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Few places in the U.S. fascinate us more than the 423 designated national park sites. Beyond their natural splendor and historical significance, they are often rife with folklore and mystery — tales of paranormal activity, unexplained incidents, and strange creatures. For some, these stories trigger a desire to dig deeper, but for others they instill fear. From a campfire gathering that led to the creation of the first national park to a single ranger being struck seven times by lightning, here are six strange myths and legends about U.S. national parks.
The Helpful Hippie at Gettysburg National Military Park
There aren’t many locations that have had such a dramatic influence on the history of the United States as the Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This was the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the most significant battles of the Civil War. After three days of fighting in 1863, the Union triumphed over General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces. In the aftermath, Abraham Lincoln gave his historic Gettysburg Address during the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where 3,512 of the fallen soldiers are buried.
With so much bloodshed, it’s little wonder that Gettysburg is rife with ghost stories. Up on the boulder-strewn hill known as Devil’s Den, the disheveled spirit of a barefoot man with long hair and a floppy hat has been spotted on several occasions. Called the Helpful Hippie, he was thought to be a member of the 1st Texas Infantry Regiment. Spotters say that he appears from nowhere, points toward the distance, and proclaims, “What you are looking for is over there.” Sadly, there is no photographic evidence of the Hippie — perhaps it’s because this area of the park is notorious for causing unexplained and momentary malfunctions in cameras.
Paranormal Activity at Mammoth Cave National Park
The longest known cave system on Earth, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. It’s home to undulating hills, sweeping river valleys, and more than 400 miles of underground caverns and tunnels — and that’s only what’s been discovered so far. Scientists estimate there are about 600 miles more still to be mapped. Before becoming a tourist attraction, the cave was frequented by Native American tribes, and their centuries-old petroglyphs still decorate its walls. Later, during the War of 1812, the cave was used as a saltpeter mine for the production of gunpowder.
But in 1839, things started to get a little creepy. Dr. John Croghan purchased the cave for $10,000 and turned it into a tuberculosis sanatorium. He believed that the constant 54 degree Fahrenheit temperature and humidity could cure the patients. However, the experiment was a failure, and five of the patients died tragically in the damp and squalid hospital; Croghan himself ironically met his own fate to tuberculosis in 1849. The failed experiment has led to some 150 paranormal activities that have been recorded ever since. The most common sighting is of the ghost of Stephen Bishop, an enslaved person who was Croghan’s cave guide and is now buried at Old Guide’s Cemetery. Some say that Bishop likes to creep up on unsuspecting visitors when the lights go out on a lantern-led ranger tour.
The Spark Ranger at Shenandoah National Park
As the old saying goes, lightning never strikes twice in the same place. In fact, the odds of getting hit once in any given year are approximately 1 in 500,000. Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park ranger Roy Cleveland Sullivan defied those odds — and then some. Sullivan is famous for being struck by lightning on seven occasions between 1942 and 1977. This extraordinary feat earned him affectionate nicknames such as the “Spark Ranger” and the “Human Lightning Rod.” He’s even recognized by Guinness World Records as the human with the most lightning strikes survived.
Sullivan’s run of bad luck began in 1942, when he was hit while inside a fire lookout tower. As the years went on, the strikes became more dangerous, and Sullivan lost a toenail, had his hair set on fire, and suffered multiple burns. One of the greatest mysteries is that he was almost always alone when struck, therefore his word was taken as evidence. Fearing attacks from the heavens, he supposedly carried a water pitcher everywhere he went and used it to put his hair out following a hit in 1972. Just being in the ranger's presence seemed to attract trouble — his wife was once hit by a bolt with him by her side. Sullivan also claimed to have fought 22 bears during his stint as park ranger.
Spearfinger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s most visited national park. It covers over half a million acres and has a natural landscape that ranges from blue mountain ridges to emerald green forests, wildflower meadows, dramatic waterfalls, and meandering rivers. There are also hundreds of eerie cemeteries hidden among the backcountry wilderness, where spooky legends thrive.
One of the oldest folkloric tales of the Smoky Mountains is of Cherokee origin. It concerns a witch called Spearfinger — a loose translation of the Cherokee word U’tlunt’a — who had a dagger-like stone finger. As the legend goes, Spearfinger is made of stone and sends shivers through the mountains by crushing rocks as she walks. Her one rival is Stone Man, a monstrous human-like being with the ability to create bridges between mountains with his staff. If you visit the park, it’s probably wise to give them both a wide berth if they appear on one of the trails.
The Yellowstone Campfire at Yellowstone National Park
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant declared the wild northwestern corner of Wyoming Yellowstone National Park — the world’s first-ever national park. In the almost 150 years since, it has fascinated travelers with its geysers, lakes, mountains, and wildlife sightings. Human activity in the Yellowstone area has existed for around 11,000 years, including Native American tribes, fur traders, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But despite centuries of human presence, the origin of the park is sometimes linked to the legend of a chat around a campfire during the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition.
According to Nathaniel Pitt Langford, who was the park’s first superintendent, he and a group of men gathered one evening at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon rivers. As they admired the natural beauty around them, a man named Cornelius Hedges put forward the idea of the area being set up as a park for the enjoyment of everyone. Langford documented this in his journal The Discovery of Yellowstone National Park, and until the 1960s the account was backed up by the National Park Service. Historians have since found inconsistencies that debunk the story. However, the names of the campfire attendees live on in the park — visitors today can hike around the soaring Hedges Peak, Mount Doane, and Mount Langford.
The Yucca Man of Joshua Tree National Park
Bigfoot might be the most well-known North American cryptid, but another ape-like creature is said to lurk around California’s Joshua Tree National Park. The Yucca Man is a giant-sized yeti with a hideous stench, straggly hair, and burning red eyes. He takes pride in playing pranks on campers and hikers. Reports of the imposing figure have occurred since the late 1960s, with the most famous involving marines stationed at the city of 29 Palms in 1971. As the story goes, a marine on the night shift was knocked unconscious and woke the next morning to discover his rifle bent in half. Visitors to the park have claimed to have had their tents opened late at night by a monster, and a blurry image of the legend was once captured at the Hidden Valley Campground.
The Yucca Man doesn’t limit himself to Joshua Tree, either. The Tongva Indigenous people have spoken of a supernatural hairy devil that hides in California’s nearby San Bernardino Mountains. Meanwhile, the Cahuilla people of Southern California reference a similarly fearsome spirit called the Tahquitz. He’s even been spotted walking along Highway 14, near Palmdale. Perhaps strangest of all is the Yucca Man’s alleged appearance on the surveillance cameras at Edwards Air Force Base at the eastern end of San Bernardino County. How the bipedal man was able to lead airmen on a wild chase around one of the U.S. military’s most top-secret locations remains a mystery.