Sugarlands Stone Cabin Ruins - Tennessee
Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 12-10-2011
Sugarlands Stone Cabin - Joe Kegley
Located in the southern vicinity of the Sugarlands in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the well hidden remains of a stone dwelling. The structure is missing the roof and flooring but the stonework is largely intact. Not a small accomplishment considering the environment and years of neglect. The history behind the ruins is uncertain.
This arrangement of stonework in the Sugarlands has been called many things ... the mystery cabin, the teacher's cottage, the rock house, and the stone lodge. All are fitting names except for the "teacher's cottage". Old black and white photographs of the Sugarlands' teacher's cottage don't resemble the cabin.
As of this writing the origin and the purpose of the structure remain a mystery to me. If you have information concerning the cabin, please feel free to email me so I can correct this article (with appropriate credit of course). My best guess is that the cabin was built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) between 1933 and 1942, possibly used as a lodge for dignitaries or maybe to house a supervisor. My logic for attributing the structure to the CCC revolves around two facts and one assumption.
Fact - There was a large CCC camp about a mile from the stone cabin during the early days of the park.
Fact - A 1931 USGS topographic map does not reference the structure, but a 1942 USGS topographic map does reference the structure.
Assumption - Settlers and later residents frequently used stone to build foundations and chimneys for their homes. In addition, the available rock was used to construct fences. But the residents within the communities of the Smokies generally didn't build complete dwellings out of stone. The CCC, on the other hand, frequently used stone in the construction of bridges, retaining walls, and buildings.
- Update 11/12/2020, a reader has sent the following information.
According to NPS archival records at the Sugarlands Park Headquarters, the Stone Cottage was a private fishing and hunting lodge built by a Knoxville outdoorsman named Shelby Layman. He acquired the land in 1926 and completed the lodge in 1927. After the GSMNP was established, Mr. Layman sold the property to the Park Service in 1932 and was given a lifetime lease. He used the lodge until around 1937, when he stopped paying the annual fee for lifetime leases, and then abandoned it.
- End of Update
The name "Sugarlands" refers to a mountain valley located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The name is thought to be derived from the large number of sugar maples located in the area before settlement. Prior to the formation of the park, a thriving mountain community inhabited the area. In fact, one of the largest cemeteries in the park is located in the Sugarlands area. Structures within this locality before the park included mills, stores, a school, and of course many homes. While the buildings have been removed, there are still remnants of the community available for discovery. One can easily observe stone walls and foundations while hiking the Old Sugarlands Trail (which includes part of old highway TN 71), especially during the late fall and winter. During the early spring look for daffodils/jonquils which give away the location of old homesites along the trail.
1931 USGS topographic map - This is a portion of the 1931 map specific to the Sugarlands area. Note all the buildings/structures designated by small black squares within the Sugarlands valley community. These could have been homes, barns, schools, churches, mills, or stores. Also notice the absence of any reference to a structure where the stone cabin is currently located.
In the very early days of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park the Civilian Conservation Corps had a camp in the heart of the Sugarlands. The CCC camp was one of almost two dozen that were located within the park boundaries. Remnants of the camp remain and can be observed when hiking the Old Sugarlands Trail. The CCC constructed roads, fire towers, bridges, trout hatcheries, blazed trails, and planted trees in the park. This government organization, created to respond to the Great Depression, was terminated in 1942.
1942 USGS topographic map - This is a portion of the 1942 map specific to the Sugarlands area. Notice most of the references for buildings within the Sugarlands community have been removed; instead there now exist references for buildings within the CCC camp. Note there is now a reference for a building at the current location of the stone cabin.
For a trail map to the cabin see the "Trail Description and Map" section below.
Outside the Sugarlands Rock House (note the entrance to the side room on the right)- Joe Kegley
The ruins of the Sugarlands stone cabin are well hidden, even in the late fall with no leaves on the trees. This rock house is located behind a rhododendron thicket on top of a small ridge. The vegetation hides it very well even though you might be within a couple hundred feet from the structure. The saving grace for finding the cabin is that it's very close to a stream called Big Branch. If you can cross the stream and get up the bank, you will find the stone lodge. See the Trail Description below for more information on locating the cabin.
The cabin is made up of two rooms, which I refer to as the main room and the small room. The small room might have been the kitchen; there is an old rusty gas stove laying on the floor and the wall facing north has a round opening to the outside as though for a vent. There also appeared to be a table top propped up against the wall in the small room.
The main room has a fireplace, some rusty bed frames, and a few other artifacts. Very little wood is left from the original structure. The window on the south side still has the woodwork framing and the front wall on the west side has a board running along a ledge that must have been for the floor.
There are two entrances to the cabin from the outside; one entrance to the main room and one enters the small room. The small room has a doorway leading into the main room. The entrances are located on the east side of the structure which appears to be the back of the house.
Another interesting feature is the stone posts outside the house in the southwest section of the structure. These were either ornamental, maybe a path lead between them, or they might have been supports for a porch. There are a few substantial cracks in the walls and the structure appears unsafe in certain sections. A large tree has fallen over part of the cabin. Be careful what you lean against.
Sugarlands Rock House Entrances- Joe Kegley
The above image displays the two entrances to the cabin; one facing west into the main room, and one facing north into the small room (kitchen). Notice the small rusty gas stove lying on the ground past the entrance to the small room. Also heed the rather large tree trunk that has fallen over the smaller room.
Small room looking into main room - Joe Kegley
Main room looking into small room - Joe Kegley
The above two images represent the opening between the main room and the smaller room. The images were taken from different perspectives which resulted in the first doorway filling the frame while the other image includes more of the stonework above. That was done for a reason.
Observe the large crack in the stonework above the entrance in the second image. That crack goes all the way to the top. Two old rusty bed frame rails are the only things holding up those stones! After realizing the situation, I avoided using that entryway. Imagine what might happen if you accidently stumbled and knocked those two bed frame rails down. The first picture doesn't show the crack very well, but it does give you a different perspective on the large rock being supported by the rails.
I've heard rumors that the park service might dismantle the rest of the structure for safety reasons. After observing the crack and the makeshift supports for that particular entryway, I wouldn't fault them if they do. The structure is precarious so be careful if you visit.
Sugarlands Stone Cabin (Main Room) facing North - Joe Kegley
Sugarlands Stone Cabin (Main Room) facing South - Joe Kegley
Note the old rusty bed frames in the above images. Also observe the long board laying on the stone ledge, I suspect that was the flooring support. For a closer view of the fireplace, gas stove, and bed frames please see the second page.
Trail Description and Map
The hike is approximately 3 miles long (6 miles roundtrip) and begins at the trailhead for the Old Sugarlands Trail near the park headquarters. The park headquarters (built by the CCC) is located next to the Sugarlands Visitor Center just off Hwy 441 near Gatlinburg TN.
Sugarlands Stone Cabin Ruins Map - PDF trail map, including the route and mileage, to the Sugarlands Stone House.
Sugarlands Stone Cabin Ruins Trail Description - PDF of the trail route description specific to the Sugarlands Stone Cabin.
First 2.5 miles - Old Sugarlands Trail and Old Road, difficulty - easy to moderate.
Last .5 miles - Faint footpath (may not be discernable), difficulty - moderate.
Last 200 ft. - Stream crossing then steep climb, difficulty - moderate to difficult (depending on water flow).
Parking - There is a short pull-off that will hold 4 - 6 vehicles directly in front of the trailhead. The alternative is to park your vehicle at the park headquarters across the bridge.
Trailhead (Old Sugarlands Trail) - From the park headquarters, walk out to the highway and turn left toward Gatlinburg. Cross the bridge over the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The trailhead for the Old Sugarlands Trail is just past the bridge on the right.
Route Description - The route veers right at all intersections until you come to the section for the last .5 miles at the top of a hill, here you take a left and try to find the beaten down footpath made by other hikers going to the cabin.
As you hike into the forest from the trailhead almost immediately you reach an intersection with another trail, stay to the right. Very soon (.1 mi) you'll pass a cliff on your left; this was an old rock quarry which supplied material for some of the roads built in the area.
Approximately .7 miles into the hike you come to an intersection at a hollow on a ridge. The wider trail goes left up the hollow; you should veer right and follow the small path down towards the river. Once off the ridge the trail mounts a berm that was once Hwy TN 71. The trail follows the river upstream. Hiking is fairly level for the next mile.
At approximately 1.5 miles the trail turns left away from the river. Not long after you reach an intersection. Look through the trees you may be able to see the old CCC Clock Tower in front of you. It's really not what I would call a tower; it looks more like a 10ft high monument with the plaques missing. Some folks mistakenly think it's the remains of a large chimney. Nope, it's the CCC Clock Tower. Follow the trail to the right.
Not far from the previous intersection, the trail turns left again and comes to another intersection (approximately 1.7 miles). The Old Sugarlands Trail continues straight ahead toward Cherokee Orchard Rd. Here you take a right and hike what appears to be an old roadbed. You should immediately see a small three sided stone structure on your left (it's almost right at the intersection) as you travel down the road. Supposedly this small structure might have been the CCC trash incinerator.
At approximately 2.2 miles you will come to an intersection on the old road. A left takes you to the Sugarlands Cemetery. Take the right and follow the road to the top of the hill.
At approximately 2.35 miles you should be at the top of the hill on the old road. The road appears to continue down toward the river, though the road looks to be congested with trees. Here, at the top of the hill, you will get off the old road. You're going to take a left into the woods and hopefully find a beaten down footpath made by other hikers going to the stone house.
At the time of this writing there was a fallen tree to the left (assuming you are at the top of the hill on the old road). It almost looks like the tree fell across another road that intersects with the road you're standing on. Take a left and cross over the tree. Whatever trace there was of this other road almost immediately disappears not long after climbing over the tree. Look for a faint footpath and follow it.
Follow the winding footpath approximately .55 miles to the stone cabin. The cabin is approximately 2.9 miles from the Old Sugarlands Trail starting point.
Near the end of the footpath you'll need to cross two streams. The first is small and easily crossed by rock hopping. In fact the first stream may not have much water at all if it hasn't rained recently. After crossing the first stream you climb over a small hump and reach another stream called Big Branch. You're almost there; the stone cabin is across Big Branch and up the bank behind a rhododendron thicket. While the cabin is less than 200ft away, you probably can't see it through the rhododendrons.
Crossing Big Branch is not recommended if there has recently been heavy rains. My first attempt at reaching the cabin was after a few days of decent rain. You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered I couldn't rock hop or wade across. All that way for nothing, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
Four days later I tried again, this time the flow of Big Branch was down a good ways. But I still wasn't willing to rock hop with a tripod and camera attached. Instead, I hiked upstream and found a shallow area with small stones and sand on the bottom. I removed my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants legs, then waded across. The bank upstream was not near as steep so the climb up the hill was a lot easier too. The only downside is the deadfall and rocks on the hump between the two streams. Navigating upstream over those obstacles was slow and tedious.
Small hand towel - If you're not be able to rock hop Big Branch, you'll need to remove your shoes and socks then wade across the stream. A small hand towel for drying your feet off once on the other side of the creek would be appropriate. In addition, those who are tender-footed might want to carry some lightweight water shoes to use (like the kind you might use for kayaking).
GPS - Since the last half mile of the route is off trail, you might want to track your hike with a GPS so you'll have the breads crumbs to find your way back. Personally I don't think it's necessary, but if you're unsure then it might be a good idea.
Wide angle lens - You should bring a wide angle lens if photography is your objective. The rhododendron thicket surrounding the cabin is tight; there's not much room for maneuvering for an optimum perspective while shooting outside the cabin. The interior is a little more forgiving.
Water and Snacks - At the very least you should take some water anytime you're hiking in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Additional Information on the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
- http://www.nps.gov/grsm/ - Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the National Park Service web site.
- http://www.friendsofthesmokies.org/ - a non-profit organization that assists the National Park Service in its mission to preserve and protect Great Smoky Mountains National Park by raising funds and public awareness, and by providing volunteers for needed projects.