The Most Chilling Legends of the Southeast—And How to Explore Them

You might find yourself with a mysterious fellow paddler in Great Dismal Swamp, which boasts one of the most chilling legends of the Southeast.
You might find yourself with a mysterious fellow paddler in Great Dismal Swamp, which boasts one of the most chilling legends of the Southeast. Stephen Marchetti
Made Possible by
Curated by

From the Shenandoah Valley to the Great Smoky Mountains, the Southeast is brimming with spine-tingling lore. With mysterious disappearances, legendary creatures, and heaps of hauntings, the region has plenty of intrigue. These are a few of the most chilling legends still lingering in the Southeast. Check them out—if you dare.

The White Canoe of Lake Drummond

After sunset, when the ethereal glow of phosphorescent foxfire illuminates the dense forests and waterlogged thickets of the Great Dismal Swamp, the place can play tricks on the mind. One of the swamp’s longest-lingering legends—immortalized by Irish poet Thomas Moore—maintains the peat-darkened lake at the heart of swamp is frequented by a restless spirit. According to the story, a Native American bride who perished on the eve of her wedding still paddles Lake Drummond by moonlight, in a white canoe lit by a firefly lantern. A pair of apparitions has also been reported on the Washington Ditch Canal, a thoroughfare leading away from the lake. Believed to be a bride and groom lost in the swamp in the 18th century, the couple has been seen after sundown, trying to find their way back to a settlement dubbed Dismal Town that’s now long gone.

Explore these otherworldly legends on the 80 miles of trails and extensive network of waterways overlaying the 112-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, shared by North Carolina and Virginia. Spend a night at the backcountry campsite managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, located along the Feeder Ditch Spillway at the edge of the refuge, and stay awake to watch the water for ethereal paddlers.

Brown Mountain Lights

For centuries, unexplained balls of light have been observed floating above the slopes of Brown Mountain in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. There have been countless attempts to study the perplexing orbs, including investigations conducted by the U.S. government, and the Brown Mountain Lights even featured in an episode of The X-Files. While many theories have been, er, floated—most attributing the glowing balls to vehicle headlights, gas bubbles, or weather—none have explained the eerie anomaly. Of course, supernatural theories also abound. According to one legend, the lights are lanterns held by Native American women still searching for their husbands, after a bloody battle between the Cherokee and Catawba.

Autumn is reportedly the best time to catch a glimpse of the lights, so book a campsite at the Linville Falls Campground, and scan the sky from the Lost Cove overlook (near milepost 310) on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Night owls can also head for Wiseman’s View Scenic Overlook just outside Linville, or visit the Brown Mountain Overlook on Highway 181 north of Morganton.

Bigfoot

2bdrRPBEl2YgcASqEWIkcE
According to many local legends, Bigfoot may also lurk in the hills and mountains of the South. Malee Baker Oot

The Pacific Northwest is ground-zero for Bigfoot sightings, but tales of a hulking, ape-like creature also abound in the Southeast, dating back to pre-colonial times. While Bigfoot sightings have been reported throughout the region, Southwest Virginia is a hotspot for encounters with the creature. Just after the Civil War, locals living along Virginia’s border with Tennessee reported seeing a shaggy monster snatching terrified goats from their fields—and according to the Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization, the sightings continue. In 2011, an episode of the television series Finding Bigfoot focused on Southwest Virginia, exploring storied Sasquatch hangouts like the High Knob Recreation Area and the Gum Hill area, where an ATV enthusiast claims to have captured footage of Bigfoot. While there are plenty of Bigfoot hoaxes, a few esteemed primatologists—including Jane Goodall—have admitted to believing in the creature.

Just outside the town of Norton, Southwest Virginia, the Flag Rock Recreation Area has been declared an official “Woodbooger Sanctuary,” a nod to a local nickname for the creature. Farther up Stone Mountain, the trail-laced High Knob Recreation Area is another hotspot for Sasquatch sightings, complete with campsites ideal for multi-day expeditions.

The Lost Colony

In the summer of 1587, a group of 115 English colonists led by John White arrived on the shores of Roanoke Island, along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. A flighty governor, White quickly returned to England for more supplies. Three years later, when he came back to Roanoke Island, everyone had disappeared. Only two distinguishable clues to their whereabouts remained: the word “CROATOAN” carved into a fence and the letters “Cro” sliced into a tree. Theories about the fate of the colonists have included everything from disease outbreak to alien abduction, and after earlier colonization attempts sparked conflict with local tribes, some researchers speculated the colonists met a violent end—but a mass grave has never been found.

More recently, archaeological digs have unearthed artifacts possibly left by European colonists on nearby Hatteras Island (historically called Croatoan Island), and at an inland location on the Chowan River—a spot marked on a map belonging to John White, only discovered by historians in 2012.

Spend a day pondering the fate of the Lost Colony at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo, and then head to the Oregon Inlet Campground, part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and fall asleep to the sound of crashing surf.

The Largest Ship Graveyard in the Western Hemisphere

Just south of the nation’s capital, a series of strange islands rise from the Potomac River, crowding the inlet dubbed Mallows Bay. Although claimed by nesting osprey and tufted with vegetation, the islands are actually sunken vessels, denizens of the largest ship graveyard in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly 200 ships rest in the bay, the oldest dating back to the Revolutionary War. However, the bulk of the vessels are relics of a shipbuilding program undertaken during World War I, a hasty effort to churn out an emergency fleet. But the war ended before the flotilla had been fully assembled, and by the early 1930s nearly 170 ship hulls had been abandoned in Mallows Bay, left for nature to claim.

Explore the eerily weathered vessels at Mallows Bay Park, in Nanjemoy, Maryland. Set out from the park’s boat launch, or join one of the guided tours offered seasonally by the Atlantic Kayak Company. The storied ship graveyard is also one of the historic spots punctuating the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the country’s oldest national paddling trail.

Devil’s Jump

5uV1WV1oxUQysmwSKwoYic
The whitewater in the Big South Fork has some, ahem, devilish spots. Malee Baker Oot

The lengthiest hardwood forest shrouded plateau on the planet, the hills and hollows of the Cumberland Plateau are teeming with legends. One of the most lore-loaded corners of the highland mesa is overlaid by the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, shared by Kentucky and Tennessee. Before being declared a protected area in 1974, the region was inhabited by farmers, loggers and miners, the landscape peppered with rustic homesteads like the community dubbed “No Business.”

A reminder of these early inhabitants, nearly 60 cemeteries are still scattered throughout the recreation area—and some former residents are rumored to linger in the park as otherworldly specters, still bitter their homesites were claimed during the creation of the 125,000-acre park. These early denizens are also responsible for one the region’s eeriest legends: the story of the rapid named Devil’s Jump. At the beginning of the 19th century, a group of salt miners near the Big South Fork unknowingly struck oil, and feared they had tunneled to hell. One of the miners set out down the river, taking a sample of the tar-like substance for study. On a gnarly stretch of whitewater, the miner capsized, later insisting the devil had jumped into his boat.

Investigate the unsettling myth of Devil’s Jump on the 6.4-mile Blue Heron Loop Trail, and then sleep under the stars at the nearby Blue Heron Campground.

The Tragic Disappearance of Ottie Cline Powell

On a chilly November day in 1891, four-year-old Ottie Powell and his classmates set out from the Tower Ridge Schoolhouse in central Virginia to collect firewood. But little Ottie never returned. Just hours after the boy disappeared, a rescue party began scouring the area, but searchers didn’t venture up the rugged slopes of Bluff Mountain. Finally, in early April of 1892, hunters discovered the boy’s body high on Bluff Mountain, more than seven miles from his school.

Today, the Appalachian Trail passes the spot on the mountain where Ottie’s body was found, commemorated by a small marker. The Punchbowl Shelter sits just 1.6 miles south of the spot on the AT, and thru-hikers often have reported encountering young Ottie on the footpath, trying to find the way back to his one-room schoolhouse.

Beginning from the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 51.7), make the two mile hike along the Appalachian Trail to the summit of Bluff Mountain. Then spend a night at the Punchbowl Shelter, and be sure to keep an eye out for a tiny traveler on the trail.

The Subterranean Spirits of Mammoth Cave

1CDhBuTV4QI8OqKi2smuiY
Pitch your tent at Mammoth Cave campground, and you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an otherworldly guide named Stephen Bishop. Jesse! S?

Naturally, the longest cave system on the planet has some stories. Staff at Mammoth Cave National Park have recorded so many otherworldly incidences, two rangers wrote an entire book about the park’s unexplainable occurrences. Before being declared a national park, the massive cave system in central Kentucky captured national attention in 1925, when local caver Floyd Collins met a nightmarish end after being pinned in an underground shaft in an area nicknamed Sand Cave. But Collins wasn’t the only person to perish in the subterranean sandstone labyrinth. In 1839, physician John Croghan purchased the cave, and ordered slaves to construct an underground facility for patients suffering from consumption. Ultimately, five tuberculosis patients died in Croghan’s care while convalescing in Mammoth Cave, and visitors still report hearing otherworldly coughing in the subterranean chambers and tunnels.

Spend a night at national park’s Mammoth Cave Campground, and keep and eye out for legendary guide and cave explorer Stephen Bishop. One of the slaves acquired by Croghan when he purchased Mammoth Cave, Bishop gained his freedom shortly before dying in 1856, and was buried near the subterranean wonder he spent so much time exploring. Visitors still report seeing the former guide, wandering the place he loved.

The Ghost Town on the New River

Spread over scenic bend in the fast-flowing New River, Thurmond was once an economic force in West Virginia, a boomtown along the tracks of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. In the early part of the 20th century, the town had a lively main drag, and nearly 95,000 passengers traveled through its train depot each year. Thurmond was also home to the Dun Glen Hotel, famed for hosting the planet’s longest poker game. But slowly, diesel trains replaced steam locomotives, demand for coal waned, and the town succumbed to the Great Depression. Although the crowds of yesteryear are gone, the bare bones of the town’s main strip remain (and provided the backdrop for the 1987 film Matewan). Today, Thurmond is part of the New River National River, managed by the National Park Service, and the town’s once bustling train depot is now a visitor center.

Pitch a tent at the Stone Cliff Beach camping area, just outside Thurmond, and get a bird’s eye view of the ghost town on the Rend Trail.

The Most Haunted Lighthouse in America

5Rv3dDhJNSkYCC8KcOggSg
The Point Lookout Lighthouse has experienced plenty of unexplained phenomena. Malee Baker Oot

Perched on a slender isthmus where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay, the Point Lookout Lighthouse has seen plenty of misery. During the Civil War, the structure overlooked the largest Confederate prison camp, notorious for abysmal conditions and known as Camp Hoffman. Then, toward the end of the war, the USS Tulip exploded just offshore, claiming 50 lives. Since the end of the Civil War, lighthouse keepers have reported unexplainable occurrences, including disembodied voices, strange smells, and apparitions. A photograph taken of a lighthouse resident in the late 1970s even captured a uniformed Confederate soldier resting against a wall. Park rangers have also reported encountering Confederate soldiers dashing across the park’s main roadway before disappearing.

Today, the historic lighthouse is preserved at Point Lookout State Park in southern Maryland. Pick a cozy campsite along Lake Conoy or Point Lookout Creek, and once darkness falls, keep watch for ethereal Confederate soldiers wandering the groves of loblolly pine.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.

Last Updated:

Next Up

Previous

Halloween Hikes: The Spookiest Trails in America

Next

Your Guide to a Multisport Weekend in Burke County