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A mystery in the mountains: Looking for the Brown Mountain Lights

People have been seeing the lights for hundreds of years, but no one knows what they are.

The Brown Mountain Lights are a mystery in the mountains, not far from Knoxville.

The lights are a phenomenon in the Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina that are totally unexplained. The floating orbs can sometimes be seen floating over Brown Mountain near Morganton.

“We tell people that the Brown Mountain Lights are our mystery in the mountains," said Burke County Travel and Tourism Director Ed Phillips.

People have been seeing the lights for hundreds of years, but no one knows what they are.

There are numerous theories, from the supernatural to the serious.

Native American tribes used to battle over this land. Could the lights be the ghosts of Native American maidens, looking for their lost loves who were killed in the fighting?

“Some didn’t come back," said Phillips. "And so, the maidens, the Native American/Indian maidens, came out with torches, pine knots, that were lit, searching for the warriors that never returned.”

In the early 1900s, the U.S. Geological Survey said the lights were headlights on trains. That theory seemed logical, but Phillips said flooding in 1916 completely wiped out the railroad tracks, and the lights were still seen.

Maybe they are car lights or campfires, but they move in areas where there are no roads. Some believe the lights are intelligent, and have even followed people around.

You can search the internet and find dozens of pictures and videos.

One was even captured by a professor at Appalachian State University who’s working to figure out what they are.

“That was the first time, that science—scientists—actual professors at a major university in North Carolina, had gone on an expedition, placed these cameras out and actually caught something from a scientific perspective,” said Phillips.

Dr. Daniel Caton has been studying the lights for years.

On the night of July 16, 2016, he found a breakthrough in the research.

"Suddenly we had this video that both cameras caught this light over the mountain that direction, it was something we really couldn't explain," said Caton.

Caton had been researching for nearly 10 years without solid proof of the lights' existence.

"I was getting beyond skeptical," Caton said. "I was cynical about it."

Phillips has heard hundreds of stories.

“After hearing eye witness accounts of the lights, and close encounters with the lights, the lights sometimes appear to act intelligent, and they follow people through the woods, or they avoid people through the woods, so I don’t know what they are," said Phillips.

He had his own encounter with the lights as he looked out over Linville Gorge.

“I had actually brought a journalist here, and we had been set up, sitting out like I said in lawn chairs," said Phillips. "We had been there for about 45 minutes, and we saw this light on Brown Mountain appear, and we looked at each other, and I said, ‘Did you see that?’ and he said, ‘Yeah.’”

As for Caton, the next steps are to figure out what the lights are, what correlation the lights have to this specific place and why they only show up on rare occasions.

“You’re not crazy, you did see something," said Phillips. "We still don’t know what it is.”

So for now, we’re still left in the dark.

Want to see them for yourself?

The lights are visible on clear nights from vantage points along N.C. 181. From Morganton, travel 14 miles north on Highway 181 and the Brown Mountain Overlook will be located on the right hand side. Or you can see them from the Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks at Wiseman's View, mile posts 310 (Brown Mountain Light overlook), and 301 (Green Mountain overlook).