winter hiking in the smoky mountains
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15 Great Smoky Mountain Winter Hiking Trails to Explore

Nature takes on an almost magical feel in the winter, especially along our favorite Smoky Mountain winter hiking trails. Trails that you may frequent in warmer months take on a completely different feel as you hear the crunch of snow beneath your boots or the calm stillness of a winter day.

A good share of these treks offer frozen waterfalls, ponds, and streams, which form dramatic ice formations when the temperatures fall below freezing for an extended length of time.

You will also view massive sparkling frozen icicles suspended from cliffs above your head – just be sure to watch out for dangerous falling ones on these trails. At times, you may also encounter some wildlife. Again, exercise caution and common sense when you do.

Other than staying safe and prepared, all you need to do is enjoy the unique scenery that awaits you as you traverse Smoky Mountain winter hiking trails.

winter hiking in the smoky mountains

Practice Smoky Mountains Winter Hiking Safety

In the winter, snowfall covers or even buries a good share of the mountain trails in the United States. You can sometimes snowshoe or cross-country ski on them, but they’re harder to hike with just your boots. 

Fortunately, you can do just that when you come to the Smoky Mountains and go for hikes on the many Smoky Mountain hiking trails in winter. While icy patches and snow lace the pathways, you will likely be surprised by the number of people who come out and trek on the trails this time of year. But the crowds definitely won’t be as large as you’d find in the summer.

Should you decide to explore Smoky Mountain trails during the winter, you’ll definitely need to make some common-sense preparations.  

Dress for All Types of Weather

Even if the weather forecast looks sunny and clear in the Smokies, you’ll need to suit up in layers. That’s because the winter temperatures can vary anywhere between below freezing near the mountain tops to 70° in the lower elevations.

Also, the weather conditions can change without warning. You’ll definitely want to pack clothing that can protect you, no matter what Mother Nature might throw your way. Consider bringing a poncho, gloves, a waterproof winter hat, and even an extra pair of socks if it looks like rain or sleet in the forecast.

Alum Cave - Gatlinburg, Tennessee - Winter Hiking
Alum Cave | photo via @went_wandering

Let People Know Your Plans

This tip is standard practice anytime you go hiking, but it’s essential when you’re out on Smoky Mountain winter hiking trails. There’s that weather issue, of course, but you’ll also have to take heed of more challenging conditions in the outdoors.

Tell someone exactly what trail you’ll be hiking, your time of departure, and roughly how long you’ll be away. Your contact will know to keep a lookout for you when you return and will be aware if something doesn’t seem right or you’re late getting back.

Take Precautions & Pack Accordingly

Hiking in the winter can be fun and the Smokies can be breathtaking. But if you’re going for a hike, there are non-negotiables you must have. The non-negotiables for your hike include a map of your chosen trail, a compass, and nutritionally dense snacks like energy or protein bars and trail mix.

Other items that you might want to take along include a first aid kit, flares, and your cell phone. Cell reception may be weak or non-existent in some areas of the mountains, but there are spots where the phone could work and come in handy. You never know when you might need to make a call, so bring it with you and make sure it’s charged.

Hydrate With Cold Drinks & Keep Comfortable With Warm Drinks

Bringing your sports bottle filled with cold water is a no-brainer on a hike. Take along a minimum of two quarts to avoid drawing water from the streams. It may look clean and pure but may have bacteria that won’t be pleasant for your body to deal with later on.

If the temperatures have considerably dropped, pack a Thermos of your favorite hot drink (skip the hot toddy or any alcohol until you get back to civilization) to ward off the chills. If you’re going to be gone all day, heat up soup or hot chocolate before you go so you’ve got something warm to eat or drink. 

Prepare For the Elements

The biggest difference between summer and winter hiking in the Smokies is obviously the presence of cold weather, which can include snow and ice. 

Trekking poles or a hiking staff will help you negotiate the steeper and more slippery patches along the trails, but take along some instep crampons to secure your footing. Always stay on the marked trails so you won’t get lost or encounter problems.

Winter Hiking

Experience the Best Winter Hiking Trails in the Smoky Mountains

Here are fifteen of our favorite winter hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains…

Laurel Falls

This short 1.3-mile paved trail rewards visitors with a majestic and multi-tiered 80-foot cascade at its end, best viewed on the wooden footbridge spanning its length. It likely won’t be completely frozen, or at all, but you’ll still be impressed with this woodland gem.

We decided it was such a beautiful February day that it was (a) perfect day to see the falls.

The trail has a moderate slope and while I will use the word paved loosely. There is pavement but in spots it’s getting down to almost nothing. So mind your step. The trail winds and twists its way up to the falls. it’s 2.6 miles round trip. Remember the trip down is easier as it is mostly down hill.

The falls are really beautiful. You can feel the cooling air flowing out from them. I can only imagine how nice that would feel on a sunny hot day in the summer time. So refreshing! The scenery during the winter is just as beautiful as other seasons, providing glimpses that you might not otherwise be able to see due to foliage.

Chip via TripAdvisor
Laurel Falls - Sevierville, Tennessee - Winter Hiking
Laurel Falls | photo via @debiase_adventures

Rainbow Falls

If you are eager for something more challenging, consider taking this trek along LeConte Creek that greets you with an elevation gain of 1,700 feet, plus a 5-mile-plus round-trip, switchbacks, and rocky sections. The falls here sometimes freeze into an hourglass shape in wintertime.

Alum Cave

Do you want to view some impressive icicle formations on your hike? Then head up this popular trail for a roughly 4 ½-mile round-trip to the Alum Cave, which is in fact a towering concave bluff rising 80 feet above the trail. This outing is popular, even in winter, so get here early to beat the crowds.

Rainbow Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Rainbow Falls | photo via Michael Hicks

Andrews Bald

Take the Forney Ridge Trail from Clingman’s Dome parking lot for 1.8 miles, where you’ll gradually descend to a ridge that levels off. During winter, snow is common here, so be sure to wear proper footwear to keep you warm. Thrill to the spectacular views you’ll see on this plateau.

Porters Creek

This trail offers one of the best winter hikes in the National Park because of its easy car access, fewer crowds, lower elevation, and gentle climbs. The 4-mile round-trip will bring to the frozen spectacle of Fern Branch Falls.

Alum Cave - Gatlinburg, Tennessee - Winter Hiking
Alum Cave | photo via @went_wandering

Daniel Ridge Falls/Tom’s Spring Falls

If you’re on the North Carolina side close to Asheville, head to the Pisgah National Forest and these cascades, which have different names. Even though the hike is quite short – just a half-mile one way – you’ll find these waterfalls freeze into a dramatic show during the colder months.

Deep Creek Waterfalls

Also in North Carolina but in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this series of loop treks showcases three Smoky Mountain waterfalls that range from half-mile to 4 ½-mile. Some may be frozen, but each of the trails is mostly easy to cover.

Laurel Falls - Sevierville, Tennessee
Laurel Falls | photo via @debiase_adventures

Huskey Gap

A moderately difficult 4.2-mile climb that starts at Newfound Gap Road, this trail is known for its remote quietness, so you might almost feel you have the trail to yourself. Along the way, you’ll notice the remains of a stone fence. Near the end of the trail, you’ll see some beautiful mountain views.

Max Patch

Like Andrews Bald, this mountaintop in the Pisgah National Forest will likely have a blanket of snow covering its surface. The route leads hikers up two loop trails that are an easy climb and 4-miles total. A little further along, you can also hit the Appalachian Trail.

Max Patch - North Carolina - Winter Hiking
Max Patch | photo via @erikajophotos

Hen Wallow Falls

Chances are if the temperatures have dipped below freezing you’ll find the 90-foot falls at the end of this 4.4-mile hike frozen into a long fluted column. Even if they aren’t, you’ll enjoy this hike which takes you along the Gabes Mountain Trail for some serious ascending.

Easy to moderate 4-mile round-trip hike offering a bit more of a challenge (unpaved path) and a lot less people than the very popular Laurel Falls trail. I have hiked this trail several times with my favorite being winter.

-Anita A. via Trip Advisor

Trillium Gap

This is an almost 9-mile out-and-back trail that you can find southeast of Gatlinburg. The gap can be found off the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

For the first mile and a half of the trail, you’ll follow along the Grotto Falls Trail and wind through forests before you reach a 25-foot waterfall. There’s a big rise in elevation as you hike — almost 1,200 feet — so be prepared.

Trillium Gap - Gatlinburg, Tennessee - Winter Hiking
Trillium Gap | photo via @suzymellinger

Schoolhouse Gap

On this relatively short and easy hike near Cades Cove, you might spot some wildlife as they make their way to the open space. This uncrowded route is great for an outing that won’t require a lot of climbing and expending energy.

Give me nature over a shopping center or busy city any and every day. After doing Clingman’s Dome with 38942 other people, I needed to reset. This trail was just the ticket. It is easy to access, well-marked and we only saw a few people. We did about 6 miles on it and would have loved to do more, had time allowed.

Intilwanderlust via Trip Advisor

Charlies Bunion/Jump Off

This is a popular trail with locals and the trailhead can be found at the Newfound Gap parking lot. To the left of a scenic overview is an unpaved path to follow with signs for the Appalachian Trail. Follow that and you’ll get to Charlies Bunion, an 8-mile round trip with plenty of spots to see awesome views of the Smokies.

The trail is very easy to stay on. It’s more like a 10-mile round trip hike than 8 miles. I gets pretty sketchy at some points especially with the wind blowing hard but it’s definitely worth the hike! I did when there was still snow and it’s something to experience in your life time. You def need to be in shape to walk the incline. I’m a runner and I still felt the burn!

– Lisa M. via Trip Advisor
Charlies Bunion - Tennessee - Winter Hiking
Charlies Bunion | photo via @jamesrobertsmith100

Metcalf Bottoms

If you’re looking for Smoky Mountain winter hiking trails that are short and scenic, this is perfect. It’s just a mile and a half long and has less than 200 feet of elevation gain. Hikers can travel to the historic Little Greenbrier Community, a ghost town in the mountains that still has an old schoolhouse and a cemetery.

Middle Prong Trail

This is one of the less-used Smoky Mountain winter hiking trails, but it’s a hidden gem for sure. This 8-mile round trip goes past three waterfalls that are really a sight to see when they’re frozen in the winter.

Middle Prong Trail - Gatlinburg, Tennessee - Middle Prong Trail
Middle Prong Trail | photo via @katie_exploring

Explore More of the Best Smoky Mountain Winter Hiking Trails

As you can see, more than a dozen wonderful Smoky Mountain winter hiking trails are just waiting to be explored. No matter your level of hiking experience or how you want to explore, the winter months are the perfect time to explore the Smokies.

Whether you want to do a quick day trip or plan for an extended stay to explore multiple trails, the Smokies are waiting. So grab your warm clothing, your essentials, and your sense of adventure, because the Smoky Mountains are waiting.

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