Winter Hiking in the Smoky Mountains | What You Need To Know and Where To Go!

The best thing about the Smokies is that every season of the year offers its own joys! Get out today, hike one of the park’s beautiful trails and get a taste of winter’s glory in East Tennessee or Western North Carolina. From frozen waterfalls to forests laced with light snow, everyone from beginners to experienced hikers will find winter hiking in the Smoky Mountains delightful! What’s more, local outfitters can get you the base gear you need to enjoy a day in the heart of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. A few of them share with us what you need to know and where to go for winter hiking fun in the Smoky Mountains!

Winter Hiking in the Smoky Mountains Need to Know Where to Go

When the leaves are gone a whole new Smokies reveals itself!

Michael Shepperd of GSM Outfitters in Wears Valley enjoys hiking in winter for a number of reasons. “Oftentimes I like to hike the most popular trails in winter, mid-week, to have a quiet, peaceful hike that would otherwise be very crowded and congested. I hiked on a Wednesday in the beginning of December to Abrams Falls (in Cades Cove). Besides myself and my wife, we saw no one. I took long-shot photos of the falls without one person being in the frame.  Hikes like Abrams or Ramsey Cascades are great to go to in the winter if you enjoy owning the falls. For photography, oftentimes these experiences are priceless!”

Shepperd, whose store offers hikers just about everything they need to stay comfortable on a chilly day, including base layers of clothing, great winter coats, hats, gloves, boots, Microspikes (to keep feet from slipping on icy trails), trekking poles and more, has plenty of other reasons for hitting the trails of the Great Smoky Mountains after the weather turns cold.

“Hikes like Bote Mountain, Rich Mountain, or any ridgeline hike are great in the winter. With dramatically reduced foliage, the views on these hikes are even more spectacular only during late fall, winter and early spring. Winter is also a great time to do waterfall hikes. Water tables are up, normally thirsty plants are not taxing ground water, and with most of the leaves gone there are vantages that are not available in the summer. Hikes like Mt. LeConte and Charlie’s Bunion will oftentimes render views of frosted peaks, dense clouds and land contours that are normally hidden under blankets of green,” Shepperd says. For more info, give GSM Outfitters a call at 865-366-2608.

John Northrup of the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Gatlinburg, says that if the area has recently been hit with decent snowfall or ice affecting roads, visitors still have options. “Odds are if the roads are icy or snow-covered, access to the heart of the park via US 441 will be prohibited until they are deemed safe for vehicular traffic. If that’s the case, one will be limited to the roads and trails that can be reached around the park’s perimeter. Depending on how low the snowline is, parking at the entrances to Cherokee Orchard or Greenbrier can afford visitors opportunities to walk the gravel roads or trails with comfort and ease. It doesn’t take long to achieve that sense of solitude in the woods and still be so close to Gatlinburg,” he says. For the more experienced hiker, there are even more exciting options under these conditions. “Take the drive east from Gatlinburg to I-40 and enter the park at Big Creek (exit 451). Park by the ranger station and walk the gravel road toward the campground or ascend any of the trails emanating from the ranger station that ascend Mounts Cammerer or Sterling. The views of snow-covered mountains on a clear day from either summit’s observation tower are breathtaking,” Northrup advises. For more info, call NOC in Gatlinburg at 865-277-8209.

Steve Ellis, owner and chief guide at Hike the Smokys, a company offering guided hikes in the GSMNP, doesn’t let a little cold weather keep him from hitting the trails. In an email interview with HeySmokies, Ellis says “for me, the ‘best’ winter trails are the trails that foliage has restricted my ability to see historic structures, artifacts and views during the warm weather months. These trails are often in the lower altitudes, where you have easier access, and where communities once existed, such as Greenbrier, Old Settler’s Trail, Porter’s Creek, and the Old Sugarlands Trail, where the CCC Camp and the Old Stone House remain. I also like Baskins Creek (you’ll need to hike in from Cherokee Orchard Loop Road as the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is closed from November 28 – March 24) and the Elkmont area, which is also a great place to find hidden and not-so-hidden ruins.”

Ellis, like Shepperd and Northrup, also enjoys grabbing some altitude on a cold day in the Smokies. “The higher altitudes are fun to explore, and see even greater views than in the warmer seasons, due to the incredibly clear visibility on clear days. I really enjoy a day hike on the Appalachian Trail heading east from Newfound Gap Park area to ‘The Jumpoff,’ located on the Boulevard Trail, and Charlie’s Bunion, further east on the Appalachian Trail,” he says.

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Take a Ride on America’s $100 Million Highway! The Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway in TN/NC

The Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway is the Hope Diamond of the east Tennessee/western North Carolina area for bikers, hikers and automobile tourists alike. Located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s known as America’s $100 Million Highway.  If, like me, you ride a motorcycle, it’s a 43-mile slice of heaven-on-earth, especially in the fall!

America's $100 Million Highway The Cherohala Skyway

Since I live in Knoxville, my husband and I hop on the Skyway not far from Tellico Plains, Tennessee and ride it all the way to its termination near Robbinsville, North Carolina. The Tellico River winds along beside us at the beginning of the trek as the cool mountain breeze cuts through my hair. More than once I’ve had the “good-to-be-alive” feeling as the tree canopy overhead sent an occasional lazy leaf to the ground ahead of our bike. Motorcycle organizations routinely recognize the Cherohala Skyway as one of the “Best Bike Routes” in the United States, but you will enjoy it immensely regardless of your mode of transportation.

Taking over 38 years to construct with a cost of over one hundred million dollars, the Cherohala Skyway provides a truly unique, paved path for nature lovers from all over the world. As a result, the visitor gets the distinct feeling that they’ve entered an alternate universe, infinitely peaceful and completely disconnected from the strife of the rest of the world. At least that’s the feeling I get as I inhale that glorious mountain air. It’s easy to forget the morning’s international news headlines, or the work project that you just can’t get your head around. It’s also easy to imagine that there was once a simpler world, one in which people took their living from the land, and enjoyed a full day in the open expanse of nature.

The Cherohala Skyway, which gets its name from the two national forests it winds through, the Cherokee National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest, gradually climbs to an elevation of 5,400 feet above sea level. Along the way to this summit near the Tennessee/North Carolina line, the visitor is treated to sweeping mountain vistas. Numerous overlooks provide photo opportunities par excellence. INSIDER TIP: We go there often during peak tourist season in the Smokies, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove and from Gatlinburg to Clingman’s Dome and points beyond is so glutted with traffic that the going is very slow. There is never a crowd on the Skyway, and the views are just as majestic.  The peace and quiet of the Skyway is exceptionally calming and the fall color at certain elevations in October can be vividly stunning! Also, for dining we often enjoy a Beach Burger from the Tellico Plains Drive-In or anything from the Tellico Grains Bakery!

Hikers can enjoy a wonderful dual experience on the Cherohala Skyway. In addition to drinking in the magnificent views from the roadway, they can access trails directly from the numerous overlooks. In the lower elevations of the Skyway, you’ll find a beautiful opportunity for a family-oriented hike and/or picnic at Indian Boundary. From Tellico Plains, turn off the Skyway at Forestry Road 345. Follow the signs into the Indian Boundary Recreation Area and walk the 3.2 mile trail around the lake. It’s easy and fun!

Bald River Falls on America's $100 Million Highway Cherohala Skyway

Bald River Falls near Tellico Plains, TN (Photo: Mason Boring)

Another enduring favorite in the lower elevations is the Bald River Trail. Simply take a right on River Road (Forestry Road 210) off the Skyway (if approaching from Tellico Plains).  Several miles in you’ll see the magnificent waterfall at the trailhead. Bald River Falls are roaring nearly year-round (except in the heart of winter, when they will offer a stunning ice display). A bit more than eight miles round-trip, this trail follows the Bald River, is quite scenic, but not for beginners. I’ve done the first bit of this trail with a light snow falling, the trees around me laced with snow. It was magical.

If you’d like another waterfall experience, but with a shorter trail, approximately eighteen miles from the Skyway’s inception near Tellico Plains, look for the Rattlesnake Rock West pull-off. Here you’ll find the Falls Branch Trail (#87). This 2.6 -mile round-trip adventure includes a 70-foot waterfall and beautiful forest environs. Though it’s not an overly long walk, it does get somewhat steep near the falls. The trail moves along what was once a roadbed, but does have limited signage.

Among the many other hiking opportunities accessible from the Cherohala Skyway you’ll find a section of the very famous Benton MacKaye Trail. Take the Mud Gap trailhead from the Cherohala Skyway (near mile post 3 in North Carolina) to Whigg Meadow, a 1.7 mile walk (one way). You’ll be able to say you took a portion of the famous Benton MacKaye trek, which is a nearly 300-mile trail through three states and over a long section of tough Appalachian mountain terrain. The views from Whigg Meadow of the surrounding mountains are truly spectacular.

Weather on the Cherohala Skyway can turn nippy year-round, especially in the higher elevations. Layers are recommended for bikers and hikers. We’ve started out in short sleeves in Tellico Plains and ended up in jackets and gloves at the top many times! For even the shortest and easiest of hikes, take plenty of water and snacks. Don’t forget your camera!

For more information, visit the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center or call 423-253-8010. The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center is located in Tellico Plains, Tennessee and is open Monday – Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Laurie Crater Battles Writer BloggerLaurie Crater Battles – journalist, writer, hiker, biker, mom, wife, animal and coffee lover who makes her home in west Knoxville. 

Fall Colors in the Great Smoky Mountains! 2016 Autumn Color Forecast and Guide

It’s beginning to look a lot like Autumn! We’re ready for the big show of fall colors in the Great Smoky Mountains and we’ve got your 2016 Autumn Color Forecast and Guide so you can get the most out of Leaf-Peeping Season in the Smokies!

Fall Color in Great Smoky Mountains | 2016 Autumn Color Forecast and Guide

The Oconaluftee River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Most folks want to know when is the “peak” of the fall color in the Smokies? Well, the answer is that it depends on just where you are at a particular time. Luckily, there’s not singular “peak ” in the Great Smoky Mountains. You can experience “peak color” throughout the month of October and on into November because of the range of elevations in the Park. From 875 ft. (at the mouth of Abrams Creek) to 6,643 ft. (at Clingmans Dome) you have several opportunities to view the fall colors at their best.

On this first full day of Autumn 2016, it’s still mostly green in the Highlands with a few pops of color here and there. And great news! Park Rangers report that this could turn out to be a banner year for a big show of color with indications that areas above 5,000 ft. will be looking pretty good in a few weeks.

“Some of our most vibrant seasons have happened after there has been a drought and we get several days of good fall rains and we’ve had some explosions of color after that,” says Dana Soehn a National Park spokeswoman reporting yesterday to WVLT-TV’s Kyle Grainger, “For the first day of fall, we are about where we should be, especially at the lower elevations, but that change is around the corner.”

Former Park Ranger and author Rose Houk writes in her book Exploring the Smokies, “It isn’t frost so much as sunny, clear, warm days combined with a drop in temperature at night, that will produce the finest colors. And in a year when that combination occurs, there is no better place in the world to be than in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” We couldn’t agree more! And current weather predictions expect a cool down and possible rain within the next week or so!

With 130 different species of trees living in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can plainly see why Autumn in the Smokies is so spectacular! As a general rule, the peak of colors can be at some certain elevation in the Smokies between October 15-30. Here’s your guide to a few of the highlights:

SPRUCE-FIR FOREST (above 4,000 ft.) and NORTHERN HARDWOOD FOREST (4,500 to 6,000 ft.)
@ Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome and Blue Ridge Parkway

  • American Mountain-Ash – This northern species is found only above 5,000 ft. and you can’t miss the bright orange-red berries of this small tree. It can be found in the parking lot of Newfound Gap and in the Clingmans Dome area. It’s said that when the striking fruits appear that the fall colors will soon follow in the highlands.
  • Witch-Hobble or Hobblebush – One of the first shrubs to change colors to both yellow and red, even on the same bush. Has large, roundish, heart-shaped leaves and flat clusters of red berries.
  • Pin Cherry – This northern species turns a pinkish red and has bright red berries. Also called the Fire Cherry because it needs an area disturbed by fire, windstorm or some other event to become established.
  • American Beech – A common tree up to elevations of 5,800 ft. with yellow to orange brown leaves. It’s easy to recognize because of its smooth gray-colored bark. Many small beech’s dry, beige leaves persist throughout the winter.
  • Yellow Birch – One of the most dominant trees you’ll see from 3,500 to 5,000 ft., with yellow leaves of course! The bark of this tree is a shiny, yellow-silvery color and peels off in shaggy, papery curls.
  • Mountain Maple – This northern species fall color is from orange to red and is common from 3,000 ft. to the highest elevations in the Park. North of the Smokies, the Mountain Maple doesn’t grow as tall and is considered a shrub.

COVE HARDWOOD FOREST (below 4,500 feet) @ Cataloochee Valley, Foothills Parkway East, Greenbrier, and Oconaluftee.

  • Sugar Maple – Not only does this wonderful tree yield the sap to make everyone’s favorite maple syrup, its leaves in Autumn turn to vibrant oranges and yellows that wow the eyes. The Sugarlands Valley, between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and and Chimneys Picnic Area was named for the abundance of Sugar Maple trees in the area.
  • Red Maple – The Red Maple is probably the most common trees in the Park since it grows at the lowest elevations all the way up to 6,000 ft. Its fall color ranges from yellow to red. Red Maples have red twigs, buds and fruits. You’ll notice this tree’s bright red flowers that bloom from February to April each year.
  • Sweet Gum – This tree’s star-shaped leaves and round, spiny fruit make it easily recognizable. It prefers moist areas along streams below 2,000 ft. The Sweet Gum’s fall color can range from yellow to red to purple all on the same tree.
  • Yellow Poplar or Tuliptree – One of the most common trees in the Park below 4,000 ft. These trees grow big and straight up so they’re easy to spot. Spectacular stands of giants can be found along Little River Road and Laurel Creek Road. When the sun hits the tree’s leaves just right, they seem to glow a brilliant, golden yellow.
  • Black Cherry – The dark fruit of this tree is a favorite of bears. It’s quite common below 5,000 ft. and its bark resembles burnt potato chips. It fall foliage is yellow to red.

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Feeling Great in Knoxville TN!

Knoxville, Tennessee is located near the northeastern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Knoxville has a great culture and vibe partly because it’s home of the University of Tennessee (UT). Sports lovers flock to Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium to see the Tennessee Volunteers play or Thompson-Boling Arena to see the Lady Vols shoot some hoops. It’s Big Orange Country in Knoxville for sure, however, you won’t any nicer folks who welcome you to their city by the beautiful Tennessee River.

Knoxville Tennessee Sunsphere

The Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park in Knoxville.

When Knoxville surprised the world by hosting the 1982 World’s Fair, the city had the reputation of being known as the scruffy little town by the river. Nowadays, Knoxville has gained regional and national acclaim for the variety of excellent dining choices through out the city. Beer lovers will enjoy hopping it up at the many microbreweries in the Old City.

Kids of all ages love Zoo Knoxville, a fantastic 53-acre park and home to over 900 animals. For theater lovers, there’s the historic Tennessee Theater, the Bijou Theater and UT’s Clarence Brown Theater. Oh! And, you can’t go to Knoxville without visiting the famous Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park in downtown.

Knoxville has also garnered national recognition for its Urban Wilderness located only three miles south of downtown. In addition to the city’s extensive 86-mile greenway system, the urban wilderness provides over 60 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.

The Tennessee River flows through downtown affording the opportunity to enjoy many water sports such as paddle boarding, skulling, water skiing, and on gamedays the Vol Navy!

How to Get to Knoxville

Reaching Knoxville is convenient and easy. Interstate 40 enters the city from the East and West, Interstate 75 enters the city from the North and Interstate 140 enters the city from the South. McGhee Tyson Airport is 8 miles South of Downtown on Highway 129.

Cades Cove, Sugarlands, and Cosby, all in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, are about an hour drive from downtown Knoxville. If you’re staying on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, Knoxville makes a great day-trip!

Knoxville History

Knoxville’s history is rich and diverse. Once the domain of the Cherokee, Knoxville eventually became the first capital of Tennessee. The city found itself in the path of the American Civil War. It was occupied by both Union and Confederate forces during the course of the war. Today visitors and locals enjoy exploring the numerous war memorials and preserved historic sites like James White’s Fort.

Top 5 Waterfall Hikes in the Smokies! Beat the Heat and Hike to a Smoky Mountain Waterfall!

Beat the heat this summer and take a hike to a refreshing Smoky Mountain waterfall! The abundant streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the lifeblood of this International Biosphere Reserve and the waterfalls found within are some of the most extraordinary hiking destinations year-round. When the heat of summer is upon us, there is no better place to be than enjoying a cool, misty breeze near a lush waterfall in the Smokies! We’ve got the Top 5 Waterfall Hikes in the Smokies for you!

Top 5 Waterfall Hikes in the Smokies

Mingo Falls in Cherokee, NC

The fine mist is so refreshing that after only a few moments you may be ready to step back into the sunlight and warm up a bit. Along the trails to the waterfalls there are often quiet, sun-dappled pools in the streams that are perfect for soaking your hiking feet. It is unsafe to swim beneath the waterfalls; just standing near one is really all you need to do to cool down.

Here are a few of our top waterfall hikes in the Smokies when the weather is warm and we’re looking for a favorite place to chill! You’ll find some of the Top 5 Waterfall Hikes are just a short walk from your vehicle, while others offer more time to explore the beautiful summertime scenery. No matter what section of the National Park you’re visiting, you’re sure to find a wondrous waterfall!

 #1 Mingo Falls
Mingo Falls is actually located on the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee Indian Reservation) and is considered an easy hike at 0.4 miles in length but don’t let that fool you. There are over 200 steps to climb to reach the base of the falls but it is well worth it. Mingo Falls is one of the tallest in the region at 120 feet high and the cooling mist that swirls around its base makes all that “stair mastering” a distant memory.

To reach the Mingo Falls trailhead travel south from Oconaluftee Visitor Center on US-441 toward  Cherokee and turn left on Big Cove Road. Turn left at the first stop sign and drive 4.5 miles to the Mingo Falls Campground and the trailhead. No special permits are required for access to the reservation.

 #2 Abrams Falls
Abrams Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with most hikers reaching it via the Abrams Falls Trail in Cades Cove. From here the hike is 2.5 miles one-way and is considered moderate in difficulty. HeySmokies recommends sturdy footwear (not flip flops) to traverse the rocky terrain encountered on the trail. (For more info on suggested hiking essentials visit our 10 Essentials for Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains)

Abrams Falls is a mere 20 feet high but the volume of water funneling through earns it the unofficial moniker of the “Little Niagara of the Smokies.” The inviting pool beneath the falls can be deadly; swimmers have drowned here due to strong undercurrents and an undertow. Don’t be the next victim, enjoy the falls and its cooling mist from a safe distance. Abrams Falls is named for Cherokee Chief Abram who once lived a few miles below the falls near Abrams Creek Campground.

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