The Mysterious Brown Mountain Lights
The song about them, and my experience with them!
There are plenty of old legends, and tall tales that you hear often when you grow up in the Appalachias. There’s tales of Bigfoot, local ghost stories, and that old feller’ down the road will swear up and down he saw a black panther the other night. This is one of my absolute favorite things about growing up in rural Appalachia, but it’s not often you actually get to experience one of these yarns for yourself — unless you go chasing the Brown Mountain Lights.
The Brown Mountain Lights are located around the area of Brown Mountain, North Carolina (obviously). There isn’t one specific spot to see the lights, but there are numerous different overlooks you have a chance at seeing them from. Three of the most prominent overlooks are; Wiseman’s View, Lost Cove Cliffs Overlook, and Brown Mountain Overlook.
The lights can appear above the horizon or on the ground, and can be pretty much any color, but are most often described as red balls of light. They often move around and have trails behind them, and sometimes they pulsate. They are not extremely common occurrences, but they say if you’re persistent enough, you’ll eventually see them.
The first sightings of these lights are hard to pinpoint exactly, but they most likely started happening in the late 1800s or early 1900s, though they have been said to go back as far as the early 1700s. The legends behind what causes these lights are numerous.
Some say there was a battle fought between the Catawba and Cherokee Natives on the mountain, and the lights are from the spirits of the tribe, searching for the lost and dead. Some say it is the haunted lights of a long disbanded search party, looking for a murdered woman and child. Some even say the lights are UFOs.
The tale that was made the most famous however; is the one that was turned into a popular bluegrass song by Scott Wiseman. “Brown Mountain Lights” tells a story of a slave and slave master on a hunting trip in the mountains. When the owner got lost, the slave went back to the family, and led a search for him every night, even after his death.
I believe this version to be quite dated and unrealistic. As this article from North Carolina Ghosts states; “…somewhat dated, particularly in regard to its unforgivable romanticizing of slavery. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a retelling of this story where the lights are from people looking for the slave who, when realizing he was alone on the mountain, seized his chance and hightailed it for Ohio and freedom.”
Even though it wasn’t a very culturally-aware story, it is the one that rose to prominence, because of this song.
The song ended up being covered by many different acts; The Hillmen, Acoustic Syndicate, Country Gentlemen, Tommy Faile, and even Roy Orbison. The song was also a favorite for small artists playing bars and restaurants around the Appalachias.
Plenty of experts have been called in to give their input on what exactly the cause of this legend is. None of them have ever given a really solid answer, and details on real, reliable research are few and far between.
Some folks say that they’re merely car, or train lights. I will say that plenty of car lights are visible from the various outlooks used for spotting the Brown Mountain Lights, but the mystery lights are very different, and easy to tell apart from normal, manmade lights.
Some say the lights are reflections from lights in the various towns nearby, but this is disputed by claims that the lights were seen long before electricity was used to produce light.
Other explanations include; St. Elmo’s fire, electromagnetic sparks from tectonic plates shifting, and swamp gasses. None of these make much sense either though, and are all reaches to say the least.
Several years ago on a hot summer day, me and my parents decided to load up and go to Wiseman’s View and take a chance on seeing the lights for ourselves. We took the drive up the winding gravel road, and arrived at the overlook about an hour before nightfall.
We weren’t alone at the overlook, and we had a good chat with the other folks that were there to try and catch a glimpse of the ghostly lights. They said they had been many times and never managed to see them.
Just as the sun started to set we thought we had our first sighting. It looked as if a ball of light had just streaked across the ridge-line, but we didn’t really know for sure, and so we just chalked it up to coincidence.
Not too much later however; we couldn’t shrug it off anymore. Every once in a while, you’d look out into the mountains, and a ball of light would rise from the trees, move around in the sky, and then simply vanish. It was completely inexplicable.
While we were awestruck by these flying orbs; other lights would begin to show themselves. These other lights weren’t above the horizon, but were seemingly on the ground, or flying through the trees. Sometimes one would pop up, illuminating the area around it in an orange tint, like some sort of a fire, but they couldn’t be; because they were only lit up for a few seconds to a minute, and then disappeared again. Others were more resemblant of flashlights, or quad headlights, but again, they couldn’t be, the area was simply too remote, and they never went anywhere, they just disappeared.
The lights were plentiful that night, I’d say we saw at least 25 different lights in different places. I can confidently say that none of these were headlights, or just lights from a neighboring town.There was simply too much variance between shapes, sizes, and colors.
I don’t really know what version of the legend I believe — if any. I do know what I saw out there with my own eyes though, and nobody can take that away from me. It was absolutely magical, and mysterious, and I’ve never seen anything like it since.
If you’re ever passing through the Blue Ridge Parkway, or are anywhere around Western NC, I highly encourage you to take a drive up in the mountains, and try to see this phenomena for yourself.
Thanks for reading! Here I’m just gonna give a few articles and if you want to get more in depth on this mystery, and go down the rabbit hole. There’s plenty more than just these, but it’s a starting point.
Here’s a great little simple video narrated by a local to wrap things up: