While popular all year long, the Smoky Mountains take on a truly magical feel over the winter months. Millions of Christmas lights decorate the streets of the nearby towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, while frozen waterfalls and blankets of snow decorate the national park. Both towns hold lots of free concerts, Christmas themed shows, and their own unique seasonal festivals. So, don’t hibernate this year, make your winter a special one with a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. Here are ten activities to help you plan the perfect Smoky Mountain winter vacation.
Rent a Luxury Cabin
Even with so much to do in the area, some people come just to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of the beautiful Smoky Mountains. Gatlinburg cabins offer the perfect blend of modern convenience and rustic charm. Most cabins come with full kitchens and laundry, a hot tub on the deck, multiple games, amenities and entertainments for all the family, and enough space to gather or get private at will. Many families make a Smoky Mountain cabin stay an annual event. If it’s just you and your significant other, cabin getaways also offer a level of seclusion and intimacy that no hotel can.
Winterfest and Winter Magic
Every year the towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg decorate their streets with millions of holiday lights. Known as Winterfest in Pigeon Forge, and Winter Magic in Gatlinburg, the festivals start in early November and run for 3-4 months. Festivities include free rides on the Trolley Tour of Lights (opening day), holiday-themed shows throughout the season, and Gatlinburg’s famous “Chili Cook-off on the Parkway.” Strolling carolers, storytellers, animated characters, and millions of dazzling lights make Winterfest and Winter Magic two of the area’s top winter attractions.
Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade
Gatlinburg’s Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade is acclaimed as a regional top event and features a variety of decorated floats, huge, helium-filled balloons, and festive vehicles. Marchers include cartoon characters, performers, horse-riders, dancers and other eye-catching folks. Many of our nation’s men and women in uniform, along with several stirring marching bands, also join the parade.
New Year’s Eve
Free concerts, millions of Christmas lights, and a huge fireworks show make the Smokies a great place to spend New Year’s Eve. Both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg hold countdown celebrations that end with a ball drop at midnight and incredible fireworks displays. Local restaurants, wineries, distilleries, and shops offer New Year’s Eve specials, as well.
Gatlinburg Winter Magic Trolley Ride of Lights
The Gatlinburg Trolley system offers its Winter Magic Trolley Ride of Lights during the winter season. Local guides point out notable attractions and special lighting displays along the trolley’s route. Riders also enjoy free hot chocolate compliments of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Starting in 2019, you will also receive a unique Christmas token to commemorate your experience on the trolley.
Pigeon Forge Winterfest Driving Tour of Lights
The Pigeon Forge Winterfest Driving Tour of Lights lets you enjoy the area’s incredible light show from the comfort of your own vehicle. Pigeon Forge is more spread out than Gatlinburg and easier to gawk at the multiple spectacular light shows. Lighting displays include Mother Goose, Humpty Dumpty, and a 60-foot tall Christmas tree. Patriot Park features the most extensive collection of lighting displays, as well as a patriotic theme.
Ski and Snowboard
Ten trails, four lifts, and one of the country’s largest Aerial Tramways (which leaves right from downtown Gatlinburg), make the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area popular with skiers and snowboarders. The resort has runs suitable for every level of skier and also hosts special events aimed at advanced skiers throughout the season. Ober Gatlinburg has world-class snowmaking so the trails usually have good coverage from mid-November until April. If you don’t ski, there’s also a snow-tubing run at the base of the slope that offers a good day’s fun.
Visit the Park
Winter in Great Smoky Mountains National Park means relatively crowd-free hiking as well as gorgeous landscapes that you won’t see any other time of year. Lots of wildlife like white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, groundhogs, raccoons, and even turkeys call the Smoky Mountains home. The park’s waterfalls also look spectacular when they freeze, so be sure to bring a camera. Just take extra precautions as trails may be covered with snow and ice. If you prefer to enjoy the park’s winter beauty from the warmth of your car, there’s also has an 11-mile loop that circles a popular section of the park known as Cades Cove.
Take In a Show
The Smoky Mountain area has several theaters that host a variety of nightly shows suitable for all ages, from dance and song to comedy to magic shows. Towards the end of winter, the annual “Winter Carnival of Magic” takes place at the Country Tonite theatre in Pigeon Forge. The three-day convention consists of a stage competition, a close-up competition, two evening shows, several lectures, and a dealer’s room. The Carnival attracts professional magicians from all over the country to perform and lecture.
Ride a Mountain Coaster
The Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area have half a dozen great mountain coasters for some downhill enjoyment. Mountain coasters offer a combination of excitement, mountain scenery, family fun, and even a touch of romance, especially in the lit-up evening runs. Carts come equipped with handbrakes so that you control the pace. Carts accommodate one or two people, so the kids or the faint of heart always have company. The Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster in Pigeon Forge takes on a magical feel at night. Over 300,000 LED lights illuminate its track and provide a visual experience you will never forget.
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