And if you’re looking for unspoiled natural beauty, it’s arguably the best place to visit in the Smoky Mountains.
But when it comes to the holiday season, the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains in December involve getting into the mountain towns and soaking in a different type of scenery.
Some of the best views in the Smoky Mountains in winter aren’t of nature at all, but of the Christmas cheer that seems to abound throughout the region.
Christmas in the Smoky Mountains involves small town parades, Christmas trains, Christmas lights, holiday craft markets, snow skiing and tubing, and of course a big heaping serving of music and theater.
Whether you choose to visit North Carolina, Tennessee, or both, a Smoky Mountain Christmas offers plenty of opportunities to get festive.
Read on for our guide to 20 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in the Smoky Mountains, including options in Bryson City, Maggie Valley, and Waynesville NC, and Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville TN.
Christmas in the Smoky Mountains Guide
- Ride The Polar Express Christmas Train (Bryson City NC)
- Smoky Mountain Christmas Light Spectacular (Bryson City NC)
- Bryson City Holiday Market (Bryson City NC)
- Cataloochee Ski Area (Maggie Valley NC)
- Snow Tubing at Tube World (Maggie Valley NC)
- Balsam Range Art of Music Festival (Lake Junaluska NC)
- Visit Christmas Tree Farms (Maggie Valley NC, Waynesville NC, Cashiers NC)
- Luminaries in Dillsboro (Dillsboro NC)
- Cherokee Christmas Parade (Cherokee NC)
- A Night Before Christmas (Waynesville NC)
- Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas (Pigeon Forge TN)
- Smokies Bluegrass Festival (Gatlinburg TN)
- Christmas Arts and Crafts Show (Gatlinburg TN)
- Ober Mountain (Gatlinburg TN)
- Lights Over Gatlinburg (Gatlinburg TN)
- Winterfest Celebration (Pigeon Forge TN)
- Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland (Sevierville TN)
- Christmas Shows at Pigeon Forge (Pigeon Forge TN)
- Smoky Mountain Lights (Townsend TN)
- Anakeesta’s Enchanted Winter (Gatlinburg TN)
Christmas in the Smokies of North Carolina
1. Ride the Polar Express Christmas Train
45 Mitchell St, Bryson City NC • (800) 872-4681
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City NC goes full tilt at Christmas time, converting their trains into “The Polar Express” and running multiple trips every day in December (except Christmas Day).
Most of the Polar Express train rides are run with diesel engines. But there are special steam express runs on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
All of the railroad‘s train trips include a golden ticket, a silver bell (for the kids), hot cocoa, a cookie, sing-a-long carols, and a visit with Santa. All classes are heated, with padded seats and restrooms available.
First class, Premium Crown Class, and Crown Class also add souvenir mugs and a few other extras to enjoy. Book your tickets in advance online, as they often sell out!
2. Go to the Smoky Mountain Christmas Light Spectacular
Great Smoky Mountains Event Park (formerly Inspiration Park)
1130 Hyatt Creek Road, Bryson City NC
The Great Smoky Mountains Event Park in Bryson City (previously known as Inspiration Park) puts on an amazing holiday light show from November 10 through December 31.
Their Smoky Mountain Christmas Light Spectacular is filled with custom-made LED displays of the 12 Days of Christmas, giving each scene from the song a comical twist.
In our opinion, this is one of the best drive-through Christmas Lights in North Carolina. The festive lights turn on at 6 PM and end at 10 PM.
Tickets are sold by car, and can be bought online in advance or at the gate. Note that online sales do have an additional service fee.
3. Shop at the Bryson City Holiday Market
117 Island St, Bryson City NC
The Smoky Mountains Farmers & Artisans Market puts on a Holiday Market every Christmas, starting before Thanksgiving and extending into the weekend before Christmas Day.
Located at 117 Island St in Bryson City, the Holiday Market is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 AM to 3 PM.
A mix of local food producers and craftspeople team up to offer an impressive collection of locally-made gifts, from Christmas decorations, toys, and artwork to artisan foods and other handcrafted Christmas gifts.
The vendors tend to rotate throughout the season, so it’s worth visiting more than once if you’re in the area. Note that pets are welcome if they’re kept on a leash.
4. Hit the Slopes at the Cataloochee Ski Area
1080 Ski Lodge Road, Maggie Valley NC • (800) 768-0285
Nothing says celebrating winter in the Smoky Mountains quite like a snow-capped mountain. The Cataloochee Ski Area is the top spot in the region for snow skiing, tubing, and more.
Located in Maggie Valley NC, the Cataloochee Ski Area has been operating for about 50 years now.
It has all the equipment you’ll need available to rent, and snowmaking capabilities for 100% of its slopes.
The park has a couple of expert trails, over half a dozen intermediate routes, and eight beginner slopes, as well as a fun terrain park for snowboarders.
Cataloochee is open daily from December 10 until late spring, and their hours are from 8:30/9:00 AM to 4:30 PM.
5. Snow Tubing at Tube World
4821 Soco Rd, Maggie Valley NC • (828) 926-0285
For those who love to play in the snow, but don’t want to deal with equipment rentals and skiing/snowboarding lessons, snow tubing is another fun option for Christmas in the Smokies.
The owners of the Cataloochee Ski Area opened up Tube World just a few miles from the ski slopes, and it has become one of the area’s most popular winter attractions.
Assuming the weather is suitable, Tube World tends to open by Thanksgiving each year, offering tubing sessions that last just under two hours.
Note that all participants must be at least 42” tall, and rent their tubes from the facility.
We recommend reserving tickets ahead of time, which you can do up to 14 days in advance of your visit.
6. Jam at Balsam Range Art of Music Festival
Stuart Auditorium, Lake Junaluska, NC
The Christmas event is hosted by local favorites Balsam Range (who have been named IBMA Entertainers of the Year twice), and features the country’s top bluegrass and country/folk musicians.
The 2-day North Carolina music festival takes place at the Lake Junaluska Conference Center, with nightly musical performances in the Stuart Auditorium.
On Saturday, there are workshops, jam sessions, and food trucks to keep the party going.
7. Visit Christmas Tree Farms
Located in the Maggie Valley area, Boyd Mountain Christmas Tree Farm was named #2 of the Top 20 Farms in the US by Country Living magazine.
Whether you’re going out to cut your own Christmas tree or simply seeing where they grow, it’s a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas in the mountains.
8. Look at Lights and Luminaries in Dillsboro
Dillsboro NC • (828) 586-1439
Probably the best NC light display west of Asheville, Lights and Luminaries in Dillsboro is a warm and wonderful way to spend a holiday evening.
This beloved Christmas event starts on the first weekend of December and rekindles on the second weekend for good measure. The 2022 dates are December 2, 3, 9, and 10, from 5 PM to 8 PM.
There will be over 2,500 candles in white bags lining the streets of Downtown Dillsboro, and the shop windows will be all lit up with colorful lights and Christmas decorations.
During this free event, many of the Dillsboro shops and restaurants will stay open later, Santa and Mrs. Claus will be available for photos, and live music will be rockin’ around the Christmas tree on Front Street.
9. Attend the Christmas Parade in Cherokee NC
The parade starts at the Cherokee Bear Zoo and gradually makes its way to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. It ends near the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which sells exceptional work from native craftspeople.
The passing floats throw candy to the spectators, and the Cherokee Christmas tree lighting ceremony begins immediately after the parade.
10. Experience Waynesville’s A Night Before Christmas
“A Night Before Christmas” is an annual holiday tradition in Waynesville NC in which the downtown area is lined with lights, luminaries, ribbons, garland, and all the trimmings.
Santa and Mrs. Claus come to visit. Carolers and musicians fill the streets with festive sounds. Horse-drawn wagons provide a touch of romance.
Each year the First Baptist Church sponsors the event and its Living Nativity scene.
There are delicious treats from local Waynesville restaurants available for purchase, and the town shops and galleries stay open late for all to enjoy.
The 2022 event will be held on December 10, starting at 6 PM and ending at 9 PM.
Christmas in the Smokies of Tennessee
11. Get to Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas
2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge TN • (800) 365-5996
Frequently named among America’s Best Christmas Events, Dollywood Christmas is a cut above the rest in terms of sensational seasonal fun in the Smokies.
The number of twinkling Christmas lights in the popular theme park exceeds 6 million.
All the music and shows center around the holidays, with favorites like “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “Appalachian Christmas,” and “O Holy Night.”
There’s a Festival Tasting Pass for enjoying a seasonal menu of sweets and treats. Friday and Saturday nights have holiday fireworks, and Christmas shopping at Dollywood includes lots of handmade and personalized gifts.
Each section of Dollywood, such as Glacier Ridge and Santa’s Village, also has color-coordinated lights to tell a festive Christmas story.
12. Rock Christmas in the Smokies Bluegrass Festival
W.L. Mills Auditorium, 234 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg TN • (919) 609-6740
A Gatlinburg TN Christmas has got to include some bluegrass licks. And there’s no better place to get them than the Christmas in the Smokies Bluegrass Festival.
Held Nov 17-19 in 2022, the annual concert attracts fans to the Gatlinburg Convention Center in the heart of the city, which is decorated to the nines for Christmas.
The lineup always includes top names from all around the Blue Ridge Mountains appearing over a 3-day weekend.
Festival ticket options include 3-day reserved seating ($100), 3-day general admission ($90), and 1-day general admission ($40).
Gatlinburg at Christmas offers a free trolley that will bring concert-goers to and from their hotels in town, as well as shuttling visitors to many of the local attractions.
13. Shop at The Christmas Arts and Crafts Show
Gatlinburg Convention Center • 234 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg TN • (919) 609-6740
The Christmas Arts & Crafts Show is a great feature of the Gatlinburg Christmas experience, and it’s a wonderful place to find unique gifts for loved ones.
This event is one of the most popular free things to do in Gatlinburg in December. In 2022 it takes place at the Gatlinburg Convention Center from Monday, November 28 through Sunday, December 4.
The Great Smoky Mountains Arts & Crafts Community is the largest collection of artisans in the country, and its members make everything from candles and musical instruments to home decor and jewelry.
It’s a great place to shop for unique Christmas gifts made by hand using age-old techniques, and capturing the folksy spirit of Appalachian Culture.
14. Get Snow-Covered at Ober Mountain
1001 Parkway Suite 2, Gatlinburg TN • (865) 436-5423
When it comes to winter sports in Tennessee, Ober Mountain is the place to go. The season typically starts around mid-December and extends all the way into mid-March.
Ober Mountain has skiing and snowboarding slopes, snow tubing runs, an ice-skating rink, and a “Cubbies Snow Zone” for kids to play in safely.
Their snow skiing and snowboarding runs are dependent on the weather, but the snow tubing season always starts the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
In addition to getting time to play in the snow, there’s also an Aerial Tramway for amazing views of the Smokies and the Ski Mountain Coaster for chilly holiday thrills.
15. Enjoy the Lights at SkyLift Park
765 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN • (865) 436-4307
Christmas in Gatlinburg gets magical at SkyLift Park, with its beloved “Lights Over Gatlinburg” event running from mid-November to the end of January.
The entire park is bedecked with lights and trees, including a 30-foot, multi-colored Christmas tree and a 300-foot tunnel of Christmas lights.
Lights Over Gatlinburg is included in the price of admission to SkyLift Park, allowing visitors to enjoy the expansive Smoky Mountains views by day and Tennessee Christmas light displays by night.
SkyLift Park has been around since the 1950s, when it started with just a chairlift. It has since grown to include a SkyBridge, SkyDeck, SkyCenter, and SkyTrail.
16. Soak in the Vibes at the Winterfest Celebration
Pigeon Forge TN
Christmas in Pigeon Forge TN is all about the Winterfest Celebration, which fills the town with Christmas light displays, holiday parades, trolley tours, and Christmas shows.
The Winterfest Celebration spans several popular places to visit in the Smoky Mountains, including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.
The lights come on for Winterfest in mid-November, kicked off with the Gatlinburg Chili Cookoff, Winter Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tails, and The Island Tree Lighting in Pigeon Forge.
Winterfest events in Pigeon Forge include the Winterfest Driving Tour of Lights on Pigeon Forge Parkway, and the Wonders of Winterfest Christmas Village at Patriot Park.
17. Explore Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland
Soaky Mountain Waterpark, 175 Gists Creek Rd, Sevierville TN • (888) 321-7547
Located in Sevierville TN, Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland is also part of the Smoky Mountain Winterfest Celebration, which happens every year.
The extensive Shadracks Lights display is drive-through and not only twinkles, but works in synchronicity with Christmas music that you can play in your car.
Along with the lights, visitors can stop by Santa’s Workshop for activities, pictures with the jolly fella, and more.
The Wonderland opens in early November and runs through New Year’s Day, rain or shine. Tickets are sold by the car, not the person.
18. Watch Christmas Shows at Pigeon Forge
119 Music Road, Pigeon Forge TN • (865) 908-7469
Holiday shows in Pigeon Forge take place at the many theaters around the region. They’re a fun, unique tradition for spending Christmas in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Hatfield & McCoy Christmas is a funny take on the famous feuding families, who put their differences aside for the sake of the holidays.
Comedy Barn Christmas keeps things jolly, with jokes, sketches, and music that ties the season into a tidy little bow of laughter.
Other Christmas shows in Pigeon Forge include Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud, Tis the Season at the Grand Majestic, the Country Tonight Spectacular Christmas Show, and Christmas at Dolly Parton’s Stampede.
19. Witness Smoky Mountain Lights in Townsend TN
Townsend Visitor Center, 7906 E Lamar Alexander Pkwy, Townsend TN • (800) 525-6834
Moving further west into Tennessee, Townsend has more of a quiet, small-town feel, but still offers plenty of Christmas spirit.
Townsend promotes itself as “the peaceful side of the Smokies,” and is one of the gateways into the Cades Cove area of GSMNP. So it’s much more low-key than the tourist-focused Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Smoky Mountain Lights in Townsend begins in late November and continues until the beginning of January, open daily from 5 PM to 10 PM.
It includes a beautiful Christmas light display as well as various vendors, hot chocolate, and kettle corn.
20. Find the Magic at Anakeesta’s Enchanted Winter
576 Parkway, Gatlinburg TN (865) 325-2400
Anakeesta is a popular Gatlinburg amusement park, and they offer their Enchanted Winter event every year during the holiday season.
Park visitors can enjoy the magical Anakeesta Christmas decorations, including a 40-foot Christmas tree in Anakeesta Plaza on the Parkway.
Park vehicles take guests to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, where they’ll find a toasty fire blazing and lots of great Christmas shopping opportunities.
The park’s attractions are wide-ranging, from the Artic Alley of lights and a winter storm stimulator to Hot Chocolate Trail. Santa comes to visit, sing-a-longs occur, and holiday crafts get made.
The event starts in conjunction with Gatlinburg’s Festival of Lights, and extends to February 13, 2023. –Jonathon Engels; featured photo of Dollywood via Facebook