The North Carolina Visitor Center




Brown Mountain Lights

The Brown Mountain Lights


Among the most fascinating natural wonders of the High Country are the Brown Mountain Lights.  The mysterious lights appear and disappear, seeming to move over the ridge of Brown Mountain (in Burke County, near Morganton).  The Brown Mountain Lights have been have been made famous by Cherokee legends dating back to the 1200s and by modern reports.  White settlers of the High Country reported seeing the lights throughout the 1700 and 1800s.   They are the stuff of story and song.


In 1771, German scientist, Gerard Will de Brahm, viewed the lights and reported, “The mountains emit nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind and when laden winds meet each other the niter inflames, sulphurates and deteriorates.”  The US Geological Survey, however, put forth another explanation in 1913: headlights lights from a train in the Catawba Valley.  The government scientists did not bother to explain how the lights appeared before the advent of the locomotive.  Ironically, a flood in 1916 destroyed the railroad line credited as the source of the lights… and, the lights continued.


No one knows the true cause of the Brown Mountain Lights.  This mystery engenders a delightful sense of whimsy and wonder, making the tales of the supernatural preferable as an explanation. 


Cherokee legends credit the lights as the ghosts of Cherokee and Catawba Indian warriors who fought a battle on the mountain centuries ago.


Another legend tells that a woman was killed by her husband on Brown Mountain in 1850.  Although her body was never found, the Brown Mountain lights appeared to guide searchers to her remains.


World-renowned storyteller, Ray Hicks, said that the Brown Mountain Lights were “jack-o-lanterns”, which he described as disembodied lights that traveled through the mountains by night doing the work of witches.    


The most famous legend of the Brown Mountain lights is probably that of the loyal slave.  It is told that a wealthy planter traveled to the mountains to hunt and was never seen again.  His loyal slave searched the mountain with a lantern.  The legend tells that the ghost of the slave continues to search. 


Famous Avery County musician Scotty Wiseman recorded a song about the Brown Mountain Lights.  Scotty and his wife, Lulu belle, were known as the “Sweethearts of the Grand ole Opry”.  Their popularity spread the fame of the Lights well beyond the North Carolina Mountains.  The song later gained international fame when recorded by the Kingston Trio.  The lyrics are as follows (source:


Way out on the old Linville Mountain,

Where the bear and the catamount reign;

There’s a strange ghostly light, can be seen every night,

Which no scientist nor hunter can explain.


High, high on the mountain, and down in the canyon below

It shines like the crown of an angel, and fades as the mists come and go.

'Way, 'way over yonder, Night after night until dawn,

A faithful old slave, come back from the grave,

Is searching, searching, for his master who's long, long gone.


In the days of the old covered wagons,

When they camped on the flat for the night;

With the stars growing dim on the high gorge rim,

They would watch for the Brown Mountain light.


Long years ago a southern planter

Came hunting in this wild land alone;

And here, so they say, the hunter lost his way,

And never returned to his home.


His trusty old slave brought a lantern

And searched, but in vain, day and night;

Now the old slave is gone, but his spirit wanders on,

And the old lantern still casts its light.



Among the best spots to view the Brown Mountain Lights is Wiseman’s View at Linville Falls.  The best time to see them is September through early November.  Whether or not the lights appear when you visit, Wiseman’s View is one of the most beautiful spots imaginable and well worth the trip – and, it’s free!


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