Saturday, February 28, 2015

Wonderland Hotel via a Winter Wonderland

The snow stretched out undisturbed in front of us as we put on our microspikes and approached what would be our trailhead today. No trail sign greeted us and asked for our obligatory trail sign photo. No longer really a trailhead, this unnamed manway we were about to walk runs from near the Laurel Falls parking area over to the Elkmont Campground area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  We had noticed the trail several weeks ago and promised ourselves to explore it when the time was right. Today, the time was right!

Winter storm Quantum had just dumped another 8 or so inches of fresh powder over the trails of the Smokies and many roads remained closed, so as has become a frequent occurrence, we could not reach trails that would give us "new" miles.

The unmolested manway which stretched out in front of us then provided the perfect answer. Knowing only what a ranger had told us several weeks ago when we asked him about the old trail we had seen, that it would lead us back to Elkmont, we stepped into the virgin powder and meandered through the woods watching tracks of woodland creatures who also like to use this old trail.

Since this time-worn manway is no longer a maintained trail, we scrambled under, over and through several blowdowns. It was amusing to see the paths the creatures had made in and around those blowdowns, trying to guess by their path of choice how big they must have been based on whether and where they went under the tree or brush.

At one moment we were surprised to see a well-maintained sign marking the Old Elkmont Cemetery near a former traffic circle on a dirt road (well we assumed it was dirt underneath all of the snow!

We were drawn into the cemetery through the path that led up through the entrance sign, but once at the top of the little hill were so mesmerized by the beauty of the place that we were unwilling to mark the snow of this reverential spot with our footprints.  Tracks of forest creatures were the only breaks in the smooth surface of the fresh fallen powder and that was also how we left it.  

Bearing left on another trail here as opposed to walking down the road toward what we assumed would be the Elkmont Campground Road, we continued to follow a footpath which we felt might be leading us onward toward the Wonderland Hotel, a well-known, deteriorating structure of the Park's former days which none of us had seen. Another triangular intersection presented itself and we had to choose our course. Following antiquated power lines, we veered off to the right and wound around behind and between some of the old Elkmont village homes that I didn't even know existed in this location. Shortly the path opened up and, nestled in the woods, we saw the remains of Wonderland Hotel.

We laughed to ourselves as we remember the internet article which went viral this past year about the hiker who had "discovered" an old abandoned town in the Great Smoky Mountains because it seemed that we, too, had discovered just such a treasure!  We wondered about the free-standing steps that were out in front of the hotel. Could those steps have led to a structure that no longer stands? Could it be that they were used by ladies to mount onto horses or climb up into another mode of transit--buggy or even train or some such thing? No idea, really, but they were beautiful covered in the somewhat diminishing snow.

The back side of the hotel where the deck once stood.
After circling round and exploring the exterior of the old Wonderland Club, we returned to the triangular intersection and continued to follow the road not taken.  Eventually, this path comes out at the Elkmont Campground.  Through the trees, you can see the river as it runs up to the campground as you walk the manway, but there was too much interference from trees and underbrush to get a good picture, until that is, we returned in our vehicle to see from the Elkmont Campground Road where we had just walked.  

Little Pigeon River and the back side of Elkmont Campground

Once we had explored all the way to the campground, we simply turned around and followed our tracks back toward Laurel Falls. The entire trip was only a little less than 3.5 miles but the deep snow made the walking a little more difficult than usual. When we returned, reluctantly, to our waiting vehicle the temperature still read only 23 degrees.  Yes, it had been a cold day on the trail, but the winter wonderland held us in awe no matter the temps.

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