Elkmont: Once upon a time in the Great Smokies

Levi Trentham House, Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountains


Summertime is always the best of what might be.

Charles Bowden

If you stand still at Elkmont, you can almost hear summer. Kids laughing as they play tag around the old log cabins. Or waiting for lightning bugs to flicker at dusk. Mothers calling their kids in for supper. Old timers swapping tales of the way it used to be. Life was good, once upon a time.

It was a logging boom that brought the people here — in the early 1900s — as railways transported logs, and families, mostly from Knoxville, Tennessee, settled in to cabin life in the summer.

Blue house with porch - Elkmont, Great Smokies
Blue house at Elkmont with grand front porch

The place was known as Elkmont, taking the name from the Knoxville Elks Club. Members and residents loved fishing in the Little River and staying in the cabins for the summer. But in 1934, when the Great Smoky Mountains was designated as a national park, summer residents were given a choice: they could either sell their land and move or deed the property to the National Park Service in exchange for a lifetime lease meaning summers in the Smokies into the future.

Elkmont - house with stone fireplace
Tall stone fireplace on an abandoned Elkmont cabin

Some homeowners left. But others stayed. And from what friends have told us, it was the best of times. Returning each year, these summer residents caught up on what had transpired during the year at their non-summer homes, kids played outdoor games, and grown-ups sat in front of stone fireplaces on chilly nights or in rockers on wide front porches.

Elkmont Green house, Great Smoky Mountains
A welcoming front porch

But in 1992, leases expired, and the National Park Service became the owner. With no one to maintain the summer residences, the houses fell into disrepair — so much so that in 2009 many buildings were razed, leaving only 18 of the original buildings, abandoned but still on view for visitors to Elkmont today. If you visit now, you’ll see a few houses being repaired, but many have remained untouched, blocked off to keep visitors out.

Elkmont abandoned house, Great Smoky Mountains
Abandoned and mysterious — an old home at Elkmont

It was an end of an era, for sure. No summer residents. No gathering as they once did at the Appalachian Club to meet, greet, and talk over dinner. And no sounds of happiness on summer nights in Elkmont.

Appalachian Clubhouse, Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountains
The Appalachian Clubhouse, repaired and available for renting

Today, though, for visitors and photographers, these few houses remain as treasures, remnants of the past and reminders of good times known only to the residents and their guests.

Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains - abandoned houses
Houses of old . . . at Elkmont

Some of the houses are off limits . . .

Elkmont Blue House, Great Smoky Mountains

others are open to explore with caution.

Elkmont house inside, Great Smoky mountains

But all are picture-worthy for simple construction or faded-glory colors or the simple details that distinguish one from another. Like the red windows on the Levi Trentham house at the top or the chunky log construction in this sturdy house.

If you listen closely, you just might hear the chatter of the people, sharing their joy as they reconnect each summer, telling about a past school year, or promising to explore a new path during the summer before them.

Elkmont small log house, Great Smoky Mountains
A gingerbread house in Elkmont? Maybe!

Ask any former resident of Elkmont about summer living there, and you’ll get an almost tearful, quite nostalgic response. It was loved and treasured by many. And needs to be seen today —

if for no other reason than to let yourself imagine the joy of being in the Smokies summer after summer with friends.

Front porch, Appalachian Clubhouse, Elkmont
We can only imagine: Sitting a spell at the Appalachian Club listening to the sounds of the Smokies!

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.

Wallace Stevens

Travel the Smokies,

Rusha & Bert

How to get to Elkmont: Drive US-411 from Gatlinburg to the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Drive toward Cades Cove for about 7 miles and turn at the sign for Elkmont Campground.

For more information on the history of Elkmont, try these sites:

Elkmont, Tennessee — Wikipedia;

Visit My Smokies: Everything You Need to Know about Elkmont Ghost Town;

Roadtrippers — There’s an abandoned resort ghost town in the Smokies — here’s how to find it

My Smoky Mountain Guide: Elkmont

28 thoughts on “Elkmont: Once upon a time in the Great Smokies

  1. Wetravelhappy

    Wow Rusha another amazing post from you. You know by now that I too am fascinated by old houses and open ‘museums’ like this so thank you! But it must be a bit daunting to walk on the old floors of those opened for viewing?

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      The whole place is a bit eerie mainly because I was never there when it was packed with happy families. But it’s a marvel of place, reflective of simpler times and great experiences. I love architecture, too, and this is great to see still standing.

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      It’s a great area to explore, for sure. We’ve strolled through there a couple of time, and I want to go back to see the progress on a couple of cabins under repair. From what little I know from friends, it was a wonderful place for reconnecting each summer — and now a place for nostalgia! Thanks for taking a look.

  2. kzmcb

    Once again, you’ve employed your creative writing skills to bring a place to life. Like you, when I visit a ruin or pioneer settlement, I sit and imagine what people were doing, what they heard and smelled and saw. Whatever summer holiday traditions we have, they are usually remembered fondly and you show great compassion for those missing them.

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      I’ve heard from several friends who “grew up” at Elkmont that this was a quite special place. I’ve never had the pleasure of actually being there when people were in the cabins. But even though it’s a ghost town, you can feel the place — a place for reconnecting, talking about your year, and meeting new friends. Not many of these places are left today. Thanks for taking a look.

  3. dawnkinster

    What a wonderful place! And a photographer’s dream. I like almost all the cabins and can just imagine sitting on the porch listening to the night noises.

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      Thanks, Dawn, for taking a look at this interesting place. I do hope it’s around for many more years. It’s important for all of us to remember that there were resorts like this that people returned to year after year. So glad you recognized the photographic opportunity, as well.

  4. Curt Mekemson

    Okay, I feel nostalgia for Elkmont, Rusha, and I’ve never been there. Your words captured a magical time in the past when those who were fortunate could escape to their summer homes in the woods or on the ocean. It was a time for reading good books, having great conversations, playing games and playing outdoors. It was a time before our lives were constantly interrupted by cell phones, and computers, and all of the other electronic gadgets that dominate our time. No wonder I feel nostalgic. Great post. Loved it. –Curt

    1. Oh, the Places We See

      Thanks so much, Curt. As a hiker, you may have come upon little resorts tucked away in national parks, but this one seems rather unique. It was for us, at least. And it definitely supported a different lifestyle than the vacation days we now celebrate where everyone wants theme parks, climbing walls, fast food, etc. This place made summer fun rather slow, but interesting. And when we turn to people for entertainment, we get a whole different perspective on life. Thanks for taking a look!

  5. Carolyn Pearre

    Rusha,
    I believe the cabin painted green was the Cains cabin where we spent many weekends over the years. We went back to Elkmont two years ago and were glad to see restoration of some of the buildings. Your pictures brought back many happy memories.

  6. maristravels

    What wonderful photographs! I don’t know about hearing children’s voices but I can certainly feel and sense the past in your images. I would love to see this place.

  7. Toonsarah

    Your words as much as your images conjure up summers past – I can indeed almost hear the voices of the children playing while the adults sit on the porches to gossip. These old buildings must have so many stories to tell …

    But although their best days are behind them, what a wonderful place for photography! I would be in my element here 🙂

  8. Prior...

    Thanks for this beautiful post as we could feel the before and after – the way you wrote that we might hear the canter of the former residents was well done. And loved this “simple construction or faded-glory colors or the simple details”

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