13 Mysterious Disappearances in National Parks

By: Alia Hoyt & Becky Striepe  | 

spiral trees at night
The parks of the world provide immense natural beauty ... as well as vast expanses where it's easy to get lost. Kingston Photography/Getty Images

In the United States National Park System alone there are more than 84 million acres (35 million hectares) of preserved woods, deserts, mountains and other wilderness, so it's no surprise that in the past 100 years there have been a number of cases of hikers going missing. Many of those who vanished were young children and inexperienced hikers, but some were healthy and seasoned outdoorspeople. But is there more to these disappearances than just kids wandering off, or hikers becoming disoriented?

What could cause someone to seemingly vanish into thin air? There are two approaches people take to explaining these mysterious disappearances: earthly and supernatural. Most hiking experts would say that these missing hikers made common mistakes like taking on more than they could handle or failing to time their turnback to beat the sunset [source: Stevenson]. However, some disappearances have become a focus for urban legend, online message boards and nonfiction books. In fact, "Missing 411" author and former police officer at Yosemite National Park, David Paulides, thinks something more intriguing is afoot. His books examine more than 1,100 cases of people who mysteriously vanished in United States national parks [source: Hiltner].

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The National Parks Service doesn't collect data on how many visitors disappear within the vast expanses of these parks. Indeed, most people turn up on their own accord a few days later. In 2020, Paulides estimated that there had been over 1,600 unexplained disappearances in North America [source: Strange Outdoors].

Let's be honest – although it might be fun to imagine monsters or something spookier, no proof for any supernatural disappearance has ever been provided. But there have definitely been some mysterious disappearances both in the United States and abroad in formal, federal government-run national parks, as well as in related spaces like national forests, recreation areas, state parks and more. Here are some of the most fascinating cases to date, starting in the early 20th century.

13: Bessie and Glen Hyde, 1928

Colorado River,
The Colorado River, winding through Grand Canyon National Park, was the setting of the Hyde disappearance. Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images

Bessie and Glen Hyde were honeymooning in northern Arizona at the Grand Canyon when they vanished. They were traveling down the Colorado River by scow in October 1928 and planned to boat through the Grand Canyon. Bessie would have been the first woman ever to do so successfully [source: Japenga].

Glen had run tough rivers before, but Bessie was a boating newbie. The couple ran across other boaters a few weeks before their disappearance, who said they got the feeling that Bessie wanted to turn back, but Glen was pushing her on. If they completed the trip successfully, they could go on a paid lecture tour. So, this trip was more than just fun – there was money at stake.

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Cut to several months later: The Hydes' boat was discovered that winter, seemingly undisturbed. It was upright and full of supplies, but the couple was gone. There are many theories about what happened to the Hydes. Did they disembark and try a too-difficult side hike? Did they have an argument that turned violent? Or were they abducted? There are conflicting reports about what happened to the Hydes, and more than one Bessie Hyde sighting in the years that followed [source: Japenga].

12: Alfred Beilhartz, 1938

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park provided the setting for the disappearance of 5-year-old Alfred Beilhartz. Marie Bush/Jaynes Gallery/DanitaDelimont.com/Getty Images

Four-year-old Alfred Beilhartz was the first recorded drowning in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, though whether Beilhartz actually drowned is controversial [source: Vistaramic Journeys]. He was camping in the park with his family over the July 4 weekend when he disappeared near the Roaring and Fall Rivers.

Beilhartz had gone with his dad to bathe in the river, and from there he decided to join two family friends at a spot about 500 feet (150 meters) upstream of where he and his father entered the river. When everyone returned to camp, they realized that Beilhartz was missing. A search began immediately, expanding to more than 100 Civilian Conservation Corps members within 45 minutes, but there was barely any sign of Beilhartz anywhere [source: Evans].

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A day after he disappeared, a couple hiking about 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) away from Beilhartz's campsite reported seeing a boy who looked like Alfred sitting in an area called The Devil's Nest [source: Garrison]. By the time authorities arrived, though, the boy was gone.

The search went on for 10 days and included 150 men, plus bloodhounds, though the size of the search party had dwindled to a dozen by the end of the eighth day [source: Evans]. Park rangers chalked his disappearance up to drowning.

11: Katherine Van Alst, 1946

Devil's Den State Park
The Arkansas wilderness at Devil's Den State Park swallowed up Katherine Van Alst. Michael Hanson/Getty Images

Eight-year-old Katherine Van Alst disappeared from Devil's Den State Park, near Arkansas' Ozark National Forest, where she and her family were camping. Van Alst apparently was playing with her brothers when she wandered off and got lost, and couldn't find her way back. What makes her disappearance remarkable is that when she was found after six days wandering the woods, she was eerily calm.

University of Arkansas student Porter Chadwick was part of the search party that found Van Alst. He told The Pittsburgh Press that when he found her, she walked stoically out of a cave and just said, "Here I am" [source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]. She had survived on berries and spent nights sleeping in caves. Many other hikers have gotten lost in that part of the Ozarks and not been as lucky as Van Alst.

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10: Paula Welden, 1946

boy scouts, search for Paula Welden
National Guard members and even Boy Scouts searched for Paula Welden in 1947. © Corbis

There's an area in Green Mountain National Forest near Glastenbury Mountain and Vermont's Long Trail that believers in the paranormal call Bennington Triangle. The area got this name because of a handful of mysterious disappearances which occurred between 1945 and 1950, although many more have been recorded over the years Paranormal author Joseph A. Citro coined the term because of the supposedly supernatural circumstances surrounding these vanishings [source: Vermonter]. Paula Welden was the second person to go missing in that area of Green Mountain National Forest during this period.

Eighteen-year-old Welden was a college student who set out on the Long Trail in December 1946. She was dressed for walking and not a long hike, wearing jeans, a coat and sneakers. Her attire implied that she planned to return before dark, when temperatures were supposed to dip below freezing. Welden told her roommate that she was "taking a long walk," and she never returned [source: Robinson].

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Several people spotted her as she hitchhiked her way to the trail and walked to the trailhead [source: Robinson]. When Welden didn't come back by dark, her roommate let the school know, and the search began. Classes were suspended so students could help with the search. The process was disorganized at first, until Welden's father called in favors from police in two surrounding states. Unfortunately, the search didn't pan out, and frustrated family and friends had their own theories about what happened to her.

Did Welden run off with a boyfriend? Was she abducted, did she commit suicide or did she die of exposure because of her inappropriate attire? No one has discovered her body, so her disappearance remains a mystery. There's a rumor that this area of the Long Trail is home to a creature called the Bennington Monster [source: Waller]. Could this sasquatch-like animal have something to do with the disappearance?

One positive outcome of the case was that the lack of organization in the search for Paula Welden led to the creation of the Vermont State Police which is responsible for all wilderness search and rescue missions in the state.

9: Larry Jeffrey, 1966

Mount Charleston
Mount Charleston is a short drive from Las Vegas, Nevada. © Natalie Tepper/Arcaid/Corbis

6-year-old Larry Jeffrey disappeared near the peak of 12,000-foot (3,650-meter) Mount Charleston in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, just a short drive from Las Vegas. The search began immediately after the boy wandered away from his brothers, and within days the National Guard and a team of bloodhounds had joined the search [source: Desert Sun].

In a TV interview, David Paulides told reporter George Knapp that there were no predators afoot that day, and since the area they were in was pretty secluded, it's easy to rule out an abduction by car. "This boy just walked into oblivion," Paulides said.

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When Jeffrey disappeared, he was wearing light clothing, and authorities were doubtful that he could survive the cold temperatures at night. Searchers found and lost the trail a few times, and they discovered evidence that the boy had been eating insects and foraged berries along the way. Overall, around 1,000 people searched for 16 days but never found him [source: Knapp and Adams].

8: Dennis Martin, 1969

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Dennis Martin disappeared in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Jason Langley/Corbis

6-year-old Dennis Martin was on a camping trip near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line with his family in the summer of 1969. It was an annual Father's Day tradition – all of the men in the Martin family headed to Smoky Mountain National Park to camp and hike.

Dennis and his brothers had planned a prank on the adults; they were going to hide separately in the bush and jump out on different sides of the campsite to scare them. It was a typical joke that should have ended with some startled shouts and then a lot of laughter. The laughter ended quickly, though, when they realized that Dennis was missing.

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Family, park rangers, and other hikers spread out to search for Dennis almost immediately, but he was nowhere to be found. That evening, there was heavy rainfall, which is bad news when you're trying to track a missing little boy.

The search for Martin became the largest in National Park Service history. One of the people searching was Park Ranger Dwight McCarter, who had successfully tracked down hundreds of missing persons, including young children. McCarter was a seasoned tracker, and he was struck by the complete lack of any sort of tracks. Dennis seemed to have disappeared completely, leaving no trace at all. His disappearance is still a mystery [source: Coffey].

One possible lead that searchers didn't follow was a report from another family the evening that the boy went missing. The Key family allegedly heard a scream and then saw a "bear-man" with something slung over its shoulder that looked like it could be a small child [source: Gullion]. We'll never know whether this was related to Martin's disappearance. But one thing did come out of it — the realization that having so many volunteers might have meant some vital clues got trampled on. Nowadays, searches involve less people but they have more training.

7: Douglas Legg, 1971

Santanoni Preserve
The Santanoni Preserve features numerous historic structures as well as thickly wooded wilderness. Mwanner at en.wikipedia

Douglas Legg and some of his family were heading out for a hike in the Adirondack Forest Preserve's Santanoni Preserve when his uncle spotted poison ivy and told Legg to put on long pants to protect himself. The family's cabin was a short, straight shot from where they were, but 8-year-old Legg never returned.

Unlike a lot of the kids who have gone missing in national parks, Legg was very familiar with these woods. His family owned the cabin where they were staying and described Legg as a "mini-woodsman," because they all hiked there together so often. Legg's disappearance sparked one of the southern Adirondacks' largest search and rescue missions, with more than 600 people searching the woods, but like Martin, Legg left no trail [source: Lehman].

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Unlike in the Martin case, though, rescuers used dogs in their search. Some accounts describe dogs following Legg's scent over a 30-mile (48 kilometers) trail through difficult terrain [source: Swancer]. How could a young child have traveled alone for such a distance? Some searchers reported seeing bear-like tracks near the site. While black bears do drag their prey to cover, dragging someone 30 miles over difficult terrain seems unusual.

The family became desperate and began suspecting each other and even their friends of abducting Legg, but the police were certain that the "mini-woodsman" had simply gotten lost. He was never found.

6: John Devine, 1997

Olympic National Park
The dense foliage and rugged terrain of Olympic National Park has swallowed many hikers. Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images

According to Peninsula Daily News, Olympic National Park in northern Washington state has a feature that's not as majestic as its mountain views. At least four hikers have mysteriously disappeared from the area in the past 25 years, one of whom was 73-year-old John Devine [source: Seabury]. In 1997, Devine planned to hike into the park from Mount Baldy.

The trail is a tough 24 miles (39 kilometers), and though Devine was elderly, he was also an experienced long-distance hiker. Devine was camping with his friend Greg Balzer; they split up on the day that Devine went missing. Balzer went off to hunt while Devine took off on a day hike [source: Strange Outdoors]. Devine never returned.

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The fruitless search for Devine lasted a full week until a rescue helicopter crash killed three people and injured five others. By that time, weather conditions had deteriorated, making the chances of finding Devine slim. Friends and family said that Devine wouldn't want to put people in danger on his behalf, and the search was called off.

The search helicopter's crash is as mysterious as Devine's disappearance. Before takeoff, the pilot used a hand signal indicating that he was going to wait five minutes for conditions to improve before attempting it. A moment later, the helicopter departed vertically without warning and crashed into the side of the mountain [source: Shimanski].

5: David Gonzales, 2004

2004 search for 9-year-old David Gonzales
California's San Bernardino Forest was the setting for the 2004 search for 9-year-old David Gonzales. © Steven K. Doi/ZUMA/Corbis

At 8 a.m. on a July day in 2004, David Gonzales asked his mother if he could have the car keys. There was a box of cookies in the car, and the 9-year-old wanted a treat. The car was only 50 yards (46 meters) away, and his mother watched him as he walked to the parking lot near their Big Bear Lake campsite in Northern California's San Bernardino National Forest. She turned her back for a second, and when she looked around again, Gonzales was gone.

His mother reported that she heard no sound at all when her back was turned, though she did see a beige truck speeding out of the campground around the time that her son went missing. Since there were no signs of abduction, authorities did not pursue that lead [source: Associated Press].

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The cookies that Gonzales went to get were still in his family's locked van, so he never made it to the car. Rescue teams in San Bernardino County scoured the woods for Gonzales. They found no signs of struggle or of the boy. The search went on for nine days, but rescuers never found him alive.

Almost a year later, hikers stumbled upon the boy's remains about a mile from his family's campsite [source: Brooks]. Authorities initially chalked this up to a mountain lion attack, but how could a mountain lion have silently dragged a 9-year-old boy a mile without leaving any blood or signs of struggle? The autopsy determined that any marks made to the child's remains were done by scavenging animals.

4: Prabhdeep Srawn, 2013

Mount Kosciuszko
A summertime view of Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest peak. © Ashley Cooper/Corbis

Prabhdeep Srawn was a 25-year-old Canadian army reservist who disappeared from Australia's Kosciuszko National Park, located in the southeastern state of New South Wales. Srawn was studying abroad in Australia in May 2013, when he decided to take a 1,700 mile- (2,700 kilometer-) road trip from the Gold Coast to Melbourne. Srawn rented a van, drove to the park's Charlotte Pass in the Snowy Mountains, and no one has seen him since [source: French].

The search for Srawn began when the rental company discovered that the van wasn't returned. Srawn hadn't told anyone what route or side hikes he was planning, and the search may have started days or even a week after he went missing, since it was the rental company that first reported the disappearance. Searchers figured out his hike plans by looking at the search history on a laptop they recovered from his van [source: Mcllroy].

Srawn's family hired private searchers after Australian authorities called off their search after only two weeks. The investigators used tower data from Srawn's phone and a trained dog to track his trail to a treacherous area called the Western Fall Wilderness [source: French]. Just one day before his van was due back to the rental agency, Srawn embarked on a difficult and time-consuming hike in snowy weather. Why would a trained military reservist make a choice like that? Despite a private search that went on for over a year, Srawn's body has never been recovered.

3: Jacob Gray, 2017

Olympic National Park
Olympic National Park was where Jacob Gray was last seen in 2017. aaaaimages/Getty Images

The mystery of what exactly happened to 22-year-old Jacob Gray will likely never be solved. The athletic young man rode his mountain bike "into a rainstorm" in Olympic National Park in Washington in April 2017, and was never seen alive again [source: Spitznagel]. His bike and gear were found on the side of a trail, but Gray was nowhere to be found. This kicked off a search, largely championed by his father, Randy, who actually sold his house and closed his contracting business, so that he could fully devote his time to searching for his son.

Randy spent months doing that, all the while theorizing about what could have happened to his child. He considered hypothermia, accidental drowning, an accident and so on. He also worried that burgeoning mental health issues had gotten the best of him. In August of the same year, he got the phone call that a group of researchers had found Jacob's remains and supplies higher on the mountain than anyone expected. The likely cause of death was hypothermia [source: Billman].

2: Cian McLaughlin, 2021

park ranger speaks with a colleague on the road to Spread Creek Campground
A park ranger speaks with a colleague on the road to Spread Creek Campground in Grand Teton Park, Wyoming. They were searching for missing person Gabby Petito. Earlier in the summer, Cian McLaughlin disappeared from the same national park. Natalie Behring/Getty Images

A 27-year-old Irishman visiting Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming has been missing since June 2021. The last known sighting of Dublin native Cian McLaughlin pinpoints him heading in the direction of Taggart Lake. This is located on an 8-mile (12-kilometer) trail that is very difficult in nature. When he didn't show up to work, he was reported missing (he held dual U.S./Irish citizenship). His car was found nearby and kicked off a search that formally ended two weeks later [source: O'Brien]. 45 helicopter searches and other high-tech tools have yet to reveal any information about his whereabouts [source: Myers].

His family and the U.S. National Park Service have since put out a poster with a photo and details, as well as the hashtag #FindCian to keep him top of mind for visitors to the area. The disappearance is extra puzzling, as his uncle described that particular trailhead as "his favorite." Another hiker reported seeing McLaughlin without a backpack, so it appeared that he had just gone out for a walk [source: Molloy].

1: Gabby Petito, 2021

Gabby Petito memorial
A makeshift memorial dedicated to Gabby Petito is located near City Hall on Sept. 20, 2021, in North Port, Florida. Her body was found by authorities in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. She went missing while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie. Octavio Jones/Getty Images

The disappearance of Gabby Petito made international headlines when her boyfriend Brian Laundrie returned from their road trip all by himself. The couple, who posted heavily about their travels on social media, had an ambitious schedule of coast-to-coast national park visits, although several fights between the pair were noticed by others (including the police) along the way. Petito's family says that their last contact with the 22-year-old was at the end of August 2021. Laundrie arrived back at home Sept. 1 without Petito and refused to speak with police or her family. Her family reported her missing Sept. 11 after a lengthy lack of contact. In fact, they don't believe the last text they received from Petito was actually from her.

Sadly, on Sept. 19, Petito's remains were found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. The cause of death was determined to be strangulation. Laundrie disappeared on Sept. 17 and on Oct. 20, his skeletal remains were found inside the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota, Florida. As of press time, his cause of death is still unknown [source: Maxouris].

Originally Published: Jul 10, 2015

Mysterious Disappearances FAQ

What is the most famous disappearance?
Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra disappearance somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on June 2, 1937 is very famous. Earhart was undertaking a daring around-the-world flight when she and her plane went missing. They’re never been found.
How many people went missing in 2020?
According to the National Crime Information Center, 542,587 people who had an NCIC went missing in 2020. That's about 1,486 people every day. This is the lowest it’s been since 1990.
Who is the most famous missing child?
One of the most famous child disappearances is that of Madeleine McCann from Leicestershire who went missing while on holiday in Algarve, Portugal with her family. The three-year-old hasn't been found since she went missing on May 3, 2007.
Which country has the largest number of disappearances?
Sri Lanka has one of the world's highest rates of disappearances. Since the 1980s, more than 100,000 people have disappeared without a trace.
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Author's Note: 10 Mysterious Disappearances in National Parks

My college roommate and I once went hiking on Kennesaw Mountain in North Georgia, and we managed to completely lose the trail. We were scrambling over rocks trying to find our way back to the trail and our car, and it was definitely creepy being two women lost and alone in the woods. As we rounded a bend, a man who said he lived on the mountain approached us. Luckily, he turned out to be just a helpful hiker, and he showed us a quick route back to the trailhead. We were maybe a mile from our car at most and had basically been hiking in circles. Before that happened, I might have thought it was crazy that someone could get lost so close to their campsite or fellow hikers, but I can tell you from that experience that the woods can be incredibly disorienting. If it weren't for the fellow that helped us, who knows how long my friend and I would have wandered on the mountain?

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