Don’t ditch your hiking gear just because of the cooler temperatures—winter is actually one of the best times to hike in Tennessee. This magical season reveals beautiful views that were once hidden by dense vegetation, adds an occasional dusting of snow, and transforms river and waterfalls into an icy wonderland. You might have to wear a few more clothes than in the summer, but dress in layers and you’ll warm up in no time. So without further ado, here’s why winter is the best season to go hiking in Tennessee, as well as some great trail options to try for yourself.
1. Discover New Views
The Volunteer State is known for some of the most breathtaking scenery the Southeast has to offer, with lush greenery during the summer and colorful foliage in the fall. But it isn’t until winter rolls around that you finally get a glimpse of what’s been hiding behind all of that vegetation throughout the year. As the leaves fall and trees become bare, you’ll discover new and breathtaking panoramic views, hidden wonders, and much more.
2. Frosty Waterfalls and Icy Canyons
Venturing out into the winter wilderness, you’ll wind your way through beautiful frozen forests, travel along ice-clad limestone walls, and discover miles of spectacular waterfalls and frozen cascades. Snow is a rare commodity in the Southeast, but as you get into the higher elevation mountains of Tennessee, you’ll probably find at least a dusting. We’re not talking knee-deep powder, but just enough to let you know winter has arrived.
South Cumberland State Park is the perfect winter adventure, with at least a dozen waterfalls to explore. Some of the favorites here are Foster Falls and Greeter Falls. Or try the 10+ mile hike through this the Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness for stunning waterfalls and scenic overlooks. Two of the most popular waterfalls in the area, the 80-foot Laurel Falls and the 35-foot Snow Falls, are found here.
3. No Bugs
One of the best things about winter hiking is no having to deal with pesky mosquitos or other insects, so leave the bug spray at home.
It’s not just mosquitoes, but other types of creepy crawlies (like snakes) also go dormant during this time of year. The South is home to a wide variety of animals and insects, so a winter hike means you don’t have to worry about stumbling across some of the creatures that you might be afraid of in the summer.
4. Mild Winter Temperatures
Summer in the South can be pretty brutal, with temperatures averaging in the high 80s or 90s and a ton of humidity. Hiking around midday is just not fun, so it’s no wonder that people flock to the trails as temperatures drop a little. But this is short lived—once the fall leaves are gone, many people decide to stay indoors.
Thanks to Tennessee’s mild temperatures, you’ll find that winter hiking in the South is pretty pleasant. While there can be some icy rain and wind in the higher elevations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you don’t have to worry as much about the extreme weather that you would in other places. From December until February, expect the temperature to range from 30s up to 50s. Occasionally there will be a cold front, so bring layers just in case.
Visit the Smokies for the best of both worlds. Stop by Cades Cove if you’re looking for a warmer winter adventure—this little valley is nestled in the heart of the Smoky Mountains but sits low enough to not be affected by the temperatures in the higher elevations. There are plenty of trails in this area that sit at lower elevations.
If you’re a fan of colder winter temperatures, head up into the mountains. Check out trails like the Alum Cave Trail or Laurel Falls Trail for stunning views of the mountain range. If you’re lucky, there might even be some snow on the peaks. Stuff a puffy coat in your pack if you’re heading to the mountains, though—weather conditions can change rapidly and it gets increasingly colder as you go higher up in elevation.
5. Avoid the Crowds
If you frequent some of the more popular hiking trails, you’ve surely come across the crowds of people that are out and about during the summer months. But in the winter, you’ll practically have the trail all to yourself. Imagine hiking through a quiet, snow-covered trail and through beautiful canyons only to be rewarded with frosty waterfalls and stunning panoramic views. What more could you ask for?
If you’re looking for a quiet destination, try Mullins Cove Loop. Although this spot is becoming increasingly popular, it’s still only lightly trafficked, even in the summer. During the winter, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have the trail (and all of the overlooks) to yourself. Another popular summer spot that will be quieter in the winter is Fall Creek Falls State Park. There are more than 35 miles of trails to explore, and it’s location between Chattanooga and Nashville make it super convenient, too.
There’s nothing quite like exploring your favorite (or new) trails in the winter. Although it might be a little chilly, you won’t regret it, and you’ll get to top the day off with a hot toddy (or hot chocolate) by the fire. Sounds like a pretty sweet way to spend a winter weekend if you ask us.
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.