In late November 2016, residents and friends of the Great Smoky Mountains could only watch helplessly as wildfires swept through Gatlinburg and threatened Pigeon Forge. In the end, 14 lives were lost, and many homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. In true mountain spirit, however, locals and volunteers immediately started working together to begin cleanup and rebuilding as soon as the fires were out and the evacuation order was lifted.
Today the majestic Smoky Mountains are once again open and ready for visitors. Nearly all attractions, shops, ski slopes, cabins, and eateries are back to normal and ready to welcome you for winter fun.
Winter Magic and Winterfest Still on Through February
In Gatlinburg, Winter Magic is still in full swing, with thousands of sparkling lights illuminating the city. The famous Gatlinburg Trolley was temporarily shut down during the fire evacuation, but was running on schedule as of December 10. In Pigeon Forge, the business district was largely unaffected by the fires, and Winterfest will continue as planned. Referring to the need to help Gatlinburg's tourist industry recovery, Winterfest director Dudley Chancy said, "The worst thing you can do is not go."
You can pick up a free driving tour map at the Pigeon Forge Welcome Centers or at the Pigeon Forge Trolley Office and still enjoy the five million lights that turn the city into a winter wonderland this time of year.
Ski, Snowboard, and Snow Tube Slopes Open at Ober Gatlinburg
Though fire-damaged parts of Ski Mountain Road, Ober Gatlinburg ski and amusement park was largely spared. Heat from the fire melted the ice in the indoor ice skating rink, but staff quickly resurfaced the rink and it is now open. The popular new Ski Mountain Coaster was also undamaged and is fully operational. Ski, snowboard, and snow tube slopes are open and ready for you and your family.
The Knox News Sentinel reported that Dollywood wasn't damaged by the wildfires, though several of their cabin rentals were destroyed or affected. "We invite you to visit Dolly's Tennessee mountain home to experience why Dolly and millions of visitors hold this place and these mountains so dear," Dollywood officials wrote in a media release. "Our area is ready to welcome you back with the hospitality you'll only find here."
Most Trails Open in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open and accessible with just a few backcountry trail closures from fire or winter storm damage. No park buildings were harmed in the fire, and only a small fraction of the park's 520,000 acres were affected. Park officials report that, of the 11,000 acres damaged in the fire, many of those areas are subjected to controlled burns on a regular basis anyway. They anticipate those areas to fully rebound. In the park, roadways have been repaired and are open (barring any normal, seasonal snow and ice).
Popular winter day trips such as the Alum Cave Trail, the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald, and the low-elevation Porters Creek trail to Fern Branch Falls were unharmed in the fire and are open to hikers.
Still Plenty of Indoor Winter Fun in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg
For indoor fun, all Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg attractions are open. Miraculously, Pigeon Forge attractions suffered no fire damage, and Gatlinburg tourist areas were mostly unaffected by the fires.
Favorites such as The Island, Titanic Museum Attraction, WonderWorks, Hollywood Wax, and Mysterious Mansion were unharmed and staff members are eager to entertain. Mysterious Mansion was saved due to the quick thinking of the staff. They rapidly assembled and employed an outdoor gardening sprinkler system to keep the wooded area around the attraction wet. Though the fire came right to the back door of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, the attraction escaped without even a singe and all of the animals are safe. The aquarium has a heartwarming special exhibit wall where you can read letters of encouragement from their fans around the world.
Rental Cabins and Ski Chalet Available
Most Smoky Mountains rental cabins are open, though several were lost in the Gatlinburg area. All of Little River Realty's rental cabins in Wears Valley were unaffected by the fires and a variety of beautiful cabins are available for your winter vacation.
Welcome Back to the Great Smoky Mountains
For some, vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains is a tradition that stretches back generations. For others, a visit to the Smokies is on their bucket list. Whether you've been returning to the same cabin year after year, or you're making your first pilgrimage to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville in 2017, the best way to contribute to recovery efforts is to come back to the Smokies.
About Darryl Payne
Darryl Payne is a native of East Tennessee in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. He is a web developer with a passion for building great websites. As a local, he can offer a unique perspective on where to stay and things to do while on vacation in the Smokies. To read his latest recommendations, please click the Google+ follow button.