Winter hiking can be intimidating, but don’t let the cold stop you. There’s nothing like the peace and solitude of the Smoky Mountains in the quiet season.
With some careful route planning and a little judicious flexibility, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying that sense of accomplishment that comes with getting out in the chilly months.
If you’re new to the trails in the Smokies, look for a reliable map and guide. There, you will find valuable information about the complexity of the hikes, elevation, route, and roads to the trailheads. Pick a trail within your abilities and don’t forget to consider both overall length and elevation change for each trail. A few good resources include the National Geographic Great Smoky Mountains National Park Day Hikes map, the Day Hikes of the Smokies guide, and the classic Hiking Trails of the Smokies.
Once you’ve selected your trail, the next step is knowing how to get to the trailhead. In the winter, it’s especially important to check the status of roads in the Smokies that may close seasonally or temporarily. For example, if you are planning a hike on Chimney Tops trail, you’ll need to make sure Newfound Gap Road is open.
The national park maintains a list of road closures and delays on the park website and reports breaking updates via Twitter at SmokiesRoadsNPS. While roads may appear to be open at the time you intend to set out, you may also need to consider the possibility of weather changes and the driving conditions you may encounter on the roads that lead to and from your trailhead. There may be snow or ice—is your vehicle ready for it?
Once the route to your trailhead is clear, you’ll just need to do one last check on the mountain forecast for conditions along the trail. This is the flexible part I was mentioning before. Be flexible to wait for the right weather.
For example, Mount Le Conte will have three separate forecasts—at the base, at mid-elevation, and at the peak. Temperature could vary between 10 and 20°F between base and the peak. Another important metric is the wind expected. There are cameras in the park that will help you to see what to expect.
Many times, at the base of the trail, people asked me if I’m going to the top. My answer is always, “Let’s see what the trail says.” It is important that you enjoy the hike at your own rhythm; a mile on the trail could take 10 minutes or 45 minutes, depending of many factors. Instead of measuring how far you will go in terms of miles, it is better to know your total time availability, That way, you can calculate the right time to turn around and start making your way back to the trailhead.
Remember days are shorter in winter. On many of my hikes, I will turn back at 1:30 p.m. at the latest. After hours of going uphill, you might assume you’ll be flying once you turn around, but sections of downhill hiking could take a toll on your knees, quads, and feet, making that easy downhill much slower and more challenging than anticipated.
One of my favorite hikes for winter is Mount Le Conte through Rainbow Falls. One of the many reasons is the easy access to the trailhead. Cherokee Orchard Road is open and maintained year-round. Once you are on the trail, you will see some people in the first mile, but slowly it gets quiet, and the views become breathtaking. Creeks and waterfalls will surprise you with every step. It is not an easy hike—the elevation and the technical terrain including rocks, roots, steep climbs, and steep descents will make it an excellent workout. Every muscle will be put to work, but with each hike, you are building endurance.
During your hikes, especially winter hikes, you are building a stronger you. Take your time. There is an overwhelming sense of accomplishment after each trip.
Now that you are ready, see you on the trails!
A few extra tips on winter gear:
- Hiking poles and ice cleats or crampons—Even if you don’t see ice at the beginning of your hike, chances are you’ll be facing ice, snow, and/or mud along the way. Be ready to use traction support when you need it.
- Food and water—In winter, be careful to keep them warm inside the pockets close to your body. My last lunch froze in my outside pocket!
- Satellite communication device—Cellular service is not reliable in the park. I use the Garmin inReach 66i, which allows me to stay in contact with my family. They can track my trip, and we can message each other anytime. The interactive map keeps me on track, and if there’s an emergency, I just need to push a button.
- Bear spray—Don’t trust that bears are all hibernating in the winter. It’s always best to be prepared just in case.
- First aid kit
For a complete pack list, check out the National Park Service page on the Ten Essentials.