When Americans think of ghost towns, they generally associate them with abandoned western frontiers — places that were once mining towns that lost or never had resources. Yet, ghost towns exist in every corner of the world for dozens of reasons. A once-thriving village or even metropolis may have slowly faded away into obscurity due to war, natural disaster, famine, or even something as simple as a new transport route.
Appalachia and the Smoky Mountains are no strangers to changing times that equate to changing human landscapes. The curious and informed traveler will find several fascinating seemingly abandoned ghost towns, cabins, and communities hidden throughout this region’s mountains and forested regions.
The following is just a quick look at some of the most notable, or notorious abandoned places, all depending on the perspective:
Ghost Town in the Sky
Ghost Town in the Sky is a really interesting abandoned place because it is an amusement park that was built as a recreation of an Old American West town. The amusement park opened in May of 1961 under the name Maggie Valley Ghost Town. The name was changed a couple of times (including to Ghost Town in the Sky for a short time), but always the phrase “Ghost Town” remained within the updated moniker, an unknowing premonition for what was to come.
This rather historic amusement park was among North Carolina’s most popular tourist attractions back when it first debuted in 1961. The park itself sits atop Buck Mountain with the parking lot and entrance at the very bottom. A big part of the early draw to this park starts at this very style of entrance as it requires park guests to ride a chair lift 3,300 feet up to the mountain’s summit. In addition to this physical journey, once you’re at that main part of the park, you feel as though you’ve taken a journey back in time, as well as everything from the architecture to the staff member’s clothes was designed to reflect an authentic Western experience. That once included mock gun battles in the downtown streets and cabaret dances within recreated Western saloons.
Unfortunately, the beauty and popularity of Ghost Town eventually ebbed and after a series of natural disasters and human-linked disasters, the park was forced to close (for the first time) in 2002. There were a number of attempted re-openings over the course of the next two decades, but nothing stuck. The fate of the park is currently in litigation, however, and so this might be one abandoned place that will see new life breathed in.
Cades Cove is a gorgeous little valley that is located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s on the western end of the park and there is a little campground, Cades Cove Campground, where outdoors lovers can set up a base camp for adventures through the valley and hikes elsewhere in the park. Although meadows similar to farms remain established here, no one resides within the valley itself anymore. And very few ever did.
An interesting facet about Cades Cove is that, despite it being a truly picturesque mountain valley, complete with a couple of creeks naturally running through its heart, it was only populated for a very brief window in time. For many years, historians and those living in the area just assumed that there had always been communities living here because of the valley’s near-perfect setting for a community. Yet, extensive archeological excavations have shown that the first permanent human resident in Cades Cove came as a newly-christened American settler in 1821. The Cherokee and other indigenous peoples certainly used this valley as hunting grounds, but they never made it a home.
As a part of the growing United States, Cades Cove flourished and by the 20th century, nearly a thousand people had built their homes and farms here. Its residents prided themselves on self-sufficiency and together constructed gorgeous buildings that are today listed on the National Register of Historic Places, such as the John Cable Grist Mill.
These settlements did not last. Despite a lot of resistance, the Tennessee government in collaboration with the park commissions charged with building the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seized the land parcels within the Cades Cove valley as part of that park’s creation. Today, you can hike and ride trail horses through Cades Cove, a community forced to abandon itself.
Elkmont Ghost Town
Elkmont Ghost Town is another abandoned town within the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest. Only this one was abandoned not so much because of a government decree, but because people simply stopped coming.
This eastern part of the park was settled a bit earlier than Cades Cove, with the first known cabins built in the 1840s. It initially began as a major logging town but the railroads that took the logs out of town started coming back with tourists eager for that fresh mountain air. Elkmont thus transformed and became popularized as a resort community for weekenders out of the growing Knoxville area.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit Tennessee hard and vacationers stopped making the trek out to Elkmont. These dwindling numbers combined with the desire for a national park spelled the end for the fledgling village. Today, you can meander through those old resort-styled buildings and consider the joyful pursuits of the past.
Fun Mountain is another abandoned theme park, but this one didn’t have quite the same run or reputation. Located within Gatlinburg, this theme park has been closed since 2000 with most of the final parts of the park demolished in 2016. However, if you walk past the parking lot at US-321 and East Parkway, you can still see some of the very last remains of this once-bustling tourist location.
Learn More About the Smokies
These abandoned places within the Smoky Mountains offer excellent adventures and hiking experiences, but they are not the only less-trafficked spaces this gorgeous region has to offer. Learn more about those secret waterfalls, tucked-away campgrounds, and hole-in-the-wall dining spots by visiting our other pages detailing the best places to dine, shop, and find entertainment in the Smokies.