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Tales from the Trail: Mysterious Sounds like Whispers on Lake Yellowstone

What are the strange sounds? Some talk about ghosts and lost-at-lake souls. A paranormal investigator and Yellowstone's historian discuss the mystery.

Location: Lake Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park, WY
Trail: Thorofare Trail

Accounts of Sounds from Campers Near the Lake

The sounds came out of nowhere. One moment, a party of campers would be drinking in the early-morning peace around Yellowstone or Shoshone Lakes. The next, they’d hear a strange sound in the distance—variously described as “metal cables crashing against each other,” “ethereal organ music,” and “the sound of ducks in flight,” among other descriptions. It would grow louder and more intense until it seemed to be coming from right overhead, then rapidly fade away. None of the many 19th- and 20th-century travelers who wrote accounts of this “lake music” were fully able to explain it. Curiously enough, neither can anyone around today.

“It’s been documented since at least 1890,” says Whittlesey, the park historian. Engineer Hiram M. Chittenden made note of the lake sounds in his 1895 book, The Yellowstone National Park: Historical and Descriptive. “They seem to occur in the morning, and to last for only a moment. They have an apparent motion through the air … They resemble the ringing of telegraph wires or the humming of a swarm of bees.”

Even the Hayden Expedition Heard Weird Sounds

Geologist Frank H. Bradley, a member of the 1871 Hayden Expedition, left a similar account: “While getting breakfast, we heard every few moments a curious sound, between a whistle and a horse whine,” he wrote. “The sound increased in force, and it now became evident that gusts of wind were passing through the air above us, though the pines did not as yet indicate the least motion in the lower atmosphere.”

Experts have struggled to explain these bizarre acoustics. A 1930 issue of Popular Science magazine cited “mild earthquakes, their sounds possibly magnified in underground caverns” and a temperature inversion above the lake affecting how the air conducts sound. Ranger Naturalist Neil Miner suggested in a 1937 park publication that “horizontally moving whirlpools of air” were to blame, formed by air flowing down from nearby high peaks.

But none of these hypotheses have fully satisfied experts, and the phenomena remains officially unexplained—and likely to remain that way, as reports of the lake music dwindled after the mid-’60s, says Whittlesey. But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean that nobody’s heard it [since then].”

Perhaps the lake music still plays to bewildered campers or morning runners on the Thorofare Trail, who shake their heads and brush it off—unaware that visitors have puzzled over the very same sounds for hundreds of years.

From Yellowstone National Park Trips