Ghost stories might scare your campfire circle. They can also offer hyperlocal histories for travel destinations around the country. Learn about a few spectral park visitors — if you dare — including kidnapped sailors and a skinny-dipping conservationist.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Lake Crescent has been the site of several mysterious disappearances and accidents over the years, but perhaps none so chilling as the “Lady of the Lake.” In 1940, two fishermen discovered an unusually well-preserved body floating on the surface of the 12-mile-wide lake. Deep-water chemicals had turned her skin hard and waxy, and her face wasn’t recognizable.
Dental records helped identify the body as Hallie Latham Illingworth, a woman who had vanished from nearby Port Angeles back in 1937. She had been working at a tavern when she met her third husband, but things were bleak from the start — she routinely showed up to work with bruises and black eyes. When Illingworth disappeared six months into their marriage, her husband claimed she’d run off to Alaska with a sailor.
Ropes tied around Illingworth and marks on her body eventually helped authorities convict him of her murder (though he only served nine years). Ghost sightings are common among visitors and locals alike, particularly around the Spruce Railroad Trail and the Lake Crescent Lodge, formerly the tavern where Illingworth worked.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Visitors to Indiana Dunes report seeing the spirit of “Diana of the Dunes,” also known as Alice Mabel Gray — the reason the dunes are now protected lands.
Born in 1881, Gray attended college at 16, receiving her bachelor’s degree and a slew of honorable mentions in biology, math and astronomy, all before most women in the U.S. could even vote. After picking up a master’s degree in Germany, she came home to Chicago to a job as a stenographer. She hated the limitations of a 9-to-5 lifestyle and found refuge at Indiana Dunes.
At 34 years old, Gray left society behind and permanently moved to the lakeshore, living on her own in a rundown abandoned shack. She studied the ecology of the dunes, writing, hiking and occasionally frolicking naked in the waves. Sailors spotted her skinny dipping (viewed as an outrage at the time), and newspapers picked up her story, calling her a mermaid, “Nympho of the Dunes” and “Diana of the Dunes” after the Roman goddess of wildlife.
She used her newfound fame to talk about conservation and why the dunes shouldn’t be destroyed. Though she died of kidney failure before the area was protected as a national park site in 1966, Gray is a direct reason the land is protected. The park honors her memory with “Diana’s Dare,” a challenge to visit sites associated with Gray to see the park through her eyes.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts
The wrongfully accused defendants of the 1692 witch trials aren’t the only lingering spirits in Salem. In the 1700s, the city was a bustling port with traders from all over the world, contributing to the rise of gambling and brothels.
The wealthy merchant Elias Haskey Derby (owner of Derby House, part of the present-day national park site) created a side business smuggling jewels, foreign metals, art and other valuables into Salem. He realized he needed two things to grow his business: a network of tunnels to move the goods underground and a steady stream of new crew members for his ships (hard labor and rampant disease made less-than-attractive help wanted ads). Derby realized he could kill two birds with one stone by using a tunnel to a local brothel to kidnap young men to work for him.
Today, the brothel is a restaurant called Mercy Tavern, known as one of the most haunted places in Salem. Diners claim to hear voices and see sailors sitting at the bar, and employees report shouts and loud noises under the floorboards. There are plenty of rumors about what happened in those underground passages, but ironically, Derby was able to build the tunnel system by telling the town he wanted to revamp its marshlands into parks (which he did!).
Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming
Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn is home to its fair share of ghost stories, from a crying child in sneakers who disappears when anyone tries to help him to a sea merchant jostling door handles and peering in windows.
Perhaps the most famous spirit is the Headless Bride of Room 127. Legend has it that in 1915, two newlyweds were violently arguing after the husband had gambled away all their money. He fled the park, and the bride wasn’t seen for days. According to the story, hotel staff finally found her in the bathtub — without her head.
People claimed to see the bride floating around the inn, crying and upset, and the story became extremely well-known. Yet, in 1983, an assistant manager at the inn admitted to making the whole thing up. It remains unclear whether the murder actually happened, but the bride has made her way into park folklore regardless.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Before Mammoth Cave was protected by the National Park Service, it was privately owned, changing hands throughout the 1800s. Owners almost always offered tours to the public, even during the Civil War.
In 1839, a lawyer named John Croghan purchased the caves for $10,000 with even bigger plans: a tuberculosis sanatorium. Croghan believed the cave environment would treat or even cure the disease, since ancient archaeological finds were incredibly well preserved in the cave’s depths. Enslaved people built huts (including two that still exist today) where 13 patients planned to live for a year. Public tours occasionally crossed paths with the patients, and visitors would hear echoing coughs and stumble on gaunt patients in hospital gowns by lantern light.
Initially, it did seem like the air quality was helping the patients get better, but things quickly took a turn: Five patients died, and the experiment was nixed. Visitors today recount hearing coughing and seeing the shuffling apparitions of the patients.
Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania
More than 7,800 soldiers lost their lives in July 1863 during one of the most intense battles in U.S. military history, so it’s no wonder many consider Gettysburg one of the most haunted places in the country. While less densely haunted than other parts of the battlefield, park-goers can visit the home of the only civilian killed during the battle, the Jennie Wade House.
Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade was visiting to help care for her sister’s newborn baby and do her part to keep the soldiers fed. More than 150 bullets struck the house over the course of the fighting.
On the third and final day, an errant bullet flew through two closed doors and struck Wade as she was kneading bread dough in her sister’s kitchen. The shot hit her torso and killed her instantly. She was eventually laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery after her mother campaigned to have her buried there with the soldiers from the battle. A perpetually raised American flag flies next to her monument, an honor she is one of only a few women in the U.S. to receive. Visitors say they see Wade walking through her family’s home, wandering the fields and even appearing in photographs taken at the house.
The Goblin Gates
The powerful currents of the Elwha River rage through jagged rock outcroppings and plunge into the mouth of the Rica Canyon in the northern section of Olympic National Park. Explorer Charles A. Barnes named this stunning gorge after seeing what appeared to him as faces in the rock near the water’s edge.
He wrote in his journal that the rock seemed to have “tortured expressions” and a “gloomy and mysterious character,” and that the whole stretch resembled the “throat of a monster.” Perhaps a supernatural force does control the area; though people have attempted to bridge the gates twice, the first bridge washed away and the second decayed and was removed. Now, visitors can hike to the area and admire the goblin’s swirling “mouth.”
The steamy hot springs and burbling mudpots in this geothermal hotspot may seem spooky all on their own, but this region of Lassen Volcanic National Park became known as a “hell” after unlucky explorer Kendall Bumpass fell into a pool of boiling-hot water and lost one of his legs.
The area also contains one of the hottest fumaroles in the world, Big Boiler; its acidic, high-velocity steam has been measured at temperatures up to 322 degrees Fahrenheit—closer to the weather in hell than many other national park attractions.
The Torture Chamber
Explorers have mapped more than 177 miles of twisting underground passageways in this cave system and continue to explore more of it each year with no end in sight, making it the third-largest cave in the world. Two of Jewel Cave’s earliest explorers, Jan and Herb Conn, discovered a large room after a long day of spelunking and were relieved to hear the sound of loudly dripping water.
Desperately thirsty with nothing left to drink, they spent valuable time and energy hunting for the source of the water instead of heading back to the surface for supplies. Despite their fruitless attempts to rehydrate, they eventually survived the ordeal, exhausted, and commemorated their frustration by giving the room its ominous name.
The Pine Barrens
This large wooded park is the country’s first national reserve, protecting more than a million acres across seven counties—so it’s no wonder that dozens of rare plant and animal species make their homes here. One animal rumored to live in the park’s vast patchwork of forests has captured the imagination of residents and visitors for more than 260 years, though scientists have yet to officially document the curious species.
Described as a flying creature with glowing eyes, the head of a dog, the face of a goat, bat-like wings, cloven hooves, and a forked tail, the Jersey Devil has allegedly appeared to dozens of people over the course of history. We can only hope the Park Service’s expert wildlife biologists can classify this strange creature before it flies around in a screeching huff and feeds on more innocent pets, as it is sometimes rumored to do.
This famously hot desert park has its share of foreboding landscapes, from Dante’s View to Devil’s Cornfield to Coffin Peak to the Funeral Mountains. The area also features more ghost towns than actual towns. In one particularly rough Old West mining settlement, a saloon owner named Joe “Hootch” Simpson allegedly gunned down a banker in a drunken rage in 1908 to settle a $20 debt.
The townspeople subsequently formed a lynch mob and hanged Simpson, then buried him, exhumed him and re-hanged him for the benefit of a visiting reporter before the town doctor, finally, strangely, beheaded him. Now, the legend goes that Simpson’s headless ghost continues to haunt the area—though nothing remains of the town—to this day.
In the summer of 1863, a small farming community became the site of the bloodiest battle in the Civil War. The fierce fighting turned farm fields into graveyards and churches into hospitals, leaving a staggering 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded, or missing after three intense days of conflict.
Now, a barefoot Confederate ghost known as the “Tennessean” or the “Hippie” has appeared to numerous visitors at a rocky hill known as Devil’s Den where Union snipers fired on Confederate soldiers during the second day of the battle. This ghost is said to gesture toward a nearby stream and say, “What you’re looking for is over there,” before vanishing back into history.
Kennecott Copper Mines
The total size of Wrangell-St. Elias is equivalent to six Yellowstones, with few people to occupy its vast wilderness. Nowhere does this sparse landscape feel as ghostly as it does in the abandoned mining town of Kennecott. A century ago, this desolate area was bustling with prospectors and miners, and a private company built an expensive 200-mile railroad to transport the area’s ore for processing.
The railroad was treacherous to build over the rough, glaciated terrain and many people were reported to have died during the construction; still more perished in the mining operations that followed. After the copper and gold ran out and the mining towns turned to ghost towns, visitors began seeing tombstones along the abandoned track, only to return later to say that the graves had mysteriously disappeared. Legend has it that workers in the 1990s even stopped a construction project after seeing and hearing phantoms and losing tools right out of their workbelts to Kennecott’s angry ghosts.
Slaughter Canyon Cave
One of the most notable sights at Carlsbad Cavern is the sight of the park’s 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats leaving the cave each night at sunset in dramatic clouds of flapping wings. However, most of these bats migrate south for the winter before Halloween rolls around and don’t return until the early spring. Fortunately, visitors can still enjoy a spooky time late into October by exploring the park’s wild underground passageways.
Slaughter Canyon Cave has no electric lights and no paved walkways—this means navigating with rangers for more than two hours through a totally dark, humid underworld of peculiar rock formations and … a whole lot of guano. Note: A nominal fee and a somewhat strenuous hike are required for this tour; headlamps and gloves are provided.
It’s a rock … that looks like a skull! Is it haunted? Probably not. But it’s a short walk off the main park road, making it one of the most accessible and fun places to explore at Joshua Tree. Climb right into the eyes of this perfect Halloween-themed hiking spot and haunt it yourself!