Illuminating Appalachia: a brief history of the Brown Mountain Lights


Verna Townson

Digital art of the Brown Mountain overlook in Morganton.

Verna Townson, [email protected], News Writer

The Brown Mountain Lights are an unexplained phenomena described as luminous balls of colorful light that have appeared unpredictably for centuries in the Pisgah National Forest.

“When I’ve seen them, it’s just the most exciting thing, it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, it gives me goosebumps,” said Joshua Warren, a paranormal investigator.

Warren owns both Haunted Asheville Ghost Tours and Haunted Boulder City Ghost Tours. He has not only observed the Brown Mountain lights but has conducted more than a decade’s worth of research within the dense Pisgah National Forest.

“As soon as I turned 16 years old and could drive, I started traveling up there on a regular basis and I gathered a team together called the ‘LEMUR Team.’ LEMUR stands for the ‘League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained phenomena Research,’ and we spent about 15 years camping up there,” Warren said last November.

The Brown Mountain Lights have undergone many local and national investigations for centuries. The first publication describing the lights was featured in an early Charlotte Observer article detailing local testimonies and sightings occurring in 1913. 

“One thing  we discovered when we were using all of our instrumentation is sometimes they’re only visible in the infrared realm, which is invisible to the naked human eye. So you might be standing there looking at the mountain and you don’t see anything with your naked eye, but if you have an infrared-sensitive camera you can see them through it,” Warren said. 

Warren’s LEMUR research team recorded seemingly anomalous energies measured when the lights appear. The research they conducted suggests the lights could be physically plasmatic, similar to ball lightning.

“The Brown Mountain Lights are part of what I call a phantasmagoria of bizarre phenomena, because it’s almost like a blank slate in a way. You have this mountain that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere where these lights appear,” Warren said. 

In 1922, The U.S. Geological Survey sent Geologist George Mansfield to Brown Mountain due to general interest in the lights. At the time, the proposed explanations for the Brown Mountain lights included combusting marsh gas, phosphorescence and St. Elmo’s fire. 

“You have all kinds of people who say they believe they are conscious and they’re interactive, and sometimes they seem to be aware. I cannot honestly tell you I’ve ever seen that,” Warren said.

Mansfield concluded the lights were likely due to the headlights of vehicles and fires. A century later locals and tourists alike continue to be mesmerized by the lights, some still searching for an answer. 

“The reason it’s a mystery after all these years is it’s so rare, and all of these conditions have to be just right for it to materialize but when it does you really feel like you’re touched with some form of luck or fortune for that moment, and it’s exciting and inspiring,” Warren said.

The Brown Mountain Lights may be rare but they have been well documented and observed over time, by researchers, tourists and locals alike. If one is lucky enough to see the lights, it will likely make for an unforgettable experience. 

“I saw the lights when I was around 16 or 17 in the summertime,” said UNC Asheville student August Scala.

In the 1970s an organization known as the Oak Ridge Isochronous Observation Network (ORION) conducted an experiment using an arc light. A group of observers gathered on the overlook on Route 181 and were able to spot the light from 22 miles away.

“All I can recall of the location was somewhere in Linville Gorge. We got out of the van and I instantly realized something was wrong, my ride had left with all my gear,” Scala said, “I pushed on and we started hiking into the forest.”

ORION also attempted to replicate the lights through a series of detonations on the mountain, attempting to test if the lights are a result of seismic activity.

“In the dead of the night when everyone was asleep, I began to see these floating orbs of red, light orange and white light through the trees on the other side of the valley,” Scala said last November. 

In 2012, a Brown Mountain Lights symposium was held at Mornington City Hall featuring Warren and Appalachian State University Physicist Daniel Caton, who continues to research the lights. 

“They moved around in seemingly random directions but in a slow drift, like a firefly. They did not loom above the horizon, only within the hillside,” Scala said.

Appalachian State’s website on the lights features research regarding the phenomenon. The website states the current theory is that the mysterious lights are likely ball lighting.

“I knew what they were as I saw them because my group had seen them before in the area and told me but it was a really special moment to see for myself. A phenomenon such as this probably helped excite my interest in nature and the pursuit of understanding it,” said Scala, who currently interns with the U.S. Forest Service.

Lorin Barrier, 27, of Morganton, North Carolina, said one evening she was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the lights in 2016.

“It was an interesting experience because to me it just didn’t make sense. When I saw the lights I was mostly just curious,” Barrier said last November. 

The lights occasionally drifting above the deciduous forest continue to baffle most who see them. To some, the lights will forever remain a marvel of nature, while others may believe they are just ATV headlights dancing in and out of the tree lines.

“We live in this day and age in which we’ve done such a great job scientifically trying to understand the mysteries of the world that there aren’t too many mysteries that are this prominent, still sitting there in your backyard you can jump in the car and visit any night of the week with your friends and family for free,” Warren said. “To go to a place like that and hope you hit the jackpot and see these things, it’s exhilarating.”