Gather together for a little holiday fellowship on a weekend in the Smokies.
From dusk to dawn, the streets in downtown Gatlinburg sparkle with animated light displays. It’s cozy and makes my family want to snuggle up for a hayride or take a trolley tour of the lights.
Wander the main street for touristy fun – old-time photos, 3-D moving rides and the Space Needle. Indulge in enormously decadent desserts at Park Grill or Peddler Restaurant. Hearing angels on high? You may find season-appropriate inspiration at Christus Gardens, where the story of Christ’s life is told through peopled scenes, music and narration. Peruse biblical art, a meditative solarium and a special exhibit exploring traditional Christmas symbols (the Star of Bethlehem, poinsettias, Christmas trees and holly, stockings, mistletoe and Santa).
Don’t miss the gem of downtown – Ripley’s Aquarium. We took a 30-minute moving-sidewalk ride through the world’s longest aquarium tunnel to see sharks (and more) close-up!
They don’t even mind if your kids (or you) squish your face up to the glass: it’s an overtly child-friendly place. Kids can touch live horseshoe crabs and rays, activate musical starfish and a talking treasure chest and more at Discovery Center. And $3.25 gets the munchkins a decent meal and tank-side view at Feeding Frenzy, especially cool when lunch coincides with the hourly dive show/feedings, which alternate between Coral Reef, Shark Lagoon or Stingray Bay. My boys are begging to go back for New Year’s!
Take the Swiss-style tram from downtown or drive up Ski Mountain Road to ski, snowboard, slide or – if you’re looking for an excuse to put an arm around your sweetie – just ride the tranquil ski-lift. Souvenir photos are taken and sold. There’s a ski school and separate bunny-hill area where kids are pulled by hula hoop while adjusting to the sliding sensation. They rent (and sell) gear for children as young as age 4, but it’s fine to bring your own, too. Fireplaces and $1.50 hot cocoa/cider invite nose-thawing and window-side spectatorship. Families can also stick around and enjoy the indoor skating rink and arcade fun.
Home to the Frasier Fir, the Smokies are the most visited national park. Yes, more than Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. But it’s quiet in December and, while temperatures in town average 50 degrees, Ranger Mike assured us that the higher elevations have plenty of snow for a little snowball and sledding action. There is limited camping for hearty folks, and numerous visitor centers pepper the area – ask how to make “moth sugar” and grab a free Cades Cove auto tour guide. “Quiet Walk” areas encourage families to step “out of the picture frame of the car window” and reconnect over easy half-mile strolls. By attending a ranger-led walk/talk and picking up a bag of litter, kids ages 5 – 12 become Junior Rangers, with special evening badge-awarding ceremonies.
Local residents echo sentiments from our state song inspired by the Smokies … “I’ve had years of cramped-up city life trapped like a duck in a pen; all I know is it’s a pity life can’t be simple again. Rocky Top, you’ll always be home sweet home to me!” The people of Gatlinburg feel loyal passion – and they’re eager to share!
There are endless family activities in Gatlinburg, so take a weekend off and go exploring. You’ll find ample lodging in the “off” season of December; a log cabin with hot tub and fireplace can be rented for around $100 per night, sleeping four to eight people. It’s easy to get around, as the town is centered on the downtown parkway with numbered stoplights. Maps and brochures can be found on every corner. Bring pocket change; parking can be difficult but trolleys go everywhere for only 25 cents.
800-568-4748 | smokymtnwinterfest.com
| Trolley Ride of Lights at 6:30, 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. daily in December (excluding Dec. 3, 24 – 26 and 31) and Saturdays in January. Departs from traffic light number three; cost is $4.
| Old-Fashioned Hayrides 5 – 9 p.m. Sun – Thu in December (excluding Dec. 3, 24 – 26 and 31). Departs from traffic light number six every 45 minutes; cost is $3.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
865-436-1200 | nps.gov/grsm
Open year-round; free.
800-251-9202 | obergatlinburg.com
Alpine slide, $5; scenic chairlift, $5
Aerial tram, $9.50 adult/$6.50 ages 7 – 11
Arcade and indoor ice-skating, $7.50
Skiing/snowboarding lift tickets, $15 – 40. Kids age 6 and younger are free with a ticketed adult. Hours and prices vary by date. Lessons available for
$12 – $40.
888-240-1358 | ripleysaquariumofthesmokies.com
Open year-round, Sun – Thu 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. and
Fri – Sat 9 a.m. – 11 p.m. (12 – 11 p.m. on Dec. 25)
Kids younger than 2 enter free; $3.95 for ages 2 – 5; $9.95 for ages 6 – 11; $17.95 for ages 12 and older.
Jen Smith is a regular contributor to this publication