Whispering ghosts and 7 other oddities from the history of our national parks
Young Theodore Roosevelt dressed in deer skins in an 1885 studio portrait (Shutterstock)

The U.S. boasts 59 National Parks and 117 National Monuments, most of which are overseen by the men and women of the National Park Service. In other words, this governing body makes it possible for Americans to hike, fish, seek solace in nature and sleep by starlight. Next month the NPS celebrates its 100th anniversary. To celebrate, we dug into the history of "America's Best Idea" for sleepy tales and tidbits, and came back with conspiracy theories, whispering ghosts and a contested campfire origin story. Enjoy.

1. The First National Park Was Conceived Over a Pre-Bed Campfire Conversation (Maybe)

Legend has it that the idea for Yellowstone to be a preserved, communally owned expanse of wilderness came from a pre-bed campfire chat between a group of dudes. The story — as written in the diary of the guy who would become Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Nathan Pitt Langford — goes that Langford and his crew, who were part of the Washburn Expedition in 1870, were chatting about a grand and wild corner they’d hiked into. At that time, it was considered hellish, bubbling over with “geysers, fumaroles, mudpots, and other thermal features." By the campfire flicker, as liquid was (presumably) consumed and the men’s eyelids drooped towards sleep time, several ideas were thrown out. The unanimous and benevolent idea that stuck was that of Cornelius Hedges, who said that nobody should be excluded from the land.

The campfire setting is so poignant — who hasn’t changed the world by firelight before sleep takes hold? — that the legend has been both debunked and validated, and is now a game that the NPS likes to pose to investigative visitors. The first instance of someone calling BS on the origin story happened in a 1998 book, “Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park," which revealed that no one besides Langford seemed to remember or note the campfire affair in their diaries. Hedges himself wrote that he "didn't sleep well last night. Got thinking of home & business.”

2. Teddy Roosevelt Decided to Establish the National Parks After Three Days of Sleeping in the Cold

In 1903, Muir took Theodore Roosevelt on a three-day adventure in Yosemite, where their nighttime sharing ultimately led to federal governance of 400 national parks. Muir was known as a naturalist who lived to sleep outdoors and devoted his time to fighting for the experience — he described sleeping in Yosemite as, “like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”

Roosevelt and Muir camped the first night, May 15, at the Mariposa Grove under the Grizzly Giant, with the President bedding down in a pile of about 40 wool blankets. A snowstorm hit on the second night and, apparently, history was made on the third. Muir got poetic by the fireside and Roosevelt, preparing for their last night curled up in blankets at their campsite, agreed that having two authorities rule over the park meant “triple troubles.” The trip led to Teddy signing the Yosemite Recession Bill three years later, a move that ended California's governance over the Yosemite Valley.

3. There's A Conspiracy Theory That Ancient Egyptians Lived and Slept in An Enormous Cave System Within the Grand Canyon

In 1909, the Arizona Gazette ran a story about two archaeologists who visited the Grand Canyon on a Smithsonian Institution-funded trip and found artifacts from ancient Egyptians in the caverns of the park’s Marble Canyon region. Professors S.A. Jordan and G.E. Kinkaid arrived by boat to an area that's still barely trodden and found a network of tunnels and caverns “hewn in human hands” and scattered with statues and mummies.

The Gazette proclaimed:

If their theories are borne out by the translation of the tablets engraved with hieroglyphics, the mystery of the prehistoric peoples of North America, their ancient arts, who they were and whence they came, will be solved. Egypt and the Nile, and Arizona and the Colorado will be linked by a historical chain running back to ages which staggers the wildest fancy of the fictionist.

The Smithsonian (and pretty much all other institutions) has denied the claims, which led to conspiracy theorists — including John Rhodes, the beloved communicator and theorist of human-reptilian activity — asserting a denial of information that would blow our minds, which is that Egyptians crossed the Pacific thousands of years ago, and dug, explored and slept under the stars in what would become one of America’s most-visited natural treasures.

“The Smithsonian Institution has received many questions about an article in the April 5, 1909 Phoenix Gazette about G. E. Kincaid and his discovery of a 'great underground citadel' in the Grand Canyon, hewn by an ancient race 'of oriental origin, possibly from Egypt.' […] The Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology, has searched its files without finding any mention of a Professor Jordan, Kincaid, or a lost Egyptian civilization in Arizona.”

4. Sleep Out in Certain Parks And You Might be Met By Ghosts

“What you’re looking for is over there.” So campers have heard whispered, in some state between waking and dreaming in Devil’s Den, a boulder-stacked ridge within Gettysburg National Military Park where the Civil War peaked to its bloodiest. These are the haunting words of a barefoot ghost known as the “Tennessean” or “The Hippie,” who then points toward the Plum Run stream, which ran red with the blood of soldiers in 1863. This specter sounds gentler than the Jersey Devil who looks like a kangaroo with a dog’s head and whose screams throughout the night echo all through the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve.

Night visits are quieter in the Grand Canyon, where Wailing Woman in a white dress with blue flowers floats overhead of camping grounds. Her frock, legend has it, is the outfit she wore when she is said to have committed suicide in the 1920s upon learning that her husband and son had died in a hiking accident in the park’s north rim. Things were even bleaker for a bride who haunts Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park—the woman was decapitated on her honeymoon and now wanders eternally with her head tucked under her arm. At least she has company: A 19th century woman floats at the foot of a bed in Room Number 2 at the Old Faithful Inn.

5. The Smallest National Park is The Tiny House Where A Polish Freedom Fighter Slept

In 1796, Revolutionary War hero Tadeusz Kościuszko instructed his secretary to find "a dwelling as small, as remote, and as cheap" as possible. He had returned to the U.S. after being captured, imprisoned and banished from Poland by Russia and sought a place of solace. The secretary secured a cherry brick boarding home of Philadelphia resident Ann Relf, who tended to Kościuszko, where he rested, slept and healed. Between naps, visitors streamed in for the hero of the American Revolution — Vice President Jefferson stopped by regularly and local women took a shining to the convalescing soldier, capturing themselves with early day flashbulb selfies. Today, the house is a National Monument at the corner 3rd and Pine Streets in Society Hill, Philadelphia — the smallest of the landmarks under the National Parks.

6. One National Park Has Evidence of Human Life Dating Back to 10,000 B.C.

The Russell Cave National Monument, which sits in a valley along the Tennessee River, is not unlike a New York City tenement building — dark, raw, created for shelter, and once occupied by a constant rotation of tenants. The difference: it’s protected by the Federal Government. And a lot, lot older.

During explorations over the years, archaeologists have found evidence of campfires from 10,000 B.C. and all sorts of nomadic and settling activity for 12,000 years up to 1650 A.D.—it’s one of the oldest caves in North America and therefore one of the oldest sleeping spots. The Archaic nomads wove baskets in there; the Woodland era folk created bows and arrows, hunting more efficiently than they did with spears. Generations of American Indian groups happened upon the cave to escape the north winds during the colder months, before following the sun and the game elsewhere. There are also many souls resting eternally still around the site where religious ceremonies, including burial of the dead, took place.

To visit the cave is to absorb the sleeping spirits of humans throughout North American history, when people cottoned on to the idea of creating one home and making one bed to lay in all year around.

7. Olympic National Park Has One of the Quietest Places in the Country

Silence abounds in all National Parks. Manmade noise is limited and the natural soundscapes are protected. But the most silent natural space in the U.S. lies in Washington's Olympic National Park.

Gordon Hempton, a scientist and “acoustic ecologist” seeking the quiet corners of the world, found One Square Inch of pure quiet, a “sanctuary of silence” deep in the park's Hoh Rainforest, where even planes and the distant hum of new suburbs being constructed are avoided. The National Parks Service does not, however, overly encourage this hike to the area — human foot traffic has been messing with the wilderness leading to the spot. (Also, the sound of feet crackling on rainforest bed and branches is debatably natural.) However, there is a campground not far away that is closest to the natura sounds, including the hooting of the park’s vibrant owl population. Just beware their feathers: Ancient Romans believed that, when placed beside a sleeping individual, they would help extract secrets.

8. The National Parks Lay Claim to the Darkest Skies in the U.S.

We know that street lamps and other light pollution is messing with our sleep in cities. But in parks like Great Basin, the low humidity and minimal light pollution allow some of the darkest night skies in the United States. It’s brilliant for stargazing — and deep sleep. Check out the Astronomy Festival in September and then star hop to the October Night Star Festival in Joshua Tree National Park, which, despite its proximity to the light chaos of LA, is one of the darkest spots in the country. Campers can wake to the glow of the Milky Way, Orion’s Belt and Sirius, the sky’s brightest star.

Photographer Erik Fremstad won a national competition with this photograph of the night skies in the Badlands of South Dakota, where the “green airglow, caused by electrons reattaching to oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules, encompasses the Milky Way, adding to its mystic. Formations over 75 million years old, mainly the result of deposition and erosion, under billions of stars in our galaxy, words and photos cannot express the awesomeness of seeing it in person.” Just seeing it seems to mend our sleep cycle.