stars (aside from the ducks of course) are the 40-foot Christmas tree and the iconic fountain, decked out to the nines in their holiday best.
No matter when you visit Memphis, you can witness the daily duck march at 11:00 am and 5:00 pm. They march down a red carpet, from the elevators to the lobby fountain. Spectators line the red carpet, cheering the ducks on and getting great photo ops.
If you happen to be in town for Thanksgiving, don’t miss the annual tree lighting ceremony. The event follows the evening duck march on Black Friday and features a special appearance by Santa Claus himself.
7. Cruise the Tennessee River in Chattanooga
The Tennessee River runs right through Chattanooga, setting a unique, picture-perfect scene for exploring the Scenic City.
Step aboard the Southern Belle riverboat for a river cruise. It promises not only glittering views of the city, but also a festive holiday experience.
Throughout the winter, you can take sightseeing lunch or dinner cruises. In December, you can also book limited-run holiday river cruises.
- Breakfast With Santa: Join Saint Nick for a morning cruise, complete with food, drinks, and live entertainment.
- ‘Tis the Season Luncheon: This delightful lunch cruise is a lovely way to get the lay of the land and enjoy the crisp air.
- Christmas Carol Dinner Cruise: Enjoy a river sunset alongside a festive holiday dinner cruise with gourmet food and live caroling.
Then, between Christmas and New Year, the Southern Belle packs its schedule with themed cruises. It’s the perfect date night idea and a great way to show out-of-town guests everything Chattanooga has to offer!
Still looking for New Year’s Eve plans? Consider welcoming the new year on the river! The New Year’s Eve on the River cruise offers dinner and all-inclusive champagne!
8. A Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood — Pigeon Forge
Truly, no one does holidays better than Dolly. Just like the annual Harvest Festival, Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas has been named one of the country’s best holiday attractions for 10 straight years.
When you walk through the entrance, you’re greeted by millions of twinkling lights that transform the park into a dazzling wonderland.
Although it’s called Smoky Mountain Christmas, this event offers SO much beyond the holiday. From November through January, it features a variety of heartwarming shows and entertainment, plus incredible food.
From classic Christmas ham to piping hot apple cider and freshly-baked cookies, Dollywood serves some of the most mouthwatering holiday treats you could imagine.
9. Board a Historic Train
There’s just something especially magical about a historic train ride during the holidays. And luckily, you have several great options in Tennessee throughout the winter.
Across the state, you’ll find trains ranging from festive to classic dinner rides. Here are some of our top picks:
- Tennessee Valley Railroad, Chattanooga: North Pole Limited, Santa’s Hiwassee Holiday, Christmas Tea, Nightcap With St. Nick
- Tennessee Central Railway Museum, Nashville: North Pole Express
- Three Rivers Rambler, Knoxville: Christmas Lantern Express
Note that for all of these scenic trains, you’ll need to purchase tickets in advance. Most seasonal trains sell out, plus, ticket prices tend to go up closer to the event.
10. Watch an Exciting Sports Game
If you’re a sports fan, winter in Tennessee may just be the best time to visit.
The Nashville Predators hockey team and Tennessee Titans football team both play in Nashville throughout the winter. In addition, in Memphis, the Grizzlies NBA team also plays during the cold season.
Also, if they make it to the playoffs, you have the chance to cheer on the Nashville SC soccer team. The regular season ends in late October, so playoff games often go into December.
Then, of course, you also have all the college teams. The University of Tennessee Volunteers play in Knoxville, while Vanderbilt is in Nashville. Football playoffs are always at the very end of December into the new year, and basketball is just beginning at this time.
Festive Places to Visit During Winter in Tennessee
The gateway to the Smokies, with endless attractions and amazing cozy cabins, Gatlinburg is one of the best cities to experience winter in Tennessee. Don’t miss Ober, Lights Over Gatlinburg, and bustling downtown.
Straddling Tennessee and Virginia, you’ll want to spend time in Bristol this winter. Cold-weather fishing in the South Holston River is excellent, and the city hosts the area’s biggest holiday light display.
Nashville also enjoys mild winters, making it the perfect setting for endless events in winter. Attend a concert or two, bar-hop, taste your way through the Music City and cheer on the local teams.
What to Expect (and Pack!) for a Winter Trip to Tennessee
When visiting Tennessee in the winter, it’s important to prepare for a range of climates across the state.
In East Tennessee (home of the Smokies and Tri-Cities), expect chilly temperatures and a high possibility of snow. Pack warm layers and hiking gear, plus ski or snowboard equipment if you plan to hit the slopes.
Middle Tennessee, such as Nashville, offers slightly milder winters. Dress warm and bring layers, as you may need to lose some throughout the day.
In West Tennessee, cities like Memphis have an even milder winter. A lot of times, you can get by with just a medium-weight jacket.
Regardless of where you visit Tennessee during those cold winter months, don’t forget comfortable walking shoes for exploring. You may also want an umbrella and/or light rain jacket.