Last weekend, I had the opportunity to go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a gorgeous fall afternoon. The sky was clear blue, the air was comfortably cool, and the mountains had fully embraced fall, with most of the trees now fully bearing their fall colors. I traveled to Elkmont, Tennessee, an area I had never known existed until a few months ago. It is an area just a few miles away from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the biggest tourist spots in the Smokies. Though only a short distance away, it feels like a different world.
Before I get to the ghost town, I wanted to show you some of the scenery I saw there, from two different trips. The first time I visited Elkmont, I got there early in the morning, when the sun was still rising and it felt cool for a late-summer day. At times, the water was so flat and clear you could see all the way to the bottom, a good fifteen feet down.
I took this picture with my blood, sweat, and tears. Well, just sweat, actually. This is the farthest I went on the trail and I stopped to eat for lunch. I snapped some pictures and it turns out there was sweat on my phone's camera. Made for an interesting filter, I think.
The trail was plenty wide and used to be a railroad track one hundred years ago.
Elkmont is also home to one of the most unique sights in not just the Smokies, but in the entire world. For a few weeks in late spring each year during mating season, fireflies flash in unison. In order to not disturb them or their environment, a lottery is held and only a limited number of people get to visit the site. I would love to get the chance to see them someday.
One of the best parts of the hike was encountering wildlife.
Here, I found a friend, who stayed on my finger for a good mile or so! I think it was content to lick up my sweat. It was kind of cool and kind of freaky to see its proboscis moving across my finger.
On the way back, we saw a rattlesnake just lying in the center of the trail. Several other hikers were standing around it. We couldn’t tell if it was dead or asleep. Someone tossed some pebbles at it and it slithered away.
Not a minute later, we saw a bear cub walking along the shore on the other side of a stream! Not sure where Mama Bear was, we kept our distance and headed back to the car.
On the trip last weekend, I saw eleven turkeys, including two that were casually walking down the trail towards us. They didn’t seem too scared of people.
A sign showing what the ghost town used to look like.
Now, time for the good stuff. But, before I talk about the ghost town, it’s time for a little history lesson. In the early 1900s, a logging company established Elkmont as a hub for their logging enterprises up in the mountains. A railroad track was put down, allowing easy access to the lumber and travel back to the East Tennessee valley below. As time progressed and land was cleared, wealthy citizens from the valley bought the land and built summer/vacation homes. A hotel and clubhouse were built, and a small community for the wealthy blossomed. At the Appalachian Clubhouse, a members-only site, dances and parties were hosted, and entire orchestras were brought in from Knoxville. If you were a rich Tennessean in the 1910s and 1920s, you could do worse.
Then, everything changed when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. In the 1930s, more than a half million acres were to be set aside for natural preservation. Problem was, a fair amount of families lived in the mountains, some for generations. The government bought property from most residents and let a few stay on their land until they passed away.
For example, the Walker Sisters, a family that had lived in the mountains for years, were able to live out the remainder of their days in their mountain home. Their homestead received numerous visitors each year and an article was written about them in the Saturday Evening Post, titled 'Time Stood Still in the Smokies.' The last of the sisters passed away in the 1960s, thirty years after the park had been established. Today, their cabin is a historical site, one I hiked to earlier this year.
The home owners in Elkmont were able to obtain similar lifetime leases, enjoying their getaway homes as long as they lived. The last house was abandoned in 2001, and all the land became property of the National Park Service. Some of the buildings were renovated due to their historical significance and are used today as event centers. Most have been given over to nature, to return the land to how it looked before logging companies arrived.
With all that in mind, here is what I saw on my trip to the Elkmont ghost town.
Some of the houses are still in decent shape and are being somewhat preserved.
Though none are in perfect shape. It is interesting looking at the variety of design in the several dozen homes here. Though most were built in the 1910s and 1920s, most were updated with more modern amenities and with the changing styles through the years.
It is kind of creepy looking through these homes, thinking about how long they were lived in and the fact that they are now totally empty. Though the houses are deserted, they are dark, with a lot of sharp turns into other rooms that you can't see inside of.
Considering the time of year, with Halloween only days away, it could be downright spooky seeing what remained in some of these homes: rugs, blankets, appliances, and especially this bedframe.
I can't really tell what this is, but it sort of looks like an old-timey crib and I don't think I can handle that.
I would not recommend entering any of these houses. 1) They are government property and you might have to serve some jailtime/pay a hefty fee for tresspassing. And, most importantly...
2) Most of these houses are rotting and collapsing. As I said before, only a small numbers of the houses are being preserved, while ones like this are being left to fall.
Most of these houses have roofs collapsing...
Or the floors giving way, ready to slide down the hillsides most of the houses are perched on.
The chimneys were built pretty well, and I suspect most will be around after the rest of the house falls apart.
The flash from my camera lit up a spider web hanging in this doorway. I thought it looked pretty neat. Also, note how the floor seems to fall away into nothingness.
A refrigerator left outside...
Notice the angle of the wall inside.
Many of the houses had brightly-colored doors.
The view inside.
Inside a house on Millionaire's Row, a group of larger homes separate from the others.
Another view of the same room.
In addition to the clubhouses and dozens of homes, there was also the Wonderland Hotel, another gathering place for the wealthy.
Here are those same steps today. The surrounding area is overgrown.
The front of the Wonderland Hotel.
The same fountain from the photograph.
Here is what remains of the hotel. After closing in the early 90s, it was abandoned and fell into heavy disrepair. Eventually, it was torn down and prominent parts were placed in storage.
The nearby kitchen and dining hall burned down in May of this year. It is unclear whether the fire was arson or an accident. Even months after the fire, the area still smelled like smoke. Nearby trees were blackened from the flames, as you can see, and metal appliances warped from the heat.
An alternate view.
It was fascinating having the chance to visit Elkmont, this little town hidden away in the mountains. There's so much scenic beauty and interesting history in such a small place. As I looked inside the houses from broken windows and empty doorways, I was reminded of locales from post-apocalyptic games like Fallout and The Last of Us, of how quickly buildings fall apart when no one is around to upkeep them. I can't imagine staying at Elkmont long ago and returning to see it in its present state. If it was me in that scenario, I know I wouldn't want to go back to see a familiar, happy place so dilapidated. Better to hold on to the memories of what it was.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. I am so glad it was established and that so many natural wonders have been preserved. I hate to think of what the Smokies would look like if the Park Service didn't exist. I'm glad that I live close enough to the mountains to be able to visit them frequently. For the centennial celebration of the national parks, I hope you have the opportunity to witness the beauty of nature near you.