Frosty fun in the Smokies
By Katy Koontz
Photos courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets most of its visitors in summer and in fall, but winter here has a special charm all its own. The leaves that make the fall foliage so spectacular every October are gone, leaving nothing to obstruct the views of layer upon layer of mist-enshrouded mountain ridges at the scenic overlooks, both on hiking trails and at pull-offs along the park’s roadways. Another plus—the crowds at the nation’s most-visited national park are gone, so you won’t have to elbow your way through a throng of tourists to ogle the aforementioned vistas.
As mountains go, the temperatures here are fairly moderate. High temperatures in winter sometimes hit the low 70s, with highs registering 50 degrees or more about half the time. Nights are cold, though, often reaching freezing. At the lower elevations (where the park entrances and visitors’ centers are located), dustings rather than dumps of snow are the norm. In the higher elevations, however, temperatures are at least 10 degrees colder and snow is more common. At Newfound Gap, for instance, the highest place you can drive to in the park during winter, the cumulative annual snowfall can be anywhere from 50 to 75 inches.
While the park’s famous black bears are hibernating, you can still see the park’s plentiful white-tailed deer and several other critters in winter. The best spot for wildlife is in Cades Cove, an 11-mile, one-way loop drive through both wooded areas and wide open fields.
If you happen to hit the park after a snow or ice storm, take the the road to Newfound Gap once it’s clear. The view from the gap itself, right on the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, is certainly memorable. But so is the drive there and back, where the frosted tree limbs sparkling in the sunlight will appear to be sprinkled with pixie dust.
Hiking is another winter option in the Smokies. Because the foliage is thinner, it’s easier to spot historic features such as rock walls and the foundations of old homesteads from the days before the land was part of the national park. If your destination happens to be a waterfall, you may be treated to beautiful ice formations.
Rainbow Falls is one popular winter hike (5.4 miles round trip). When temperatures dip below freezing, these falls often feature a growing column of ice forming near their base. Stalactite-like icicles also hang off the lip of the falls, growing longer as the cold spell progresses. Although it’s a rare sight, in extremely cold years, the falls can freeze into a single 80-foot column of ice.
Alum Cave Bluff trail is another excellent choice for a winter hike (5 miles round trip). While there’s no waterfall at the bluff, a series of massive icicles cling to the upper edge of the 80-foot-high, 500-foot-long rock shelter. The icicles are often at least three feet long, and they can grow to six feet. (Tip: Don’t stand below these massive spears of ice, especially if you happen to be hiking on a sunny afternoon.) The overhang was once mined for several minerals, including alum, Epsom salt and saltpeter.
Even wildflower lovers will find reason to visit the Smokies this time of year. The first blooms in the park appear not in spring but in winter, when blooms on witch-hazel, spicebush, and red maple trees begin appearing.
If you go: For information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit nps.gov/grsm. For the latest road conditions in the park, call 865-436-1200 or visit @SmokiesRoadsNPS on Twitter.