When is the best time to visit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to enjoy the Smoky Mountains? Here are the times of year with the seasonal activities and events, changes with weather and temperatures, changes in nature in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding area – and how to avoid the crowds that mark this most popular place.
While summer is the busiest time for family vacations and visits to America’s most popular national park, the other seasons have their many fans too. The Smokies enjoy four distinct seasons, each with its own character and peak times. For accommodations such as renting a vacation cabin, there are “shoulder seasons” in between these peaks that may offer dramatic price discounts and fewer crowds.
Here are some useful things to know good for all year through all the seasons. Even in summer, always carry layers of clothing as you explore the national park – temperatures can vary significantly from lower to higher elevations. Here are the weather charts for Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
When you visit the park, early in the morning is best to avoid crowds and to get a parking space at attractions. Later in the evening can also work, if you know where you are – GPS and cell phone service is spotty in the mountains, so a map is always useful. Stay clear of wildlife and allow them their habitat space, and always watch where your feet are walking on the trails – there are always rocks and roots, as well as snakes, sometimes. Carry dry socks and a towel on trails, because part of the enchantment is the water everywhere.
The national park is open year round, with free admission. Fishing is also permitted all year (with a license, and of course following the regulations). Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are packed with fun attractions, including climate-controlled venues to get out of the heat, rain, cold and snow, depending on the season. There’s indoor snow tubing, sky diving and ice skating. And a million things more – see our Guides to Things to Do as well as our recent picks of some of the best outdoor and family friendly activities. Expect live music almost any time, and festivals and unique events throughout the year – see our Guide to these recurring events.
Vacation cabins are a wonderful way to stay out of the bustle of the towns, and still just be minutes from anywhere you want to go. Last minute discounts can pop up during the shoulder times, so always check the Specials page. In general, if you can manage a visit during Sunday through Thursday, you can avoid the extra crowds that fill the weekends. And just by the way, we tend to have more Weekday specials than Weekend specials, so it can really work well sometimes.
Winter is the wonderland time in the Smoky Mountains, and there is snow. Skiers flock to Ober Gatlinburg for the winter slopes, and as a special treat for everyone, the ski resort’s superb snow-making equipment ensures that even non-skiers can enjoy the snow tubing slope, usually every day from Thanksgiving until Easter.
Scenic adventures may include icy roads at times, but frozen waterfalls to gaze at make up for it. There are plenty of indoor attractions in the towns, with shows, shopping and dining galore. The cabin becomes a super cozy place to be, with a fireplace to gather around, and a year-round hot tub on the deck outside to enjoy the winter mountain views. Some cabins, by the way, do have indoor swimming pools for an extra luxury at any time of the year.
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are peak visitor times, and there can often be small lulls between these holiday events that may result in short-notice cabin discounts. Gift shopping is perfect with the Arts & Crafts community putting on shows, and festivity is in the air as the towns light up with millions of lights and animated displays. January and February are great times to find specials as good as half price on cabin rentals, and March before spring break can be good also. Valentine’s Day breaks the stillness with a lot of visitors, and marriage proposals are frequent in the romantic cabins in the snow.
As the early daffodils start appearing in March and Easter approaches in April, a new season is rolling around. Springtime in the Smokies is wonderful, with rushing waters from snow melt and the incredible wildflowers that bloom. There is a short window for the forest floor when the sun reaches it, before the tree canopies leaf out and turn the “understory” to shade again. Millions of exotic wildflowers bloom, and people come from all over the world to see this.
In April, fishing flourishes and the artisans of Gatlinburg’s huge arts & crafts community preview some of their wares they’ve worked on through the quiet of winter. May is typically the highest rainfall month, and the whitewater rafting season is upon us. May is also the busiest time for weddings in the Smoky Mountains – perhaps following inevitably from those proposals back in February. Sometimes there may be a lull in visitors – and thus cabin discounts – in mid-May, with the kids still stuck in school, dreaming of the summer.
Summer of course is the premier time for families to take their trips and vacations, and the crowds in the towns and the national park reflect this. It’s a great time to be in the mountains, especially as it heats up in the lowlands. For the summer visitor, this is where you really need some insider tips on highlights to see during your limited stay, as well as the shortcuts and back roads to get around and avoid heavy traffic – use our many guides to getting around and the best places to go and things to do.
The synchronous fireflies celebrate the season in early June, while the azaleas and other mountain wildflowers appear in the higher elevations through July. Water fun such as rafting, tubing and swimming gets in full swing, as well as hiking the trails of the park. The mountains offer access to fun rides such as lifts and chairs going up, and mountain coasters coming down, with ziplines and other treetop activities in the middle. And for the less mobile, there are Easy Outdoor Adventures in abundance.
The towns are bustling in summer, when the arts & crafts community puts on its biggest show, the strolling musicians of Tunes and Tales offer street music and performance on Parkway in Gatlinburg, and trolleys run up and down for free. High season is mid-June to mid-August when the kids start back to school. You can sometimes find cabin specials at the end of August into September.
Fall of course is the most spectacular time in the Smoky Mountains, when the 100 species of trees that cover the mountains change color. The leaf fall lasts about 7 weeks, from late September to early November, as the color changes work their way down from the highest elevations to the towns and valleys. Now begins the guessing game to decide when the absolute peak color will occur, and that special peak comes and goes in a week, although there is plenty of color for a long time. it helps to know where to go when, for the most scenic views.
This is a crowded time, especially on weekends, but not like the summer crowds. From the harvest feel at the end of summer to the premonition of winter coming again, it’s a fun time to explore the Smokies, while the roads are still easy, the waterfalls are still flowing, and there’s still enough warmth for picnics amid the gorgeous colors. September/October are the least rainy months of the year, and October gives May a run for the most weddings, with spectacular backdrops for that special day.