Elkmont – Ghost Town in the Smokies?

Elkmont, situated in the upper Little River Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains, is but a shell of what it once was – an early 20th Century social getaway to Knoxville’s elite. Today, a literal ghost town is all that remains.

At times in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park it is hard to imagine what the area was like before it became one of our national treasures. Truth be told, the land that is now in the National Park contained industry, business and homes before it became part of the National park Service 80 years ago. One of the places in the Park that makes it easy to see what life was like ‘before the Park’ is Elkmont. Currently Elkmont is home to a campground, fishing areas and hiking trails, but its history goes back much further. Starting as a small settlement in a valley, and changing with the times, it became a center for the logging industry, finally to become a resort town nestled in the Smoky Mountains. With the National Park movement in the 30s, Elkmont was purchased and became part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With the leases in Elkmont expiring, the buildings were left where they stand to this day; a monument to the past and a ghost town in the Smokies.

The Elkmont area was originally settled by two Smokies families in the 1840s, at least one of which came to the area to look for gold. Like most small mountain communities they were subsistence farmers that produced everything from corn to honey to make ends meet and put food on the table. The creek that runs along the Elkmont Trail is Jake’s Creek, named for Jacob Hauser, probably the first settler to this area. From this time period, the only existing structure is the Avent Cabin which was built around 1845 by the Ownby family.

John English, a Knoxville, Tennessee businessman, began a small-scale logging project in the Elkmont area along Jake’s Creek. This business venture started the logging period for the Elkmont area but it was a Pennsylvania native, Colonel Wilson Townsend (after whom Townsend TN is named) that established the Little River Lumber Company. Townsend setup a railroad that went from his saw mills to the logging camp in what became known as Elkmont to the loggers. The Elkmont area was used as the base of operation for the lumber company through the 20s and 30s. By this time Townsend had sold most of the land to the newly formed national Park. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Townsend noticed that as the forest was being mined for its valuable resources that he could use the train to bring hunters and fishermen to the area. The railroad reached Maryville and Knoxville by 1909 and they began offering the “Elkmont Special.” This special was train service from Knoxville to Elkmont. Tickets on the Elkmont special became a hot commodity. Soon a bigger engine was added and in 1912 Charles Carter built the Wonderland Hotel – a 50 room resort lodge overlooking Elkmont. In 1914 a group of citizens from Knoxville formed the Appalachian Club. This ‘club’ built 40 or more rustic cabins and a lodge. The Elkmont area became the place for Knoxville’s elite to go. Membership into the Appalachian Club was hard to acquire. Even the removal of the railroad to another logging area did not deter the members, who, along with the help of Tennessee Governor Austin Peay, put in a road connecting Townsend and the Elkmont area.

By this point in history, National Parks like Wyoming’s Yellowstone started opening across the country. The idea to open a National Park in the Smokies may have even started with one of the members of the Appalachian Club. Whoever originally came up with the idea, in 1926 Colonel Townsend sold the initial 76,000 acres to start the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Park. Even though the national park would be a great addition to their community, the cottage owners and members of he Appalachian Club were losing their summer homes, their vacation spot. With the help of an attorney from the Little River Lumber Company they were allowed to sell their property at half price and get a lifetime lease. Most of the lifetime leases expired in 1992 with the last two expiring in 2001. The 1982 General Management Plan of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park called for the structures to be removed and the land would be allowed to revert to its natural state. In 1994, just a mere two years after most of the leases had expired, this plan was overridden when Elkmont was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, saving the cottages from destruction. Unfortunately, though they were saved from removal, they were left to deteriorate. The Park Service did not have the means or extra funding to preserve those buildings. The Wonderland Hotel collapsed in 2005 and has since been removed, though some of the historical fixtures and items from the hotel have been preserved. The homes along Little River and Jake’s Creek were also left to the elements, without upkeep.

At the time of this writing, there is sign of reconstruction going on in Elkmont. Some new porches and construction tape now adorn some of the cabins and cottages. According to a brief sent out from the Park Service in the fall of 2007, they are proposing that 19 of the remaining buildings be preserved. This preservation effort would include the Appalachian Clubhouse and other buildings of historic significance. This move is still waiting for approval but it is certainly a positive step to preserve some of the pre-park history.

Since then, the National Park Service in 2009 announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages and outbuildings in the Appalachian Club area (which were older and more historically significant) and remove all other structures, including the Wonderland Annex which had collapsed in 2005.

Maybe this ghost town in the Smokies will receive some tender loving care, bringing back that Smoky Mountain vacation spot atmosphere that it had so many years ago.

Stargazing in the Smokies

There is a pervading thought that says when the sun sets, there is nothing to see in the Smokies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stargazing in the Smokies is a wonderful way to spend an evening of your Smoky Mountain vacation.

When night falls in the Smokies, the National Park seems to empty.  The people vanish, the cars vanish and most of the animals seem to disappear.  There are few times that the drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee is a lonesome drive but after the sun goes down you can find yourself going for half an hour at a time without seeing a car.  The thought is that since the sun has set, there is nothing to see in the Smokies.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Stargazing in the Smokies is a wonderful way to spend an evening of your Smoky Mountain vacation.

After sunset a whole vista of celestial ‘wildlife’ pops out.  Stars that you never knew existed hangout among familiar constellations.  Extra stars seem to accessorize Orion’s belt.  Ursa Major and Ursa Minor seem to fill out more and you can see why ancient people may have named them what they named them, instead of looking like a dipper it might actually resemble a bear.  Our view of the sky, usually inhibited by city lights, is opened up as you leave the vestiges of civilization and climb higher into the mountain.  Newfound Gap Trailhead, the parking area for one of the most hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail, is one of the best places to stargaze in the Smokies.

Due to the fact that there are no street lights at Newfound Gap Trailhead, there are no cities close enough to see and the fact that at night most of the cars in the parking lot are left by overnight hikers.  This leaves the parking lot vacant and the passing cars don’t add enough light to affect your night vision.  Once you get to the parking area, go to the furthest end of the parking lot, turn off all the lights in your car and wait for your eyes to adjust.  Once your eyes are used to the dark you will start to see some amazing sights in the night sky.  Remember that you are above 6,000 feet in this parking lot, so you may want to bring a coat in the spring or fall because it ill be cooler then it is in the valley areas.  If it is 60 in Pigeon Forge, it will be at least 10 degrees cooler on the mountain.

Another thing to keep in mind is the moon.  If the stars are brighter in the Smokies, then the moon is ten times brighter.  A full moon on top of the mountain is a glorious thing to behold but if your planning on seeing stars keep the phase of the moon in mind.  The perfect time to view stars by the millions is during the new moon.  With the moon out of the way, you will have an unobstructed view of the stars and your stargazing trip to the Smokies will be complete.  If you want to see an amazing moonrise, then get to the summit early during a full moon and it will bright enough to read by.

Because of the lack of lights on the mountain it is possible to take pictures of this starry expanse.  You will need to turn the flash off on your camera and you will have to use fairly long exposures.  Long exposures (one and half to two minutes minimum) will produce star lines on the exposure.  The Earth’s constant movement in relation to the unmovable positions of the stars causes the star lines. This is what you want.  Lots of light into the camera and giving the camera enough time to absorb the light you are letting it will make the outline of the trees hazy and the stars will be small streaks in the sky.  You’ll need to use a tripod to eliminate movement of the camera.

If you are looking for an after-hours opportunity for your family to enjoy something they may not get to see anywhere else, get out of the cabin or hotel room, pack up the cool weather gear and head to the top of the Smokies, or a place like Cades Cove.  Put a sleeping bag on the hood of your car, lean back and enjoy the view.  Instead of looking at the gorgeous mountains below the heavens, turn your eyes upward and look at the stars.

Hillbilly Golf

Right as you go into Gatlinburg, if you are coming from Pigeon Forge, you are going to see a sign for Hillbilly Golf on the left hand side of the road.  Hillbilly Golf is a staple of Gatlinburg attractions and has been a min golf destination for years.  When you give Hillbilly Golf a once over you are going to wonder where the miniature golf course is but that is because you are not looking at the right spot.  Stand in  front of the ticket booth and look up.  You will notice an incline rail system that seems to go up and out of sight, that is where the course is – that is where the fun is.

Get your ticket and jump on the rail car.  You will take a brief ride up the mountain, the 300 feet only takes a few minutes but it does give you a great view of the Parkway as it threads its way into Gatlinburg.  You ride backwards up the mountain to both of the course.  Each one is a full 18 holes and both are delightfully decorated and fun to play.  But of course, half the fun is the fact that you are playing on the mountain.  The courses are built into the mountainside, into the very rock with trees and plants growing all around.

Not only are the courses chiseled into the ground and rock of the Smoky Mountains but they are decorated with a detritus that has taken years to accumulate.  Pieces of mountain history, pieces of the past decorate the courses.  The obstacles that you shoot and putt around are the very articles and things of the past that you might have seen doting the front yard of any mountain person in the Smokies at the turn of the century. Outhouses and stills are part of the course, as are native plants and rock walls that came to symbolize the mountain yards of the homesteads in the Smokies.  Some of these items have been out on these courses since Hillbilly Golf opened years ago.  Golf balls have been shot through and around these pieces of Americana for years and you might even find that you are still trying to putt around the same still that you had trouble with as a kid. Try both courses while you are there, spend plenty of time on the side of the mountain and experience the thrill you had when you rode the incline railway up the first time you took it years ago.

Hillbilly Golf
340 Parkway
Gatlinburg, TN

5 Reasons You Need to Visit the Gatlinburg Sky Lift

Gatlinburg is a great vacation destination for you and your family. There are so many great places to visit during your trip to Gatlinburg. It may be hard for you to choose which ones will make the cut during your trip. One must see attraction is the Gatlinburg Sky Lift. You may be thinking, “but I am afraid of heights,” or “it does not look safe”. However, both those things are not issues when you are traveling up the mountain on the Gatlinburg Sky Lift. Continue reading “5 Reasons You Need to Visit the Gatlinburg Sky Lift”

Top 8 Gatlinburg Events You Need to Experience This Year

Add a little extra fun and excitement to your next vacation to the area by planning your trip around one of these thrilling Gatlinburg events. Fun for all ages, we are sure you will love experiencing these fun things to do with your friends and loved ones. Continue reading “Top 8 Gatlinburg Events You Need to Experience This Year”

Scenic Drives in the Smokies

Some days are just meant for driving, especially in the Smokies. If you’re having one of those days let us suggest a couple of great drives through the national park that will keep you on the paved trails, instead of the rocky, and sometimes muddy ones. Lets get started.

Now, if you really want to see the vast plant and wildlife ecosystem that makes up the Smokies, this first drive is as close as one could possibly get to witnessing all these different species.

Newfound Gap Road
Want to see the Smokies? Start at Newfound Gap Road. It’s said that you’d have to travel from Georgia to Maine in order to pass through the variety of forest ecosystems you’ll experience traveling Newfound Gap Road. Starting in Gatlinburg, you’ll find yourself in Cherokee, NC 30 miles later. Besides the vast, wonderous forest ecosystem, motorists will also find other attractions along the way including Sugarlands Visitor Center located just outside Gatlinburg, Clingman’s Dome Road, Ocanaluftee Valley, and Mingus Mill. If those spots don’t tickle your fancy, there are plenty of pulloffs, picnic places, and breathtaking views along the way.

Cades Cove Scenic Drive
This drive will take you right into the heart of the settling of the Smokies. This 11-mile loop traverses the entire cove, which was settled between 1818 and 1821, and you can stop and see old churches, a working gristmill, barns and restored homesteads right off the Loop Road.

There are 159 camping sites, and a trail that takes you up to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top. Take an afternoon and check out the numerous white-tailed deer, maybe even spot a black bear, and you’ll more than likely come upon some wild turkeys if you stay for awhile. Cades Cove is perfect for a drive, a hike, or just about anything.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
This auto way takes its name from the rushing water you’ll hear if you crack your window. This six-mile, one-way loop road starts just a mile outside Gatlinburg. The first stop along the Roaring Fork Nature Trail is Noah “Bud” Ogle’s farmstead where you can get out and take a walking tour then hike to Rainbow Falls. Grotto Falls is also located along this drive.

Directions – To reach the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light No. 8 and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park. Just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead you have the option of taking the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (closed in winter). Buses, trailers, and motor homes are not permitted on the Roaring Fork motor nature trail.

Explore the Greenbrier
Wildflower watchers will love this 6 mile road that welcomes auto tours. Places like Porter’s Creek are particularly vibrant in March and April in the Greenbrier area of the park. Once you get there, you might just want to get out of the car and experience the Greenbrier for yourself. If that’s the case, let us suggest taking a four mile hike to Ramsey Cascades – the tallest falls in the Smoky Mountains.

Get Outdoors in Gatlinburg!

You could spend an entire day listing all the things there are to do outdoors in Gatlinburg. Meaning really outdoors, like in the national park and surrounding area. Gatlinburg backs right up to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so naturally there are a number of outdoor adventures, attractions, and escapes awaiting you right when you step out your door. If you’re looking for a vacation destination that will leave your thirst for the great outdoors quenched, look no further than Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Hiking in Gatlinburg

Normally, people don’t just go to the national park, turn around and go home. They go to do something. Many go to hike one or more of the over 800 miles of hiking trails found in the National Park. From wildflower hikes to an adventurous climb up Mount LeConte, you can find a trail for everyone from the beginning hiker to the advanced and everything in between.

There are trailheads to be found from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove just outside Townsend, TN that put you right in the national park.

Fishing in the National Park

The Little Pigeon River flows straight through downtown and the national park is crisscrossed by so many mountain streams you’d easily lose count. As far as dropping a line or casting a fly, take your pick of rivers and streams. Literally hundreds of miles of streams are stocked annually with brown and rainbow trout, as well as the beautiful brook trout. Even large mouth bass can be found in these waters. Fishing is permitted year round in the park, and Gatlinburg hosts an annual trout tournament where contestants compete for over $10,000 in cash and prizes.

Camping in the Smokies

If you’re idea of the perfect Smokies getaway is parking your RV or camper around Gatlinburg, there are plenty of spots to choose from. And most offer electricity, water, cable TV, hot showers and pools. In Cades Cove or Elkmont, you can pitch a tent and rough it for a few days in the wilderness. Most Smoky Mountain campgrounds are accessible first come, first served.

Whitewater Rafting

Class III and IV rapids can be found for miles on the Big Pigeon River as well as other nearby rivers, and several outfitters like Raft the Smokies and the Nantahala Outdoor Center offer wildwater adventures and assistance in planning your rafting trip.


The Cades Cove Campground Store is a great place to rent a bike if you aren’t planning on bringing one yourself. It’s also the perfect place to bike in the Smokies. The 11 mile Loop Road is a hot spot for cyclists wanting to get out in the park. From the historic buildings to all the wildlife roaming the Cove, it’s a nature-lover’s paradise.

Ripley’s Aquarium, Dinosaurs: When Giants Ruled

A 10-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex at an aquarium? It’s not the first thing you’d expect to see on a trip to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. However, the T. Rex is the new centerpiece of the aquarium’s “Dinosaurs: When Giants Ruled” exhibit that just recently opened.

The “Dinosaurs” exhibit is there through 2013. It’s the aquarium’s big spring exhibit. Each year they seem to get bigger and better.

Now, T. Rex isn’t alone. He and four other animatronic dinosaurs fill the 2,000-square-foot exhibit space. You’ll think that you’ve back to the land that time forgot. There’s even a 7 ½-foot, man-made volcano.

There is an Apatosaurus, which for those of you asking “What is an Apatosaurus?”, it’s a 30-foot-long, green-skinned dinosaur that moves its long neck and turns its head in the exhibit. Meanwhile, the horned Chasmosaurus parent and child also turn their heads, open their mouths, roar and squeal at the passersby. Finally, you’ll find that the model Mosasaurus, a prehistoric marine reptile, is suspended in the exhibit’s ocean display.

There’s even a sand display that kids can dig through as they search for dinosaur bones. This interactive exhibit incorporates nine iPad dinosaur-themed, children-oriented “Dino Challenge” applications with the more old-fashioned technology of a dig pit.

“Dinosaurs: When Giants Ruled” also spotlights fossils of actual dinosaurs unearthed over the years including a Triceratops horn dug up in South Dakota, an arm and hand bone of a two-legged Gallimimus found in Mongolia, and a Stegosaurus skeleton found in China in the ’90s.

Ripley’s General Manager Ryan DeSear said an aquarium hosting an exhibit about dinosaurs “just kind of fits. We have a marine dinosaur back there called a Mosasaurus, where you can kind of see the evolution of sharks. So there is a fit there. It’s maybe a bit tenuous but it’s still there. And people love dinosaurs. They just do.”

Laurel Falls

Want to get off the beaten path without actually leaving the path next time you’re in the Smoky Mountains? Take a hike to Laurel Falls and be amazed at the true majestic beauty of the Smokies.

The 80-foot high Laurel Falls descends from Laurel Branch in the Great Smoky Mountains. It takes its name from the mountain laurel that grow in the area, especially along the trail that leads to the falls. It can best be seen by hikers during the month of May. A walkway intersects Laurel Falls, which is made up of an upper and lower portion. The walkway crosses the upper section. Laurel Falls is undoubtedly one of the most popular and picturesque locations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Laurel Falls Trail is the route you take to get to the falls, obviously. The trailhead can be reached just outside the Sugarlands Visitors Center in Gatlinburg. As you’re coming into town traveling south from Pigeon Forge, turn toward Cades Cove on Little River Road and drive 3.5 miles to the trailhead. There is parking available at the trailhead but it fills up quickly on a nice day and especially on weekends.

Just so you know and can plan accordingly, the round trip hike to Laurel Falls is 2.6 miles. Give yourself about 2 hours to hike to the waterfall and back, more if you plan on staying awhile which most people do.

This is a paved trail, but it’s a trail that has been traveled by many so to say it is completely even would be a falsehood. Some parts can be slippery in wet weather, especially the steeper parts. Be wary of children at all times, your own and others who may be hiking in. Those who wish to bring strollers or wheelchairs are highly discouraged to do so because of the grade of trail at points and also the worn condition.

Please refrain from climbing on rocks around the waterfall. A fair warning, several people have fallen to their deaths over the years and many others have suffered serious injuries from climbing on rocks near waterfalls or along the riverbanks. These rocks are slippery due to mist and algae.

Also, carry drinking water with you. Pets and bicycles are both prohibited on the trail.