Thankfully, we walked into Sugarlands Visitor Center and talked with one of the volunteers or rangers, not sure which. I had asked about the Old Stone House on a similar visit with rangers/volunteers there before but had not received any help. On this day, I think the volunteer figured out pretty quickly that we would be ok if he told us how to find the old stone house that I'd asked him about. He provided excellent directions which we followed without difficulty (although I'd be lying if I said this first trip off trail went off without worrying about having taken a wrong turn somewhere).
Following the Old Sugarlands Trail until it takes a dogleg to the right leads you straight into an old CCC Camp where remains can be found of an old clock tower, a cistern, and many other interesting relics. You could explore that site for a whole day and not grow weary of immersing yourself in the history of days gone by. I was fascinated by the old clock tower, not knowing for sure what exactly it was until I returned home to do some research. I did find an old photo of this same CCC clock tower during the time of its use which I want to include here.
Back on the trail in search of the Old Stone House though takes you to another dogleg in the trail (this time to the left) and within .2 of a mile a road leaves off to the right marked by another stone structure of some kind. This old road meanders through the woods, eventually becoming more narrow and then ending in what once was a turn-around I suppose. If you take a left here at the dead end, you will find an old cemetery with interesting stories of its own to tell.
|The circular enclosure around the old flagpole still remains.|
At this dead end, though, we turned right, still in search of the Old Stone House. The trail now is really just a footpath with the sound of the river off to the right. At one point, a trail turns off to the right to go down to the river, but you must bear to the left here to reach our true destination.
Finally, after crossing a stream once and then a more difficult second time, we know that the structure lies above us just beyond the thick rhododendron tangle ahead. Sure enough, a little hand over hand climbing up the bank and through the rhododendron leads up to the enchantment that is the Old Stone House. I had no idea how big this structure would be but I certainly wasn't expecting anything as grand as what we found!
I am so thankful that the benevolent Park volunteer trusted our hiking abilities and gave us directions on how to find the old structure before it either falls down on its own or is removed by the Park due to its instability. There are huge cracks in the stonework and one whole wall is leaning rather precariously. This is some talk that the Park Service may take this beauty down before it falls on someone. Many folks are finding the Old Stone House now, so the likelihood only increases of an incident or the necessity of action on the part of the Park.
After exploring, taking photos, and enjoying a bite of lunch, we headed back down the footpath to the dead end turnaround where we had previously taken that right turn. This time we turned the opposite direction and headed on up to the cemetery that we new was just up the hill a short distance. We had heard a story about one of the "residents" who, as just a youngster had left his home in the what is now, Gatlinburg area to head up over the old road where Newfound Gap Road is now. He was apparently fleeing from an abusing family trying to get to the Cherokee area where his grandparents lived. He stopped at a homestead to eat where the family begged him to stay for the night because the weather was so bitter. Instead of staying, he pressed on only to be found sometime later frozen to death near the top of the mountain. The local folks buried him in this cemetery without knowing who he was. It was many years later that his sister finally found out exactly what had happened to him and replaced the grave marker with one that bears his real name--Edd McKinley.
Other graves in this cemetery had markers whose names/dates could no longer be read, but some of them could still be made out and dated back to the late 1800s.
What a great way to spend a day that didn't turn out as planned due to the closure of Newfound Gap Road, but may have turned out even better!
I would love to hear interesting tales from your off-trail explorations. Please comment below to share your finds or give your opinion about whether the Park should tear down, restore, or simply leave the Old Stone House alone.