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The joys of winter hiking in the NC Smokies


Gone until next year are vibrant autumn leaves. But there are still plenty of opportunities to get out into nature in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains.

A lot of people think the colder months are a great time to stay in with a crackling fire and some hot cocoa. Those things are great, but little is better than hitting your favorite trail for some winter hiking.

There’s no shortage of trails in the area that offer a far different experience during the winter than other seasons. While lush, green mountains and warm temperatures are lovely, winter hiking is an entirely different experience that offers rare solitude in the nippy air amid leafless trees.

Many of the best winter hikes are in Haywood County beyond the borders of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, especially along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Pisgah National Forest. However, it’s important to remember that timing for hikes in these areas is paramount, considering some roads — particularly the Blue Ridge Parkway — can close in inclement weather, so check the interactive closure map on the Parkway’s website before you go. One of the best things to do when it snows and vehicle traffic is prohibited is to walk along the parkway itself to take in some of the best vistas around.

Trails around the uber-popular Max Patch are often crawling with eager hikers during peak months, but during the slower winter months, there can be days where you won’t even encounter another person. And on a day where snow blankets the ground, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful scene.

Also not to be forgotten, many hikes in the Smokies have views obstructed by leafy trees that open up when branches are bare, a feature that also allows for better glimpses of wildlife and deeper views into the woods. Another huge advantage is that while many shy away from the cold, it’s nice to hike and not feel drenched in sweat.

On the contrary, layering up for a hike can be nice, and if you get too warm, you can always shed your jacket and tie it around your waist.

Here are some of our favorite winter hikes!

Graveyard Fields:
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Length: 2.3 Mile Loop

Believe it or not, the name Graveyard Fields comes from the appearance of the landscape after logging and fire destroyed much of the forest and soil: the tree stumps left behind looked like gravestones. Don’t let the name scare you off—this popular hike offers access to not just one, but two beautiful waterfalls. The Lower Falls is just a third of a mile from the parking area but does have a few uphill sections on your walk back. From the multi-tiered second falls, you can continue on a farther trek to the tall cascades of the upper falls.

Woody House:
Difficulty Level: Easy
Length: 2 mile roundtrip
The drive down to the Cataloochee Valley is a treat in itself, especially during the winter time when traffic dwindles to the point that on some mornings, you might find yourself on your own. At the end of the road that snakes through the valley is the Rough Fork Trailhead that, if followed, will take you 1 mile on a flat trail — which offers deep glimpses into the woods during winter — to the Woody House, which is over a century old and also has multiple outbuildings on the property.

Waterrock Knob
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Length: 1.2 Miles
The last trail along the Parkway as you travel toward the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is scenic Waterrock Knob. If any members of your group don’t feel like hiking, savoring the view from a picnic table near the parking area will still provide a panoramic look at the Smoky Mountain landscape—an adventure in itself. If you do choose to hike, the 1.2 mile out-and-back trail will take you up a moderate incline and with rewarding scenery along the entire route.

Max Patch:
Difficulty Level: Easy
Length: 1.4 Miles
If you’re looking for the perfect spot to watch a snowy sunrise or sunset, take your crew to Max Patch. This relatively short hike is a family-friendly, fan-favorite destination that sits on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. You can also access several other trails on the Parkway from this spot. Take a short hike up a slight incline to enjoy incredible views and find out why this grassy bald is beloved by hikers, dogs, and families.

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