The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of history and one of those gems is the Elkmont Ghost Town. It’s easy to get to but many people have no idea it exists, which is why we just had to check it out.
There is something captivating about the Smoky Mountains. I don’t know exactly what it is but from the very first time I went several years ago, those mountains have called me back again and again. The misty clouds that settle in the high peaks, the snowy mountain tops in the winter, the intricate wildflowers in the spring, the pounding waterfalls, and the history of early settlers are all fascinating. I’ve done a lot of things inside the park and visited some pretty amazing places (Cades Cove is the best) but one place had eluded me until recently: Elkmont Ghost Town.
Now, if you happen to stop by the Sugarland Visitors Center, not ten minutes from the Ghost Town, and ask the Park Rangers about it, they will correct you. The actual name of the abandoned town is called Daisy Town. However, it is commonly called Elkmont Ghost Town and since I think that name is cooler, that’s what I’m using here.
History of Elkmont Ghost Town
The history of Elkmont is captivating.
Originally settled in 1840, Elkmont was called “Little River” because it is located in the Little River Valley and right next to the Little River. But in 1901, Colonel Wilson B. Townsend, whom the nearby town of Townsend is named after, bought 86,000 acres of land right there along the river and called his company the Little River Lumber Company. This was at the time of the advent of the railroad system, which Colonel Townend built to transport his lumber to the sawmill in Tuckaleechee Cove, which is about 19 miles away today. It could have been longer in that time.
Anyways, the railroad system ended up transforming Little River into a vacation destination where wealthy families from Knoxville would come to escape the heat. These wealthy families turned part of the town into a resort where the Wonderland Hotel was then built in 1912. It closed forever in 1992 and then crumbled in 2005 followed by a fire in 2016 that pretty much destroyed the rest of it. All that’s left are some steps around the property, rock foundations, and big chimneys.
There are still cabins in the logging town of Elkmont that you can check out.
Why is Elkmont a Ghost Town?
Maybe ghosts live there, I don’t know, but it’s called a ghost town because precisely no living human dwells there any longer.
When the U.S. Government turned the Great Smoky Mountains into a National Park in 1934, many people still lived and worked there. The government gave residents the option to sell and relocate immediately or sell at a lesser value to the government and retain lifetime leases where they could remain in their homes until they died or the lease was renegotiated. All but two leases expired in 1992 and the park was left with around 70 historic buildings. These included homes that people had lived in and a clubhouse for the town.
The last lease ran out in 2001 and with no one living there any longer, the buildings started to deteriorate and probably did look like a ghost town. The National Park eventually decided to preserve 19 buildings and tear down the rest. The ghost town now has restored cabins on a street that looks straight out of a movie from the 1940s. The cool thing is that you can walk through many of the cabins!
Walking through the Elkmont Ghost Town
Most of the cabins are open to the public to walk through. As we meandered down the empty street and ducked into the neat cabins, my imagination wandered as well. What was it like to live in this place as a logging family? What was it like to be in the wilderness amongst such beauty all the time? What was it like when the government bought all the land and you had to either move or lease your own property until death?
The cabins are each unique and my kids and I loved figuring out what each room was used for – was that room a kids bedroom? Was this one a dining room? Did the fireplace provide enough heat for the family?
One of the cabins you can walk through is that of Levi Trentham, an interesting figure who was deemed “The Prophet of the Smokies” and “Mayor of Elkmont”. He was a gifted storyteller who initially made his living trapping bears and selling their hides. When tourists started coming to the park, he found his calling as a guide. He also opened up a small grocery store but legend has it he couldn’t read so to handle accounting, he put nails on the wall for each customer and drew what they ordered on a stick. One customer got angry, thinking that Trentham had overcharged him because he was charged for a wheel of cheese instead of a grindstone. It turns out that Trentham forgot to draw a hole in the middle of the wheel so it looked like cheese instead of a grindstone.
There are kiosks around the cabins that tell you who they belonged to, when they were built, when the lease ran out, and about the restoration process by the National Park. The Appalachian Clubhouse is one of the buildings that is not open to visitors except on special occasions but they do have rocking chairs to sit in and information on the front of the building that tells you a bit about the history. Elkmont was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
Nearby Jakes Creek and Spence Cabin
Levi Trentham’s cabin was moved from Jakes Creek, which is very close to Elkmont Ghost Town. From the parking area at Jakes Creek, you can see the cabins.
You can hike along Jakes Creek, which follows the old railroad route from the Little River Lumber Company. It’s a beautiful trail and you can go as far or as short as you like. A very short walk along Jakes Creek to the left leads you to Spence Cabin on the left, which was built in 1928 by Alice Townsend, wife of Colonel Townsend. You can’t miss it – the building is pink.
Spence Cabin was part of the Appalachian Club resort community where the wealthy people from Knoxville would come and visit via the railroad. The cabin sits right along the beautiful Little River and can be rented out from the National Park for weddings, family gatherings, or other types of events. There’s a kiosk by the river in front of Spence Cabin with a photo of people in the water obviously having a grand old time. This walkthrough history was just so cool. You can keep walking a little ways from the cabin and come across the remains of other buildings that were part of the resort community but they are just mostly chimneys.
The Elkmont Troll Bridge
If you’re on any of the big Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge Facebook groups, the Troll Bridge always comes up. People want to know what it is and where to find it, as did I.
You have to park in the lot for the Jakes Creek trailhead and walk maybe a quarter mile until you find a small spur trail on the right. The trail goes right to the small bridge. We missed this the first time we walked down the trail and spent quite a while backtracking until we found another group and eventually asked them. They directed us towards the bridge and we found it!
The bridge is idyllic with moss covering the stonework in some places and goes over a very small creek. My kids enjoyed coming up with riddles to tell each other so they could pass over the bridge. It was super cute.
The campground at Elkmont is enormous but it’s only open seasonally, March-November. The campground is primitive, meaning it has no showers and few amenities. I mean, you’re going there to stay in the Smokies, not watch TV or play video games. There is also no cell service but the campground is just 25 minutes the Alum Cave trailhead, 5 minutes from Laurel Falls trailhead, 20 minutes to Chimney Tops trailhead and many others. It’s about 30 minutes from Cades Cove.
The sites are really pretty and some have tent pads. Read through all the descriptions of each site before you book because they are not all the same. Also, you need to know that bears are regulars here. You’ll get a lesson on keeping your food stored properly from a Ranger before given your camp tag for your car. It’s really, really important to listen to what they say and store your food correctly so you’re not inviting bears to visit you.
Perhaps the coolest thing at Elkmont is the fact that the campground is the location of the synchronous fireflies in June. To get a ticket to see them, you have to enter the annual lottery, which usually opens in May. In 2023, more than 45,000 people entered to win one of the 125 tickets they give away per each night (only eight nights in all).
Or you could book a campsite at Elkmont and skip the lottery and see the amazing fireflies, which is just a short walk from your campsite. I did this and it was completely unreal, amazing, incredible – all the adjectives to describe something that is a must-see at least once in your life.
Directions to Elkmont Ghost Town
Getting to the Wonderland Hotel, Elkmont Ghost Town, and the Troll Bridge is pretty easy. If you start at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side, take Little River Road traveling west. Look for signs for Elkmont Campground around 4.9 miles and turn left towards the Jakes Creek Trail just before you reach the actual campground. Keep right and park near the gate.
To get to Elkmont Ghost Town, go past the Jakes Creek trailhead parking up the hill and turn right. There’s a parking lot there.
To get to the remains of the Wonderland Hotel, once you turn onto the road leading to the Elkmont Campground from Little River Road, go past the unmarked gravel road until you see one or two small government buildings on your right. Across the street is a small pull-off with a kiosk that has photos and information about the Wonderland Hotel. There’s a short path up the hill that leads to the remains of the hotel. We wandered around up there for a little bit and then got back to the car and drove to Jakes Creek.
One thing you need to know is that while there is no admission to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you do need to purchase a parking pass, which you can get at the Sugarland Visitors Center. Parking is $5/day, $15/week or $40/year.
Need other things to do in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area? We have been several times and have a huge Guide to Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge where you can find information on things to do, where to stay, and where to eat.