National Park Mysteries That Will Keep You Up At Night

In the United States, the National Parks System is widely regarded as a beloved national treasure that preserves the wild spaces of a country that's quickly growing more and more developed. If you live in a bustling city or a suburb where green space is largely represented by roadway medians and manicured lawns, at least there are the vast and varied national parks to help reintroduce many of us to the wild.

Yet, while the vast majority of experiences within the national parks are perfectly fine and even profound, there is indeed a dark side to the National Parks System. From missing people, to strange lights in the sky, to unknown beasts stalking the wild night, it may start to seem like the national parks are full of the unknown.

So, while you should definitely still get out there and enjoy the great outdoors courtesy of your closest national park, perhaps you should do so with some precautions. Take plenty of supplies, find a good map, and maintain some extra awareness of your surroundings. Just be warned: these are the national park mysteries that will keep you up at night.

People are still trying to solve the mystery of a missing park ranger

On January 13, 1980, ranger Paul Fugate disappeared from what should have been a routine hike in Arizona's Chiricahua National Monument. According to Outside, Fugate was a complicated figure, a dedicated naturalist who also clashed with his superiors, to the point where he had previously sued the national government.

Paul, who was last seen heading out to do a trail check around 2:00 pm, never returned. His girlfriend alerted authorities, who undertook a search for Fugate. They first assumed that he had been the victim of an accident and was injured or stranded in the backcountry.

However, as the investigation continued and no trace was found, suspicions began to simmer. One park volunteer came forward to say that he'd seen Fugate in a truck with two strange men, leading some to wonder if Fugate had been kidnapped. Was he the victim of drug traffickers, who had only just begun to move into the region in 1980? Perhaps Fugate had inadvertently stumbled across them or had even been in on a deal gone wrong. Or, as some proposed to the chagrin of Fugate's loved ones, he may have simply ditched his old life. Whatever the truth, no trace of Paul Fugate has ever been found since that day in 1980.

The Great Sand Dunes are famously creepy

At first glance, you might not think that Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is all that strange. It's unusual certainly, given that the park contains the tallest sand dunes in North America, with some rising well over 700 feet tall, according to Outside magazine. But stay a little longer, and you may start to understand why some people call it downright eerie.

Out There Colorado reports that the region encompassing the national park is even sometimes called the "Bermuda Triangle of the West" for the weird lights often spotted in the sky. There's even a nearby attraction and campground known as the UFO Watchtower, where many gather to look for evidence of extraterrestrial visitors.

"Haunted Colorado" relates tales of weird, web-footed wild horses that reportedly gallop across the dunes, while there are multiple tales of explorers, ranchers, and entire families that have been swallowed up by the shifting sands. The sand itself can even "sing," says the National Park Service, as avalanches of it slide down the dunes. It's a pretty well-documented natural phenomena, but one that could definitely creep out unaware visitors.

Multiple people have disappeared in the Smoky Mountains

According to the National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park drew over 12 million visitors in 2020 alone, making it the most popular national park. It's also seen multiple disappearances, according to Knox News. These include people who may have wanted to intentionally vanish, though the cases of other missing people have remained mysterious. Take high schooler Trenny Lynn Gibson, who went missing in 1976 while on a class trip. And in 1981, Thelma Pauline Melton also vanished while hiking a trail that she knew very well.

Then, there's Dennis Martin. Per Knox News, the six-year-old Martin went missing on June 14, 1969. He had apparently been taking part in a prank but, while everyone else emerged from the woods to jump out at the rest of the group, Martin never did. A massive manhunt turned up few clues. Some believe that Martin may have simply wandered deeper into the backcountry, while others maintain that he was abducted. More than 50 years later, no one is sure what, exactly, happened to Dennis Martin.

A hotel in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park may be haunted

Within Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, there is a series of hotel buildings collectively known as Volcano House. According to the National Park Service, the original building (long since replaced) was built in 1846. And, given that sort of history, it's no wonder that some claim that Volcano House is full of spirits. Only in Your State reports that some guests have seen the ghost of an elderly woman roaming the property, most often inside the halls and even in rooms occupied by visitors.

But standard ghosts are overshadowed by stories of Pele, the Native Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire. Given that she's housed close by in the active volcanic caldera, many at Volcano House take her pretty seriously. According to "Historic Haunted America," hotel proprietors often seek to appease Pele, giving her offerings of gin. Sometimes, they also return lava rocks taken from the park by tourists, which are said to carry a curse for the unwary folks who originally collected them. Many mail the rocks back, hoping that an apology will be enough to lift Pele's curse from their lives.

Paula Welden went missing in 1946 Vermont

Paula Welden seemingly only wanted to go on a hike. As a student at Vermont's Bennington College, she was surely familiar with the nearby wilds of the Green Mountain National Forest to the east of her college town.

According to the Bennington Banner, Welden set off for the trail on December 1, 1946, telling her roommate, "I'm off for a long walk." Dressed in relatively light clothing, she apparently hitchhiked to the trail. Local Louis Knapp gave a ride to a young woman matching Welden's description. He dropped her off near the trail. The last known person to see her, a watchman named Ernie Whitman, warned her about going into the cold landscape.

Once it became clear that Welden had gone into the forest but hadn't left, a search was organized but, per "Weird New England," it was to no avail. Welden was actually one of six people who were reported missing near Bennington from 1945 to 1950. Their still unsolved disappearances helped to earn the nickname of the "Bennington Triangle" for the area.

Mount Shasta has been a strange place for a long time

Located in California state's Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Mount Shasta has been the focus of eerie tales and offbeat spirituality for decades. These include legends of a hidden city within the mountain, Bigfoot sightings, and, of course, a spate of UFOs spotted near the mountain.

Per NPR, that hidden city is said to house inhabitants of the sunken continent of Lemuria, cousin to a similarly mythological waterlogged city, Atlantis. Their new city, Telos, is supposedly within Mount Shasta itself. Some visitors and locals have reported seeing the tall, robed Lemurians wandering about, sometimes paying businesses with gold nuggets, as the Lemurians are rumored to have done in the 1940s.

If semi-human, mountain-dwelling inhabitants of Mount Shasta weren't creepy enough, there's always Bigfoot, says Atlas Obscura. Members of the local Modoc tribe maintain that the matah kagmi, or "keepers of the woods," live on and near the mountain. Others swear that Shasta is really home to lizard people, while just about everyone has a strange UFO story to tell, too.

Many maintain that Gettysburg is packed full of ghosts

Given that it's the site of a bloody Civil War battle, it's no wonder that many people think Gettysburg National Military Park is full of lingering spirits. Is this true? Depends on who you ask. Some people are pretty skeptical, but others have had eerie, hair-raising experiences that just won't let them dismiss the ghost stories surrounding the battlefield.

Historically speaking, it's easy to understand why the national park is so reputedly haunted. National Geographic notes that over 7,500 soldiers died in the July 1863 battle. Now, they're spotted seemingly everywhere in the park, roaming the grounds, haunting a historic inn, and wailing aloud.

Even a visit on a seemingly quiet, sunny day can turn eerie fast. The Baltimore Sun reports that soldiers have been spotted in modern photographs, while mounted cavalry from the era are said to still ride by. Even in 1863, there were unnerving mysteries for the troops as they were in the midst of the bloody conflict. It's said that some spotted no less than the specter of George Washington leading the Union troops into battle.

Yosemite's Tenaya Canyon has seen some odd disappearances

Legend says that an Ahwahnechee chief, Tenaya, cursed what's now his namesake canyon in Yosemite National Park after American forces violently tried to take his tribe to a reservation (via Adventure Hikes and Canyoneering in the Southwest). Now, the intense landscape of this canyon has seen multiple disappearances and close calls that make some wonder if the curse is real.

Even John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and father of the U.S. National Park system, almost met his end in the canyon. Tahoe Quarterly relates the story of Muir's exploration of the canyon in the 1870s. "I could not remember what made me fall," he wrote in an 1873 letter, "but I saw that if I had rolled a little further ... I might have fallen to the bottom."

Not everyone has been so lucky as Muir, given that the accidental deaths and many accidents in the area have led some to call it the Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite. Some of those misfortunes can be attributed to the steep sides of the canyon, poor preparation on hikers' parts, and the often unforgiving and remote backcountry of Yosemite.

Who is the mysterious Yucca Man?

Few people can confidently tell you what, exactly, is the nature of the being popularly known as the Yucca Man. Spotted around California's Joshua Tree National Park, Yucca Man has been variously interpreted as an unknown but real cryptid and something more tenuous connected to our reality.

Longreads notes that many reports of the Yucca Man began to arise in the 1970s, when more and more people were settling the area with housing developments and exploring the park through hiking and camping. People report that the creature is often announced by its gut-wrenching body odor, while others have spotted its massive hulk amongst the brush or seen its huge footprints in the soil. Many agree that it's covered in hair and often sports glowing red eyes. Even military personnel at nearby Edwards Air Force Base have encountered a very similar creature, popularly nicknamed "Blue Eyes."

Other reports get even creepier, as some people have linked the Yucca Man to undefined shadow beings stalking the area. Whatever the creature is, it's bound to creep out even the steeliest backcountry camper on dark desert nights.

No one is sure what happened to these German tourists in Death Valley

In 1996, four German tourists drove into the backcountry of Death Valley National Park and never came out again. Per Strange Outdoors, the group included Egbert Rimkus, his son Georg Weber, Egbert's girlfriend Conelia Meyer, and her son Max Meyer. They were last seen driving a rented minivan in the park in July, when temperatures soar to their sweltering peak (via National Park Service). Months later, a ranger spotted their van abandoned far from any roads, with no signs of the group.

For 13 years, the van and a few other spare details were all that remained. Then, off-duty search and rescue personnel Tom Mahood and Les Walker made a huge discovery. As related on Mahood's blog, OtherHand, he and Walker were retracing the tourists' last route. They found a swath of new evidence, including skeletal human remains associated with some of Cornelia's personal effects.

Yet, as NBC News reports, there are still some serious mysteries associated with this case. Where are the remains of the rest of the group? A renewed search found little else. There's still much that's unknown about the group's motivations and ultimate fate in sweltering Death Valley.

One man has been missing in the Rocky Mountains for many decades

On August 15, 1933, grad student Joe Halpern disappeared while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. According to the Coloradoan, no confirmed trace of him was ever found, though he did start out with a hiking partner, Sam Garrick. Yet, while the two were making their way up the trail to Flattop Mountain, Halpern wanted to continue on to the next peak. Garrick wasn't up for it, so he left Halpern to hike on his own with the promise that both would meet up at Bear Lake Trailhead.

After hours of waiting for his friend, Garrick alerted park rangers, who undertook a search. Things weren't looking good, however, given that Halpern was carrying only minimal supplies and no overnight or foul-weather gear. Despite their efforts, searchers found no evidence of Halpern, who seemed to have fully disappeared into the wilds of the park.

In the many years since, quite a few have concluded that Halpern went off-trail and succumbed to the elements in the rough subalpine and alpine terrain of the park. Yet, some friends and relatives held on to tantalizing theories that he had walked out under his own power and started a life elsewhere. Yet, no leads have turned up anything about Halpern's fate either way.

Does El Yunque really hide a chupacabra?

Stories of an odd-looking, blood-sucking monster known as the chupacabra have sometimes traced its path back to Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest, a dense rainforest in the eastern part of the island, according to the BBC. At any rate, sightings of this cryptid were first reported in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, though the chupacabra has since seemed to move on to other lands, like Texas and New Mexico, if the reports are to be believed.

Of course, there's plenty of skepticism surrounding tales of a lizard-like monster that creeps out of the rainforest to drain goats and other small mammals of their blood. But some Puerto Ricans feel that the chupacabra is representative of the United States, feeding off the land but not returning the favor (such as by granting Puerto Rico statehood). Sometimes, this is a metaphor for the political situation, while others maintain that a government testing facility hidden deep in El Yunque is the source of all the chupacabra troubles.

Glen and Bessie Hyde went missing in the Grand Canyon

Newlyweds Glen and Bessie Hyde disappeared in 1928, while attempting to navigate the rapids of the Colorado River as it flowed through the Grand Canyon. Since then, says the Los Angeles Times, their story has provided a rich vein of speculation. There are plenty of weird details, after all. Why was their boat found fully intact and loaded with supplies and Bessie's meticulously kept journal, per the Grand Canyon Visitor Center? Did the pair suffer a terrible accident? Did they fight and injure or even kill one another?

The couple were spotted in Grand Canyon Village, a small community now located in Grand Canyon National Park. They spoke to reporters and restocked their supplies there before moving on through the rapids of the Colorado. They were last seen downriver in late November. Their empty boat was recovered that December.

While some believe that they must have accidentally died, questions about how they did or didn't die have trailed their story into the modern day. They were inflamed further when tourists encountered an elderly woman in 1971. She claimed to be Bessie herself and said she had killed Glen and then started life again elsewhere, which proved to be difficult to verify. And, as Williams-Grand Canyon News reports, a skull that was said to be that of Glen's was proven otherwise, leaving the mystery of Glen and Bessie Hyde wide open.

What happened to the people of Mesa Verde?

Centuries ago, large numbers of American Indians lived in dramatic cliff dwellings at what's now Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. But 20th century settlers found those dwellings long abandoned. So where did the people of Mesa Verde go?

According to High Country News, the Mesa Verde of the 13th century was an exceptional settlement. Some 25,000 people lived in the 1,800 miles around the modern-day park, building complex and prosperous villages in the region. Yet, by the last decades of the century, they were gone. In some sites, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of violence, while others appear to have been peacefully but suddenly abandoned. White settlers in the area eventually indulged in dramatic stories about how these people — whom they believed to be unrelated to the modern tribes in the region — had mysteriously vanished.

Only, if you ask modern Pueblo people about this "mystery," many will tell you that the people of Mesa Verde are their forebears. High Country News points out that the number of people who arrived in New Mexico's Tewa Basin in the 13th century lines up with the number who left the Mesa Verde region at the same time. And The Denver Post reports that DNA evidence from turkeys indicates the same migration. But mysteries still remain. Why the move happened is still debated. Was it war? Drought? Famine? We still aren't sure.