A North Carolina Mystery
Have you ever heard of a western North Carolina phenomenon known as the Brown Mountain Lights? These “ghost lights,” as they’re often called, are visible from several different overlooks of Brown Mountain near the town of Morganton, North Carolina, and they’ve baffled those lucky enough to witness them for hundreds of years.
Thousands have seen the ghostly aberrations, said to materialize at night as a single light or as a group of hundreds. When they do appear, which is rare, they float up the ridge of Brown Mountain and hover above its summit before changing colors and disappearing into the night sky.
One early account of the Brown Mountain Lights was reported in the Charlotte Daily Observer on September 24, 1913 when members of a local fishing club claimed to witness a series of mysterious red lights, circular in shape, just above the crest of the 2,283-foot Brown Mountain.
“The mys-terious light that is seen just above the horizon almost every night form Rattlesnake Knob, near Cold Spring, on the Morganton road, about seven miles from here, is still baffling all investigators,” reads the 105-year-old article. “All theories as to its origin or nature have either been exploded or fall through from lack of evidence to support them.”
While the earliest sightings of the Brown Mountain Lights have roots in legend and lore—one Cherokee legend credits their origin to the lantern light of a wandering maiden in search of a long lost lover—the existence of the phenomenon is very real and well documented.
Dr. Daniel B. Caton is a professor of physics and astronomy at Appalachian State University in nearby Boone. He says he was initially skeptical about the existence of the Brown Mountain Lights but received so many inquiries about the phenomenon that he decided to look into it for himself. The stories that convinced Caton to dig deeper documented close encounters with the lights in the vicinity of the Linville Gorge.
“I got a lot of emails from people who claimed to see the lights,” Caton said. “And the particular ones that pulled me back from cynicism were very close encounters, not looking out over the Gorge 1,000 feet but looking ten feet from the parking lot.”
For his part, Caton believes that the lights exists but says that only five to ten percent of reported sightings are likely legitimate. And while paranormal speculation seems to run rampant among those looking to explain, document or just witness the lights, Caton believes that the secret of the Brown Mountain Lights is rooted in physics, not the metaphysical. Instead, Caton aligns himself with a theory that links the Brown Mountain Lights back to an atmospheric phenomenon known as ball lighting.
Ball lightning is caused by a buildup of gases in the atmosphere that result in the appearance and eventual dissipation of illuminated orbs. Sometimes these orbs wander around in the night sky, as in the case of the Brown Mountain Lights, but there have been documented instances of ball lightning occurring indoors.
Whether the cause of the Brown Mountain Lights is rooted in science or strange paranormal activity, one thing is certain. The lights are an integral part of the lore, legend and local culture of Morganton and the surrounding areas. Ask five different locals for their take on the lights and you’re liable to receive five unique theories. Chances are, though, that whomever you ask will be very familiar with the riveting story of the Brown Mountain Lights, a uniquely North Carolinian legend that will likely endure for centuries to come.
Where to see the lights…
Brown Mountain itself is situated inside the Pisgah National Forest, but there are several different viewpoints from which the Brown Mountain Lights are said to be visible. They’ve been reported year round, but many claim that the fall season offers the best opportunity for viewing.
Brown Mountain Overlook
The most popular overlook for folks visiting nearby Morganton is the Brown Mountain Overlook off of NC Highway 181. To get there from Morganton, just hop on 181 and head north for 20 miles. The overlook is clearly marked with signage and features a picnic area provided by the United State Forest Service.
Lost Cove Cliffs Overlook
This overlook can be found on the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 310, just two miles north of the parkways junction with NC 181.
Wiseman’s View Overlook
Just five miles south of Linville Falls on Kister Memorial Highway, Wiseman’s View Overlook is a great place to search for the Brown Mountain Lights while also taking in the grandeur of the Linville Gorge, often revered to as the Grand Canyon of the East.
Where to stay…
There’s no shortage of great camping and lodging options in the immediate vicinity of the Brown Mountain Lights. If camping, consider nearby Lake James State Park where RV hookup sites, car camping opportunities and hike-in, lakeside campsites abound.
When staying in town nearby Morganton offers a plethora of lodging options, but I highly recommend the Inn at Glenn Alpine. A short six mile drive from Morganton’s historic downtown, this 1913 country manor turned bed and breakfast features four guest rooms, including two suites, spacious common rooms, a great front porch and an outdoor event space.
What else to see…
In addition to being a hot-bed for viewers of inexplicable natural phenomenon, this corner of North Carolina is home to one of state’s best craft breweries. If you’re even slightly interested in the burgeoning world of independent craft beer, nearby Fonta Flora Brewing is well-worth a visit. Their newly opened farm brewery, Whippoorwill Farms, is situated on the grounds of an old dairy farm in nearby Nebo just five minutes from the gates of Lake James State Park. Here, head brewer and owner Todd Borea is crafting nationally acclaimed ales and lagers using lots of local ingredients.
Whippoorwill Farms is one of the few breweries in North Carolina practicing the long lost art of spontaneous fermentation. This means that Todd and his crew are open-fermenting some of their in-house ale with wild yeast harvested right there on the farm. They’ve also got a great little tap room in the heart of downtown Morganton where Todd built the brewery from the ground up a little over five years ago. I highly recommend the Lake James Life, a lager brewed with locally-sourced heritage corn. It will change the way you look at light corn lagers forever.
Morgantown is a beautiful destination whether you believe in the Brown Mountain Lights or not. Reach out to one of our travel experts by calling 1-800-444-8691 or stop into a local AAA Travel branch to get more details on how to experience the mystery for yourself.
(Go Magazine May/June 1019)