It’s easy to miss the Elkmont Historic District even if you’re an avid traveler through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But after the first time you stroll through Daisy Town or hike along the river you’ll want to come back again and again. That’s exactly how it happened to me and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this amazing place since.
The Elkmont Historic District is just a few miles down Little River Road from Gatlinburg tucked in behind the campground. It’s the site of a former town built in 1908 by the Little River Lumber Company during the heyday of timber cutting in this area. Yellow poplar trees were in high demand and the Great Smoky Mountains had an abundance. The timber was cut, floated down the Little River to a mill almost twenty miles away (which led to an incident at what is now called The Sinks), and then transported across the country.
Getting to Elkmont to can be the easiest, most pleasant drive or it can be a slow and tantalizing crawl, it all just depends on the day of the week. The drive from Gatlinburg begins in a long line of cars sitting bumper to bumper waiting for a traffic light to turn green, followed by a paltry five mile per hour crawl along Parkway, and then stopping at another traffic light. Taking the Gatlinburg Bypass helps, but in the end all traffic merges onto a two lane road just inside the national park and the crawl begins again. Sometimes I can get through this without any problem. In March. Or at five in the morning.
As you pass the Sugarlands Visitor Center turn right onto Little River Road. This road actually changes names three or four times between the visitor center and Cades Cove but it’s the only road on the right so you can’t miss it. Leave the visitor center and busy city traffic behind as you begin a short ten minute drive toward the Elkmont Campground. Turn left into the campground, follow the bends of the road along the river (this is the former railroad bed), and make a final left turn to reach the historic district. You have arrived. Now what do you do?
LITTLE RIVER TRAIL
There are a few parking areas as you first enter the historic district. Snag one of these spaces if you can. I bet you won’t have any problem because most people don’t know about this little corner of that most-visited national park in the country. Maybe I shouldn’t keep writing this? It would be nice to still have a place to myself. Then again this area buzzes with activity each year around the end of May and beginning of June with the synchronous fireflies event, but mostly only the locals know about this.
The first option for an adventure in the historic district it the Little River Trail. The 4.9-mile roundtrip hike follows a wide and level trail where a railroad used to be. It’s a very gentle climb, compared to other trails in the park, and makes for a wonderful early morning stroll. It’s a nice trail for stretching your legs, seeing some small cascades along the river, and seeing wildflowers blooming in the spring.
Almost immediately I began passing old cottages. Large cottages. Most of them abandoned and derelict. Turns out these homes were hunting lodges or weekend getaways for some of the elite from Knoxville decades ago. A few are being restored by the national park and offered as rentals throughout the year. Others have been all but destroyed over time and removed for safety reasons, often leaving nothing but the stone chimney and concrete foundation as evidence it ever even existed.
There are several places along the trail to step down to the edge of the Little River. The spring months are the best time to take a hike and enjoy the roaring water spilling over the rocks. I was there in May and the gentle river had a subtle roar as the water tumbled over those rocks. About 2.2 miles from the trailhead you’ll find Huskey Branch Falls, a nice 20′ cascade among giant boulders. A footbridge crosses over the top of the waterfall and gives you another perspective to enjoy the sight.
Just beyond the waterfall is the junction with Cucumber Gap Trail. From here you are 2.5 miles from the trailhead. This makes a good turn around point to hike back to your parked car. After all you don’t want to miss Daisy Town.
The road from the first parking lot continues around a big curve and suddenly you’re looking down a narrow avenue surrounded on both sides by old homes in various states of disrepair. Park in the large parking lot on the left. Welcome to Daisy Town.
This town is adjacent to the former logging town of Elkmont (where the campground is located today). The buildings were moved or constructed here as vacation rentals and summer homes. Soon the Appalachian Club was finished, first used as a lodge but eventually a community building, dance hall, and cafeteria. Today the original club building has been renovated and people can rent the space for events in the national park.
Additional Reading: The Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum in Townsend, TN
Stroll along the narrow one-lane road through Daisy Town and try to picture what life was like in a time with no cellphones, internet, or modern conveniences. It won’t be too difficult to imagine this since there is absolutely no cellphone service in Elkmont. I’m serious; don’t even bother bringing your phone unless you need a camera. The peacefulness and quietness of the area tells you why people enjoyed vacationing here or even spending an entire summer away from the big city of Knoxville. It’s easy to get in touch with nature and almost impossible not to smile at least once.
The homes aren’t used for anything anymore although they are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The national park is taking a bit of a hands off approach; since they can’t remove the buildings they are just letting nature reclaim them. It’s still a fascinating place to explore, although you’re not allowed to enter any of the old cottages.
There are some restrooms beside the parking lot at the Appalachian Club. From here you can see the campground. The road winds down a hill from here and back to where you started. The adventure in the Elkmont Historic District is over. At least until you come again. If I told you there were otters on the river and a gorgeous stone footbridge hidden in that historic district would you be tempted to return again soon?
Be sure to check out these books about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve read each of these books and I would not recommend them if I didn’t feel they were relevant to this story and possibly entertaining to you. But you’ll have to decide that last part for yourself.
|Last Train to Elkmont|
|The author of this book admits this is not an objective look at the Little River Railroad Company but rather a collection of fond memories from the men and women who lived and worked in the area long before it was ever known as a national park. With chapters titled “Bad news for squirrels when Walter brought his gun” and “If a lumberjack had wings” you know from the very beginning this is gonna be a fun trip down memory lane. The book is full of memories and history of Elkmont, Daisy Town, the Little River, the lumber company, and what life was like from the 1920’s until the 1960’s.||BUY BOOK|
|“A Pictorial History of the Great Smoky Mountains.” This book is a wonderful collection of sketches and photography retelling the history of the land that is now the most-visited national park in the country. Photos of the people who lived, worked, hunted, and farmed this land fill every page. Archival photographs of the Little River Railroad Company and logging industry, stills hidden in the hollers, and life in the mountains fill every other page. It’s a wonderful way to learn the history of the land.||You can buy a used copy of the book through Amazon, or find a fresh copy like I did at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg.|