By Mike Steely
Just above the busy streets of Gatlinburg is a peaceful and memorable drive that takes you back in time and away from the tourist shops and crowds. If you go to Traffic Light #8 and follow the Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance, you’ll find the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead.
The Roaring Fork road is one-way and there are plenty of places to pull off if you like, many at old homesteads. Roaring Fork is a large, fast-moving stream that “roars” down the mountain in a rain storm. The road loops around a 6-mile drive and passes by several cabins, barns, grist mills and other old buildings.
A few years ago my wife and took this drive, not knowing really what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised to find so many old log homes. We walked down the Noah Ogle trail, through the old farm, and down the path to the creek. There we found a tub mill being fed the creek’s water by way of an old wooden flume.
Rainbow Falls, said to one of the beautiful falls in the Smokies, is about a two-mile hike from the Ogle farm. We didn’t make the walk but will when we get back there. Grotto Falls is along that trail to Rainbow Falls.
My wife and I have been in the Great Smoky Mountain State Park many times, including the firefly event last year, but we never realized that just around the road from the “Firefly” trail is the remains of Elkmont Village.
The former logging town which became a retreat for the Knoxville wealthy has now been totally abandoned for several years. Yet the cabins exist, lining both sides of the narrow road above the Elmont Campground. The campground had been the site of a huge lumbering operation prior to the creation of the park and, as it moved on to another location after clear-cutting at Elkmont, the area was adopted as a get-away. Some of the logging homes were bought and others built.
The Little River Lumber Company operated at Elkmont for years and the railroad that served the lumber company eventually also carried passengers to the growing resort. Today the tracks are long gone and the railroad bed is now a hiking trail.
There was a huge hotel there but only a portion of it exists today. The “Appalachian Club” acquired the area and that building remains on one end of the old village. On both sides of the road are dozens of old cabins, some pretty large, and each is now posted with “No Trespassing” signs. But the doors are open and you can peak inside each cabin.
There are also abandoned cabins along the “Firefly” or Elkmont Trail near the village and one house, the Spence Cabin, is available for rent and often occupied by visitors.
Elkmont has been added to the National Registry of History Places and is well worth a side trip for any visitor to the National Park. It is mysterious and historic at the same time, a ghost-town preserved for you to drive through.
Now that school is underway, the best time to take a hike in the park is during the week. The weekends and weekdays, now, are less crowded than when the leaves change and the three towns there fill up with visitors.