There’s something special about Brown Mountain, though it’s not obvious at first glance. The nondescript peak in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge resembles any other, fading into the rows of mountains visible from the scenic overlooks of the Blue Ridge Parkway. But looks can be deceiving, and on this particular mountain, located near the Linville Gorge, nothing is quite what it seems.
On certain crisp, clear nights, orbs of bright light appear to hover over Brown Mountain before vanishing into thin air. Over the years, theories on what cause them have ranged from plausible (locomotive headlights) to more far-fetched (swamp gas, moonshine stills, and UFO’s). Today, the Brown Mountain lights remain one of the greatest mysteries of Appalachia.
“The lights were always one of the folklores of our area,” says Mel Cohen, mayor of Morganton, the closest town to Brown Mountain. “It’s unusual, yet most people that live here have seen them.”
Trying to spot the lights from an overlook outside of town was a popular pastime in Cohen’s day. He remembers his sightings well.
“It’s really quick, and it’s really scattered and pretty bright,” he says. “It’s just an eerie feeling to me that they existed. You almost, as a young person, think there’s somebody out there with a flashlight goofing around.”
Cohen is just one of hundreds of people over the years who have reported witnessing the amazing event. According to some accounts, the Cherokee were the first. Legends dating as far back as 1200 A.D. refer to the lights as the spirits of Indian maidens searching for their sweethearts who died in battle. The lights appear in an account of D.E. Brahm, an early surveyor sent to the area in the 1770s by George Washington.
Over the centuries, the lights continued to be a source of intrigue. A 1913 article from The Charlotte Observer gives an account of the phenomenon:
“With punctual regularity the light rises in a southeasterly direction from the point of observation just over the lower slope of Brown Mountain, first about 7:30 p.m., again about 20 or 30 minutes later and again at 10 o-clock. It looks much like a toy fire balloon, a distinct ball, with no ‘atmosphere’ about it, and as nearly as the average observer can measure it, about the size of the toy balloon.”
The U.S. Geological Survey sent investigators to the area that year and concluded the lights came from trains going over the mountain. Yet the lights kept appearing after the tracks were wiped out by a flood in 1916—causing local officials to once again beckon the U.S. Geological Survey to the region. An investigator in 1922 concluded that the lights were actually reflections of distant cars, trains and campfires, caused by unusual atmospheric conditions on Brown Mountain.
The search for truth
These earlier explanations—which were more like educated guesses—haven’t completely satisfied modern researchers. Dan Caton, an astronomy professor at nearby Appalachian State University, has made more than 20 trips to study the Brown Mountain lights. Like the U.S. Geological Survey researcher in 1922, Caton thinks 95 percent of sightings probably are attributed to lights from man-made structures—like cars, airplanes at a nearby airport, streetlights and campfires. Excitement for a potential glimpse of the phenomenon can cloud the judgment of hopeful viewers. Combined with the dark mountain night, it’s easy to see how the eyes and mind can be easily tricked.
“We’ve watched people get excited about what we knew was something else,” Caton says.
But for all the sightings that can be explained away, there’s still a small number that simply can’t. It’s a fact that nags Caton, a firm follower of the scientific method who believes answers can be applied to most everything. Pinning down an explanation, however, hasn’t been easy. The lights are elusive, almost as if they’re a mystery that doesn’t want to be solved.
Despite multiple trips to the Brown Mountain area, Caton thinks he may have seen the lights just once, and he’s doubtful still that it was an actual sighting. For Caton, who holds strictly to the notion that seeing is believing, the rare and random appearance of the lights is endlessly frustrating.
“It’s a two-hour round trip,” he says, “and you know you have a 95 percent chance of seeing nothing. Until you have some way to predict when they happen, you can’t really do much.”
Josh Warren, a paranormal researcher who has studied the lights for almost 20 years, also knows all too well how elusive the Brown Mountain lights can be. Over the course of multiple trips, he estimates he’s seen the lights on about 10 occasions.
“If you consider how many times I’ve been out there, it’s easy to understand how these lights are still mysterious,” he says.
Like Caton, Warren says many of the reported sightings are no more than wishful thinking.
“Most people who’ve never been go there for the first time and sit around straining too hard to see a light that their eyes start playing tricks on them,” he says. “But when you have the experience of the lights appearing, you realize the difference. The light will instantly generate an incredible amount of bright light that looks like a spotlight being flipped on across from you. There’s no mistaking what you’re seeing.”
Warren describes the Brown Mountain lights as multi-colored spheres of illumination that hover over the mountains. He says they can also take on an “amorphous, amoebic-like form, appearing to ooze around the trees and slither around the mountain.”
As scientific researchers, Warren and Caton could not be more different. Warren is a self-professed paranormal expert who founded a paranormal investigation team that travels the world documenting reports of ghosts and alien abductions. Caton is a skeptic and strong believer in the scientific method who, after years of studying the skies, laughs off the notion of UFO’s. Their differences make it all the more astounding that, after years of studying the Brown Mountain lights, the two men have come to a remarkably similar conclusion about what causes them.
The possible explanation? Ball lightning, a little understood phenomenon of physics. Thought to derive from electrically charged particles in the atmosphere, ball lightning appears as a bright, round orb of varied size, sometimes after a thunderstorm. Like the Brown Mountain lights, ball lightning is infrequent and unpredictable—so much so that until very recently, scientists thought it was a hoax.
Caton first drew parallels between ball lightning and the Brown Mountain lights several years ago as he pored over emails from people claiming to have witnessed the lights. Sorting through them, a pattern started to emerge, one that looked very much like ball lightning.
“I checked out an academic research book on ball lightning and found that if I replaced one word with the other, it would read fine,” Caton remembers. “Somehow, something in the Linville Gorge triggers this. We might have a natural lab of solar activity, geomagnetic activity, and meteorology.”
Warren, too, sees the similarities between the two phenomena.
“I think the majority of it is similar to ball lightning, in the fact that both are probably the product of intersecting electromagnetic fields,” he says.
Over time, Warren has honed an impressively detailed theory about the combination of factors that cause the lights. Through his geological studies of Brown Mountain, Warren says he’s determined that the area is composed of layers of quartz, a non-conductor, and magnetite, a conductor. Together, they build up electrical charges. When the mountain cools and contracts at night, it squeezes the layers of rock together, creating a discharge that results in the Brown Mountain lights. In 2004, Warren and his colleagues recreated these conditions in a lab. The result, they say, was the appearance of something that looked similar to ball lightning.
It should be noted that the U.S. Geological Survey investigation of the lights in 1922 came to a different conclusion than Warren. The writer examined various geological samples of Brown Mountain and found they were mostly made of granite, and had no more magnetic properties than other nearby features.
Through his many treks to view Brown Mountain, Warren believes he’s come to a better understanding of when the lights are most likely to appear. So far, the unpredictable appearance of the lights has proved one of the greatest challenges to solving their mystery. According to Warren, the lights appear most often in the fall season; during or after a rainy period; when there’s more carbon in the air than usual, which can occur when more campfires are present; and when the Earth’s KP index—a measurement of the disturbance of the magnetic field—is at five or above, which is also the level the Aurora Borealis tends to appear.
But it’s Caton who may have come up with the best plan yet for getting to the bottom of the activity on Brown Mountain. On the edge of the Wiseman’s View overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, obscured by trees and shrubs, will rest a 10-foot aluminum pole firmly bolted to the earth. At the very top of the structure will sit a Webcam, its view always trained on Brown Mountain. The live footage will beam to a Web site where people can monitor the lights 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world.
The mystery of the Brown Mountain lights continues to be a source of intrigue that captivates people far beyond the region. In fact, Caton and Warren were to be interviewed for a National Geographic Channel special on the lights. Both men have appeared on the Discovery Channel, the Travel Channel, and in numerous articles about the phenomenon.
Caton and Warren may be the experts, but they’ve relied heavily on the experience of the everyday individual to help solve the mystery. The best places to see the lights are from the Brown Mountain lights overlook off Highway 181, and the Wiseman’s View overlook in the Pisgah National Forest (see boxout).
Don’t expect to see the lights right away, if at all—and remember, looks can be deceiving.
“I think people should go with a skeptical mind and hope that they see something unusual,” Caton says.
In the meantime, Caton, Warren and others captivated by the lights will continue their search for an explanation. And there’s no telling how long the Brown Mountain lights will continue to puzzle them.
“I think the reason the lights have been mysterious for so long is because the solution to what creates them is complex,” says Warren. “Science is designed to give us the simplest explanation and solve the simplest mysteries first. When it comes to complex things in nature, we don’t always know how it works.”
Viewing the Brown Mountain lights
Two overlooks in the area provide the best view of Brown Mountain:
• The Brown Mountain lights overlook was recently updated with a new sign and parking. From I-40, take exit 100 towards Jamestown. Turn left, then follow the road to the intersection of Highway 181. Turn left. From there, the marked overlook is about 8 to 10 miles.
• The Wisemen’s View overlook is located near Linville. From I-40, take either exit 85 or 86 in Marion to U.S.-221 N. Follow the highway for at least 45 minutes up the winding mountain road. Turn right onto U.S. Highway 183. Look for a gravel road on the right near a brown sign marked Linville Gorge Wilderness. Take the gravel road about four or five miles to Wisemen’s View.