Winter transforms the hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains into a veritable wonderland. If you pack away your hiking boots when the temps start to drop, you’re missing out on some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. Towering peaks covered in fresh powder, glittering fields blanketed in white, and frozen waterfalls with dramatic ice formations all come together to create an incredible frozen fantasy.
When you escape to the winter playground of the WNC Smoky Mountains, you might just find that you have it all to yourself. In the off-season, discover the freedom of hiking for miles through a wintery scene without ever seeing another soul. It’s the perfect time to stretch your legs and lungs and reconnect with nature in a unique way. Are you ready for a fun and frosty adventure? Try these five invigorating winter hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains.
Blue Ridge Parkway Winter Hiking Trail
When the snow falls at higher elevations, the Blue Ridge Parkway is often closed to traffic and becomes an incredible winter adventure for hikers. If you prefer not to go deep into the forest, this is a great option where you can still get out and enjoy the mountain air and winter outdoor activities. As you hike along the Parkway, you’ll start to notice things you miss when you’re driving. Take your time and explore little side trails, stop for jaw-dropping photos, and even have a snowball fight. A great spot that locals love is around Wagon Road Gap (milepost 412). This flat section makes for some amazing panoramic winter views. Just be sure to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway website before you go. Check for up-to-date road reports and see real-time road closure maps.
Get picture perfect views of snow capped mountaintops on Andrews Bald. This grassy bald with wide-open vistas delivers the kind of postcard worthy scenes where winter memories are made. But getting there is half the fun. Take Forney Ridge Trail from the parking lot of Clingmans Dome for 1.8 miles. This winter hike is an exciting challenge, beginning with a long descent, then leveling off for a bit before a steep final ascension through the snow-covered forest. When you reach the plateau of Andrews Bald, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking Smoky Mountain views.
Cataloochee Divide Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Haywood County’s most prominent claim to fame is that it is home to more peaks over 6,000 feet than anywhere else in the eastern United States. In the summer, a lot of those trails are thick with lush forests that block the views. But then winter rolls around, and the leaves are out of the picture, leaving clear and unencumbered sightlines that will take your breath away. The Cataloochee Divide is one of the best winter hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains. It follows along a ridge with minimal ups and downs – by mountain hiking standards anyway – with incredible views in both directions. The entire trail is 13.8 miles, but if you wanted to make it shorter, just hike to the halfway point and turn around. You’ll still have plenty of opportunities to soak up the wintery landscape and crisp, fresh air.
Rough Fork Trail in Cataloochee Valley
The great outdoors of Maggie Valley and the surrounding areas offer plenty of room to roam in any season, but winter hiking is a chance to explore even the most popular spots all by yourself. The stunning Cataloochee Valley, home to the Smoky Mountain elk herd, draws visitors by the thousands in summer. But the crowds melt away during winter, leaving this idyllic slice of nature all yours to enjoy. The Rough Fork Trail, with its wide paths and moderate rise in elevation, is 6.4 miles long and gains 2,300 feet as you go. At the one-mile mark, you’ll come to the historic Woody House, built 150 years ago by early settlers of the valley. (Pro tip: The house makes a great lunch spot!)
Frozen Daniel Ridge Falls
One of the most magical sights on a winter hiking trail in the Smoky Mountains is a frozen waterfall. And over in Pisgah National Forest, not that far from the Meadowlark Motel, is Daniel Ridge Falls. (AKA: Tom’s Spring Branch Falls or Jackson Falls) The base of this magnificent 150-foot waterfall can be reached with an easy half-mile hike on the Daniel Ridge Trail. On the way, you’ll cross a bridge (that makes a statement of its own) over the Davidson River and keep going straight on the trail. When you get to the fork in the trail, go to the right to reach the waterfall. Hike the entire loop to see several other icy cascades along the river. Just be sure to follow the red blazes to stay on the main trial.
Tips for Winter Hiking in the Smoky Mountains
It’s important to be prepared when you head to the Smoky Mountains for your winter hikes. Keep these tips in mind as you get ready to experience the mountains in a new way this season.
- Dress for the elements. Weather can vary so be sure to wear layers that you can take off or put on as temps can change with elevation.
- It’s a good idea to wear a moisture-wicking garment as your base layer. It may be cold, but you can work up a sweat when you’re hiking up steep inclines.
- Make sure you’re wearing the right kind of footwear. Something that protects your toes and gives you a lot of good traction is best.
- Bring along plenty of water to drink.
- Pay attention to where you step. The snow is beautiful, but it can also hide rocks, roots, and dips in the trail.
After a fun-filled day on the best winter hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains, relax and warm your feet by the fire at the Meadowlark Motel. Visit our accommodations page to book one of our Smoky Mountain cabins or Appalachian-chic motel rooms.