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Gatlinburg, Tenn.

By Randy Johnson
Correspondent
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/10/18/48/2QDIO.Em.138.jpeg|207
    - GATLINBURG.COM
    Pigeon Forge’s main parkway gets dressed for the holiday season.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/10/18/48/lUizk.Em.138.jpeg|237
    - GATLINBURG.COM
    Pigeon Forge’s Saddle Up, held in February, is one of the biggest celebrations of cowboy culture east of the Mississippi River.

The Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas of eastern Tennessee are popular spring-fall destinations, what with Dollywood and other tourist-oriented attractions. Plus, the drive there from the Charlotte area is largely on the interstate.

But there’s much to see and do there in the off-season – when outdoor fun can be sprinkled with snow and less congested by throngs of visitors.

Choose a winter weekend – better yet: a few weekdays – and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s busiest national park (www.nps.gov/grsm), quiets way down. It’s the perfect time to motor the extremely popular Cades Cove loop road and have the trails and historic sites of this spectacular valley almost to yourself. Best of all, the dramatic elevation change between the western valleys of the Great Smokies near Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (www.gatlinburg.com), and the highest peaks of the national park, offer just about every kind of winter scenery there is. Cades Cove is at its best on a cold morning of heavy frost, when the gold of dry meadow grass contrasts starkly with the wintry grays and browns.

The peaks above are often white with snow, so drive to the crest of the park on the Newfound Gap Road and take a snowy hike or cross country ski trip. The Clingman’s Dome Road, gated during the winter, and often snow-covered, is the perfect snowy path.

The family attractions and fun of Pigeon Forge occasionally crowd out the realization that the Great Smoky Mountains are an international biosphere reserve world-renowned for the diversity of their rich flora and fauna. There is no better way to connect with that rarefied natural world than Wilderness Wildlife Week (Jan. 25-Feb. 1; http://bit.ly/1eKSLG0).This is an eight-day week with 320 indoor programs and 55 guided hikes, excursions and tours into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all headquartered at the new LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge, a $45 million special events facility. It’s hard to convey the diversity of the programming and expertise of the presenters, with hands-on workshops from photography to fly-fishing. There’s music, mountain climbing, all of interest to the serious nature lover, photographer, amateur botanist or naturalist. This all-encompassing experience (http://bit.ly/18uEvOk) is not only held when the busy park is at its quietest, but it’s free (including shuttle service to hikes) – and many accommodations offer special package prices for the event. A photo contest is part of the appeal.

Not all the skiing accessible to Carolinians is on the east side of the mountains! Ober Gatlinburg (www.obergatlinburg.com/ski) just celebrated 50 years of skiing last year at (to translate the name from German) “Upper Gatlinburg.” Skiers can drive up or take an authentic European ski aerial tram to the ski area from the streets of Gatlinburg. The resort’s nine ski trails range from beginner to advanced and include a terrain park for snowboarders and freestyle skiers. There’s also a 10-lane tubing run with a magic carpet conveyor to the top.

Inside the massive main lodge there’s a big ice skating rink, a mall of shopping opportunities, restaurants – including the upper-scale Seasons of Ober (http://bit.ly/1eKVjE3) and Wildlife Encounter (http://bit.ly/1aQ3Yn0), an animal habitat exhibit that’s open in winter (hibernating denizens not included).

Pigeon Forge’s 14th annual Saddle Up (Feb. 19-23; www.MyPigeonForge.com/saddleup) is one of the biggest celebrations of cowboy culture east of the Mississippi River. The four-day tribute to the American West features concerts by top cowboy and cowgirl musicians and poets, a chuck wagon cook-off and other Western-themed activities for the entire family. Performers for 2014 include Don Edwards, Red Steagall and the Boys in the Bunkhouse, Hot Club of Cowtown, Belinda Gail and more. Concerts are held at the LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge. It’s a rousing event with some intimate evening dinner shows, too.

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