The sun sets evocatively over the Smoky Mountains © SeanPavonePhoto / Getty Images
Plenty of resort towns claim to be year-round destinations, but Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is truly a place you can visit no matter what date is showing on the calendar. With lively festivals, fall colors, summer hiking and more, there’s always something to do in Gatlinburg (and the neighboring towns of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville) every month of the year.
First, pick your motivation for heading to this mountain getaway. Do you want to hang out with crowds and feel the energy of a first-in-the-nation parade? Are you seeking an off-season oasis with fewer fellow vacationers (and low prices)? Do you want to take in the majesty of nature, watching synchronous fireflies light up the night sky, or look on as the trees change from green to red to gold against a curtain of mist?
We’ve rounded up the top festivals, annual events, and activities to help you choose the best time of year to visit Gatlinburg. Consider this a season-by-season, month-by-month guide to year-round fun.
Maximum fall colors on the Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © rickberk / Getty Images
For incredible fall foliage, visit in high season from June to August and October
Best for hiking and fall colors
Thanks to the riotous color show provided by the annual changing of the leaves, fall is one of Gatlinburg’s most glorious seasons. You certainly won’t be alone if you come to watch the Smoky Mountains erupt into a fireglow of fall colors in October–crowds gather and prices peak–but you’ll be rewarded by one of Mother Nature's best displays. Be patient as you drive along snaking mountain roads; traffic backs up regularly as locals and outsiders stop to appreciate the fall foliage.
The height of summer is the other busy time for Gatlinburg. Warm days and cool nights make for great outdoor adventures. School is out of session, and plenty of family-friendly fairs and attractions pop up to keep kids entertained. Youngsters will also be wowed by the sight of synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus). For a few weeks each June, the woods fill with light-emitting insects flashing perfectly in time, in an evocative natural ballet. While there are classes year-round at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, summer is also peak season at this hub for creative learning.
A light dusting of snow on the Great Smoky Mountains © Dave Allen Photography / Shutters
For great deals on travel, visit from January to March
Best for low prices
Winter isn’t particularly long or harsh in this part of the country, all things considered, but this is still the quiet season in Gatlinburg. Days are chilly, nights close in early, and light snow dusts the forests like icing sugar. On the plus side, Gatlinburg is home to Tennessee’s only ski resort, and there are lots of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. You'll also find plenty of warm places to curl up next to a fireplace after a frosty day of snowshoeing and winter hiking.
Noah 'Bud' Ogle's cabin in Spring © Robert Cable / Getty Images
For outdoor adventure, visit shoulder season: April to June, September, November to December
Best for low stress travel
When the thaw comes, it's a welcome sight. Melting snow and longer days bring a burst of wildflowers, repainting the mountain ranges in bright spring colors. Dress appropriately—that means plenty of layers and all-weather boots that can take you through muddy terrain—so you can get outdoors and see the blooms.
September is another great month to get outdoors, before the autumn colors start to burn and leaf-peepers descend on the mountain trails. By November, the show is mostly over. The leaf-peepers get in their cars and drive off, and a gentle calm slowly descends over the mountains.
A Smoky Mountain elk grazing in the mist © Bill Swindaman / Getty Images
Winter can be cold and grey in East Tennessee but there is something uplifting about a little frost on the ground and getting all bundled up against the cold. With fewer crowds, it's a great time to enjoy the hills on your own. Ring in the new with a New Year’s Eve Ball Drop and Fireworks Show from the Gatlinburg Space Needle, just off the Parkway downtown.
Key events: New Year’s Eve Ball Drop
February is still cold and grey and less crowded than other times of the year. A roaring fire in a log cabin is the way to keep out the cold and add a romantic glow. Couples can cozy up under 180,000 red and white lights as the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park builds its annual tunnel of love for Valentine's Day.
Key events: Valentine's Day
The weather starts to warm a little, but there is still a chance of rain all through the spring, so be prepared for any kind of weather. Because there are fewer leaves on the trees, this is an optimal time to take in some of Gatlinburg’s great views. A popular starting point is 407 feet (124m) up in the air at the Gatlinburg Space Needle.
Key events: St Patrick's Day Fireworks
Roaring Fork Creek splashing its way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © DnDavis / Shutterstock
The rain can make its presence felt in Gatlinburg in April, so bring your umbrella and raincoat. Nice days still crop up though, and those that do are really wonderful. For two days in early April, more than 20 miles of streams are stocked with more than 10,000 trout for the Smoky Mountain Trout Tournament, the region's biggest fishing extravaganza. If you’d rather admire nature than cast a line, Blooms and Tunes is a several-month-long celebration of flowers and music at Anakeesta, the high-ropes course and leisure park above downtown Gatlinburg.
Key events: Smoky Mountain Trout Tournament, Blooms and Tunes
In Tennessee, April showers really do mean May flowers, and the forest wildflowers are amazing. May has warm sunny days, crisp mornings and temperatures are pretty much just right. Take in floral displays and scenic overlooks while you dance around during MayFest, a traditional German celebration at the Ober Gatlinburg aerial tramway and mountaintop park.
Key events: MayFest
This is the prime time of year in East Tennessee. It's not too hot, but the spring rains have mostly moved on and the forests start to come alive. Enter the annual national park lottery to secure a slot to see the synchronous fireflies during their multi-week stay near the Elkmont campground.
Key events: Firefly watching
Picnic spots abound in the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains © Dan Reynolds Photography / Getty Images
High season is really kicking into gear. The crowds start to build and so does the heat, but there's fun to be had by all in July. Almost everywhere has an Independence Day parade, but Gatlinburg wanted to have the first one in the country, so its Fourth of Midnight July Parade starts at one minute after midnight at the very start of July 4. Streets are lined with late-night revelers and the party continues well into the day.
Key events: Fourth of Midnight July Parade, Craftsman's Fair (first date)
August in Tennessee is hot with a side serving of hot, and the humidity can be super thick. When temperatures are high, there’s no better way to cool down than going whitewater rafting down the Pigeon River. There are plenty of professional outfitters who can sort out all the gear you need and keep you safe on the white water.
Key events: Smoky Mountain Film Festival
Christmas lights are great and all, but the Dollywood Harvest Festival brings sparkle to the fall. Glittering festive lights fill Dolly Parton's famous amusement park at Pigeon Forge, as the tree leaves begin their own color display. It's a great time for walking, with temperatures that are not too hot and not too cold. As a time to visit Gatlinburg, it's just about perfect.
Key events: Dollywood Harvest Festival
Clingman's Dome observatory, the Smoky Mountains' highest lookout © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Those raging fall colors continue through October, and temperatures start to drop a little. With a pair of jeans and a sweater, you’ll be well equipped for hiking and exploring the hills. This is your second chance to head to the Craftsmen’s Fair, which fills Gatlinburg Convention Center with traditional arts and crafts. For unrestrained fun, head up to Ober’s Oktoberfest, a German-themed festival of food and fun with a mountain backdrop.
Key events: Craftsman’s Fair (second date), Ober’s Oktoberfest
Evenings can get very cold in November, but day times are still just right for hiking. Every November since 1973, the Gatlinburg Festival of Trees has pulled in a crowd with its seasonally bedecked trees and wreaths. The four-day event raises funds for the Boys & Girls Club of the Smoky Mountains and kicks off the Christmas season.
Key events: Gatlinburg Festival of Trees
Bring on the cold and the lights! Holiday season in Gatlinburg is full of holiday cheer. The first weekend of December brings the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade, an LED-lit display of bright lights, floats, and festivities down the main Parkway.
Key events: Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade
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