Gatlinburg TN in the Winter: A Cozy Family Getaway

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Heading to Gatlinburg, TN, in the winter? You’re in for a real treat! We’ve made heading to Gatlinburg just after Christmas a family tradition. The whole area transforms into a winter wonderland, offering plenty of activities that are perfect for families seeking both adventure and relaxation. From the gorgeous snowy peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains to the bustling downtown streets, there’s something exciting around every corner.

Winter in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is not just about embracing the cold; it’s about making the most of every moment, which is my philosophy about ALL of winter and why we never shy away from a cold weather vacation whether it’s in Tennessee, Michigan, or even Indiana! Whether you’re hitting the slopes, savoring the local flavors, or cozying up in a cabin, each experience brings its own kind of joy.

And let’s not forget the charm of the town itself during winter. Gatlinburg takes on a special glow with twinkling lights and seasonal decorations, setting the scene for unforgettable holiday memories. So pack your warmest clothes, and get ready to explore all that Gatlinburg has to offer. From outdoor adventures to cozy indoor activities, you’ll have a blast.

1. Explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in winter is a spectacular experience. With fewer crowds and sometimes a serene blanket of snow covering the landscape, the park reveals a quieter, almost magical side. Winter hikes offer crisp, clear views unobstructed by foliage, and the snow-dusted mountains create a picturesque backdrop for pictures.

Standing next to the sign for Laurel Falls Trail in Gatlinburg, TN
Believe it or not, this hike was at the end of December!

One popular trail for winter hiking is the Laurel Falls Trail. This is a short 2.5-mile up-and-back hike to the top of the falls. It’s a fairly easy trail and one we’ve done many years on our winter trip. Another great option is the Porters Creek Trail, a gentler path perfect for families. It’s about 7 miles round trip and offers a peaceful hike through old-growth forest and historical sites, including an old cabin and barn.

Remember, winter hiking demands proper gear and preparation, as trails can be icy, but if you dress warmly enough and are careful it can be a wonderful way to spend winter. The tranquility of the park during winter offers a unique opportunity to connect with nature. Whether you’re an avid hiker or just looking for a peaceful walk, the Great Smoky Mountains in winter are a must-visit. Don’t forget your camera – the winter scenery here is truly a sight to behold.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters, Gatlinburg, TN

A teenager skiing

2. Visit Ober Gatlinburg ski area

Although we ski every winter in Boyne, I haven’t tried skiing in Gatlinburg before, but it’s on my list! At Ober Gatlinburg, you can ski from mid-December till mid-March (weather conditions allowing), and one of the fun parts is you get to take a tram up to the base of the slopes, and when you arrive it feels like a whole different world!

⛷️Pam’s insider tip: if you have teens with you, skiing is a great activity – most of them love it and it can be hard to find things to do that teens are excited about!

Another fun option is snow tubing! I love snow tubing – it’s as much fun as sledding but without all the work of walking back up the hill – at Ober Gatlinburg, you ride a magic carpet up to the top.

Finally, there is a fun area called the snow zone with plenty of areas for kids (and their parents) to play in the snow. It’s only open when the weather permits but if you want a “snow” vacation while on your Gatlinburg trip, it’s a ton of fun!

Ober Gatlinburg, 1001 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN

View of Smokies in Gatlinburg, TN

3. Take a scenic ride on the Gatlinburg SkyLift

The Gatlinburg SkyLift offers a unique and breathtaking experience, especially during the winter months. As you ascend on this scenic chairlift, the panoramic views of the snow-blanketed Smoky Mountains and the twinkling lights of Gatlinburg are nothing short of magical. It’s a peaceful journey, perfect for families looking to soak in the winter beauty from above.

Once at the top, the SkyLift Park presents even more to explore. The SkyBridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America (although now there is a second SkyBridge at Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls, Michigan), provides an exhilarating walk with stunning vistas. Imagine standing in the middle of the bridge, surrounded by a vast expanse of white, with the crisp mountain air refreshing your senses. It’s a moment of pure winter wonder that you and your family will remember for years to come.

Don’t rush back down. Take some time to enjoy the SkyDeck at the top. Here, you can relax by the fire pit, enjoy some hot cocoa, and just take in the serene environment. The SkyLift and its surrounding amenities offer a peaceful yet thrilling experience, blending adventure with moments of tranquil beauty. This ride is more than just a way to see the sights; it’s an opportunity to create special winter memories with your loved ones.

Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, 765 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN

4. Enjoy the Gatlinburg Space Needle

A visit to the Gatlinburg Space Needle is a highlight of any winter trip to this charming mountain town. Standing at 407 feet tall, this iconic observation tower offers a 360-degree view of the winter wonderland that is Gatlinburg and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Especially enchanting in the winter, the views from the top are breathtaking.

The journey to the top is just as exciting. The glass elevators provide a gradual reveal of the expansive landscape, building anticipation as you ascend. Once at the observation deck, equipped with viewfinders, you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the scenery. It’s a fantastic way to see Gatlinburg’s winter beauty in all its glory, making it a great spot for family photos.

But the Space Needle isn’t just about the views. At its base, you’ll find Arcadia, a 30,000+ square foot arcade packed with fun and games for the whole family (and arcades are always a hit with my kids!). Visiting the Space Needle offers a delightful mix of awe-inspiring views and family-friendly entertainment, making it a must-visit on your winter getaway to Gatlinburg.

💵 Pam’s insider tip: my kids love arcades, but as you know they can get quite expensive. So, what we do is set a budget for them and when it’s gone, any additional games are on them. That way we don’t get constant requests for more money!

Gatlinburg Space Needle, 115 Historic Nature Trl. Gatlinburg, TN

Moonshine tasting at Junction35

5. Moonshine tasting

Let’s face it, moonshine tasting is fun anytime of the year, but it IS a great thing to do in the winter in Gatlinburg. After all, moonshine warms you up from the inside right?

There are quite a few places for moonshine tasting in Gatlinburg, and on our last visit, we checked out three of them, Junction 35, Ole Smoky, and Smith Creek. All had varieties we liked, but overall Ole Smoky was our favorite for their banana pudding and mocha java.

The servers are typically a lot of fun and make it a terrific experience versus your typical winery tasting. Most of the ones in downtown Gatlinburg are within walking distance of each other, but another fun way to experience moonshine tasting is with a tour like this highly-rated one on Viator. Participating in a tour takes all the guesswork out of it, and you’ll probably get a little more of an “insider view.”

Gatlinburg Wine and Shine Tour, 520 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN

🍷Book your Gatlinburg Wine and Shine Tour here!

6. Admire the Gatlinburg Winter Magic Lights

Experiencing the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg Winter Magic Lights is a must when visiting the town during the colder months. As the sun sets, the streets of Gatlinburg come alive with millions of twinkling lights, transforming the town into a dazzling winter fairy tale.

Stroll through downtown Gatlinburg with your family and enjoy the sight of elaborate light displays. The themes range from traditional holiday motifs to unique representations of Gatlinburg’s natural surroundings and wildlife. It’s a delightful walk that combines the charm of a small mountain town with the festive spirit of the holidays – and the lights stay up through mid-February, so you can check them out after the holiday season too.

shark tunnel

7. Warm-up at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies

A visit to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is the perfect way to warm up and dive into an underwater adventure, even in the midst of a chilly Gatlinburg winter. This world-class aquarium, nestled in the heart of downtown, offers an extensive array of marine life – I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at how nice it was when we visited!

As you wander through the aquarium’s various exhibits, you’ll come face-to-face with colorful and exotic sea creatures, ranging from the tiny seahorse to the majestic shark. The Shark Lagoon, with its moving walkway, takes you through an underwater tunnel where sharks, stingrays, and other marine life swim just inches away (this is my favorite!). It’s an immersive experience that captivates both kids and adults alike.

Another highlight is the Penguin Playhouse, where you can observe these playful birds in a habitat that mimics their natural environment. Interactive elements, like crawl spaces and pop-up viewing areas, provide an up-close and personal experience with these charming creatures. If you love aquariums, then you won’t want to miss Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies!

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, 88 River Rd. Gatlinburg, TN

A cabin kitchen and living room

8. Enjoy cozy cabin time

There’s something truly special about cozying up in a cabin during a winter visit to Gatlinburg. After a day of exploring the chilly outdoors, returning to a warm and inviting cabin feels like a slice of paradise. Cabins in Gatlinburg range from rustic to luxury, with many offering breathtaking views of the snow-covered Smokies. It’s the perfect setting for families to gather, relax, and create lasting memories.

Imagine spending the evening nestled by a crackling fireplace, wrapped in soft blankets, with the serene winter landscape just outside your window. It’s an opportunity to disconnect from the hustle and bustle and reconnect with your loved ones. You can spend time playing board games, sharing stories, or simply enjoying the peacefulness that comes with being in a mountain cabin.

Many cabins come equipped with amenities like hot tubs, providing a delightful way to unwind and soak in the winter ambiance under the stars. For those who love to cook, preparing a family meal in the cabin’s kitchen can be both fun and a great way to save a little money. You’ll make amazing memories with your family when you slow down and enjoy time in your own Gatlinburg cabin!

Shopping at the Island in Pigeon Forge

9. Shop til you drop

Winter in Gatlinburg isn’t just about outdoor adventures and cozy cabins; it’s also a fantastic time for shopping enthusiasts. The town transforms into a shopper’s paradise, with a variety of stores and local boutiques offering unique finds and charming souvenirs. From handmade crafts to specialty foods, Gatlinburg’s shopping scene is bustling with treasures that reflect the spirit of the Smokies.

The Village Shops, a quaint European-style shopping area, is a must-visit. Here, you can wander through a collection of 27 unique boutiques and eateries, each offering something special. Whether you’re looking for handcrafted candles, locally made pottery, or custom leather goods, you’ll find it in this charming nook of Gatlinburg. It’s also a great place to pick up holiday gifts or a special memento from your winter getaway.

Just outside of downtown Gatlinburg is Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with many more shopping options. We almost always spend a few hours at the Island doing a little shopping as well as hitting the Tanger Outlet Mall to stock up on great deals!

Map of things to do in the winter in Gatlinburg TN

Where to stay when visiting Gatlinburg Tennessee

If you are looking for a hotel in a great area of Gatlinburg, the Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg would be my top choice. It’s right at the edge of downtown, next to the Aquarium of the Smokies, so terrific for walking to a lot of downtown attractions.

If you prefer a cabin in the woods (for that cozy cabin time), give VRBO a try. I’ve had success using them in the past, especially in places like Gatlinburg, Michigan and the Florida Panhandle. Here is a great example of one with a high rating!

🌳Pam’s insider tip: I’m a hotel or resort girl, but there are times (like Gatlinburg) where using VRBO makes sense. If you (like me) get nervous booking them, my best advice is pick a property with lots of high ratings, and then READ the ratings. If the concerns mentioned would be an issue for you, keep looking.

Margaritaville Island Hotel sign in Pigeon Forge, TN

FAQs: Gatlinburg TN in the winter

What is the snowiest month in Gatlinburg?

Typically it’s January.

Is it worth going to Gatlinburg in December?

Yes! We often go to Gatlinburg at the end of December and it’s a great time to visit.

How much snow does Gatlinburg TN get a year?

Typically 8 to 10 inches

Hiking to Rainbow Falls in December in Gatlinburg Tennessee

Conclusion: Things to do in Gatlinburg TN in the winter

It should be clear that this charming mountain town offers a rich tapestry of experiences for families. From the awe-inspiring natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains and the thrill of skiing at Ober Gatlinburg to the enchanting views from the SkyLift and the Space Needle, every moment is filled with wonder. Add in the unique charm of moonshine tasting, the dazzling Winter Magic Lights, and the warmth of Ripley’s Aquarium, and you’ve got a winter getaway that’s both exciting and relaxing.

The cozy cabin stays and the diverse shopping opportunities further enhance the appeal of Gatlinburg as a winter destination. Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or a bit of both, Gatlinburg in the winter has something special for every member of the family. So, pack your bags, gather your loved ones, and head to Gatlinburg for a winter escape that promises lasting memories and plenty of fun.

And remember, this is just a glimpse of what Gatlinburg has to offer. There’s always more to explore, more to experience, and more to cherish in this picturesque mountain town. We never get tired of visiting this fun area and I’m always looking for my next free weekend when we can visit!

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Visiting Gatlinburg TN in the winter? Check out this list of all the fun things to do with your family - you won't be bored!