12 Ways to Make the Most of a Knoxville Winter

Be adventurous and explore some of Knoxville's outdoor gems this winter.
Be adventurous and explore some of Knoxville's outdoor gems this winter. Kevin Humphrey
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Winter brings about its own desolate beauty, with stark trees framing iron-gray skies and the crunch of frozen flora building a winter rhythm beneath wool-lined boots. Many scorn the cold and forego adventures in our local parks during the chillier months. They can’t be bothered by glittering frozen ponds and chandeliers of ice hanging from tree and stone. Thick fogs to them are only hazards, not luminous passageways to an icy paradise. This isn’t for those people. This is for the wind whisperers, the snow slingers, and the red-cheeked advocates of low temperature who trot through frost-covered glades. Knoxville winter warriors, don your parkas and poofy hats and follow us into the mist with these great outdoor adventures.

1. Dodge Alum Cave Icicles

Icicles cling to the giant rock outcroppings near Alum Cave
Icicles cling to the giant rock outcroppings near Alum Cave Kevin Humphrey

After months of being closed for maintenance, the Alum Cave Trail is now open again with fewer mud holes, more stable bridges, and a fully restored staircase at one of the most iconic points on the trial, Arch Rock. You can be one of the first to see the trail’s facelift this winter on your way up out of the valley to Alum Cave. Once you reach the cave (which is actually more of an overhung bluff) you’ll likely notice the long icicles that cling to the the roof, forming a glimmering ribbon that drips down on hikers on sunny winter days. Admire the ice from a distance for as long as you want, but don’t spend too much time directly under the sharp frozen columns, unless you want to get stabbed by one of the dangling spires.

2. Snap a Selfie on Mount LeConte

Snap a selfie near the lonely summit of Mount LeConte.
Snap a selfie near the lonely summit of Mount LeConte. Kevin Humphrey

If you’ve go the grit, continue on up the Alum Cave Trail to the summit of LeConte . One of the most picturesque mountains in the park is even more photo-worthy in its winter coat of ice and snow. But if you’re wanting to be in frame with the mountains, you might have to stick with a selfie, since fewer hikers trek up to the summit during the colder months. The lodge at the top is closed to guests during this time, so continue on past the rugged wood cabins to the giant cairn at High Top and take in the views at Cliff Tops and Myrtle Point.

3. Explore Chilly Graves on Tharp Trace

Climb to the top of Tharp Trace to see the brilliant blues of Meads Quarry lake below
Climb to the top of Tharp Trace to see the brilliant blues of Meads Quarry lake below Logan Mahan

Behind the high cliffs of Mead’s Quarry , winter wanderers can find a steep trail climbing up to an old graveyard serving as the final resting place of Mead Quarry miners and a stone wall overlook offering views of Mead’s Quarry Lake and, on a clear day, the Smoky Mountains. If you resolve to climb the trail after a good snowfall, you’ll be treated to a brilliant contrast of the lake’s blues and greens against the surrounding blanket of white.

4. Walk the Tracks at Mead’s Quarry

Winter is a great time to explore the explore the out-of-use railway that crosses through Mead's Quarry.
Winter is a great time to explore the explore the out-of-use railway that crosses through Mead's Quarry. Logan Mahan

Hike back down to the parking lot and set out on a new winter stroll. Though we’re still a ways away from the completion of the  G&O Trail , you can still go explore the out-of-use railway that crosses through Mead’s Quarry. These tracks curve through to the edge of the park near Aberdeen Lane and continue on for miles.

5. Climb through Quaking Trees with Navitat

Navitat is closed to walk-ins during the winter, but they’ll open up if you make a reservation for four or more.
Navitat is closed to walk-ins during the winter, but they’ll open up if you make a reservation for four or more. Logan Mahan

Navitat’s tree-based adventure course allows you to see Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness as you never have. Climb through the canopy near Ijams via rope traverses, mid-air obstacles, and zip lines. Though Navitat is closed to walk-ins during the winter, they’ll open up the course if you make a reservation for a party of four or more and book 48 hours in advance.

6. Find Frozen Waterfalls

Waterfalls, like Virgin Falls here, take on a new look in the winter.
Waterfalls, like Virgin Falls here, take on a new look in the winter. Anthony Jones

Summer and spring are often the seasons where hikers go in search of East Tennessee’s stunning waterfalls, hoping for a chance to swim in downstream pools or at least feel the spray of the cascades against their skin. But winter is a time to see waterfalls in a unique state. In the coldest parts of the season, explorers can find waterfalls in suspended animation, the whitewater transformed to sculpted columns of white ice. Just driving through the Smokies in the winter, visitors might spot small frozen flows along the road, but to see big ice, you’ll have to get out of your car and hit the trail. Conditions have to be right to find the falls frozen, but our list of East Tennessee’s Best Waterfalls should help you get started on your search.

7. Blow Ice Bubbles

When the temperature gets cold enough, you can create solid bubbles.
When the temperature gets cold enough, you can create solid bubbles. Peter von Bagh

If you thought bubble-blowing was just a summer lark, then you obviously haven’t heard of ice bubble blowing. Popularized by photographers and homeschool moms looking for a cool science project, this delightful exercise will add a little more magic to any below-freezing foray outside. Learn to make the best frozen bubble solution here .

8. Hunt for Hoarfrost Along the Appalachian Trail

A thick fog falls over the hoarfrost covered plant life along the AT.
A thick fog falls over the hoarfrost covered plant life along the AT. Logan Mahan

From an Old English word referring to the white hair earned by aging, hoarfrost builds up in long frosty strands on winter nights when conditions are perfect. Like dew, hoarfrost requires damp evening air. And as temperatures go down at night, so does the saturation point. As the moisture in the air condenses, instead of forming the wet dew you’d find in the morning of warmer months, freezing temperatures can cause the damp air to condense into long, delicate spindles of ice. If it’s a damp, cold evening with temperatures predicted to drop below freezing, the next morning will likely be a great time to wake up early and go out on the hoarfrost hunt.

9. Take Advantage of Tennessee’s Only Ski Resort

When you think of snow skiing, you might not think of East Tennessee. And we get that. It’s not really our forte. But for those of you who can’t make it out to Colorado for your annual trip or want to try the sport before buying a plane ticket, Ober Gatlinburg should be on your list this season. They got a late start this year do to unusually warm temperatures in December, but now they’re up and running and waiting for you to hit the slopes.

10. Snowshoe at Newfound Gap

When Clingmans Dome Road closes to cars in the winter, it opens to snowshoers and cross country skiers  looking to explore the highest point in Tennessee. If you’ve ever wanted to see the panorama views of Clingmans Dome without the crowds, this is your chance. From Newfound Gap, you can set out up Clingmans Dome Road or follow the Appalachian Trail southbound. It’s a 15-mile expedition on the road round-trip, but the way back is all downhill.

11. Take the Polar Bear Plunge

Before the Ice Bucket Challenge became everyone’s favorite cold water call-to-action, there was the tried-and-true polar bear plunge. Well, this freeze-a-thon is making a comeback in support of the Special Olympics, so if you’re ready to graduate from buckets and ice trays to full-immersion fundraising, put together a team and register  for the event on Feb. 27. The process is simple: Sign up, collect money, plunge.

12. Rent a Cabin in the Mountains

Snowshoeing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Snowshoeing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Michael Hicks

There’s no better way to wrap up a day of winter exploring than to step into a warm, cozy mountain cabin. Sites like airbnb make it easy to find a nice, tucked-away place to warm your hands and rest your head.

Winter is a magical time of year to explore outside, but it also comes with its own special dangers. Especially in remote parts of the Smokies and adjoining wilderness areas, it’s not uncommon for hikers to get lost, disoriented, and suffer from hypothermia and dehydration. Day hikers are especially at risk, because they’re typically not as prepared to endure the elements for long stretches of time. If you venture out into the woods in winter, make sure you’re prepared.

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