Winter is coming.
For many, a trip to the Smokies in the winter months means an opportunity to see snow in the mountains. But actually finding snow, can be tricky.
Does it snow in the Smokies?
At the lower elevations snow is usually a rare treat, falling in significant amounts only a handful of times each winter.
If you’re coming to the Smokies to really see snow, you’ll just have to get lucky. And if you do arrive when it’s snowing, I suggest you bring milk, bread and toilet paper with you.
My people are hoarders and have been caught in just enough unexpected blizzards that we will NOT be caught without the essentials ever again.
The more likely way to see natural snow in the Smokies is to seek it out in the higher elevations.
According to the National Park Service “at higher elevations, the climate is significantly cooler than in the surrounding lowlands and the mountain peaks receive much more snow.
At nearly a mile high, Newfound Gap (elevation 5,046′) receives an average of 69 inches of snowfall during the winter season.
When winter precipitation is falling however, travel conditions can quickly become very hazardous in the park. Newfound Gap Road (US-441) and other park roads are often temporarily closed during winter storms due to snow and ice on the roadways.
“Before visiting the park in winter, please call 865-436-1200 for road closure and weather information. Dial extension 631 for updates on temporary road closures and extension 630 for a weather forecast. Or follow road status updates on Twitter. Updates are available for Newfound Gap Road (US-441), Little River Road, Laurel Creek Road, and Cades Cove Loop Road. If Newfound Gap Road is not closed due to snowy or icy conditions, opportunities exist for cross country skiing and hiking in the snow along Clingmans Dome Road, which is closed to vehicles in winter. This road starts 0.1 mile south of Newfound Gap.”
There is a lot to unpack in that information.
First, let’s be clear, seeing snow up close and personal isn’t worth risking your own life or others. Be aware of the conditions before you set out on your adventure.
Secondly, if you’re in the upper elevations, conditions can change quickly. Keep your head on a swivel.
Finally, the snowy mountains are beautiful and can be an awe-inspiring sight.
Without further ado, here are some of the best places to experience snow in the Smokies with tips on accessibility.
1. Visit Hartford (Elevation: 1,263 feet)
Located right at the North Carolina border in Cocke County, Hartford is the last community in Tennessee as you ascend into the mountains on I-40.
At 1,263 feet, Hartford isn’t especially high up, but if an inhabited community in Tennessee is going to have snow, tiny Hartford – located at exit 447 – is usually the first.
Hartford isn’t necessarily the best place if you want to get out and really explore the snow but if the goal is to just see it, maybe let the kids make a snowball or two without throwing winter chains on your tires, then Hartford is the spot.
Because of its proximity to I-40, you don’t really have to travel a lot of winding mountain roads to get there and the Interstates are usually the best maintained roads we have during winter weather.
Just don’t stray too far off the exit without the proper gear.
2. Stop at a rest area or welcome center
Now, if you want a fairly accessible place to get out and harmlessly play in some snow, let me suggest something a little off the map: Rest areas and welcome centers.
As I said before, the best maintained roads in the mountains during a snow event are the Interstates.
If I wanted to take my small kids up into the mountains in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see snow, I’d head for the rest areas/welcome centers on either side of the state line.
In North Carolina, at mile marker 10 on I-40, is the Waterville Lake Rest Area heading west and the Welcome Center heading east.
I consider the views from the rest area to be far superior and there’s plenty of room, a picnic area and more where you can let little ones play.
At 10 miles into North Carolina, the elevation should be significantly higher than Hartford and the snow should be heavier.
Be smart, however, this is still an Interstate going up, up, up into the mountains.
There aren’t a lot of opportunities to turn around. The next off ramp is exit 15 at Fines Creek. I’m pretty sure there’s a divider between east and westbound lanes but let me stress the following: Do NOT try to turn around using the emergency access on the Interstate.
3. Check out Max Patch (Elevation: 4,616 feet)
Now, we’re talking about trick accessibility. Do not attempt this without a four-wheel drive and an experienced driver.
I’m sure the people who live in the Rockies wouldn’t blanch at driving to Max Patch in the snow, but Southerners – and even flat-landed Northerners – should approach with caution.
Max Patch, a bald on the Appalachian Trail, is one of the true wonders of the mountains, just across the state lines.
It’s beautiful anytime, but with medium to light snow? It’s a winter wonderland.
But it’s a wonderland that’s hard to reach. At 4,616 feet elevation, Max Patch is located in Blue Ridge Mountains and offers some of the most spectacular views in the mountains.
I would not recommend going to Max Patch from the Tennessee side in the winter, I would definitely take I-40 into North Carolina and come in that way.
4. Visit Anakeesta (Elevation: 600 feet)
Gatlinburg, in general, with the European chalet feel is great in the snow. And, with its sweeping views, Anakeesta is a great place to take in the snow with a nice warm, or alcoholic beverage, have a nice meal and play at the best parts of being a ski bum without all the physical effort of skiing.
Fair warning though, since Anakeesta is accessible right to the heart of Gatlinburg, there’s a fair chance a few thousands of your closest friends will have the same idea. Get thee to a mountaintop rocking chair early.
5. Go snow-tubing at Pigeon Forge Snow
Look, I spent my boyhood days in Northern, Indiana, where winters are hard, cold and gray. Minus-75 degree wind chills? Oh yeah, they had ‘em.
But we also had snow, and plenty of it.
Snowball fights, sledding, snowmen, snow angels, the whole thing. It was just part of life as were sledding related injuries.
During my reckless youth, we went midnight sledding in a neighbor’s field on a moonless night. It was a great hill. We built a ramp. I crashed into the icy snow face first. It hurt for a second, but we kept going. When we got home, exhausted, we turned on the lights to see that the skin was shaved off my face and I looked something like a zombie. I hadn’t realized because my face was so frozen and I couldn’t feel the blood.
Ideally, I want my kids to have all the fun that comes with snow but as little of the headache and hassle of it for me as possible. That’s where Pigeon Forge Snow comes in.
Year round, I can take my kids sledding on a perfect hill with little danger, which yes, removes some of the fun for older kids, but also limits the chances of a mid-vacation trip to the hospital or shaving the skin off your face like you’d been attacked with a cheese grater.
Pigeon Forge Snow even has a snow room where kids can romp and play and get a feel for the white stuff. Snowball fights are outlawed- reasonably – but you can get every other part of your snowy fix year round.
6. Ski, snow tube or ice skate at Ober Gatlinburg
Same concept as Pigeon Forge Snow but a different execution.
Whereas Pigeon Forge Snow is a quick hit, in and out, here’s-some-fake-snow-let’s-all-enjoy-it, Ober is an immersive experience.
It’s a mountain-top village with shops and restaurants and tubing and skiing when temperatures allow.
There’s also year-round ice-skating which I am a fan of in concept but not necessarily in practice.
Ober is a great place to experience winter sports, though the conditions have to be right for skiing. The tubing hill is serviced by a different mechanism and is open when the skiing hills cannot be.
While snow is guaranteed year round at Pigeon Forge Snow, Ober isn’t able to offer the white stuff in the same way. But when it can, Ober has much more diverse options.
You can also access it by the aerial tramway which is cool and allows dads to make jokes by triumphantly singing funicular in operatic fashion like Andrea Bocelli.