Camping. There’s a special chill in the air reserved for cold nights spent in the woods, when the simple rustle of a leaf and the snap of a twig are loud enough to stir us from our sleep. When the moon rises, even the most scenic of campgrounds can seem to turn sinister. Suddenly, rabbits, deer, squirrels and foxes — animals that by day would give us a thrill — have the ability to startle us from the warmth of a sleeping bag.
But at these campsites, what moves in the night may be more than a curious creature. It might be something unexplainable, something very frightening indeed.
Devil’s Den State Park — Ark.
In 1977, two U.S. Air Force buddies left Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and drove south to the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. There on the Arkansas/Oklahoma border, they set up camp near a treeline on a remote hilltop in what proved to be an evening that would change their lives. When the two servicemen returned to Missouri, they were covered in severe burns and had jarring memories of bright lights descending on them from the sky in the middle of the night.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations launched an inquisition into the matter. And, more than 30 years later, surgeons would discover an unidentifiable piece of metal and two wires buried inside one of their legs. The entire affair was chronicled on a 2019 episode of the Astonishing Legends podcast.
Today, visitors can still camp at Devil’s Den State Park. And, while the exact location of the men’s campsite is unmarked, the park offers numerous dispersed and developed campsites for visitors.
Garnet Ghost Town — Mont.
There was a time when 1,200 people called the Montana mining town of Garnet home. Situated 7,400 feet high at the end of the ominously named Last Chance Gulch, Garnet was a hub of activity that brought gold, fortune and infamy to its residents.
But by 1905, most of the mines that brought Garnet glory had dried up and been abandoned, leaving only a fragment of the population behind. By 1912, a fire ramped through half of the town, and just a few years later the remaining residents abandoned Garnet for good.
Today, visitors can saunter through Garnet’s abandoned saloons and homes, gaze into the void of abandoned mine shafts in its woods and hear ghost stories from the minuscule park staff. Despite the town’s manicured state of preservation, legends of disembodied voices, strange music and objects moving of their own free will abound.
Though Garnet has no official campsites, travelers have been permitted to overnight in the parking lot overlooking the town. Dispersed camping is also allowed for up to 14 days on the Bureau of Land Management lands surrounding the site.
Donner Memorial State Park — Calif.
In the spring of 1846, a party of emigrants set out from Independence, Mo., in nine covered wagons with their hearts set on starting new lives on the West Coast. By July 20, the party of 87 was only in Wyoming. Running behind and racing to make up time before winter weather blocked their crossing over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, they took an untested shortcut — straight through the grueling salt flats of Utah.
The maneuver backfired, costing them crucial time and leaving them stranded in the mountains just as winter storms set in. Exhausted, immobile and starving, the members of what became known as the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism to keep themselves alive until rescue came two months later. However, 39 of the 87 didn’t survive.
Set at an elevation of 6,000 feet, Donner Memorial State Park is a cheerful lakeside retreat, complete with campgrounds and a memorial to the ill-fated settlers.
Death Valley National Park — Nev.
A narrow dirt road winds its way south from the smooth asphalt of CA-190 in Death Valley National Park. It carries visitors through Emigrant Canyon, past a series of abandoned charcoal kilns and up through the Panamint Range to a series of pine-covered campsites at Thorndike Campground. The views here look straight down the valley toward the snowcapped peaks of the faraway Sierra Nevada Mountains, which glow at dusk and dawn.
Though Thorndike Campground itself bears no history of hauntings, it offers a perfect perch from which to contemplate the very real perils that cast a pall over Death Valley not so long ago. On the other side of the Panamints, an abandoned outpost of burned-out buildings marks the location of Barker Ranch — the last hideout of Charles Manson and a gang of cultists who terrorized southern California in 1969. At its peak, the cult claimed approximately 100 followers, many of whom were radicalized by its leader and implicated in a rash of murders that took nine lives.
Barker Ranch is now owned by the National Park Service and is still accessible via four-wheel drive.
Mesa Verde National Park — Colo.
Ghost stories give way to ancient history at Mesa Verde National Park. On a forested plateau above southwest Colorado, campers can explore the lingering remnants of a civilization that thrived more than 700 years ago. Camping beneath the petroglyphs and cliff dwellings of some of North America’s most advanced ancient people is enough to get any adventurer’s blood pumping.
This International Dark Sky Park doubles as a viewing platform for visitors to soak in the same starry views that ancestral Pueblo people marveled at — all just a stone’s throw from some of their grandest architectural achievements. At night, it’s easy to imagine the spirits of these ancient inhabitants stopping by camp for one more glance at infinity lingering in the blackness above.
Morefield Campground, located inside the park, serves up more than 260 individual campsites situated among oak trees and wildflowers. A nearby general store is typically stocked with food, ice and enough firewood for plenty of campfire tales beneath the park’s sparkling blanket of stars.
Rip Van Winkle Campground — N.Y.
The Catskill Mountains have long been a source of mystery and fear for Americans. It’s here that Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle wandered off into a 20-year slumber in the days before the Revolutionary War. And it’s here that Irving’s most infamous creation — the Headless Horseman — was said to roam the tree-lined byways in an eternal chase for Ichabod Crane.
Today, the Catskill Mountains still play host to a gallery of haunting legends that come to life in the fall. Rip Van Winkle Campground is home to an annual Halloween site-decorating contest; but more importantly, it rests just a short drive from a legion of terrifying thrills, like the haunted house at Headless Horseman Haunted Attractions in Ulster Park, Massacre Mansion in East Dunham and the ruins of Overlook Mountain House in Woodstock.
What’s more, the entire area is rumored to be haunted by the specters and spirits of combatants in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.
Jericho Mountain State Park — N.H.
A bustling playground for off-road vehicles, New Hampshire’s Jericho Mountain State Park overlooks the idyllic New England town of Berlin. With miles of ATV, UTV, dirt bike and snowmobile trails coursing through pristine Appalachian forests, it’s the perfect place to unwind.
The park offers developed campgrounds, cabins and yurts for visitors, but the real thrills begin on its service roads. There, adventurous campers can sleep beside the eerie ruins of 19th century logging camps whose slowly deteriorating husks linger in the woods. At dusk, the ruins come alive to the cries of screech owls that sound like banshees careening over the mountain meadows in the dark of night.
Lake Morena County Park — Calif.
The shadows of four decades of unexplained phenomena linger over Lake Morena County Park, where park staff have reported bizarre happenings since at least 1983. Levitating bodies, disembodied footsteps and the ominous presence of the specter of an old man have all become go-to campfire tales at this southern California slice of paradise.
Travelers staying at the park’s lakeside cabins have frequently reported hearing footsteps walking along the wood floor at night. Likewise, tent campers have reported the same echoes of heavy boots shuffling over the dirt outside of their canvas at night. Many visitors have also reported the apparition of a young woman in a floor-length, white dress along the shoreline.
Lake Morena County Park offers up 10 cabins for rent as well as more than 80 developed campsites featuring fire rings and picnic tables.
Crystal Lake Recreation Area — Calif.
Camp Crystal Lake may be the fictional home of legendary Friday the 13th star Jason Voorhees, but the real-life Crystal Lake — located just outside of Los Angeles — is home to real-world ghost stories.
During the 1930s, workers constructing park facilities near the lake brought their families to live alongside them in tents. One of those workers, Stephen Majors, brought with him a wife and two children while he worked on constructing an amphitheater and dance studio at Crystal Lake. On a September evening in 1934, Majors and his wife, Heather, returned to his family’s tent to find a large bear attacking his children.
Tragically, the fearless parents were unable to save themselves or the children from the bear. It’s said that the ghosts of the forlorn family still walk through Crystal Lake Campground’s trees and that their voices can be heard calling out for help, echoing through the night.
The site has 50 modern campsites featuring community vault toilets and access to trails in the surrounding Angeles National Forest.
Holy Ghost Campground — N.M.
Hidden in the northern portion of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the outskirts of the Pecos Wilderness, Holy Ghost Campground in the Santa Fe National Forest offers campers a remote, scenic place to pitch up, hit the trail or go for a hike just off of a lonely forest road. Here, a smattering of campsites sit along the rippling waters of Holy Ghost Creek beneath stands of evergreen pines and swaying aspen. It’s an otherwise idyllic location that legends say holds a gruesome past.
Stories tell of a Spanish priest who was murdered near this campground in the 17th century. Sporadic reports of the priest visiting campers are a mainstay of New Mexico folklore — so much so that they prompted a group of Outside Magazine editors (the publication is based in Santa Fe) to spend the night at the campground.
While the editors reported the night passing peacefully, associate managing editor Aleta Burchyski spotted the mysterious, looming figure of a man approaching her while fly fishing the next morning. When Burchyski attempted to hail the man, he vanished.
Antietam Creek Campground — Md.
On Sept. 17, 1862, 23,000 people died in ferocious, bloody combat in the Battle of Antietam. It’s no surprise, then, that the modern-day campground located about a mile from the borders of Antietam National Battlefield is said to be one of the most haunted campgrounds in America.
On any other plot of land, the quiet campsites of Antietam Creek Campground would be the perfect place for a weekend of relaxing in the wilderness. Here, they are a hotbed of paranormal activity that often leave campers reporting the sounds of musket fire, drumbeats and rolling cannons.
Devils Tower National Monument — Wyo.
The famed centerpiece of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind looms over the rolling countryside of eastern Wyoming not far from the town of Gillette. Though its otherworldly reputation is largely the creation of Hollywood, Devils Tower National Monument does carry an undeniable energy.
Hiking along Joyner Ridge Trail at sunset connects visitors to an ancient place and time. Stay long enough and the Milky Way will rise over the tower’s monolithic silhouette, reaching from one end of the horizon to the other.
The National Park Service maintains a developed campground at the foot of the monument. Meanwhile, the nearby KOA features nightly screenings of Spielberg’s iconic science fiction flick.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area — Utah
Prehistoric. Remote. And absolutely nerve-rattling. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area rests on the Utah and Wyoming border about 90 miles from Vernal, home of Utah’s infamous Skinwalker Ranch. Ninety miles may seem like a safe distance until one considers the sheer volume of unnatural events emanating from the ranch — events linking UFOs, Native American folklore, hauntings and animal mutilations.
For outdoors lovers, the massive swath of federal land at Flaming Gorge is an open playground of rocky outcrops and sandy beaches pockmarked by roaming herds of pronghorn antelope, moose and elk. But for the superstitious, few scenes conjure images of their own paranormal encounters like a moonlit night spent alone at one of the area’s dispersed campsites. With 700 sites spread across 360 miles of shoreline along the Green River, most are isolated enough to bring the goosebumps out in even the hardiest traveler.