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Winterfest Lights Shine On The Smokies

Winterfest Lights Are An Illuminating Experience

Posted by Leif Palmer in Events

Winterfest is one of the premier events in the entire Southeast region, if no other reason than the scale of the festival, which runs from mid-November through the end of February each year. During that three-and-a-half-month period, the communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville all host their own respective slate of Winterfest events, from opening ceremonies to city-hosted events to special promotional activities associated with local attractions and other businesses.

Another element that ties these cities together is the presence of lights - and lots of them. In fact, once you total the lights that comprise all the illuminated displays in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, as well as popular attractions like Dollywood, The Island and Anakeesta, we're talking in excess of 20 million individual bulbs. That's a whole lot of twinkling and flickering lights adding color and festivity to the nights in the Great Smoky Mountains.

We're going to tell you a little more about all those lights, including highlights (no pun intended) of some of the more notable displays, where you can find them and recommendations for some of the best ways to access all that merry-and-bright Winterfest magic. What's cool is that these light displays shine from kick-off ceremonies in mid-November all the way through the end of February. It's the one constant that defines the Winterfest celebration from start to finish.

If you're visiting Gatlinburg during Winterfest, you'll want to start with the lights on the Parkway, aka U.S. Hwy. 441. The lit white Christmas trees lining that road symbolize the white oak trees that were in abundance in the area in the 1700s. In fact, Gatlinburg was originally known as White Oak Flats. Also, don't miss the lights on River Road. That corridor features the Riverwalk Arches, a magical tunnel of lights.

Another section of Gatlinburg that stays lit up during Winterfest is the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, an eight-mile loop featuring more than 100 arts and crafts studios, galleries and shops. You'll find quite a few of the city's light displays in that community, not to mention the fact that a lot of the individual studios get in on the act with decorations and lights of their own.

Among the attractions in Gatlinburg that have their own colorful arrays of lights are Ober Gatlinburg (accessible by car or the Aerial Tramway), the Gatlinburg Space Needle in the heart of downtown, Gatlinburg SkyLift Park (Lights Over Gatlinburg), Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and the aforementioned Anakeesta (Astra Lumina), which is accessible by car or their one-of-a-kind Chondola.

Gatlinburg used to offer special Winterfest trolley tours of all the lights in town, but these days, they're not doing them anymore. The city's trolley service does still operate in Winter, but the routes are not designed to view the Winterfest lights per se. So you could ride the trolley and see some of the lights. But to get the most out of what the city has in store, you're best off doing a self-guided tour. You can download a map showing you where all the displays are by visiting https://www.gatlinburg.com/event/gatlinburg-winter-magic-lights-self-guided-tour/26/ and clicking the link to the map on the page.

In Pigeon Forge, you'll also find city-operated light displays all over town. Similar to Gatlinburg, the Parkway is the main avenue, and the lights there make the heart of the city shine with holiday cheer. Other main roads like Wears Valley Rd. and Teaster Ln. also have significant numbers of lights shining throughout Winterfest, but Patriot Park offers the most bang for the light-viewing buck. It showcases one of the largest collections of light displays in the entire county, most of them patriotically themed, paying homage to the various branches of the military.

In 2022, the city added 20 new LED displays, some standing more than 25 feet tall, totaling more than 1 million lights. They include walk-through arches, a colorful 52-foot-long caterpillar, larger-than-life flowers, Old Man Winter, vibrant snowflakes, shooting stars, snow people and a 20-foot-tall ice fountain that lights the way for a menagerie of critters ranging in size from 13 to 19 feet tall. Another of the new light spectacles is called the Wonders of Light Walking Trail, and it can be found along the city's Riverwalk Greenway between The Island and the LeConte Center. In all, Pigeon Forge's total number of lights is close to 6 million.

At Dollywood alone, they spend months putting up another 6 million lights of their own. Each section is lit in its own palate of color, and guests who ride the Dollywood Express can take advantage of special nighttime train rides that tour many of the theme park's colorfully illuminated areas. That includes everything from lights in the trees and landscaping to special Smoky Mountain Christmas attractions like Glacier Ridge and the Merry & Bright, Holiday Light! fireworks show. Other Pigeon Forge attractions and businesses pulling out the stops with Winterfest lights are The Island, Dolly Parton's Stampede and, naturally, the Incredible Christmas Place.

Similar to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge no longer offers dedicated trolley tours of the Winterfest lights. However, the city offers a map showing guests where all the best light displays can be found around town.

Last but not least, Sevierville has a lot to offer visitors in search of Winterfest light glory. There are themed light displays all over town, many of them concentrated around the downtown area as well as the Sevierville Community Center and City Hall.

One of the most prominent light spectacles in Sevierville comes courtesy of Shadrack's Christmas Wonderland, a drive-through tour of lighted, animated displays featuring more than 1.5 million individual lights. The arrays are larger than life, and guests motoring through can tune their radios to a seasonally themed soundtrack that is synched up with the animation of each individual display. They offer two different experiences - Christmas Wonderland at Smokies Stadium in Sevierville/Kodak and Shadrack's Super-Sized Christmas Adventure, which is set up at Soaky Mountain Water Park.

Leif Palmer - Smokies blogger

About Leif Palmer

Leif Palmer loves residing in the Smoky Mountains. He is an avid outdoorsman: rowing for exercise on the lake, trail hiking, and free climbing rocks in the mountains. He indulges his arty side by periodically beating up pieces of marble by sculpting. He is always frustrated by his inability to sink long putts, and hates his curly hair (but his wife loves it). Leif has been known to muster enough courage to change a diaper, and hopes his son will become a chip off the old block.


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