The Abandoned Settlements Inside National Parks

Once vibrant places, these relics now linger inside America’s great natural treasures

The Wonderland Club Hotel in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Jordan Liles)
smithsonian.com

In the summer of 2009, urban explorer Jordan Liles was walking the back roads of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park when he found an intriguing remnant of the past. About a mile off a main road and up an overgrown staircase lay the ruins of the abandoned Wonderland Club Hotel and a few accompanying cabins. Built in 1912, the hotel originally served as a vacation spot for wealthy Tennessee families, and over the next eight decades it provided a refuge away from busy city life. In the 1990s, the Wonderland Club Hotel closed and fell into ruin, gradually fading into the forest surrounding it. Twenty years later, Liles rediscovered the place for himself. “I first saw the large white annex building through trees from the road to Elkmont,” Liles told Smithsonian.com. “I parked nearby and walked up the old stone steps. I felt like I was entering a very special place.”

Unless you are a park employee or part of a farming program, taking up residence in a national park is no longer allowed. But there was a time when people lived, worked, and made their lives inside of what would later become America's national parks. From ghost mining towns to an abandoned military base, from the Virgin Islands to California, there are plenty of opportunities to turn National Park Week into a chance to discover a place where the past was once present. Here are six other abandoned settlements that are part of the National Park system:

Kennecott Mining Town: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

Alaska is home to eight national parks and none are bigger than Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest national park in the country. Deep in the heart of its 13 million acres lies the abandoned Kennecott Mining Town, the best-preserved example of early 20th century copper mines in the world. Originally founded in 1900, the mines processed about $200 million worth of copper ore before shuttering in 1938 due to declining profits and increasing transportation costs. The town sat crumbling in the Alaskan wild until the National Parks Service acquired it and the surrounding land in 1998. Today, efforts are being made to stabilize the structures, including the mill, two school buildings, a recreation hall, and a dairy barn, to make sure these artifacts of a bygone era remain standing for years to come. In fact, the Kennecott Visitor Center is located in the mill town's general store

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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