Have you ever experienced something scary out there in the great outdoors? In the spirit of Halloween, there’s no better day to reveal the spooky side of this quest, as we have experienced a number of moments worthy of sweaty palms. Read on for a handful of short stories describing incidents in parks that had us thinking twice about ghosts, creatures from the woods, and even our own safety.
1. The scratching, growling beasts of Mammoth Cave National Park
It all began in Mammoth Cave on April 16th, right as we set off. This giant hidden gem in Kentucky features the world’s longest known cave system, and though you can surely imagine a myriad of creepy cave stories, our encounter happened above ground.
The hour was late, the campground still. Andres snored softly next to me while I lay wide awake, my every sense tuned to the scratching sound moving all around us. What is that sound? Then, a low growl from the distance.
Then, a small form darted across the tent, scratching as it scurried. A mouse! I hoped. Watching little forms run up and down the sides of the tent, I realized we had tiny neighbors scurrying around the place. Actually climbing on the tent. But I didn’t relax much, still hearing the growls not too far away. I concentrated on these, images of rabid raccoons filling my mind, or something less furry.
I shook Andres awake, feeling that the growl was too close for comfort.
Are there bears in Kentucky? Annoyed at being woken, he perked his head up and listened for a minute, grabbing for his knife at the same time. Yet moments later he laughed.
“Those aren’t growls, it’s someone snoring!”
Sure enough, I listened closely and realized he was right. Some unfortunate camper was snoring up a storm not too far from us.
So much for ghouls and werewolves. Hey, gimme a break, there was a full moon that night.
2. Night of the Lost Souls in Badlands National Park
Our night in Mammoth Cave was the first of many nights filled with the strange sounds of wilderness and camp life. Many a time we woke to coyotes singing in the distance, their howls never failing to send a chill up my spine, even though I love them.
It was about 9 o’clock and we were star gazing by our tent when telltale red and blue lights began flashing in the distance. Within minutes they grew closer and closer, coming at a pretty good speed. A ranger’s patrol vehicle pulled up and began questioning some campers near us. Soon a few more patrol cars showed up, and it didn’t take long to realize something was amiss.
The quaint campground community was rapidly filled with flashlights piercing beams around us, along with a huge search light turned into the darkness beyond. Apparently they were looking for someone.
It turns out two campers never made it back to the campground after going out on a hike. All night we drifted in and out of a delirious state as engines and voices broke through the air while we wondered about the fates of our neighbors. I imagined being out there in the pitch darkness of the perilous badlands among snakes and bison, likely with no water or any other gear.
Many have disappeared in the wilderness, never to return.
Fortunately this story has a happy ending, as the two women were found the next morning, damp but unharmed. They’d simply gotten lost but wisely decided to stay in one spot once it got dark.
3. Banging Woods and Shaking Trees in Acadia National Park
We were driving back toward camp on our last day in Acadia when a thick fog overtook us. Loving the mood, we decided to turn down a gravel road and disappear into the misty forest for some artful photography.
Yes, this is the part when you realize fog + lonely gravel road + forest = perfect setting for things to go wrong.
The road ended next to an old homestead, which admittedly looked well taken care of by the park, but still carried a foreboding air with no one around in the midst of heavy fog and waning light. Andres took some time getting his photo gear out of the car so I walked toward the old homestead without him.
Standing before a home once inhabited by early settlers, I couldn’t help but hear the ghosts around me. Voices of children and family members calling to each other as they worked in the garden or played games. Of course I imagined these sounds, but it was hard not to in the stillness all around.
I walked farther away from our car toward the back of the house, near the forest edge. Then a rhythmic sound rang out and I froze, my heart in my throat.
Bang, bang, bang.
There it was again, a hollow clacking sound like wood being banged, and it came from the forest. It almost sounded like someone was hitting stone or metal against wood. Could an animal make that sound?
My imagination already running wild, I pictured the ghost of a man chopping wood on his homestead. The sound stopped. Then it began again. It stopped. And began. Not daring to go an inch further I instead walked back to Andres. Real quick.
Embarrassed, I kept the incident to myself and we proceeded with our photo session. But he was curious about the place so we wandered around the homestead as I had earlier.
That’s when we both heard the sounds again.
Andres being Andres, he grew excited and whispered, “Did you hear that? Do you think it’s a bear?”
“No Andres, not every noise in the woods is a bear!”
We waited, listening. Bang, bang, bang.
Then the tops of some trees shook. Seriously, they did.
“It’s probably just a squirrel, let’s go,” I said.
“Don’t you want to check it out?” Andres asked, a mischievous glint in his eyes. I knew it all too well.
“No!” Come on people, this is the part in the movies when they always go “check it out” and you know what happens next.
So with that I turned to leave, telling Andres it was just a squirrel banging nuts or something, voicing my opinion that it was late, and shouldn’t we go get dinner already?
My aspiring detective relented and we left, leaving our curiosity behind in the banging woods.
4. Ants (in our Pants) in the Smoky Mountains
Now I’m not a squeamish kind of gal, never really fearing insects or spiders unless they surprise me where they shouldn’t be, like in my bathroom. It’s different in the woods. You expect them and enjoy their company, for the most part. We’ve had our very fair share of mosquitos and even a few spiders, but never before had I experienced what Cosby Campground had in store for us in the Smoky Mountains.
It seems our campsite was the place to be for every ant in town. Not long after setting up I found them crawling all over our stove and belongings on the picnic table. Within minutes Andres called me over to the tent, pointing to the obvious display of ants covering our humble abode. There were hundreds.
We must have set up among a few ant hills, and our tent was right in their way. For the next three days we watched with fascination as a thick stream of ants marched continuously up and down our tent. It looked like LA traffic, ant style. They were relentless – harmless – but relentless.
Not surprisingly, my dreams were filled with crawling sensations, though I only had to flick a few off in real life.
5. Creepy Guest in Congaree National Park
Ants would not be the only uninvited guests to visit us. In Congaree we were pleasantly surprised to see a black and white cat approach as we pulled into the rustic campground. There are only ten primitive sites, and the cat followed us to ours, #7.
While we greatly enjoyed the stray for several days – we named her Congee – there was another uninvited guest who gave us the chills.
We never met him though, just heard about him.
On our last evening in the park I asked a ranger if he knew about the visiting cat, feeling worried that she might be lost from a nearby home.
“No,” the ranger said, “But when you said ‘visitor’ I thought you meant someone else. Now, don’t get alarmed,” (of course I got alarmed), “We’ve had a man driving into the campground and scaring some of the campers. Apparently he’s been returning often, asking strange questions.”
“Oh. We haven’t seen him,” I said, mulling over the past week.
“Well, he’s driving a black pick-up truck without a bed. If you see him just call 911.”
I’m pretty sure he said just call 911?
Isn’t 911 just for emergencies? And we are supposed to sleep there now? Not to mention we have no cell phone reception? Like I said, the campground is primitive with nothing to stop anyone from the nearby urban areas to drop in at any time.
Andres and I talked about it, realizing we were the only ones camping there that night. He grew up in Colombia hearing about serial killers in the U.S. (ironically) and felt even more nervous than me (which never happens). We’d have felt better with other campers around, you know, power in numbers.
It seems silly now, but we decided to be overly cautious and get the heck out of there.
What followed was a night in a Walmart parking lot, nestled safely between giant RV’s beneath the bright lights of security.
6. Intruder Beneath our Tent on Jekyll Island
Jekyll Island isn’t a national park, but we recently camped there for one night on our way south toward Florida.
It began so perfectly. Our tent shielded us from the determined mosquitos as we lay with the rainfly discarded, exposing a sky filled with diamonds. We could just make out nearby ocean waves drifting in on a soft breeze. The campground was unusually quiet with no one disturbing the peace. We had new pillows, and the temperature was perfect. I sighed, ready for some much-needed amazing sleep.
As usual, Andres fell asleep quickly. The crickets sang a sweet melody, lulling me. I felt him moving a bit in his sleep, not thinking much about the motions. I vaguely thought that he was twitching as he fell into deep sleep, as many of us do. My mind wandered into the sky, thoughts flowing freely.
Only, the movements didn’t stop.
His “twitching” grew stronger. But wait. They weren’t coming from next to me, where my husband lay. No, they were coming from beneath me!
I lay motionless. Then I felt it again, a subtle yet strong pressure hitting my lower back, as if something was pushing against me.
My mind raced: could it be a mole? Moles aren’t that strong. I even imagined a creepy arm coming up from the ground, like you see in the movies.
Why do these things always happen to me?! I wondered, annoyed with Andres who apparently misses out on all the fun.
So I woke him up.
“Andres, there’s something moving underneath me!” I whispered loudly.
The motions stopped as we talked and moved. He started drifting off when I felt the movements again.
“It feels like something is trying to get through the bottom of the tent,” I whispered, thankful for the layers of tarp, tent, sleeping mattress and sleeping bag between me and whatever it was.
“Come on, I don’t feel anything!” He protested, now bothered by my antics. We really have been sleep deprived.
I rolled my eyes toward the sky and lay back down. The motions had stopped, but sure enough they began again. This time they moved further down, and I heard faint rustling and crackling sounds. Whatever it was, the thing was moving at a slow pace. I lifted my body and let it fall heavily on the ground a few times, hoping to scare it away.
Yes, I’m an animal lover, but not when they’re unknown and beneath me, whatever they are.
The motions stopped for good and I drifted off into sleep, restless all night for fear of something striking out and pulling me into the bowels of hell.
In the morning Andres took down the tent and told me something I’m glad he hadn’t voiced during the night.
“I think it was a snake,” he said.
“A snake??” Though I don’t have a hysterical fear of snakes, I didn’t like the idea of one slithering beneath me. I thought about it and agreed. Yeah, that prodding motion could have been a snake’s head pushing against me. Those reptiles are pretty strong.
“It must have been a big one,” Andres continued, “You know, to move beneath you like that.”
I looked it up later on. Sure enough, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake lives on Jekyll island, and it’s apparently the heaviest venomous snake in the U.S. Not to mention one of the most dangerous. They often travel through burrows created by gophers, which could explain my encounter. One of the longest rattlesnakes on record was a 7.3 ft diamondback captured in Florida, in 2009. Yikes.
I’m only glad I didn’t know about this before we pitched our tent there.
Have you had any freaky moments in the great outdoors? We’d love to hear about it!