The United States National Park system is renowned as one of the world’s most breathtaking collections of natural wonders that attract hundreds of millions of visitors each year—but many of the most famous parks have a dark history that may take visitors’ breath away for more sinister reasons. These parks offer thrill seekers, ghost hunters, and the brave alike another reason to visit.
1. Spearfinger // Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Encompassing over half a million acres between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. It contains a large portion of the southern Appalachian Mountains and attracts travelers with its lush forests and misty mountain peaks. Beyond its picturesque landscapes, the Great Smoky Mountains’ rich history contributes to its haunting aura in many regions of the park.
Of the many apparitions said to be haunting the park, Spearfinger is one of the most frightening. According to Cherokee legend, Spearfinger is a monster with a sharp finger resembling a pointed spear on her right hand. Stories say she targets those who are separated from their group by attacking her victims from behind. It’s reported that Spearfinger can typically be found lurking around Whiteside Mountain and the surrounding areas.
2. Chief Tenaya // Yosemite National Park
Nestled in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite is known for its iconic landscapes and unmatched hikes. Beneath its natural beauty, however, lie several eerie stories tied to its tumultuous past. One of the most prominent is that of Chief Tenaya of the Ahwahneechee people. Chief Tenaya’s people lived in Yosemite when settlers attempted to force them out of the park. After one of his sons was shot in a conflict, Chief Tenaya vowed to curse the canyon.
Tenaya Valley has come to be colloquially known as “The Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite.” There have been numerous reports of strange sounds and unexplained deaths contributing to the 1300 deaths that have occurred in the park since it was inaugurated into the National Park Service in 1890.
3. Coughing Spirits // Mammoth Cave National Park
Kentucky is home to the world’s longest-known cave system. More than 500,000 people visit the Mammoth Cave National Park each year—but humans aren’t the only ones said to enter its depths. Visitors and guides alike have documented paranormal encounters within the park.
One of the most prominent stories is that of Dr. Croghan’s Infirmary: After purchasing part of the caves in 1839, Croghan attempted to convert part of the underground wonder into a hospital for tuberculosis patients, thinking that the cold subterranean environment would be beneficial to their lungs. However, his theory proved false. His patients’ conditions worsened, and the death toll rose. Visitors have reported sounds of coughs echoing through the cave in this section, believing them to be Croghan’s unfortunate patients.
4. Wailing Woman // Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is home to one of the most iconic landmarks in the United States. It’s also home to the Wailing Woman, an apparition said to frequent the Transept Trail and the Grand Canyon Lodge. According to the lore, the Wailing Woman waited in vain for her husband and child to return from their fatal hike. When they failed to return, she was so heartbroken that she died by suicide within the Grand Canyon Lodge. Since then, hikers and even park rangers have reported seeing a woman in a white dress garnished with blue flowers and a scarf over her head; others have reported hearing her cries and howls for her family.
5. Headless Bride // Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone’s geothermal wonders and stunning landscapes make an exceptional location for a honeymoon. As the story goes, the rebellious daughter of the owner of a wealthy shipping company married an older servant against her family’s wishes. The father regretfully granted a dowry for his daughter, and the couple spent their honeymoon at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. Following a violent argument between the newlyweds, the bride was found decapitated in her room; her head was later discovered in the hotel’s crow’s nest. Since then, guests have spotted a woman wearing a wedding dress descending the stairs with her head under her arm.
6. Ute Spirits // Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park served as the muse for Stephen King’s The Shining. This beautiful park is said to be haunted by the Ute people, the land’s early Indigenous inhabitants. According to the legend, a group of Utes camped near Grand Lake when they were unexpectedly attacked by a rival tribe, the Arapahos. The women and children sought to escape on a canoe during the ambush. Tragically, a flurry of wind caused the boat to capsize, drowning everyone on board. The Ute subsequently avoided the lake entirely, citing it as a cursed place. Today, it’s rumored that misty mornings reveal the spirits of the lost Ute women and children, calling onlookers to join them in the lake.