Exercising caution and allowing extra travel time are two important suggestions visitors should consider during December.
Lightly-traveled roads within the park boundaries have fewer traffic jams, though the presence of elk, deer, or bears near the roadside may cause temporary congestion to occur as visibility within the hills and valleys increases after many trees shed their leaves.
While checking for road closures makes sense throughout the year, consulting advisories about temporary road closures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and nearby roads is imperative in December.
After entering the park, those unfamiliar with driving through it may wish to stop at visitor centers to check on updates.
Although Newfound Gap Road (US Highway 441) between Cherokee and Gatlinburg is generally kept open throughout the year, there may be times when snow and ice accumulations require its temporary closure, especially late at night and early in the chilly morning.
While smaller crowds and fewer traffic jams within the park are reasons to visit in December, attractions and shopping opportunities in adjacent cities that thrive on visitors are also important magnets.
Unlike spring, summer, and fall visitors who tend to spend long periods of time in the park to enjoy nature and escape the heat of the valley, many park visitors in December congregate at visitor centers.
Some take short strolls on quiet walkways and put on layers for a quick, chilly stop at one of the scenic overviews.
Those willing to travel a short distance from the roadway will encounter solitude and scenic views.
Rhododendrons and tall evergreen trees dot the landscape. Rocky mountain streams with patches of snow and large boulders are still in motion as the rest of the park slows down for winter.
In December, hiking and camping opportunities exist, and many roads normally clogged with cars in warmer months have become wide and safe paths for those who want to hike beyond the gates that keep vehicles out until springtime.
Pros of Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in December:
- Fewer people visit the park, offering opportunities for solitude.
- Hikes away from the roadway provide an escape from crowds and a chance to see snow-dusted mountains.
- Nearby cities become popular shopping destinations.
- Abundant Christmas and holiday light displays bring a sense of holiday cheer.
- Wildlife becomes easier to notice in areas where trees have shed their leaves.
- Ice formations may take shape along shallow stream areas and some waterfalls during prolonged cold weather.
Cons of Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in December:
- Many park facilities and notable roads are closed.
- Unexpected road closures may occur, requiring long detours.
- Hotel accommodations may become difficult to obtain in late December.
- Cold, wet rain is very common.
- Monitoring weather forecasts is mandatory.
Weather in December
Lower Elevation (Park Headquarters, near Gatlinburg area)
- Average High: 52°F
- Average Low: 28°F
- Monthly Precipitation: 4.5 inches
- Monthly Snowfall: 1 inch
- Days of Precipitation: 8
Highest Elevation (Clingmans Dome)
- Average High: 37°F
- Average Low: 21°F
- Monthly Precipitation: 7.3 inches
- Monthly Snowfall: 8 inches
- Days of Precipitation: 10
December is a time of ever-changing weather, especially with differences in elevation.
While weather conditions in the southern Appalachians are generally more moderate than in northern latitudes, snowstorms and unsafe travel conditions may occur.
Notable weather extremes often occur between what one would find at the Oconaluftee and Sugarlands visitor centers than at higher elevations.
Heed warning signs at entrances about possible snow and ice, even if temperatures at Cherokee and Gatlinburg are in the upper 50s or low 60s.
Most evening temperatures in the park drop below freezing in December. Drivers should pay close attention to the presence of icy fog, ice patches, and wildlife that may congregate along the warmer pavement after sunset.
Tourists unfamiliar with mountain driving in winter weather should limit most travel to the daytime hours.
Things to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains in December
Sometimes, traveling between popular destinations on opposite sides of the park can take much longer during December.
When conditions call for the closure of Newfound Gap Road, a long eastward detour to Lake Junaluska near Asheville may be required as vehicles take Interstate 40. During very heavy periods of snow, even this more-gently sloping highway may close.
Other peripheral roads may also close, such as the Foothills Parkway within the western park boundaries and the 43-mile Cherohala Skyway.
This National Scenic Byway between Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and Robbinsville, North Carolina, crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, offering a shortcut to Chattanooga.
Many sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway will close by December, including all portions within the national park.
Numerous park roads will be closed to vehicular traffic by December. The gate at Clingmans Dome Road closes by December 1, earlier if necessary.
Download this National Park Map from nps.gov (pdf)
Since the Newfound Gap averages nearly 70 inches of snow a year, those who enjoy hiking in the snow, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing sometimes ascend Clingmans Dome Road.
Other notable park roads that close by December include Little Greenbrier Road, Rich Mountain Road, Parson Branch Road, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Many December visitors make short drives through the park before returning to surrounding communities to enjoy the holiday cheer and seasonal shopping excursions.
Lights and stores along the Parkway are popular destinations, with many choosing to take the trolleys in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge so they can enjoy the light displays.
Folk arts and crafts attract many visitors, including some at the stores in Gatlinburg’s Great Smoky Mountain Arts & Crafts Community.
While roads are less traveled in Cherokee, Maggie Valley, and Waynesville, seasonal lights and shopping opportunities attract visitors.
Outdoor picnicking is not as popular in December as in June, but the sites that remain open do attract guests.
Some may bundle up and eat there, but many others visit these sites for short walks along streams and winter photography.
With Chimneys usually scheduled to close by December 1, the year-round picnic areas open for vehicles include Cades Cove, Greenbrier, Metcalf Bottoms, and Deep Creek.
Two frontcountry (developed) campgrounds remain open in December and throughout the winter.
Located four miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Smokemont has long been a year-round campsite. A gate along Newfound Gap Road just beyond Smokemont may be closed during periods of snow and ice.
With the popular Elkmont usually closed at the end of November, the campground at the entrance to Cades Cove remains open.
Backcountry camping is permitted throughout the year, though some sites may become inaccessible during cold, snowy periods.
Those who plan to stay at these locations should secure the necessary permits and notify park officials if they decide to cancel their overnight stays.
Cold-weather hikers enjoy visits during this time when trails experience lighter traffic.
All hikers should wear layers, preparing to remove or add them based upon external conditions and their body temperature.
Those who plan longer hikes should also prepare for shorter days and the possibility that clouds or fog may reduce visibility along trails, including those with dangerous cliffs and unstable paths or rocks.
Hikers should exercise care when crossing wooden bridges or logs across creeks that may have icy and slippery surfaces.
Laurel Falls remains a popular stopping place, even during December. One of the few paved trails in the park, this 2.3-mile round-trip journey to the falls may include ice formations.
Although the Roaring Fork is closed to vehicular traffic, pedestrians may hike along it to destinations such as Grotto Falls.
While traffic is much reduced during this time of year, a hike along the Alum Cave Bluffs trail is popular for those who enjoy mountain overlooks along this challenging hike.
Brook and brown trout remain active during the spawning season. Dedicated anglers grab their jackets and a fishing license from North Carolina or Tennessee and visit mountain streams throughout the park and in nearby areas.
Wildlife and Wildflowers
Although wildflowers are fewer in number during December, the snow-covered ground near evergreens attracts a lot of interest.
Bears may hibernate during colder periods, but other wildlife remains visible as bare trees and fewer visitors increase opportunities to see animals in fields and along hillsides.
Annual Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade, Gatlinburg: An annual event in early December, complete with marching bands and costumed characters.
Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas, Pigeon Forge: Music, cheer, and more than six-million lights welcome visitors to this popular attraction.
New Year’s Eve Celebration, Fireworks, and Ball Drop at Gatlinburg: This family-focused end-of-the-year gathering has been a Gatlinburg tradition since 1987.
Ober Mountain Adventure Park and Ski Area, Ober Gatlinburg: Winter activities thrive atop the mountain.
Pigeon Forge Winterfest: Lights cover the Pigeon Forge landscape between November and mid-February for visitors who enjoy this colder time of year.
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