One of our favorite times to visit the NC Great Smoky Mountains is in winter! Explore outdoor sports and adventure in the beautiful snowy landscape, hike the trails without the crowds, and relax by a cozy fire in a resort or secluded cabin. Visitors will find plenty of fun activities all season long – both outdoor and indoor.
Outdoor adventure does not have to be limited to warm months only! Not in the Great Smoky Mountains, where the wooded winter hikes yield some of the most amazing views you may ever see and the area lake waters, never calmer, invite you to enjoy their peace and solitude. Here are our top choices for wintertime fun in the mountains.
Winter Hikes in the Smoky Mountains
For the outdoor enthusiasts, the good news is that the winters can be relatively mild and the main roads remain passable most all of the time. That means you can access trailheads and get stunning and unobstructed winter views. Here are some of our favorites.
• Rough Fork Trail begins with a relatively flat, easy 2-mile hike in Cataloochee Valley, home to the famous Smoky Mountain elk herd that has been reintroduced successfully. The historic Woody House, built by early settlers about 150 years ago, sits at the 1-mile mark.
• Max Patch offers an elevated beautiful view from every angle along its 2.4-mile loop. Make sure to pack proper attire and have a four-wheel drive vehicle if there has been a snowfall.
• Lake Junaluska offers fantastic views with a flatter trail. Choose from a 2.3 or 3.8-mile loop along the lake and enjoy the view from the many benches along the trail. This trail is friendly to strollers, wheelchairs, and scooters.
• Whiteside Mountain offers panoramic views along a 2-mile loop in Nantahala Forest National Park near Cashiers.
• Andrew’s Bald in Bryson City, NC. Easy to find, but in bad weather, difficult to reach due seasonal road closures. Park at the Clingman’s Dome parking area, and take Forney Ridge Trail the 1.8 miles to Andrew’s Bald. At its elevation of 5,920 ft above sea level, it’s the highest grassy bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Talk about feeling quite on top of the world! Make sure your phone is charged for all of the photos you’ll be taking.
• Graveyard Fields Loop Trail in Graveyard Fields in Haywood County. At mile marker 418.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this trail is only 1.2 miles total and rated “easy”. It’s a super popular trail in the warm months, so in the cooler times, will be pleasantly less crowded. The trail is a cornucopia of sights – long vistas, tunneled single-track, plant-lined walkways, and open trail with nothing but sky, especially on a clear winter’s day.
Frozen Waterfall Adventures
During the coldest months, waterfalls can become frozen works of art. Hiking through a winter forest is a serene experience. There’s little noise except for the occasional wildlife scurrying about. Even the roar of the waterfalls can fall silently if it’s cold enough to freeze over. Here are our favorite winter cascades.
• Rainbow Falls, named for the rainbow you can sometimes spot in the mist, stands at a majestic 150 feet at the end of a 1.5-mile trail. Getting there takes less time, as it is mostly downhill, but you still have to hike your way back out.
• Deep Creek Falls, only 3 miles from downtown Bryson City, gives you the option of a 2.7-mile or 5-mile loop that takes you by 3 stunning waterfalls. The area is at a low enough elevation that it sees little snow, so it’s a good option for a winter-wonderland hike.
• Soco Falls on the edge of the Cherokee Indian Reservation is a double waterfall that offers many magnificent views and is especially spectacular in the winter months.
• Mingo Falls offers a challenging step hike (161 steps to be exact) to view the cascades down 200 ft. along a multitude of boulders.
Insider Tip: Exercise extreme caution when exploring waterfalls, especially in the winter. The rocks are icy so stay at the foot of the falls. Never attempt to climb to the top.
Click here for additional waterfalls to explore this winter.
Skiing and Tubing
For the snowbirds out there, the NC Great Smoky Mountains offer skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and tubing options for the whole family.
• Highlands Outpost in Scaly Mountain is a great place to experience multiple winter activities all in one place. They have skiing for all ages, including a bunny slope for beginners, ice-skating, and tubing. Enjoy hot chocolate in the café after a day of fun.
• Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley offers 18 slopes for a variety of levels, exceptional views, and fun for the whole family. With elevations of 5,400 feet and the temperature just right, this haven for ski lovers stays open longer than most regional ski resorts.
• Sapphire Valley Ski Area boasts a 1,600-foot main run with a vertical drop of 200 feet! Enjoy the state-of-the-art quad-lift, a learning slope, and a tube park with multiple lanes. Those who don’t want to partake will love to sit by the warm fire at the base Fire Pit and Park.
• Cross Country skiers looking to create their own adventure may want to check out the 7-mile road leading to Clingman’s Dome. The road is closed to motor vehicles from December 1 to March 31, so if snow conditions are right, this gorgeous spot is perfect for your serene expedition.
Other Outdoor Experiences
Maybe mountain biking is your passion, no matter the season?
• Jackrabbit Mountain Bike and Hiking Trail System is in Hayesville, NC. Located on a peninsula on beautiful Lake Chatuge, it’s been a well-planned work-in-progress for many years by a group of folks dedicated to preserving this land for everyone’s recreation. The trail system is multi-directional to accommodate both bikers and hikers. These trails either border the lake or meander through the woods and ridge-tops and appeal to all experience levels.
Being in 40 degree water by choice is done by some, but by choice? Not many. Finding yourself in 40 degree water might also be a reason to dial 911! But being ON 40 degree water, in a canoe or kayak, is exceptional! Exceptionally serene. Exceptionally freeing. And in the winter months, an opportunity to experience the water and surrounding woods in a whole new way.
• Lake Glenville in Jackson County, NC, is the highest elevation lake east of the Mississippi and has 26 miles of shoreline. A canoe or kayak paddle around this reservoir will showcase the plant life along the water’s edge and three scenic waterfalls.
• In Cherokee, the Apalachia Reservoir set on the Hiwassee River is a 100+ feet deep cool-water lake with over 31 miles of shoreline and is known for its fishing, and it also has waterfalls, approachable by boat. People comment this spot feels other-worldly… maybe you should see it for yourself?
Cozy Indoors Retreats
The outdoors can be amazing during the winter months, but for those who want to stay warm and cozy the Great Smoky Mountains offers plenty of indoor options.
Test your Luck
• Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, North Carolina’s very first casino, offers 1,200 slot machines, 30 plus gaming tables, restaurants, entertainment and a spa all in one spot.
• You can also take the scenic drive from Cherokee over to Murphy, NC to play at the newer Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River, which features 1,200 slot machines, 30-40 gaming tables, and a 300-room hotel.
Arts and Crafts Experiences
Handmade arts are part of the cultural footprint of the Smoky Mountains. Visitors should stop by one of these galleries while exploring the region.
• No trip would be complete without a visit to the oldest Native American Co-op in the U.S., the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Co-op. Hosting over 350 Cherokee artisan members, the co-op offers high-quality Cherokee art and crafts using many of the traditional methods.
• The Macon County Art Association’s Uptown Gallry in downtown Franklin features exhibits by local artists and works to promote art in the area. The Uptown Gallery also offers year-round workshops and classes.
• If you don’t want to miss a thing, travel the Blue Ridge Craft Trails. Information on the craft trails can be found at the Blue Ridge Heritage Area website. It includes filters to help you explore the craft mediums that interest you the most, or you can see all of the craft opportunities in a given region or town. New towns and experiences are being added to the trails system regularly.
Museums and Culture
Learn about regional history and peruse the displays at some of the eclectic museums found in the mountains.
• The Museum of the Cherokee People takes you on a journey from the early days of Cherokee hunter-gatherers to the Trail of Tears and beyond. The museum offers a fascinating history of the tribe.
• The Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center offers an artesian gallery featuring over 125 artists and craftsmen. Visitors can also enjoy trying cultural foods from local sources, and both art and cooking classes.
• Located in Bryson City, the Top 10 nationally ranked Smoky Mountain Train Museum has train displays for all ages and model train enthusiasts alike.
• The Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum, located in the Old Jail, features eight rooms filled with gems and minerals from all over the world – one of the largest collections in the Southeast.
• If you’re of Scottish ancestry or just fascinated by the history, the Scottish Tartans Museum not only displays the Scottish Tartans, but it is also a wealth of lore about the Scots’ culture, dress and migration.
Rest Your Head
With all the winter fun that the Great Smoky Mountains offer, visitors can rest and relax at a variety of cozy accommodations.
• For peace and luxury, Fontana Mountain Resort, located in the Nantahala Forest, has a variety of accommodations from rooms in the lodge to private cabins. The property has trails and a year-round pool.
• The Buckwood Log Lodge offers warm and rustic accommodations in the heart of Highlands, NC.
• Cataloochee Ranch Resort offers accommodations for small and larger groups. Amenities include outdoor and indoor entertainment, a 20-foot heated spa, and fireplaces in most lodgings. NOTE: The resort is currently being renovated but is expected to reopen in 2023.
Here are some other places to consider when looking for Smoky Mountain accommodations.
Featured image courtesy of Adam Duff.