Hiking in Tennessee’s Winter Wonderland
A hiking buddy once explained why she preferred trekking out in the winter:
“In winter, the view is 100 times better,” she said. “The air is better, too.”
Although there isn’t a season that I don’t like the East Tennessee outdoors, I can see her point. Nature here seems to reward those willing to brave the cold with some gorgeous scenery.
I’m thinking about Ramsey Cascades, one of many truly beautiful spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a difficult 8-mile round trip, but the payoff is the park’s tallest waterfall. The spray from the cascades descends on the surrounding trees and creates a silvery sheen. On those rare occasions when the cascades totally freeze, they become a palace of crystal so bright it is blinding in the winter sun.
The Smokies are awash in these frosted scenes. A couple of beauties are Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Both, during the winter, are accessed from the parking lot near the Rainbow Falls trailhead, and the hike to them is not nearly as challenging as the one to Ramsey Cascades. Rainbow is another steep falls and it takes quite a bit of cold to actually freeze it solid, but even when it doesn’t totally freeze, the ice around it is beautiful to behold. The hook for Grotto Falls is that water comes off an overhang which makes it the only falls in the Smokies that you can actually walk behind (but, that’s not a good idea in the winter).
Up in the Big South Fork, try the Middle Creek Nature Trail. Here, rock houses are the thing. Rock houses are formations with extreme overhangs that almost seem to form a “house” underneath. In winter, the icicles form drapes across the overhangs for one glistening view after another.
It’s a little unfair to single out a state park as a winter hiking destination, but Frozen Head might be my pick. In the Cumberland Mountains, the park is full of small streams and waterfalls that after a few days of freezing make it seems enchanted.
People around here love eagle watching in the winter. A few bald eagles have been spotted around Norris Lake, but the best place to go is Dale Hollow Lake near Jamestown. If you’ve never been to that part of Tennessee, a frigid December or January day is a perfect time. Spotting a bald eagle is a thrill, and the country around Dale Hollow is about rolling hills and quiet valleys.
If you like viewing your winter wonderlands atop a set of skis, then you likely already know about Ober Gatlinburg. It’s Tennessee’s only ski resort and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. With nine slopes and plenty of lifts, there’s less time waiting in line. Of course, actually having snow is always iffy in Tennessee, so just check the website before you go. You’ll see the place has much more to offer: a congenial lodge, eateries and ice rink. I also recommend you park in Gatlinburg and take the gondola up the mountain. More fun. Less hassle.
My advice if you’re planning a winter hike is take time for preparation. It’s vital to be dressed properly. Carry along water and an energy snack. Pay special attention to staying on the trail. And, don’t count on your cell phone because in many places — like most of the Smokies — there is no reception.
Do you have a special hike you try to make every winter? Some Tri-City friends tell me it just isn’t Christmastime unless they go to Roan Mountain. So, let me know your favorite places and I’ll pass them on.