No wonder the Tennessee side of the Smokies is a year-round destination. Gatlinburg, on the doorstep of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and neighboring Pigeon Forge are tourist towns nationally known for glitzy family fun.
Luckily, the crush of warm-weather crowds shrinks in the winter but the list of diverse activities does not. Best of all, the nation’s busiest national park becomes easier to enjoy.
Despite the relatively low elevation of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, there are enticingly wintry things to do. If warm weather sledding sounds good head to Pigeon Forge Snow, a unique indoor snow tubing and snow play venue—at 70 degrees.
Serious snow fans should visit Ober Gatlinburg ski resort, with 10 slopes and 600 feet of vertical drop, a 10-lane snow tubing facility, and the 4,000-foot Ski Mountain Coaster, a combo alpine slide/roller coaster.
On the way up to Ober’s slopes, you’ll ride Eastern America’s biggest aerial tram to unmatched views of the vertical-mile rise of the Smokies. The 60,000-square-foot slopeside facility has plentiful options for everyone: a shopping and crafts mall; huge indoor ice skating rink; and Wildlife Encounter, a habitat and exhibition area for black bears and other Smokies species.
Anakeesta is another tempting viewpoint above town. Guests ride a chairlift, six-person gondola, or passenger truck to climb Anakeesta’s view tower, take a forest canopy tour over 16 suspended bridges, ride the Rail Runner mountain coaster and zip lines, or enjoy a wealth of outdoor play areas for kids, shops, and places to eat.
Inspiring museum-quality exhibits are among local attractions, and Titanic leads the list. A massive replica of the famous ill-fated ship (and iceberg) sits ready to sink in Pigeon Forge. Original artifacts add to this exciting, even emotional, attraction. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is another top-notch unexpected experience hours away from the ocean. A high-caliber art experience awaits at Arrowmont, a renowned school of arts and crafts with permanent and scheduled exhibitions.
Get any day started at Log Cabin Pancake House with a full-blown Smokies breakfast. In the Village Shops, The Donut Friar is another choice, starting at 5 a.m., with the Smokies’ best baked goods. To sidestep the area’s ubiquitous “country cooking,” Bullfish Grill in Pigeon Forge is the place for black Angus beef and flown-in fresh seafood. Après-ski or hike, Smoky Mountain Brewery is a happening spot with hearty fresh-ground burgers and microbrews.
Save time to savor the national park. Winter is the quietest time in the Smokies, perfect to explore the often prohibitively popular Cades Cove loop drive. You could have the trails and historic sites to yourself. For a less-trodden way to loop Cades Cove, take Wears Valley Road from Pigeon Forge, then go left on Lyon Springs Road into the park.
Or head to the peak of the park, Newfound Gap, on US 441. There’s often snow that high up, so park and walk Clingmans Dome Road (it’s gated during the winter) for a snowy hike or cross-country ski trip. On the way into the park, stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, then just beyond, stroll the inspiring Sugarlands Nature Trail.
Find travel info and COVID-19 protocols at gatlinburg.com and mypigeonforge.com.
More than 80-year-old Buckhorn Inn is a classic Gatlinburg B&B with spectacular views of the Great Smoky Mountains, wonderful grounds, and a gourmet breakfast.