America’s national parks preserve some of the country’s most spectacular natural assets. And these protected areas also often have a rich past – but sometimes, that past is terribly tragic.
Morbid historical events in many of these parks have inspired spooky legends that endure today, from tales of murder to mysterious illnesses. Though these haunted trails are great for Halloween hiking, they’re also fascinating places to check out year-round, especially for hikers on the hunt for spooky specters (or who love nerve-rattling local legends.)
The Heritage Trail (or guided tours)
- Park: Mammoth Cave National Park
- State: Kentucky
- Distance: .8 miles
- Elevation gain: 40 feet
Anchored by the longest cave system on earth, Mammoth Cave National Park has a reputation for ethereal encounters — so many that several park rangers wrote a book about the park’s otherworldly occurrences: Scary Stories of Mammoth Cave.
The subterranean wonder first opened as a tourist attraction in 1816, and a couple of decades later, physician John Croghan purchased the cave and created an underground sanatorium (place to treat chronic disease) for patients with tuberculosis. Five patients died in residence in just five months, and the subterranean facility closed after half a year in operation.
At the same time, a cave guide named Stephen Bishop was charting miles of the sandstone labyrinth using only a lantern. First brought to Mammoth Cave in 1838 as an enslaved man, Bishop spent nearly two decades exploring the cave system. And he accomplished quite a lot. Today, more than 420 miles of Mammoth Cave have been charted, although an estimated 600 miles remain unexplored.
Since the park opened 1941, rangers leading tours have reported encountering Stephan Bishop — suggesting the legendary guide may still be exploring the cave’s unchartered corners by lantern light. The park’s Heritage Trail is one of the most haunted trails in any US national park as the .8-mile route skirts the Old Guide’s Cemetery – Bishop’s final resting place.
Visitors can only go inside the actual Mammoth Cave as part of a guided tour. The Violet City Lantern Tour is guided only by lantern light for an extra spooky factor, but the Extended Historic Tour goes by the area where tuberculosis patients were treated (as well as “corpse rock,” where the deceased bodies were laid out for months).
The Transept Trail
- Park: Grand Canyon National Park
- State: Arizona
- Distance: 2.9 miles
- Elevation gain: 280 feet
Designated as one of the planet’s seven natural wonders by the aptly named Seven Natural Wonders Foundation, the Grand Canyon is America’s most spectacular geological marvel. Forming the centerpiece of the Grand Canyon National Park, the two-billion-year-old chasm etched into the Colorado Plateau features in plenty of local legends.
Humans have inhabited the region since the last ice age, and today, there are still 11 tribes associated with the protected area. For more than a century, the jaw-dropping spectacle has also drawn tourists – and sometimes, visits have ended tragically. So naturally, there are a few haunted trails.
Along the Grand Canyon’s loftier North Rim, hikers and park rangers have reported encountering a bereaved apparition in a white dress wandering the Transept Trail and the grounds of the Grand Canyon Lodge. Nicknamed the “Wailing Woman,” the tearful specter is believed to have been a guest at the park’s original lodge: a getaway perched on the North Rim from 1928 until 1932, when it burned down during a kitchen fire.
Although there is little historical documentation, anecdotes suggest the woman’s husband and child perished while hiking the Transept Trail, disappearing on a day when foul weather made conditions especially treacherous. And now, it’s known as one of Arizona’s most haunted trails. The trail clings to the edge of a ravine splintering off Bright Angel Canyon, extending from the Grand Canyon Lodge to the North Rim Campground – meaning there’s still a chance to encounter the footpath’s legendary spirit.
West Beach Three-Loop Trail
- Park: Indiana Dunes National Park
- State: Indiana
- Distance: 3.4 miles
- Elevation gain: 220 feet
Spread along the southern edge of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park is a patchwork of prairie grasslands, wildlife-rich wetlands, and forest-tufted sand dunes.
Today, the protected area is one of the most biodiverse national parks in the country. But a century ago, the wilderness was almost squeezed out by local industry. The region’s largest dune – the 200-foot-tall Hoosier Slide — was hauled away by glass manufacturers before 1920. When the area was finally protected as a state park in 1926 (and a national park in 2019) it was partially thanks to a vocal champion – Alice Mabel Gray.
An intellectual who worked as a stenographer, Gray became disenchanted with her urban existence – and on Halloween in 1915, she hopped a train for the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Gray spent the remaining nine years of her life living beside the lake, earning a nickname from local reporters: “Diana of the Dunes.”
Before her death in 1925, Gray studied the lakeshore’s flora and fauna and became an advocate for the region’s ecologically-rich dunes. Although she died nearly a century ago, visitors still report spotting Gray along one of the park’s supposedly haunted trails along the lakeside dunes she loved.
Visitors can investigate the legend by heading to the park’s West Beach to walk Gray’s former stomping grounds along the Diana Dunes Dare. A signposted .6-mile loop, the circuit traverses Diana’s Dune and offers panoramic views of the Chicago skyline across the lake. It’s part of the longer and lovely West Beach Three-Loop Trail, which is also popular with birdwatchers. It’s a lovely place for a short stroll even without any unexplainable phenomena.
Spruce Railroad Trail
- Park: Olympic National Park
- State: Washington
- Distance: 11.2 miles
- Elevation gain: 400 feet
Olympic National Park‘s Lake Crescent has featured in plenty of legends. Covering the northern end of the Olympic Peninsula, the lake was created when part of Mount Storm King crumbled onto a battlefield amid a bloody war, crushing the combatants, and sculpting the bed of the massive lagoon – according to legend, at least.
More recently, and more factually, an eerily preserved body was found floating in the crystalline lake during the summer of 1940. Discovered by trout fisherman, the corpse was dubbed the Lady of the Lake. Police eventually identified as Hallie Latham Illingworth, a local tavern server who disappeared in 1937. After three years in the water, police described her body as having a waxy texture, likely due to the natural process of saponification — a process by which fats and oils become soap-like.
Her tale is one of the goriest at any national park: she was found with strangulation bruises, allowing authorities to link her death to her husband, Monty. Although the mystery was solved, visitors still report seeing Hallie lingering along the shores of Lake Crescent on one of Washington’s most haunted trails.
Noland Creek Trail
- Park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- State: Tennessee
- Distance: 18.5 miles
- Elevation gain: 2,500 feet
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has plenty of nerve-rattling legends. After all, the Cherokee have lived in the mountain-rippled region for more than a thousand years. And European settlers descended on the Smokies beginning in the late 1700s. Remnants of these early inhabitants are sprinkled throughout the protected area, including ghost towns, former homesteads, and more than 200 cemeteries.
Around the same time the park was created, the Tennessee Valley Authority built Fontana Dam, flooding Fontana Lake in the process. When the lake filled with water in the early 1940s, more than a thousand residents were expelled. A road was promised through the park to provide access to historic homesites and graveyards to accommodate these displaced residents, but only six miles of motorway ever materialized.
Today, the route is known as the Road to Nowhere and is known for being one of Tennessee’s most haunted trails. Hikers traversing the lake’s northern shore have reported observing a spectral settler who seems to be searching for someone. According to local legend, the lingering spirit is a settler who died looking for his missing daughter – and today, the apparition appears as a sphere of light, guiding hikers along the trail.
Search for the glowing orb on the Noland Creek Trail, north of Fontana Lake. The footpath passes both the Lower Noland Cemetery and the Upper Noland Cemetery within the first six miles, and while the full hike is too long for one day, there are plenty of backcountry campsites spread along the route.
Goler Canyon Road
- Park: Death Valley National Park
- State: California
- Distance: 11 miles
- Elevation gain: 3,500 feet
The largest national park in the continental United States, Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes. Cradled by the Amargosa and Panamint ranges, the park is renowned for mysterious phenomena — like the moving rocks and singing dunes.
But in the late 1960s, the vast protected area also harbored a cult-like troop of drifters led by Charles Manson. Nicknamed the Manson Family – yes, that Mason Family – the gang occupied the Barker Ranch, a former mining camp turned rustic getaway for a few months in the late 1960s.
After damaging a handful of spots throughout the protected area – then designated as Death Valley National Monument – the squatters were arrested in early October of 1969 and charged with vandalism, arson, and auto theft. However, a few months later, four members of Manson’s gang were tied to a series of murders committed in Los Angeles during the summer of 1969. Victims included actress Sharon Tate, Folgers Coffee heir Abigail Folger, stylist Jay Sebring, and author Wojciech Voytek.
Today, hardy hikers can still make the 10.5-mile, out-and-back trek to the barebones hideaway used by the Manson family, following Goler Canyon Road into the Panamint Valley. It may not be one of California’s most famous haunted trails, but it’s at least one of the creepiest.
Editor’s note: Goler Canyon Road is closed as of October 2022 following heavy flooding.
Corbin Cabin Trail
- Park: Shenandoah National Park
- State: Virginia
- Distance: 2.9 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,000 feet
Spread over the flanks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the hills and hollows of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park are brimming with Appalachian legends. The park has more than 900 years of human history, meaning plenty of people lived in the mountains when park service protected the area in 1935.
In the early 1900s, George Corbin was one of these scrappy pioneers living in the area. He settled in Nicholson Hollow, carving out an existence farming fruit and grains and slinging home-brewed brandy during the dry days of Prohibition. But in the winter of 1924, his wife died during childbirth, and he again faced hardship when his family was among the more than 450 families evicted to form the park.
But today, Corbin’s sturdy cabin remains, maintained by the non-profit Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. From Skyline Drive (the motorway bisecting the national park), it’s just a short hike to the homestead. Hikers can even rent the cabin for the chance to sleep in the historical building – and for an extra-spooky addition, check out the family cemetery just down the trail from the historic homestead.
Canyon Rim Boardwalk Trail
- Park: New River Gorge National Park
- State: West Virginia
- Distance: .6 miles
- Elevation gain: 90 feet
West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve might be the country’s newest national park, but the protected area is bisected by one of the oldest waterways on the planet—the New River. Once a hotbed for regional mining operations, the protected area is still scattered with the remains of abandoned railroad and mining towns, like Kaymoor and Thurmond.
The landscape also provided the backdrop for one of the most monumental engineering catastrophes in United States history — the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. In the spring of 1930, laborers began digging a tunnel through Gauley Mountain to channel water from the New River to a plant downstream. While excavating the sandstone mountain, workers were engulfed in clouds of silica dust – and very quickly plagued by a fatal lung disease, eventually diagnosed as silicosis.
Workers completed the tunnel in 18 months, but more than 2,900 of then, most African-American, died from silicosis in the months and years to come. Today, the national park’s New River Gorge Bridge is about 10 miles south of the Hawk’s Nest Dam. While it may not be known for being one of America’s haunted trails, it’s certainly a fascinating place to go to see the landscape and mountains the workers were tasked with drilling through.
For expansive views of the landscape and the third-highest bridge in the country, hike the short Canyon Rim Boardwalk Trail near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. Visitors can also explore the ghost town of Thurmond on a walking tour or hike one of several trails around the abandoned coal-mining town.