Beginning in the middle of November, the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee begins the Winterfest celebration, when the Smokies are covered in millions of lights. Visitors and guests from all over come to visit and enjoy the festivities.
But if you’re on a budget, you may have put a bit more planning into your vacation. Sevier County is no place to be broke during the holidays.
And while I love Winterfest, the commercialization of Christmas is a steamroller of bright lights, consumption and celebration. It’s both the best and the worst thing about the holiday season.
It’s that yin and yang, I suppose, that is at the heart of the season captured in classics from Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” to Seuss’s “Grinch.”
Still, the spirit is there, if you know where to look. And you can find it while saving your hard-earned dollars for important things like tinsel and eggnog.
So if your budget doesn’t allow for attractions like Dollywood, Ripley’s Aquarium or snow tubing down the slopes at Ober, don’t worry. Here are some ways you can celebrate Christmas in Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas without ever opening your wallet.
Subscribe to our newsletter for area news, coupons and discounts
11. Take a walk around downtown Gatlinburg
There’s something about going for a good winter’s evening walk, letting that cold air fill your lungs and snap your senses open, that is inextricably Christmas.
My favorite destination to soak in some seasonal spirit is Gatlinburg, a city built to be accessed on foot.
Sure, there’s a good-sized hill, but take your time and relax.
Even though Gatlinburg is a small village, at Christmas, it makes me think of the classic carol “Silver Bells.” I suppose it’s the bustling activity and the vaguely European architecture.
If you let your imagination wander, it’s a little bit like time travel, to the golden age of Christmas where I’ve gone back to the age of busy sidewalks filled with people dressed in holiday style and the feeling of Christmas tangible in the air.
Like Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney could walk, arm in arm, out of one of the shops and suddenly, inexplicably, life is a musical, but one that somehow captures the joy of a Christmas tinged with melancholy.
While you’re walking, be sure to check out the shops and boutiques around town. The Village is a great area to explore. And sometimes, you might be able to catch some live music at the Ole Smoky moonshine distillery.
10. Take a walk at The Island in Pigeon Forge
If you’ll be doing some walking in Pigeon Forge, The Island is the perfect spot to walk at night, get a photo at the giant Christmas tree and enjoy the season.
But be warned, the brand of Christmas at The Island is very different.
If Gatlinburg is Dean Martin singing Christmas carols into your soul, The Island is Seuss’s Whoville, all neon lights and electric mirth.
There’s no place for reflection, no time for season sadness, even for those of us who enjoy our minor desolations.
If it sways you one way or the other, The Island offers abundant free parking, which can be hard to find in Gatlinburg.
9. Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free, at least for now.
And Christmas is a great time to get out and explore the wonders of the park and its hiking trails.
On your way to the park, visit a visitor’s center. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is a great place to learn about the park’s plants and animals.
Another place I like to visit this time of year is Cades Cove. I enjoy visiting the little churches and cabins.
It’s time travel again, but instead of going back to a slick Christmas with packages and men in fedoras, this is a hardscrabble Christmas in which the gifts are homemade and candy or fruit is a treasure.
I like to stand on the hard-board floors and think about a tiny evergreen that had likely been cut down on Christmas Eve and decorated with ribbons and maybe strings of popcorn.
It’s cold and hard and, to use a term that carries more condescension than I’d like, simple.
But it’s also joyous and free, spiritually as well as financially.
Remember that some popular destinations like the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the Clingmans Dome road are closed seasonally in the winter. Check with the National Park Service for seasonal closures.
8. Visit The Apple Barn in Sevierville
Located in Sevierville, the Apple Barn’s centerpiece was built in 1910 by a family that farmed the surrounding land for generations. There’s no admission for the barn and when it’s decorated for Christmas, it’s a sight to see.
A word of caution, however, for the purposes of this exercise, temptation awaits at The Apple Barn.
Sure you can go into the barn and see the sights, check out all the items, watch them make cider and candy and explore the grounds without spending a dime. But it’s not easy.
Between the tempting foods, the beverages and the items for sale, you will be sorely tempted to open your wallet.
Think of this as a Christmas test of willpower.
7. Go for a drive and see the lights
Technically, this is not free because you’re using gas, but let’s not get bogged down in details.
When I was a kid, every year we’d go visit my grandparents in Marion and Grandma Betty would insist that we go down to the park by the river and look at the city’s holiday lights display.
It was as if Shadrack’s was put together by the Amish who were willing to budge this time and allow a little electricity but not enough to risk eternal damnation.
Pigeon Forge is significantly better decorated than Marion. It’s worth loading the kids in the car to cruise the strip and look at all the lights and decorations.
But I would recommend accessing the traffic situation before embarking on this particular adventure.
You don’t want to be sitting in traffic staring at the end of a trolley for two hours, but if traffic is flowing, cruising is always a good time.
Remember, you can also take a ride on the Gatlinburg Trolley for free.
6. Visit Patriot Park in Pigeon Forge
This year, the city of Pigeon Forge is offering visitors brand-new experiences with the all-new Wonders of Light Walking Trail.
The new trail features the scenic Riverwalk nature trail, a paved trail that is pet-friendly and wheelchair-friendly.
The trail can be accessed from the city’s Municipal Parking Lot, between the LeConte Center and The Island. The trail continues to the intersection of Old Mill Avenue and Butler Street, near the Old Mill Historic Square.
In fact, the six-mile out-and-back trail has several access points.
5. Visit the Old Mill Square in Pigeon Forge
The Old Mill is, well, an old mill built in 1830 and still functions today.
Again, you will be tempted to spend money at one of the many diverting little shops, eateries and restaurants. Still, admission is free to come and explore.
The mill is a working tribute to the pioneers of yesteryear and really does a job at Christmas. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s a great spot to take family Christmas photos for the ‘gram
4. Keep an eye out for special events on the calendar
In December, you will often find special events that are often free for the public.
For example, this year Paula Deen visited Lumberjack Square for a special tree-lighting ceremony. And if you visit early enough in the season, you can see Christmas floats and more lights at the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade in Gatlinburg.
Plus, Santa Claus may make appearances at local attractions at little or no cost to you.
3. Check out the Arts and Crafts Community
I quite enjoy checking out the Arts and Crafts Community this time of year.
Just shop where you see The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community logo to explore local talent and homemade goods or explore their 8-mile loop of artisans and craftsmen.
It’s a great place to shop for jewelry, candles, ornaments and more.
2. Enjoy your rental cabin
One of the best things about coming to the mountains is sitting back and enjoying the view.
Of course, a Smoky Mountain cabin inherently isn’t free. But once you’ve already paid for it, be sure to get your money’s worth. Soak your feet in the hot tub. Enjoy the fire pit. Watch a holiday film in the theater room. Spend time with your family.
That’s what the season is really all about.
1. Stay for New Year
If you’re staying a few days after Christmas, be sure to check out one of the major New Year celebrations.
In Gatlinburg, there will be a New Year’s Eve Ball Drop under the iconic Gatlinburg Space Needle with fireworks on Dec. 31.
In Pigeon Forge, the Island will also be featuring midnight fireworks.
What are your favorite things to do for free in the Smokies in TN? Let us know in the comments!