I have always been rather fascinated by the fact that strange tales, ominous curses, and inexplicable deaths or vanishings can revolve around some of the more gorgeous of locales. There seems to be some disconnect between the awe-inspiring beauty to be found here and the often very dark legends and unsolved mysteries that pervade them. It is strange to think that coursing under the veneer of such natural splendor there is a dark current of the unexplained and perhaps even evil. Such places can be at once achingly saturated with beauty yet also imbued with a sense of inexplicable dread and an unsettling quality of doom. One such place is the world famous Yosemite National Park of California, in the United States. It is a hauntingly beautiful expanse which simultaneously seems to be actually haunted, and ground zero for a slew of strange vanishings as well.
Sprawled out across 747,956 acres (1,168.681 sq. mi) of wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California, in the United States, is the majestic Yosemite National Park. Known throughout the world for its amazing vistas of pristine mountainous wilderness, glaciers, towering giant sequoia trees, looming granite cliffs, unique geologic formations, breathtaking waterfalls, wildlife, and incredibly clear lakes and streams, Yosemite has been registered as a World Heritage Site and draws in around 4 to 5 million visitors every year from every corner of the globe. It would seem at first glance that such natural splendor would be one of the last places where one would expect to find dark mysteries and the supernatural, but the park has a surprising amount of such phenomena, including curses, hauntings, and bizarre unsolved vanishings.
One of the most persistent locations of strange legends and mysterious occurrences within Yosemite National Park is a place called Tenaya Canyon, which runs from Tenaya lake to meander through the landscape in a series of picturesque deep pools, waterfalls and flowing cascades to its final destination of a stark drop into another deep canyon at the granite mountain called Cloud’s Rest, situated right next to the iconic and spectacular Half Dome. A stunningly beautiful yet treacherous spot, Tenaya Canyon has been shrouded in myth and strangeness since just about as long as humans have been in the area, and it is also steeped in a rather dark and violent history that has given rise to rumors of a sinister curse hanging over the area.
When white settlers arrived in Yosemite Valley they encountered a tribe of Native Americans called the Ahwahnee, who were a peaceful people but also prone to occasionally poaching livestock from their new neighbors. In the 1850s, the whites decided that they had had enough of sharing the land with the troublesome natives, and sought to relocate the Ahwahnee to a reservation off in Fresno, California. The normally peaceful Ahwahnee, led by a Chief Tenaya, did not go perhaps as compliantly as was expected, actively and vocally defying the order to get out. Eventually, the white settlers sent in a contingent of armed men led by a Captain John Boling to forcibly remove the tribe, and things went just about as well as you would expect.
Instead of fleeing in fear, as was expected of the usually apparently docile natives, the Ahwahnee instead opted to stubbornly stand their ground and fight. During the ensuing violence, Chief Tenaya’s son was among the dead, which sent him into a profound rage in which he invoked a curse on the valley against the white man. The chief supposedly blared out this curse as he was confronted by an armed captain during the battle, saying:
Kill me, sir captain! Yes kill me, as you killed my son; as you would kill my people if they were to come to you! You would kill all my race if you had the power. You have made me sorrowful, my life dark; you killed the child of my heart, why not kill the father? You may kill me sir captain, but you shall not live in peace, I will follow in your footsteps, I will not leave my home but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, in the rivers and in the wind; wheresoever you go I will be with you. You will not see me, but you will fear the spirit of the old chief, and grow cold.
Since then, the chief has allegedly been true to his words, and in the years since that fateful day Tenaya Canyon, and by some accounts the whole Yosemite Valley, has been said to be plagued by all manners of freak accidents, strange deaths, mishaps, and unexplained phenomena such as unexplained noises and shadowy apparitions. There are supposedly far more incidents of rock climbing and hiking accidents and fatalities in the Tenaya area than other places in the park, and so many people have gone missing here that it has garnered itself the ominous nickname of “The Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite.” Even the legendary naturalist and extremely experienced mountaineer John Muir was not immune to this supposed curse, when he met with a near-fatal accident while exploring the canyon in 1873, which he later wrote of in his 1918 book Steep Trails, saying:
I was ascending a precipitous rock front, smoothed by glacial action, when I suddenly fell—for the first time since I touched foot to Sierra rocks. After several somersaults, I became insensible from the shock, and when consciousness returned I found myself wedged among short, stiff bushes… I could not remember what made me fall, or where I had fallen from; but I saw that if I had rolled a little further, my mountain climbing would have been finished, for just beyond the bushes the canyon wall steepened and I might have fallen to the bottom.
Of course, considering that the terrain here is notorious for being some of the most hostile and forbidding in the entire park it may not be surprising that there should be so many disappearances, deaths, and accidents at Tenaya Canyon. Here there are numerous sharp drops, sheer rock walls, uneven, often slippery footing, and precarious climbs daunting to even the most experienced of hikers. It is a place of natural danger, and indeed the 10-mile trail along its length harbors numerous warning signs proclaiming the perils of continuing, and the official park trail guide map marks the hike in stark red with a disclaimer reading, “Hiking in Tenaya Canyon is dangerous and strongly discouraged.”
Whether the canyon is truly cursed or not, there are certainly a lot of supposedly haunted places around Yosemite Park as well. One of the most notorious of these is the former Ahwahnee Hotel, spookily named after the previously mentioned doomed tribe. Opened in 1927 just a short distance from Half Dome, the Ahwahnee Hotel at the time was a big deal in that it was a large, luxurious hotel in an area known for mostly camping and small lodges, and its elegant yet rustic, organic feel and the majestic grandeur of its scenic surroundings quickly made it a popular destination for the many tourists who pour into the area every year. It has also become well-known for being rather intensely haunted.
There are numerous ghosts said to inhabit the hotel, such as that of a woman named Mary Curry Tressider, who had been part of the hotel’s design and opening and who lived and died in her private apartment here in 1970. Her spirit supposedly lingers on the 6th floor, where her room was located, and sightings of her ghost are frequently reported by staff and guests alike. The entity is said to be prankish more than frightening, and is known for tucking in visitors as they sleep, folding clothes, and misplacing items around rooms, as well as calling out to guests.
Another spirit said to inhabit the Ahwahnee Hotel is connected to a rocking chair kept in the room that former U.S. president John F. Kennedy stayed in during a visit in 1962. At the time the chair had been put in the room at the president’s request, as he had claimed that he had been having back pain, and he reportedly spent a lot of time sitting there calmly rocking away. The chair was removed from the room when he left, but oddly enough since his death a spectral rocking chair has often been reported moving on its own in rooms and halls throughout the hotel’s 3rd floor, which is where Kennedy’s room had been, and especially in the actual room itself. Although these are the two most well-known of the hotel’s phantoms, the entire premises have provided their fair share of accounts of anomalous noises, disembodied footsteps, and apparitions, and the Awahnee hotel helped to inspire the look and design of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining.
Another haunted hotel in Yosemite National Park is the Sierra Sky Ranch, and considering its historical pedigree it is perhaps no surprise at all that ghosts should call this place home. Originally built in 1877, the Sierra Sky Ranch started its life as a sanitarium for housing and quarantining victims of tuberculosis, who lived mostly in squalor forgotten by society and many of whom died here, including children. In later years the premises became a home for veterans of World War I, after which it went on to become the modest, 29-room hotel it is today, where guests constantly report a range of weird paranormal activity.
One of the most common types of ghostly occurrence at the Sierra Sky Ranch is that of phantom children, who are said to run up and down stairs and halls, and who can be heard giggling, whispering, or talking when no one is around or in the very walls themselves. These spectral children are reportedly most often sighted in the media room and the main living room area of the hotel, and are blamed for some of the anomalous poltergeist activity reported from here, such as lights, faucets, or appliances turning on or off by themselves, doors opening or slamming shut when no one is around, and guests’ clothes being tugged by unseen hands. Other ghosts said to inhabit the Sierra Sky Ranch are a woman who supposedly lurks about the main house and library and who smells of perfume, a ghostly bar patron who kisses bar visitors and bartenders on the cheek, and the more sinister entity of a scowling, angry looking man who paces about on the hotel veranda and is known to violently knock over furniture.
Besides hotels, some natural landmarks of Yosemite are also said to be haunted. One of the most famous ghosts of the park is said to lurk in Grouse Lake, and was first officially reported in 1857 by Galen Clark, who was to later become Yosemite’s very first park ranger in 1867. Clark had his strange experience as he was out on a hike to the small alpine lake, and he claimed that as he walked along its shores that he had heard a chilling, unearthly wail seeming to come from the water itself and sounding like “a puppy when lost.” The unsettled Clark would later ask some Native Americans of the area what kind of animal it was that he had heard or if they had a dog that could have made the noise, and they proceeded to tell him that it was no animal or dog, but rather the spirit of a tribal boy who had tragically drowned there years ago and who did not take kindly to visitors. It was even claimed that he would attack anyone who set foot in the water. Clark would write of this:
They replied that it was not a dog—that a long time ago an Indian boy had been drowned in the lake, and that every time anyone passed there he always cried after them, and no one dared go into the lake, for (the boy) would catch them by the legs and pull them down and they would be drowned. I then concluded that it must have been some unseen waterfowl that made that cry, and at that time I thought that the Indians were trying to impose on my credulity, but I am now convinced they fully believed the story they told me.
There is also the haunting of perhaps Yosemite’s most famous waterfalls, Bridalveil Fall, which cascades 617 feet down a sheer granite cliff. The Ahwahnee tribe believed that the fall was the haunt of an evil spirit called Pohono, who was known to try and lure unsuspecting victims over the precipice to their deaths. The method by which the spirit was said to do this varied, in some cases using hypnotic rainbows in the mist to draw people closer and in other cases calling out to use curiosity against victims or even appearing as an apparition to beckon people closer, after which a strong gust of wind would fling them over the fall. Indeed, there have been a few recorded deaths of people being blown over the fall or slipping and falling to the rocks far below, and the winds are said to be very unpredictable at the top. Campers in the area have also reported hearing strange voices or sounds coming from the direction of the fall at night. Whether this is the doing of an evil spirit or not, in present day there are many railings in place to keep people from getting too close.
A strange case I found of a possible ghost roaming the wilderness of Yosemite concerns a 26-year-old Christopher Thompson, who claims that during one camping trip to the park he came across something very strange indeed. He says that as he went out to get some firewood he spied an old Native American man standing by his tent, who wore some sort of bell around his neck that rang out every time he moved. The mysterious man then allegedly asked Thompson for a ride out to the main road because he had gotten lost. Thompson decided to drive him all the way to the ranger’s office as it was getting dark outside, and when they reached his truck the witness claims that the old man insisted on sitting in the back seat.
So far, so weird, but it would get stranger still. Thompson claims that as he got into the truck he caught a glimpse of the old Native man in the side mirror, and that he was swaying and muttering some sort of chant in some alien language. After this, Thompson panicked and drove off on his own to the ranger’s office, where he reported the whole creepy encounter. He would later find that the mysterious figure had left something rather odd behind in the form of an animal skin pouch that was found to contain strange stones and herbs, which locals informed him were cursed. Thompson would say, “I’m still haunted by dreams where I’m paralyzed and I can still hear him muttering that chant.” It is an odd tale to be sure, and one wonders just who or what he encountered out there in those woods.
Besides curses and hauntings, Yosemite has been the location of a fair number of inexplicable disappearances as well. By far the most oft-discussed and hotly debated mysterious vanishings to have occurred at Yosemite National Park is the disappearance of 14-year-old Stacy Ann Arras in 1981. On the afternoon on July 17, 1981, Arras was on a camping trip with her father and 6 others at the Sunrise Sierra Camp, a small cluster of cabins for people passing through on hikes along the popular “mountain chalet” loop. Arras had arrived on horseback with her group, and she soon expressed interest in taking some photos of a nearby lake. Since it was not far her father did not deem it necessary to go with her, but another member of the group, a 72-year-old man, decided to go with her.
As they approached the lake, the man reportedly sat down to take a rest as Arras went on ahead. In the meantime, other members of the group looked down on the whole thing from a ridge, and watched as Arras disappeared into some trees. When she did not return within a reasonable length of time the group went off looking for her but would find only the lens of her camera and no other trace of the girl whatsoever. An extensive official search of the area using helicopters and tracker dogs would have no further luck, and eventually it was called off with no evidence at all of what had happened to Stacy Arras or where she had gone. Park superintendent Robert Binnewies would say at the time, “She just seems to have disappeared.”
The strange disappearance of Stacy Ann Arras gained a fair amount of publicity and gained a cult following among researchers of the paranormal and unexplained, and the case has gained quite a lot of notoriety through the work of David Paulides, a famous author on mysterious vanishings who has written numerous books on the matter, in particular on those which have occurred within U.S. national parks. Paulides added some sinister intrigue when he claimed that from the beginning of his investigation of the Arras case park officials were evasive and reticent to release any information on it when faced with a request under the Freedom of Information Act, even going as far as to allegedly deliberately withhold, obfuscate, and flat-out hide facts relating to it. Indeed, Paulides has repeatedly accused national park officials as being corrupt and suspiciously secretive on such mysterious disappearances. Is there something sinister going on behind this case? It is hard to say, and the Arras disappearance has gone on to become widely discussed and picked apart all over the Internet with no solution in sight.
More recent disappearances include the 2005 vanishing of 51-year-old Michael Allen Ficery, who was an avid, experienced hiker and backpacker. On June 15, 2005, Ficery headed out on a hike along the north end of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but at some point changed his mind and went up to the Pacific Crest Trail. This would be the last time anyone would see him. When he did not return after his wilderness permit expired a search was carried out, but all that could be found was a backpack containing a topographical map, a camera and a bottle of water. A massive search involving personnel from five counties utilizing aircraft and tracker dogs were unable to find any trace of the missing hiker, and his case remains utterly unsolved.
In June of 2011 there was the case of 30-year-old George Penca, who was out hiking at the Upper Yosemite Falls with his church group. During the hike, Penca fell behind the group and proceeded to completely vanish off the face of the earth. Despite extensive searches of the area, no sign of him was found. Strangely, Yosemite National Park unceremoniously and discreetly took down his missing persons page in the coming weeks. Perhaps even stranger still is the disappearance of 35-year-old Allen Martin, of Modesto, California in February of 2016. On the evening of February 9, 2016, Martin visited the Chicken Ranch Casino and left the premises at approximately 4:08 PM. Security footage captured him walking across the parking lot and he then apparently walked right off the face of the earth. Martin has not been seen since.
Yosemite National Park is a place of great beauty, but it is also one of great mystery. From ancient Native curses, to ghosts, to mysterious disappearances, it is fascinating to see how a locale of such natural splendor can also harbor such dark secrets. Do some areas hold close to them some force or presence that creates this aura of sinister energy? Is there some unique quality to these locations that invites the weird and the paranormal? Or are these just the product of over-active imaginations and the perilous terrain inherit to such places? Whatever the answer may be, Yosemite National Park continues to be one of the most beloved national parks in the United States, and also one of the most mysterious.