By Mike Hembree; photo by Ann Froschauer
It’s no surprise that most of the approximately 12 million people who visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a normal year do so in four months: June, July, August, and October.
The summer months, of course, mean vacations for families, and they offer the Smokies at their greenest. October brings fall foliage, moderate temperatures, and the acknowledged splendors of autumn.
At the end of the calendar, winter is a relatively quiet time in the Smokies. Visitation numbers for January and February are typically about one-fourth the totals of the summer months.
There is an argument to be made that, despite its sometimes frigid temperatures and often unpredictable weather, winter is the best time to enjoy the country’s most popular national park.
A few quick reasons: Less traffic on the roads. Trails are much less crowded—you might hike a couple of miles without seeing another person. Silence can be golden, the wind in your face and only the trail calling. Most annoying insects are on holiday. And the ridgetop views, with leaves gone from most trees, are sensational. You can see forever—or at least several ridges over.
And, for those who delight in it (maybe especially for those who seldom see it), there sometimes is snow. The white stuff isn’t promised every day, of course, but at higher elevations, the trees are often draped in overnight snow, and trails that were covered in leaves a month earlier now are wrapped in white. The last light of day, scattered across the mountainsides, paints new colors across the snow.
The realities of winter—snow, ice, and temperatures sometimes below zero—mean that some park roads are closed for extended periods. Plan ahead and check on conditions before attempting to visit sections of the park that might be off-limits for parts of the winter.
The road to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park, normally is closed to vehicles in winter, but that opens the door to snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and a cold-weather hike along the passage.
One of the best winter journeys in the park begins at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg and follows Little River Road on the way to Cades Cove. The river, sprinkled with cascades and deep pools, is spectacular in any season but is particularly beautiful after a snowfall leaves its rocks covered in white. In Cades Cove, snow drapes the Primitive Baptist Church and Cable Mill, giving all the valley’s buildings a new character. The surrounding high mountains make for a fantastical landscape. The trees are like a line of totems against the winter sky.
Dress in layers. Wear boots. Use trekking poles. Hike with a partner. Experience winter in the Smokies.
The hot chocolate will taste good in the evening.
Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.