Vacationing in the winter can be a challenge. Tropical beaches may be out of reach, and indoor holidays can be boring. This is why Gatlinburg is so unique. The cold months can stretch from late September to March, depending on where you live. This can feel claustrophobic for families and couples alike. Between dark afternoons and excessive TV, most people crave something new.
What are the best activities to do in Gatlinburg in the winter?
Gatlinburg, TN, is a resort city known for its wintertime activities. From laser tag to sky trolleys, the city is at its best during fall and winter. There are a few unique staples everyone must try. Christmas Eve Snow tubing is just one.
If you’re not a “snow person,” there’s no reason to worry. Wintertime activities can also involve heated pools and indoor aquariums. Ripley’s Aquarium of The Smokies offers a “sleep with the sharks” special for both kids and adults. Participants are allowed to spend a night at the aquarium while watching the fish. Personally, I found it to be one of the most romantic date nights ever.
As a long-time fan of Gatlinburg, I can share both tourist and local activities. Regardless of what you like to do in your spare time, the community is friendly and accommodating. According to the City Commission, their trolley system helps vacationers on a daily basis by providing free transportation around town.
Tennessee in the Winter
For adventurous travelers, Gatlinburg, TN, has everything you need. Located in Sevier County, Tennessee, it’s just south of Knoxville. Because it’s right on the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll see a lot of stores and t-shirts referencing the Smokies.
Gatlinburg was originally known as the White Oak Flats, where Cherokee hunters used the Indian Gap Trail before the Civil War. Currently, Gatlinburg is known as the only ski resort in Tennessee. The average high in December is 51 degrees.
Known as a tourist city, vacationers from all over the country visit during the cold season. Not only is the city known for skiing, but its arts and crafts community stretches 8 miles through the north side of Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg in Winter: Things To Do and See
Gatlinburg may look small, but it is a densely populated community. This is mostly due to its ski slopes and national park. Bundling up and going outside will really pay off during the chilly months.
The Old Sugarlands Trail
The Old Sugarlands Trail is a 7-mile historical walk with beautiful mountain views. Although tourists frequently hike through the national park, this trail seems to be populated by locals that truly understand its charm.
I would not recommend this walk for children as it can be challenging at times. It has approximately 1200 feet of elevation gain, depending on where you start. Most people like to start from the Sugarlands side.
The lack of foot traffic makes it a quiet and peaceful trek. Regardless of when you hike, it’s much less crowded than a lot of the other national park trails. Although there are fewer humans, there is an abundance of wildlife. White-tailed deer and even black bears can be seen along the path.
The Old Sugarlands Trail is best hiked in the warmer months of winter. Most people enjoy the trail most in November, but it is open throughout the entire year. If you decide to hike the trail any earlier than November, you do run the risk of dealing with pesky insects.
Clingmans Dome Road
Clingmans Dome leads you to the greatest heights of the Smoky Mountains National Park. On a clear day, you can see over 100 miles of land from the very top. Since it’s over 6,000 feet tall, it’s important to dress extra warm in the winter.
Clingmans Dome Road is an ideal place to ski. The scenic route is approximately 7 miles, and from December to March, it’s completely closed off to cars and bicycles. This area usually has more snow than other areas of the national park and is perfect for maximum speed.
Cross-country ski rentals can be surprisingly difficult to find near Clingmans Dome. If you do decide to ski, bring your own equipment. This includes a hat, gloves, skis, water, and snacks.
The Winter Light Tour
During the holiday season, Gatlinburg’s Winter Magic Tour of Lights shows tourists the parkway lights from a sky trolley. Sky trolleys are also called cable cars. They use an aerial lift to glide passengers throughout the sky.
The trolley carries passengers through the downtown area adjacent to River Road. It’s here where the famous LED lighting display can be seen. An estimated $1.6 million is spent on customized lighting.
Although the trolley is not free, the proceeds support the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The foundation has historically donated to scholarship and education programs in Tennessee.
Fortunately, The Gatlinburg cable car offers tours as soon as it gets dark. You do not need to wait until ten pm to see the holiday lights twinkle.
There are several waterfalls in Gatlinburg that are especially beautiful in the winter. Most of these waterfalls can be found on hiking trails around the national park. If you’re looking for something to do that doesn’t cost money or attract hundreds of tourists, this is an easy way to have fun.
Laurel Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall. To get to its location, you must first walk 2 miles into the woods of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is not a particularly difficult walk, but you will need boots. Because of its many levels, this waterfall produces thick ice formations in January.
Grotto Falls is also located on a national park trail in the woods. The Grotto Falls Trail stems from the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. It does not allow cars and is perfect for group hiking trips. For beginning hikers, the Grotto Falls Trail is best. It only takes about a mile to get to the waterfall.
The Grotto Falls is a 25ft tall waterfall. In addition to thick ice formations, a cave has formed at the base. Rocks surrounding the cave are often slippery with ice and should be handled with extreme care if you plan to enter the cave.
It’s one of the most beautiful areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Great Smoky Mountains
In the winter, heading to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a local tradition. This is a free activity that anyone can participate in. Driving through the scenic route allows passengers to take in the elevated views of winter.
In addition to driving, hiking is free. Hiking trails often lead to scenic overlooks that provide views of both the city and nature. I’ve found that even if there’s minimal snow on the ground, it can usually be seen in the high peaks near Newfound Gap.
Mt. LeConte is especially magical. The Mount LeConte trail is a total of 8 miles long and is not for everyone. The hike is steep and icy at times but will eventually lead you to the LeConte Lodge. Alum Cave is an alternate route that is much easier to hike.
Ski Mountain Coaster
The Ski Mountain Coaster is a unique ride because you actually have some control over how fast you fly. First, the coaster climbs to approximately 1000ft at a slow pace. Once you’re at the top, however, the ride morphs into a series of turns and dips.
At the top of the ride, passengers can enjoy the mountainous views. As the ride descends, the riders can speed or mosey down a zig-zagging track filled with corkscrews and drops. Depending on your preference, you can actually speed up to 25 MPH.
Two passengers can ride together. If you’re like me, this is good because otherwise, the ride is too scary. The carts are actually fairly comfortable and very secure. The Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is open year-round.
Cozy Winter Activities in Gatlinburg
In addition to the outdoors, there are several indoor options available for vacationers in Gatlinburg. TV is not your only option if you’d rather spend a day indoors or simply relax after snowboarding.
Ripley’s Aquarium in the Smokies
Ripley’s Aquarium is much more than most city aquariums. In addition to a live penguin cam, they also have two levels of underwater species. There is a shark lagoon, ocean fish, and even a tropical rainforest.
One of the most unexpected activities is their “sleep with the sharks” night. No, you’re not actually getting into the tank with a bunch of sharks. But you can sleep next to them in the safety of the heavy glass.
This is an interesting attraction because you must reserve your spot. This means a family can sleep at the aquarium without bumping into other guests. It also means you can have an amazing date night, unlike any others. The maximum number of people you can have per night is 50.
Hollywood Star Cars Museum
The Hollywood Star Cars Museum is actually great for both kids and adults. There are tons of antique cars, but they each have a cinematic history. Michael Jackson’s Mercedes-Benz 500 and Mike Tyson’s Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster can be found in perfect condition.
Each car has its own biography and photo. If you’d like to sit in one of the cars and pose for a photo, that’s also an option. Although they are not the original cars from the celebrities themselves, the recreations are incredibly authentic.
The museum is open during both the summer and winter. It does close on Christmas Eve and Christmas, but its hours are lenient. My favorite of their cars was the Fast and the Furious Mitsubishi Eclipse from 2001.
The Laser Tag Arena
Laser tag is one of my favorite activities. Unfortunately, a surprising number of towns do not offer this attraction. Gatlin’s Fun Center has a 3000 sq ft. arena and brand new technology.
The arena provides lighter vests and sentry pods in addition to basic instructions. If you don’t know how to operate the lasers or where camping spots are located, they go over everything in detail. Because the arena is laid out like a maze, there are plenty of places to hide.
The maze is filled with black lights like any true laser tag arena. The trippy atmosphere is amplified by music and colored strobe lighting. This is not an experience for those who are prone to seizures.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium showcases frankly bizarre items. If you’re in the mood for something strange, this is definitely the attraction for you.
This is not a museum of magic tricks. Instead, I saw everything from shrunken heads to a car completely submerged in crystals. I’m not sure who comes up with these exhibits, but the artists are top-notch. Somebody put together an entire dragon from recycled metal.
The museum itself is three stories tall. Each story has multiple exhibits to explore from different artists. In total, there are 16 themed galleries and 500 artifacts. I highly recommend this for any creative soul.
Indoor Mini Golf
Miniature golf indoors in Gatlinburg is just as much fun as it is outside. Even as an adult I still find the twisting courses challenging to maneuver. The Crave Golf Club was ranked in the top 13 mini-golf courses in the country by the Travel Channel and is open to the public!
This is a sugar-themed course with ice cream canyons and cocoa cliffs. There are 19 holes available, and special shoes are not required. If you suddenly get a craving for jelly beans or pixie sticks, the Sweet Shop is right on the premises.
Indoor Snow Tubing
Snow tubing indoors is a unique experience. The temperature at The Pigeon Forge Snow arena is consistently between 60 and 70 degrees. There’s no need for snow boots or parkas.
Regardless of the season, Pigeon Forge Snow makes their snow every day. They do not add chemicals or toxins to create a fluffy texture and prefer the natural “just water” solution. The indoor slope has additional snow at the top. Kids frequently build snowmen or create snow angels that last about five minutes.
If you’re not into snow tubing or you want to take a break, there is an upstairs level to the arena. This is the observation room where you can still see what’s going on without being a part of it. This is ideal for tired parents who may need just a minute.
You do not need to bring your own tube. The Pigeon Forge Snow business will provide all the equipment you need all year round.
The Local Arcade
Tourists and locals both visit Fannie Farkles. This is a classic indoor arcade with vintage games. The lighting is dark so that the arcades are at maximum brightness. Games span from Down the Clown to Monster Drop.
In addition to video game-style arcades, Fannie Farkles also has Skee Ball and Pac-Man. Game points can be used to win certain prizes like stuffed animals. Gamers with especially high points can win more expensive prizes, including a PlayStation system.
Although many locals and tourists come for the games, the food is another selling point. Fannie Farkles is famous for its carnival food. The Ogle Dog is similar to a corndog, but they are fried and dipped for a blend of textures. As a Philly native, their cheesesteak subs are impressive.
The building is quite cheerful. Unlike 80s arcades, this one feels more friendly and inclusive. Painted pink, Fannie Farkles is easy to see from the road.
Does Gatlinburg Offer Ice Skating?
Figure skating is one of the most popular winter Olympic sports to watch on TV. As a mix between grace and athleticism, it almost looks easy. Practicing ice skating can be done in Gatlinburg all year round.
The ice arena in Ober Gatlinburg is located in an enclosed mall. This is perfect for both hot and cold days. The rink is designed for both beginners and advanced skaters so that everyone can enjoy.
I especially appreciated the handrail located around the entire perimeter of the rink. I’m not particularly graceful or athletic and was unsure if I really wanted to ice skate at all. Luckily the rail saved me more than once, and I eventually felt more confident knowing it was there. Had the rail not been there, I might have felt too intimidated to try.
The rink is actually quite large. This is not like the roller rinks found in community centers. The Ober Gatlinburg ice skating arena is big enough to host Ice Skating Institute Team Competitions.
During the holiday season, the rink will sometimes host Christmas events. This can include figure skating by trained athletes. The Tennessee Special Olympics ice skating competition is also held here on an annual basis.
What To Pack
Going to Gatlinburg, TN, in the winter requires the right clothing. It can get especially chilly in the mountains, and extra sweatshirts and jackets are crucial. If you’re skiing, a waterproof jacket will help.
The temperatures often drop below freezing at night. This means if you are interested in a date night or a fancy restaurant, choose warm dress clothing. This is especially true from December through February.
In addition to clothing, don’t forget your water bottle. Hiking (even in the cold) requires travelers to stay hydrated. Portable snacks that can be carried in your pocket or purse are also a good idea. Ice skates, skis, and snow boots are a staple for winter sports.
Gatlinburg is a unique destination for the holidays. It can keep kids and adults entertained for each day of the vacation.