Image source: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism
Autumn in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is spectacular beyond words. All of those reds, golds, and yellows lavished over layers of evergreens, reaching up toward a perfect blue sky - aah, and even the weather is perfect.
Each year, more than 9.5 million people visit the Smokies and on some weekends in October, it would appear that they all choose to come at the same time. The gateway cities of Cherokee NC, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge TN are jammed with happy leaf-peepers relishing the beauty of our nation's most visited national park.
But here's a plan: If you can only visit the region once a year, bump your trip back a few weeks and head to the Smokies in the winter. There's a quiet and calm that comes over the mountains this time of year that sinks into your spirit and stays much longer than from a hectic visit in October.
It's not just the people who feel it, the wildlife senses it as well. About 1,500 black bears live in the Smokies, and not all of them sleep all winter. In fact, in November and December, they can be as active as during the summer months. With leaves off the trees and fewer people around to make noise, there's a greater chance you'll see bears and other wildlife this time of year.
It's a rare winter when snow accumulates for more than a few hours in the lower elevations of the park and neighboring communities, but up high, around Newfound Gap, several feet will cover the mountain tops creating wonderful opportunities for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on your favorite trails.
The people of Pigeon Forge so appreciate the winter months in the Smokies that they light up their community with more than five million twinkling lights from mid-November to the end of February. They call it WinterFest, and this year is the 25th year for the celebration that embraces the quiet, calm season that is winter in the Smokies.
Veteran's Day, November 11, is the official kick off, with an honored veteran being the one to throw the switch that brings those five million lights to life.
And Dolly Parton adds her own special glow to the season as well. The Dollywood theme park hosts a Smoky Mountain Christmas with four million twinkling lights of its own, a nighttime run through the park, and their own performance of A Christmas Carol, with Dolly appearing in a hologram as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
But when the holidays are over and Dollywood closes for a few months rest, the WinterFest lights continue to glow in Pigeon Forge, welcoming guests to this special time of year in the mountains. And there's plenty to do. The restaurants are all still open, as are most of the shows. You'll love the discounted rates on hotel rooms and even a cabin in the woods with a fireplace. Sign me up and give me a good book.
For a winter vacation on a budget, consider the week of January 24-31. This is the 25th annual Wilderness Wildlife Week, eight days worth of free classes, photography workshops and presentations, concerts, art lessons, and guided hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yep, if the bears are not sleeping this week, there's a good chance you'll see them. But it's almost a guarantee that if you hang around Cades Cove and Cataloochee in the park, you'll see elk, wild turkey, and white-tailed deer. Pack your binoculars for this party.
And then, it's time to pack up the old chuckwagon and come back to Pigeon Forge February 18-22 for an event called Saddle Up. It's an all out celebration of the American West in the Eastern Time Zone. From swing dances to cowboy poetry and concerts featuring western musicians, you may fear you've been transported to west Texas for a few days. You don't own a chuckwagon? No worries. A dozen or more show up for the chuckwagon cook-off that feeds up to 500 of your closest friends with a good meal, made as it would have been on the open range of cattle drive in the days of yore.
A winter vacation in the Smokies and particularly Pigeon Forge is just another way to experience one of our great national parks all year long.
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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