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National Parks Mysteries: Ghosts, Murders, & Mysterious Disappearances in Yosemite

Updated on July 24, 2019
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Jen Chichester is a writer and editor with a penchant for the mysterious and macabre.

A geological mapping of Yosemite.
A geological mapping of Yosemite.

Let's start with the fun stuff - the reports of paranormal phenomena within Yosemite's borders.

One of the most important things you should know about Yosemite is that there is said to be a Native American curse on the land. The Ahwahneechee tribe lived on this land until they were wiped out by disease, although some chose to remain even after others migrated away. Once the sickness was gone, Chief Tenaya ended up bringing about 200 people back to Yosemite Valley.

Of course, in the 1850's, the Ahwahneechee were coming into conflict with the settlers who wanted to oust them from the area for poaching their livestock. The settlers were determined to send the tribal members to a reservation in Fresno. Although Chief Tenaya and his people agreed to move to the reservation, they turned back and fled to their homeland in Yosemite. The Mariposa Brigade, charged with the relocation, re-entered Yosemite and killed Tenaya's youngest son as punishment for returning.

Tenaya and his people agreed to return to the reservation, but Tenaya left them with a curse. While Tenaya did eventually return to the Valley, only to be struck in the head with a rock and killed in 1853. However, it seems like Tenaya's curse was never lifted. Since then, many freak accidents have occurred, and there is even a stretch of land in Tenaya Canyon known as the "Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite". In fact, this is where naturalist John Miur almost met his demise in 1873.

Chief Tenaya
Chief Tenaya

The curse might be part of what makes Yosemite so mysterious and powerful. There are rumors of ghosts haunting the former Ahwahnee Hotel, which opened in 1927 near the Half Dome and inspired Stanley Kubrick's aesthetic take on the Overlook Hotel in his film adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. The hotel's designer, Mary Curry Tressider, had an apartment on the sixth floor and resided there until her death in 1970. It is said that her ghost haunts that floor, playing pranks, calling out to guests of the hotel, and even tucking them into bed!

Another "ghost" seen around the Ahwahnee Hotel is that of President John F. Kennedy's rocking chair. That's right, a spectral rocking chair has been seen in the rooms and halls on the third floor where he stayed in 1962. Due to severe back pain, JFK had requested this rocking chair be placed in his room.

The Sierra Sky Ranch is another haunted hot spot in Yosemite. It has been said that ghost children have been heard and seen playing in the halls, main living room, and media room. Lights turn on and off by themselves, and faucets and appliances run on their own. Doors can be heard slamming shut, visitors receive tugs on their clothing, and there is a distinct passing scent of ladies' perfume in the main house and library. Visitors to the bar and the bartenders sometimes receive spectral kisses on their cheeks. The most malevolent spirit is that of an angry man who is said to knock over furniture around the veranda.

The Ahwahnee Hotel
The Ahwahnee Hotel

Grouse Lake is also subject to some weird events. In 1857, the man who would become the park's first ranger a decade later, Galen Clark, was hiking to Grouse Lake when he heard a loud wailing sound coming from the water. Stunned, Clark asked the tribal people in the area what kind of animal could emit such a noise. Their reply? It was the spirit of a tribal boy who had drowned in the lake three years prior. Apparently, this boy's spirit did not like receiving visitors.

Additionally, the stunning Bridalveil Fall (which drops 617 feet down) is said to host an evil spirit named Pohono. Pohono would lure his victims to their deaths (via a terrifying tumble over the cliff's edge) by hypnotizing them with a rainbow or physically manifesting as an apparition that beckons to them. There are a number of deaths on record of those who have slipped or been blown over, as winds up at the top are highly unpredictable. There have been reports of campers hearing voicing echoing from the falls at nighttime.

Bridalveil Fall
Bridalveil Fall

Now, for the disappearances. There have been so many disappearances in Yosemite over the years that it will be impossible for me to list them all in one blog entry. I will tackle some of the most well-known and mind-boggling cases in this article, but I highly encourage you to research the others.

In fact, do yourself a favour and Google "David Paulides Missing 411" or see the link in the References list below. I guarantee your mind will be blown, as mine was when I first learned about this project. The basics are:

  • There are 28 major clusters of areas where people in the Northern US go missing each year. Many of them are national parks.
  • National Park Service is often evasive and unhelpful when requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act, according to Paulides.
  • There are certain factors that crop up in many of these clustered areas, including how and where bodies were found and in what condition.

One of the factors is missing or distorted time or perception of weather. For example, 6-year-old Lillian Carney was picking blueberries with her family at noon in Maine when she just disappeared. Miraculously, she was found alive tow days later, only a few miles from where she was last seen. While being interviewed, she said the sun shone the whole time she was in the woods. That is especially odd considering the weather was partly cloudy and that she had spent two nights outdoors. Plus, what 6-year-old would just say that?

Anyway, without further adieu, here are some of the most puzzling missing persons cases from Yosemite.

In 1981, 14-year-old Stacy Ann Arras was camping with her father and six others at the Sunrise Sierra Camp. An elderly group member accompanied Stacy when she went to take pictures near the lake but had to stop and rest while Stacy continued. He was the last person to see Stacy. A massive search was conducted, but the only thing ever found was the lens cap to Stacy's camera.

In 2005, a 51-year-old expert hiker named Michael Allen Ficery made his way up the Pacific Crest Trail and never returned. His backpack was retrieved near Tilltill Mountain, which was not part of Michael's intended hiking path, as this terrain is extremely dangerous for even the most advanced hiker.

Another bizarre case is that of George Penca, a 30-year-old man who went missing in June 2011. He was hiking Upper Yosemite Falls with his church group when he fell behind and vanished. While the weather was extremely mild, many believe that George accidentally strayed from the path and fell down a steep embankment. However, absolutely no trace of George has ever been found.

On August 14, 2000, Ruthanne Ruppert, 49, had been treated for an infection at the Yosemite Medical Clinic around noon and seemed to plan on doing a day hike from Yosemite Falls to the Foresta area. She was never seen again. The only remains found were in 2008, when her backpack turned up in a drainage areas of Fireplace Creek.

Of course, bodies of the missing are sometimes found. For example, in August of 2017, the body of Portsmouth sailor Alexander Joseph Sevier, age 24, were discovered after Sevier went missing in early May. Despite a massive search, Sevier's body wasn't found for months, and when it was, it required DNA testing to confirm his identity.

Stacy Ann Arras
Stacy Ann Arras

Yosemite has also played host to some gruesome murder mysteries. The most disturbing is that of the psychotic handyman at Cedar Lodge. In early February of 1999, Carole Sund, her teenage daughter Juli, and Juli's friend Silvina Pelosso never checked out of the lodge. Carole's vehicle was found parked deep within the mountains, with Carole and Silvina inside - very much deceased. Shortly thereafter, the FBI received a map, leading them to discover Juli's body. She had died by having her throat slashed.

Another woman - Yosemite Institute teacher Joie Ruth Armstrong - went missing that July. Her headless body was discovered in a drainage ditch; her head was located nearby. Police eventually learned that the suspect was the lodge's own handyman, Cary Stayner, who harbored a vicious hatred for women. He had even planned on murdering his girlfriend and daughter on Valentine's Day but ended up not following through with it.

George Penca
George Penca

Yosemite National Park will always remain shrouded in mystery. As beautiful as this area is, it is equally deadly. A misplaced step can send you falling to your death. But perhaps it is what lurks beneath the surface that makes Yosemite one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Cathedral Peak
Cathedral Peak


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