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!
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.