Spending the holidays in the small towns of the Smoky Mountains is an enchanting experience filled with warmth and nostalgia. Amidst the rustic charm, festive lights, and the sweet aroma of holiday treats, it’s a journey back in time.
I’ve spent three holiday seasons in the Smokies, and every memory is coated with that magical essence of the season and memories that have me smiling like a goofy elf just writing this. We also have it on good authority that this is one of Santa’s favorite places to visit.
Check the calendar because some big events happen during Thanksgiving weekend or the following week, making it a great place to parlay two holiday celebrations into one timeless tale.
Gatlinburg goes big for the holidays, starting with the Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies in mid-November.
Then, the Festival of Trees starts in late November, the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade in early December, and the Christmas Arts & Craft Show spans that same time frame.
You’ll pass numerous street carolers day and night, plus test some of the best seasonal dishes with a mix of Southern and Appalachian flavors.
The SkyTrail lights up with decorated trees, and the SkyBridge offers a 300-foot-long tunnel of lights.
The new year kicks off with fireworks and festivities.
Enjoy several of the many activities and Ober Mountain throughout the holiday season.
Pigeon Forge, TN
Dollywood is almost as close as you can get to the North Pole every holiday season. The Smoky Mountain Christmas festivities kick off in early November through early January, leaving plenty of time to experience the celebration.
The Island in Pigeon Forge is perfect for shopping and festive dining. Ditch the traffic and take a trolley on the Tour of Lights for amazing displays up there with Clark Griswold’s creativity.
The Titanic Museum goes all out for Christmas, with $100,000 of lights. In 2023, red teddy bears paid tribute to the 135 children who were aboard the ill-fated ship.
Channel your inner Buddy the Elf while exploring the Incredible Christmas Place. If you love Christmas, plan for a few hours at this store. (If you are a grumpy elf, there are plenty of comfortable chairs and snack bars while you wait.)
Christmas Hotel: While every hotel is decorated for Christmas, the Inn at Christmas Place is a year-round holiday destination.
Top Holiday Shows
I can tell you from experience on a writer’s salary that you can enjoy every second of the holiday spirit in the Smokies without spending money, but if you want to squeeze in a few shows, here are my favorite recommendations:
- Hatfield & McCoy Christmas Feud, Pigeon Forge: Touted as a Christmas Disaster, this show will have you laughing as you splurge on the holiday feast.
- The Comedy Barn Christmas Show, Pigeon Forge: Another gut buster, this show is filled with down-home fun and some adorable animals mixed with Christmas classics.
- Dolly Parton’s Stampede Christmas Show, Pigeon Forge: This dinner show comes with four courses and a show full of horses mixed with holiday magic.
- A Savior Has Come, Pigeon Forge: Another dinner show explores the variety of gospel holiday classics with a show devoted to the birth of Jesus.
The Gateway to the Smokies in Sevierville holds Winterfest from early November all the way through mid-February.
Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland is one of the top-rated light shows in Tennessee. A more rustic but equally impressive light show takes over SkyLand Ranch with over half a million lights. Sevierville’s Christmas Parade is over 60 years old and takes to the streets in early December.
You can also find many holiday deals at the Tanger Outlets of Sevierville.
Party like a pioneer during the Heritage Center Christmas in the Village celebration on the “Quieter Side of the Smokes.” This living museum offers a chance to help with handmade crafts while sipping fresh cider. Interpreters dressed in pioneer clothing will also offer holiday stories from the olden days.
You can also drive through the Smoky Mountain Lights from late November through early January.
Wears Valley, TN
Wears Valley on a normal day feels like a rustic retreat from the busy Parkway, but at Christmas, it simply transforms a holiday throwback to a simpler time. Most of the events here are free or by donation only, including the popular community dinner.
Tree tours, caroling, and storytelling activities are available, or you can just stroll the streets admiring the historic churches decorated for the season.
Ranked by Conde Nast as one of the best places to spend Christmas in the country, Asheville isn’t necessarily a small town, but it gives that vibe throughout the festive neighborhoods.
Tour Christmas at the Biltmore, as America’s Largest Homes exudes elegance and exuberance for the season. If it looks like it should host a Hallmark holiday movie, look for A Biltmore Christmas, which came out in November 2023.
The Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum offer another splendid feast for the eyes as you walk through the majestic display.
Stop by the Omni Park Grove Inn for the finalists in the Annual National Gingerbread House Competition.
Bryson City, NC
You can also take a hayride through holiday lights and past a reindeer barn at Darnell Farms. This is a great spot to pick up your Christmas tree.
The town also has a Christmas parade, and simply driving the main road is a transformation to Christmastown. At the center of all the activity is The Yard Skating Rink.
Highlands isn’t trying to win any big-league holiday awards. In fact, they encourage visitors to enjoy the slower pace of life and cherish the moments of the holiday season. All the shops in town decorate storefronts for the Trim Our Town competition.
The Highlands Olde Mountain Christmas Parade is one of the highlights, and Santa comes to the park each Saturday before Christmas Eve in December.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, visitors will experience Light Up the Park & Main when the holiday lights are turned on for the season.
In the heart of Nantahala National Forest, Franklin celebrates two weekends of the Winter Wonderland celebration. Holiday photo backdrops are spread throughout the town. Free sleigh rides offer a unique way to see festive Franklin. The best day to visit is Small Business Saturday, two days after Thanksgiving.
When you want an old-fashioned holiday celebration, it’s hard to beat the Dillboro Lights & Luminaries event held each Saturday in December. Santa rides around in a pick-up truck while the reindeer rest and more than 2,500 luminaries pave the way to the charming shops along the way.
All the while, music fills the air from live performers on Front Street. Pick up freshly made chocolate or hand-crafted gifts.
Lake Junaluska, NC
Enjoy the holiday season at Lake Junaluska for an old-fashioned Appalachian holiday. From candlelight services with harp music to carriage rides with a mountain backdrop, this one-weekend event will surely get you in the holiday mood.
A walking trail of holiday lights and decorations tops off a perfect trip to the lake.
Thanksgiving guests can also enjoy a huge buffet with all the fixings.
Maggie Valley, NC
Maggie Valley has all the holiday accouterments, like a charming main street lit up and unique stores for shopping, but many people come here for outdoor activities.
If your holiday dreams come with a ski slope or a tubing hill, Maggie Valley’s Cataloochee Ski Area usually opens by early November. You can also get some of the best views of elk in the Cataloochee Valley.
To truly be walking in a winter wonderland, head to Soco Falls, where the 120-foot-tall double waterfall is beautiful during this season and might be frozen during a cold spell.
TRAVEL TIP: Cherokee, NC, does have an amusement park called Santa’s Land. However, it closes in October so Santa can prepare for the other activities. It will be closed during the holiday season.
Waynesville brightens the holiday spirit with luminaries mixed with lights and a walkable Tinsel Trail to see even more holiday spirit. The Shelton House, a historic feature in town, also offers candlelit tours during the season.
You’ll be spitting out Christmas tunes at Winchester Creek Farm, where alpacas guide the way to Santa and Mrs. Claus.
The Night Before Christmas Event takes over the streets one night during the holiday season, with lighted pathways to unique boutiques.
Waynesville is one of the top locations in the Smokies to get a real Christmas tree.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We can’t forget the biggest gift in the Smokies: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Check the park calendar for upcoming events, but we know a Holiday Homecoming is held at two visitor centers.
You can also plan a hike to a vista to celebrate the winter solstice. Clingman’s Dome is the most popular, but Waterrock Knob on Blue Ridge Parkway is easier to get to and less crowded.
The park is open every holiday, but the visitor centers are closed on Christmas.
Additions to a Smoky Mountain Christmas Celebration
Many cabin rentals will come with holiday decorations already up, but be sure to ask about that when you book.
Also, road conditions can make getting between the North Carolina and Tennessee sides challenging, as the various altitudes can wreak havoc on the roads, even if it’s just raining in Gatlinburg. Check road conditions before you go, and always have a backup road to take.
Even on the holidays themselves, you’ll still find plenty of attractions and restaurants open for business. Have a happy holiday season, and we’d love to see how you spent your Smoky Mountain holiday adventure.