America’s National Parks are home to beautiful vistas, miles of backcountry adventures—and stories that nightmares are made of. Wait, what? That’s right: Dig a little deeper into the history and legends of these beloved outdoor playgrounds, and you may find yourself quickening your pace on the trail. From creepy creatures to mysterious curses to downright terrifying tales, here are some of the spookiest spots in our national parks.
Otherworldly Visitors at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Those seeking an encounter life from beyond our world need to look no further than Great Sand Dunes National Park. Nestled in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, this area is best known for some of the tallest dunes in America. It’s also a hotbed for frequent UFO sightings. Reports of flying saucers, and strange lights—often upwards of 9 or 10 at a time—are common, not to mention regular occurrences of strange cattle mutilations and a couple of suspected abductions in the area.
Though a sighting isn’t guaranteed, UFO hunters should head to the aptly named Star Dune, the tallest in the park, for a clear view of the night sky. For further otherworldly research, the UFO Watchtower and Campground, located 32 miles from the park Visitor’s Center, has been collecting information about sightings for more than two decades.
Grief from Beyond the Grave at the Grand Canyon
As if the wild whitewater adventures and steep hikes aren’t enough to get your heart pounding, the spooky tales from America’s largest canyon should do the trick. Spirits from the afterlife are reported to wander some of the trails; one of the most prominent legends involves a father a son who were were hiking the Transept Trail on the North Rim nearly a century ago. When the weather turned nasty, the two lost their footing and fell to their deaths. The grieving mother and wife spent weeks searching for her family along the canyon walls, and when her attempts proved unsuccessful she took her own life in the Grand Canyon Lodge. To this day, on stormy nights, hikers report seeing what’s now known as the Wailing Woman, a glowing apparition in a white dress with small blue flowers continuing to search for her lost family on the Transept Trail.
The Underwater Demons of Crater Lake
The third-deepest lake in America is known for its piercing blue waters surrounded by sheer cliffs and lush forests. But something far more sinister is believed to be lurking beneath the surface. As its name suggests, the Oregon lake is the crater of the now dormant Mount Mazama volcano. According to native Klamath legends, the lake was formed during a violent battle between Llao, the spirit of the underworld who lived in Mount Mazama, and Skell, the spirit of the above-world who lived in Mount Shasta to the south. Skell defeated Llao, collapsing Mount Mazama in the process, and creating the lake which was viewed as a gateway to the underworld. Since then the lake is reputed to hold mysterious energy. According to the Klamath people, it was dangerous to stare at the lake too long; dread and deep sorrow were believed to be channelled into those who became mesmerized by the blue waters.
A few mysterious deaths have occured in the park, too. A 1947 report describes a man who tried to take his own life by throwing himself down a steep snow chute to the water's edge. When the fall resulted in a broken leg, he crawled into the water and drowned himself. In another incident many years later, a photographer went missing while shooting photos in the park. His remains were found two years later, but they confounded investigators, since they consisted of his just jeans and socks—plus his shin and one toe bone. If that wasn’t creepy enough, rangers and visitors often report seeing phantom campfires on the lake’s island, but upon further investigation no evidence of an actual fire is found.
Dancing with the Devil in the New Jersey Pinelands
The country's first national reserve, the New Jersey Pinelands is home to more than one million acres of forests, wetlands, and farms—and a demonic creature known as the Jersey Devil. Known as a cryptoid, the creature is described as a monster mashup of goat, alligator, horse, lizard, or dog, but almost always with wings, hooves, horns, and a tail.
Its legend is just as freaky as its reported appearance. The story goes that upon discovering that she was pregnant with her 13th child in the mid-1700s, a distraught local mother named Mrs. Leeds cursed the child. She later gave birth to a small devil, which escaped into the adjacent swamp to terrorize the countryside for centuries to come. The Jersey Devil has never been photographed or captured, but its legend is prominent enough to make regular headlines on paranormal shows.
The Wrath of Pele at Hawaiian Volcanic National Park
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to an active volcano, Kilauea, and also is known as the home of Pele, the beloved Hawaiian deity of fire. Pele, known for having a fiery temperament, is hailed as the force behind decades of eruptions. She teaches the Hawaiian people to be good stewards of the lands, and those who are not will feel her wrath.
According to Hawaiian beliefs, those who take souvenirs—like volcanic rocks—from the land around Kilauea are cursed by Pele. While skeptics say it’s just a legend, rangers report receiving hundreds of pieces of mail a year from visitors returning rocks and other objects they took from the park, many accompanied by letters describing the bad luck they experienced afterward and offering heartfelt apologies to Pele.
Beware the Banshee of Badlands National Park
On the western edge of South Dakota stand the towering spires and ancient rock formations of Badlands National Park, a treasure trove of fossils from creatures both prehistoric and modern that once roamed the land. One such creature, it seems, may still inhabit the park. Hikers who visit Dog Watch Butte, especially at night, occasionally report seeing what’s known as the Badlands Banshee: a woman who will gesture toward visitors, speaking words that can’t be heard. When hikers try to get closer to understand what she is saying, she bursts into violent shrieks before quickly disappearing; some reports say she is accompanied by a skeletal figure.
Written by Jennifer Sheridan for RootsRated Media in partnership with RootsRated.