There’s a Real Ghost Town in the Sky on Top of a Mountain in North Carolina

a roller coaster against a mountain backdrop

Rides at Ghost Town were notoriously faulty, but guests enjoyed some of the best views of any amusement park in the country. Pictured: The Red Devil Cliffhanger coaster at Ghost Town in the Sky circa 2007 (photo courtesy of Gary and Carol Cox)

A once beloved, now abandoned theme park deteriorates through decades of unfortunate events

In the days before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mountain folks were raised with the threats of haints and spirits, of goblins that snatched spiteful, mean or lazy children away never to be seen again. Nowadays, it’s harder to believe in the legend of haunted hollers, in spirits or ghouls hiding in the crags and crevices. Sure, you can still give yourself a scare on a dark and lonely night, if that’s your thing.

But there’s a real ghost story in the mountains near Maggie Valley, North Carolina truer than any haint story that’s ever been told. Our ghost story starts as many do in the bright and optimistic sunshine of shining capitalism and opportunity, and ends with a creepy abandoned theme park that some would believe is cursed, or in my opinion, simply having a decades-long run with bad luck.

Ghost Town in the Sky is an abandoned theme park in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. It was a Wild West-themed amusement park which had shows, a roller coaster and fake shootouts in the streets. Unfortunately, the park lived up to its name and became a true, abandoned ghost town after a series of unfortunate events and many failed attempts to resurrect the park.

Editor’s note: Photos used throughout this article were taken in 2007 during the park’s brief resurrection.

the entrance of ghost town with a chairlift in the background
Despite numerous attempts to revive the now-abandoned park, including a short-lived reopening in 2007 (pictured), it remains abandoned and deteriorating today (photo courtesy of Gary and Carol Cox)

Ghost Town’s origin story

A Virginia businessman by the name of R.B. Coburn brought a vision with him to Maggie Valley, an amusement park themed after the Wild West. There would be a mountain town with stores, a saloon and a church. Tourists would hopefully come from all over for rides and shows, including shootouts in the streets, can-can dancers and mountain music. Investors began buying bonds to build the park in 1959 on top of a sheared section of the top of Buck Mountain’s peak in Maggie Valley. The prophetically named Ghost Town in the Sky opened in 1961. And, capitalizing on the last years of the country’s Western craze quickly became one of the premier attractions in Western North Carolina. 

Guests were hauled up to the park – the highest point an elevation of about 4,650 feet – in the early days by an incline railway. This incline railway is also known as a funicular which is a fantastic word to sing in an operatic style. At that time, the railway was the nation’s first double-incline railway and also the steepest. The park quickly added a two-seat chair lift. The chair lift at the time was the second longest in the U.S. It was capable of hauling 900 to 1,200 souls an hour up to the park from the ticketing center and parking lot at the bottom of the mountain. 

For years, the park was a success story. Nearly 700,000 people visited annually at its peak. There were staged deer hunts and raids on a frontier village. And the cowboys mowed each other down in the street every hour. Rides included the Sea Dragon, Casino, Black Widow Scrambler and Silver Bullet Flume.

streets of ghost town
Ghost Town in the Sky was built when the Wild Wild West was all the rage (photo courtesy of Gary and Carol Cox circa 2007)

The initial decline of Ghost Town

Coburn sold the park in the early 1970s and bought it back in 1986. But by the late ’80s was in serious decline as the draw of the Wild West had waned years before. Several attempts to spice things up with new rides and attractions including the famous Red Devil Roller Coaster. However, none of it proved to be enough.

It is generally believed to be a failure of management and a lack of maintenance that ultimately led to the closure of the park. An important issue was the lack of an evacuation route. However, I’m not sure that’s all of this story. I think the Ghost Town was doomed the moment they decided to build it on top of the mountain. Sure, the spot was fine for the ‘60s and ’70s. Tourists were content with carnival rides and old west shootouts. But as Silver Dollar City morphed into Dollywood on the Tennessee side of the park, the logistics of keeping up were too much. Especially so as code regulations became more stringent.

By the late ’90s, many of the rides were frequently shut down due to mechanical issues. Some rides closed. Attendance fell off. The money to maintain the park dried up. It didn’t help that the park in Maggie Valley, near the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway, was competing with Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. In 2002, the chairlift broke down, stranding passengers for two hours in the July heat. The park was done.

dangers on stage at the silver dollar saloon
Some say Ghost Town failed to keep up with the times, others say it was just poor management. Pictured: A live show at the Silver Dollar Saloon in 2007 (photo courtesy of Gary and Carol Cox)

A resurrection and a series of unfortunate events

Ghost Town Maggie Valley was closed for the next four seasons before a brief resurrection in 2007. As much as $49 million was invested in the park over the next three years. However, the Great Recession of the late 2000s proved to be too much to overcome. A massive mudslide in 2010 occurred when a retaining wall gave way. No one was hurt but dozens of homes were evacuated. In the last decade, the park has been sold and put back on the market.

Alaska Presley, a Maggie Valley businesswoman who had been with the park since its inception bought it at auction and tried to bring it back in 2012. She achieved limited openings, mostly for nostalgia-interested visitors who had been to the park in its heyday. Presley has since passed away. There were massive issues getting water to the park and Ghost Town had trouble passing inspection. As late as spring of 2019, a planned rebranding and reopening had been hinted at but the property was back up for sale later in the year

actors at Ghost town in the sky
In its heyday, Ghost Town featured live actor shootouts in the streets. Today, the only battles at Ghost Town are of the legal variety (photo courtesy of Gary and Carol Cox)

Ghost Town’s ill-fated future

The most recent opening talks began in late 2019 when Frankie Wood negotiated a deal with owner Alaska Presley. A new corporation was formed, Ghost Town in the Sky LLC, and Wood was signed on as a managing member. In August of 2021, Wood made a rare public speaking appearance. At the time, he announced an investment of up to $200 million into the park in front of the local Chamber of Commerce. But while these talks inspired hope for some, they sparked doubt for others. In the following months, reports came out that Wood had a complicated financial history.

Presley, the long-time owner of Ghost Town in the Sky, passed away at the age of 98 in April 2022. Therefore, there has been an ongoing legal battle surrounding Ghost Town in the Sky and its stakeholders. A lawsuit was filed in August 2022 for control of the property. That lawsuit is still ongoing at the time of this writing. Meanwhile, the property continues to deteriorate.

The future of Ghost Town remains uncertain. The area has suffered some vandalism as well, adding to the costs of repair. Millions have been spent to try and revive Ghost Town in one form or another. But I suspect the park will never open its doors to the general public again. The limitations of location combined with the cost of getting it up to pass inspection seem to me, an insurmountable obstacle. 

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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22 thoughts on “There’s a Real Ghost Town in the Sky on Top of a Mountain in North Carolina”

  1. My family went to Ghost Town several times. I have photos of us coming off the chair lift. My husband and I took our first grandson there when he was 7 years old. He loved the park. He had his picture taken with the Indians that danced. I really was hoping that someone would start it back up again.

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  2. I went there when I was young.i loved it .I hope someone brings it back to life I loved the chairlift and ghost town in the sky.please bring back to life

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  3. For years young people have trespassed and taken videos of this place to post on social media. Being abandoned, it’s a curiosity and spooky so it appeals to bored kids. My daughter and 2 friends heard about ppl going there and drove from WCU to see what the fuss was about. The present owner blocked them from leaving with his car and told them he had called the police and was going to have them arrested. While the kids cried, he bragged about how many trespassers he’s entrapped. Police did not arrest them. Given its doomed history and logistics problems, maybe it’s time to return it to nature.

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  4. This was a wonderful place that was lots of fun. I last went in 1987 and LOVED it. Can’t see why it wouldn’t get plenty of business except for all the competition. Kids today don’t watch Westerns so the things at Ghost town mean nothing to them. Maybe the owners should just let it die.

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  5. I went their as a child and a adult. I took my children and was looking forward to taking grandchildren though I didn’t get to because of its closer. I am looking forward to it reopening (having a positive attitude). To attract customers then all should update the attraction for more of todays lifestyle. Example have one attraction area full of video gamming and few characters from popular video games. This would definitely be a great idea for teens and younger children. Always keep the church on the mountain, thus this could be a fine way to introduce the 10 commandments that was given on the mtn. It will take money to make money of course. I will be Praying for its re-opening

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  6. My parents took me to Ghost Town in the late 60’s, Loved it! Took my Kids in the early 90’s. Wish it would reopen so as I can take my grandchildren and Great-grandchildren.

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  7. I remember from the 60’s the uphill tram and later the chairlift. The cowboys shootout and the saloon with root beer and dance hall girls. We looked for it a few years ago and were sad to see it gone.

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  8. Not a chance 49 million dollars was spent on a park that was bought for 1.5 million. If it had been it wouldn’t be in the shape it is in now. Wake up people.

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  9. I loved Ghost Town. Went there when I was young. Would be excited to see it re-open! Would certainly go there.

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  10. Been there as a kid with family and friends and 1 time after it reopened with my wife and brother and his wife really make me sad to think about how long it’s been and see it shut down Loved Goast Town.

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  11. My boyfriend took my daughter and I in 1989.we are from michigan.loved it.my daughter has 6kids.would love to take my grandkids there.

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  12. You gotta get started early when you go up on ghost mountain, you will find so much to do there you will hardly find the time. Relax in the open chair lift or ride the inline railway anyway you get there you will enjoy the mountain ride. Ghost town…Ghost town…. Ghost town in the sky.

    Parents bought a album from entertainers at Ghost town, those were the words to one of the songs.

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  13. Looking for a artist that designed the park às well as ghost town on thè river in louisville ky.
    name was Russ Betha , did abunch of
    work for me in new orleans

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  14. Hi, my name is Anita Renn i have not been to Ghost Town In The Sky so I wish you would reopen it I like old westerns and my dad does to

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  15. Hello, my name is Debbie. I remember many trips to Ghost Town. My brother and parents and myself started going in the 60’s. It was so much fun. We went several times. I would love to see it fixed back up.

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  16. I loved Ghost Town as a child. It was so much fun! We went every year at least once. It was close and not too expensive. I remember the rides and shows. The gunfights were awesome as well! The can can girls. I wish it was still open. The lines weren’t long like Carrowinds and it wasn’t so hot!

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  17. It was a place I will never forget my parents took me in the 70’s then I took my children in the late 90’s never will forget Ghost town in the sky and dont want to

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  18. I used to Go there almost Everday, and My Husband used
    To Take People’s Pictures At Ghost Town, that was The Good
    TIMES,Bring Those Days Back !!!

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  19. I love Ghost Town and went to it often. Great, great memories! I hope something wonderful can be done again with the property!

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  20. It’s sad that such an Attraction has sat rotting!
    I loved it, as a child. And, in my earlier adult yrs, taking my children there.
    It was great seeing it on Moonshiners! But, it would be fantastic to see someone put the money it would take, to once again revive it.

    Reply
  21. My parents began taking us there every summer for vacation when I was 10.We loved Ghost town and Cherokee along with Frontier Land. I took my kids to Ghost town also and they loved it. Unfortunately my grandkids will never see it. A lot of great memories there. I still visit Maggie Valley and Cherokee several times a year and do take my grands. Beautiful place to visit.

    Reply

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