MORGANTON, N.C. — For centuries, many have claimed to have seen the elusive Brown Mountain Lights — bright orbs said to unexpectedly materialize between dusk and dawn — that are believed to be ghostly spirits, extraterrestrials or just mysterious natural phenomenon.
Two prime public viewing spots attract the hopeful and skeptical. Fall is especially prime by day, with foliage at its peak in the Blue Ridge foothills in mid-October. And after dark, the season has often brought an uptick in reports of Brown Mountain Lights sightings.
There may be more folks looking for the apparitions this autumn now that Burke County Travel & Tourism has published a 22-page brochure, Brown Mountain Lights, Morganton, N.C.: A Viewing Guide. It capitalizes on what transpired in July: A long-skeptical astronomy professor captured what may be the first unimpeachable photos of the lights.
Yes, he now says, they do seem to exist.
But what are they?
“I don’t know,” says the professor.For centuries, Native Americans, explorers and modern-day residents of Burke County, N.C., have claimed to have seen mysterious lights atop Brown Mountain, 90 miles west of Winston-Salem, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
John Bordsen for USA TODAY
Reports of unexplained glowing lights on Brown Mountain pre-date European settlement of the area. They are part of Native American legend; Brown Mountain, the story goes, was the site of a battle between the Cherokee and Catawba, and the lights are the spirits of women searching for their fallen warriors.
Sightings, legends and theories percolated through Victorian times though Brown Mountain and peaks nearby remained wild and usually viewed from a distance. The immediate vicinity is now part of Pisgah National Forest.
Newspaper articles in the early 1900s fanned interest. A 1922 investigation by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that the lights were actually from automobiles and locomotives — findings many in the area did not accept. In 1928, two-lane N.C. 181 was established atop Jonas Ridge, about 2.4 miles west of Brown Mountain, across a valley, two creeks and low-slung Old Way Ridge. One result was better visibility by day ... and by night.
Theories about the lights grew to include ghosts of murder victims, fairies and UFOs.
Sightings continued and media attention grew, from an Argosy magazine story (“The UFOs You Can See Right Now”) to a 1999 X-Files episode inspired by the lights, from a popular bluegrass song to an array of cable TV documentaries.
The Brown Mountain Overlook was added to N.C. 181. The popular pullover, 18 miles north of Morganton, has parking, picnic tables and incredible views. One plaque offers a quick description of the Brown Mountain Lights, another IDs the peaks in front of you. The big one on the left is Chestnut Mountain, 3,250 feet and just a half-mile off. Brown Mountain, to your far right, is farther away and lower (2,725 feet). The picnic tables are helpfully aligned to face Brown Mountain — a kind of Mayberry riff on the famed crypto-archaeology Nazca Lines site in Peru.
What to look for after dusk? Bright balls flickering on a mountainside inhabited by bears and copperheads instead of humans. The orbs have been reported as white, red, yellow and blue — sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs, sometimes stationary, sometimes gliding through the dark.
What the scientist’s cameras recorded
It was the kind of thing that stuck in Daniel Caton’s craw. “I’ve seen people get excited by the lights of Lenoir” — a city just up the way — “or campfire lights,” he says.
Caton is a professor of astronomy at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University and director of its observatory. Over the years — in articles, broadcasts, lecture halls and two symposia about the Brown Mountain phenomenon — he held that first-person accounts and blurry snapshots were, at best, wishful thinking.
Caton hoped to conclusively prove the lights were natural occurrences – globs of gas known as ball lightning.
Last December, he had two surveillance cameras attached to roof eaves with clear Brown Mountain views. Each would take an exposure every 30 seconds; the cameras were eventually synchronized to prove unimpeachable verification of any sighting. But thousands of nocturnal images, downloaded day after day, revealed nothing.
Caton was ready to pull the plug on his experiment until the events of the evening of July 16-17. Over the course of 20 minutes, the footage on both cameras showed what he called “This glowing light that appeared four times and didn’t move or, like stars, streak. … There was nothing going on in the sky that could have created a false photo.”
Brown Mountain is also known for lightning storms. No matter, according to Caton: “There was nothing spectacular about the lightning that night. And (atmospheric) lightning has no correlation to ball lightning.”
What did Caton’s cameras capture?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I need more data.”
Another great view
Go see for yourself. The N.C. 181 Overlook can be visited night or day. On the west side of the highway there is another overlook that identifies four other summits: Table Rock, Hawksbill, Sitting Bear and Gingercake. Out of view beyond them is Linville Gorge, where the Linville River has carved 2,000 feet to create “The Grand Canyon of the East.”
The gorge — also part of Pisgah National Forest — has its share of reported lights, and a high bluff affords a distant look at Brown Mountain from Wiseman’s View Scenic Overlook.
Keep driving north on N.C. 181, jog west on N.C. 183 to Linville Falls, then head south on Old N.C. 105 to get there. Maps show Old N.C. 105 can take you back to Morganton, but the ridge-riding gravel road’s condition is such that you wouldn’t want to try that in anything other than a 4-wheel-drive. By day, if you’re not averse to some chuckholes, you can at least drive as far as Wiseman’s View for the soaring, higher-elevation sight of far-off Brown Mountain.
From the forest’s Linville Falls gate, our Impala made it 2 miles south to the fourth parking area; we parked there and hoofed past pull-ins for wilderness camping. In maybe 2.5 miles we came to the Wiseman’s View turnoff.
An asphalt path led to an incredible grouping of stone-block cliff-side observation parapets built decades ago. On a sunny September afternoon, the views of the narrow river far below and of the mountains to the east were fantasy vistas worthy of a painting by Maxfield Parrish or weird tale by H.P. Lovecraft.
On the eastern horizon, the saddle between the distinctive Hawksbill and Table Rock peaks framed Brown Mountain, low, dark and slithering into view from the right. The Wiseman parapets pointed directly there.
Looking that way on the right evening, campers on the gorge bluff might see bright and mysterious lights, 7.5 miles east.
And just a gasp away.
If you go
Getting there: Morganton is 90 minutes west of Winston-Salem, N.C., via I-40. In Morganton, take N.C. 181 north to the Brown Mountain Overlook.
Camping in Linville Gorge: There are 13 or 14 dispersed-area campsites in the Linville Gorge section of Pisgah National Forest on Old N.C. 105 (also signed as State Road 1238 and as Kistler Memorial Highway). The sites are free, as close as you can camp to Wiseman’s View, and are available on a first-come basis. Check for availability at the gate cabin in Linville Falls. Details: 828-652-2144.
Area info: Burke County Tourism, discoverburkecounty.com. Stop by their visitors center, 1110 E. Meeting Street, Morganton, for maps.
Dining: In Linville Falls, stop at Famous Louise’s Rock House (averymuseum.com/famous_louise.htm) for great country food. The restaurant is literally at the junction of three counties. Park in front (McDowell County); the kitchen is in Avery County; the waitress window is in Burke.
Drink: Back in Morganton, swing by Brown Mountain Bottleworks, on the town’s attractive square at 115 E. Union Street (brownmountainbottleworks.com). The tavern/store is well-stocked with specialty beers and other spirits.
More places for ‘wow’ seekers
Other byways and places known for sightings of inexplicable phenomena include:
• Nev. 375, billed as “The Extraterrestrial Highway” due to its proximity to Area 51, a remote patch of south-central Nevada of great interest to UFO theorists. Check out the hamlet of Rachel. Rachel was mentioned on The X-Files, and scenes from the sci-fi film Independence Day were filmed there.
• Corona to Roswell, N.M. The alleged 1947 UFO crash that put Roswell on the map was actually 30 miles away in Corona, on U.S. 54. From Corona, take N.M. 247 to U.S. 285, and continue south to Roswell, which touts its flying saucer legacy.
• Colo. 112, north of Hooper. Southwest of Great Sand Dunes National Monument and Preserve, the San Luis Valley has a reputation as a great place for UFO spotting. On Alamosa County Road 61, the UFO Watch Tower attracts the curious.
• Kecksburg, Pa., southeast of Pittsburgh and north of I-70, is close to where an acorn-shaped UFO allegedly crashed in 1965. The official explanation is that it was a meteor crash, but a model of a UFO, created for the Unsolved Mysteries program, is displayed near the local fire station.
• Bayfield, Wis., on the shores of Lake Superior, has a long history of UFO sightings. Bayfield Ghost and History Walks includes a UFO component — as well as stops associated with the area’s version of Bigfoot.