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The 11 Most Terrifying Spooky Stories From America’s National Parks

Morbid tales from the great outdoors--campfire optional.

America’s beloved national parks and other protected places are beacons of beauty, peace, rejuvenation, and connection with nature. But they’re also full of hauntings, supernatural sightings, and sinister stories disturbing enough for any campfire.

Danielle LaRock and Cassie Yahnian, creators of the wildly popular podcast “National Park After Dark,” share stories of crime, disaster, supernatural sightings, and survival in these seemingly pristine places. Here, we’ve pulled together some of their favorite creepy tales from parks you can see for yourself. Just remember, as LaRock and Yahnian caution, “Enjoy the view, but watch your back.”

1 OF 11

Monsters in the Mist

WHERE: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The Stanley Hotel of The Shining fame sits near this park, a treasure trove of hair-raising haunts that Yahnian highly recommends. Yet the park’s lore claims its own terror: monsters in a blue mist. In the late 1880’s “Miner Bill” swore strange ghosts and creatures walked the mountains that would become the park. Despite being declared insane and involuntarily committed for five years, he returned to the mountains and his stories were once again released.

Bill claimed a blue fog would hang over the valley near his cabin. When the mist disappeared, he found strange animal remains picked clean and surrounded by giant three-toed footprints. Skeptical citizens of Estes nevertheless worried after not seeing Bill. When they arrived at his cabin, his bones were near his front step–with an improbably large three-toed footprint. Many visitors at higher elevations near the valley today report the same eerie blue mist.

2 OF 11

The Murdered Hermit's Revenge

WHERE: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

On Wisconsin’s shores of Lake Superior, a ghostly tale sticks to one of the 22 Apostle Islands. William Wilson, a barrel maker in the 1850s, left society and ran others off the island he claimed as sanctuary. Legend debates why he left town: a lost fight or a scorned love. But what was clear is Wilson had amassed a fortune that he kept on his island. In 1861, townspeople found him murdered. While Wilson’s money was gone, it seemed his spirit remained.

New residents felt constantly watched, and several saw Wilson with shotgun in hand. Inexplicable accidents and financial ruin ended quarries, resorts, and farms on the island after his death. Only the National Park Service has been able to maintain it, and the island has returned to the wild state Wilson knew. Daytrippers occasionally feel the sense of being watched or seeing a figure, but it seems Wilson is at peace.

3 OF 11

Unexplained Lights

WHERE: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

In south-central Colorado, 30 miles of dunes rise to 700 feet. Park visitors can camp, hike the dunes, and sled down, all with the Sangre de Cristo mountains as a backdrop. But as the rangers say, “Half the park is after dark,” showing off a gorgeous dark sky expanse. The San Luis Valley, known as the “Bermuda Triangle of the West,” is a hotspot of unidentified lights in the sky.

The area has stories of supernatural lights and beings going back to the oral histories of the Ute people who lived in the valley. After a night of strange lights in 1967, the surgical mutilation of a horse created an alien-awareness frenzy. Now a “UFO Watchtower” outside of the park pulls in crowds who have reported more than 200 strange lights since it opened in 2000.

4 OF 11

A Curse in California

WHERE: Channel Islands National Park, California

Off the coast of Los Angeles, San Miguel Island is one of the least visited in this national park, with fewer than 200 visitors annually. Yet time and again, those who venture out on the Point Bennett Trail often spot the ghost of a surly Portuguese explorer stalking the meadows with his armor and sword.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to the island in 1542. Cabrillo and his crew hunkered down for winter, but he never left the island, dying from complications with a broken shin bone. On his deathbed, Cabrillo allegedly cursed anyone who tried to claim “his” island with a violent death. In the following years, there were six shipwrecks near the island with no survivors. In 1930, resident Robert Brooks proclaimed himself the King of the Island and quickly died by suicide.

5 OF 11

The Killer Shape-Shifter

WHERE: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Before they became the most visited national park in America, the Great Smoky Mountains were part of the ancestral lands of the Cherokee. Indigenous lore includes a lethal creature,  “Spearfinger,” a shape-shifting witch that hunts and feeds on human livers.

Spearfinger takes on any appearance but often presents as a frail woman. Her only giveaway is a long, lethal forefinger of black obsidian stone. She would hunt along the trails north of Fontana Lake where children like to pick berries. As an old woman, she’d comb through their hair and then pierce them through the heart. Legend says a settler’s daughter went missing on Noland Creek Trail, and after her father went to find her, he was found killed. Hikers on this trail report seeing a lantern floating, and that electronic devices and GPS stop working on this trail.

6 OF 11

Ghosts in the Gorge

WHERE: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

National parks across the country have abandoned ghost towns and graveyards in their borders, hinting at those who lived here before. In West Virginia, one of the country’s newest parks has a spooky ghost town deep in the New River Gorge.

Thurmond, technically still with a population of five, was a thriving and rambunctious coal town and railroad stop in the 1920s. Fires, changing rail lines, and the Great Depression ended Thurmond, but several buildings still stand. Now visitors and paranormal investigators trek into the gorge for history and maybe a fright. The Train Depot, Lower End, Post Office, and Erskine Pugh House are paranormal favorites. The park offers a self-guided walking tour to spooky sights.

7 OF 11

Diana's Ghostly Dare

WHERE: Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

Hike the sands of “Diana’s Dare” at the Indiana Dunes National Park, just 36 miles outside of Chicago, to discover a murder mystery, conservation battle, and the woman at the center of it all–who, a century later, reportedly still walks the place she made home.

Alice “Diana” Gray left Chicago in 1915 to live alone in the Indiana Dunes, studying and recording the ecosystem. Fishermen spotted her bathing nude and legends multiplied. Soon media and day trippers were flocking to the dunes to catch a glimpse. Gray seized fame and began speaking at events to protect the disappearing dunes from glass manufacturing. She was the movement’s figurehead–until she and her husband were accused of murder. Eventually acquitted, she fled back to her dunes, dying there in 1925. Hikers report seeing a naked woman running along, disappearing in the dunes, and sometimes sitting across a campfire.

8 OF 11

Disaster in the Canyon

WHERE: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

With a park that stretches 277 miles long, there are plenty of wailing haunts, strange lights, and disastrous deaths through the canyons and rivers. Yet one catastrophe still seems to light up an isolated park corner.

Two passenger planes collided above the Grand Canyon in 1956. Both plummeted into the canyons of the remote East Rim with multiple impacts that killed all 128 on board. A trail system passes near the crash sites, a demanding route of more than 30 miles for experts only. The crash sites themselves are inaccessible. Yet hikers in this area report seeing lights, including one sighting of more than 100 single lights in a processional down the trail. Fifty years later, one ranger reported seeing a dozen people in improbable “city clothes” in this backcountry before disappearing.

9 OF 11

Lady of the Lake

WHERE: Olympic National Park, Washington

Lake Crescent is one of the most visited spots in this temperate rainforest on Washington’s lush Olympic peninsula. Even before there were roads, this 12-mile-long lake ushered visitors throughout the soon-to-be park. Klallam and Quileute lore says the lake was created during a battle, swamping all of the Indigenous warriors who never surfaced. In 1940, the body of Hallie Illingworth was found floating in the lake.

Her tragic fate took a spooky turn because of the lake; the cold depths prevented decomposition and the unique salts and calcium converted her tissue into a fragile soapy material called adipocere, which eventually allowed her to float. Her husband, Monty, was found guilty of her death and her legend lives on in the park.

10 OF 11

Ghosts in the Lodges

WHERE: Glacier National Park, Montana

The 19th-century lodges in iconic national parks are full of intimate park history and helpful staff. LaRock recommends a stop: “They hold a lot of the history of the park and the land they occupy within their walls.” Sometimes, history comes with haunts.

Glacier National Park’s lodges have surprises for both guests and employees. At Lake McDonald Lodge, guests hear a couple arguing loudly on balconies only to find no one is there. Security has seen a woman in vintage clothing, often at night, gazing out at the lakeside veranda. A long-time winter caretaker at the more remote Many Glacier Lodge found empty wine bottles with no signs of trespassing. At Belton Chalet, just outside the park’s West Glacier entrance, a spirit named “Bob” actively moves things and spooks guests.

11 OF 11

The Haunts Hiding Underground

WHERE: Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts

The tragic witch hysteria of the 1690s defines Salem, but the wicked history below the streets is one of Yahnian’s favorites. Tunnels connect all of Derby Wharf, making it easy for sailors to smuggle goods and engage in other illegal activities. In 2010, explorers found hotels, a grocery, a bowling alley, and a shooting range. Some men have disappeared in these tunnels.

Patrons vanished at Mercy Tavern on Salem’s Derby Street, one of the famous brothels in the red-light district. Abducted from the brothel and hustled through the tunnels to the ships, they were forced into service on the ships where men died from the atrocious living conditions. Today, Mercy Tavern is one of the most haunted places in Salem. Employees hear voices in the empty tavern, see sailors sitting at the bar, and report men fighting and shouting below the floorboards.