Yellowstone ‘lake music’ remains mystery a century after written reports

Some Yellowstone National Park visitors have reported hearing odd sounds in the skies above Yellowstone Lake on clear days in the early mornings. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate - click to enlarge)

Some Yellowstone National Park visitors have reported hearing odd sounds in the skies above Yellowstone Lake on clear days in the early mornings. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate - click to enlarge)

Yellowstone Lake and the rugged backcountry that surrounds it is a place where millions go seeking solitude and silence. Yet it in a well-documented but rarely discussed phenomenon, some visitors to the Lake area have experienced remarkable celestial sounds of unknown and unexplained origin.

“They resemble the ringing of telegraph wires or the humming of a swarm of bees, beginning softly in the distance, growing rapidly plainer until directly overhead, and then fading as rapidly in the opposite direction,” wrote Hiram M. Chittenden in 1895 in his book, “The Yellowstone National Park.”

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Chittenden’s description is one of several in the historical record — as well as many more from popular anecdotal accounts — of strange sounds or “lake music” coming from the skies around Yellowstone Lake and Shoshone lake.

Hiram M. Chittenden built roads and bridges in Yellowstone National Park and wrote a book for visitors called "The Yellowstone National Park." (click to enlarge)

Hiram M. Chittenden built roads and bridges in Yellowstone National Park and wrote a book for visitors called "The Yellowstone National Park." (click to enlarge)

Chittenden was an accomplished engineer with rigorous scientific discipline who built roads and bridges in the park, as well as locks in Seattle’s Lake Washington Ship Canal. He was not given to idle speculation or unsubstantiated gossip about seemingly magical events.

But he is hardly the only — or even the first — prominent Yellowstone National Park visitor to write about the strange and unexplained lake sounds.

Edwin Linton, a professor of biology at Washington and Jefferson College and a specialist in marine parasites was working in Yellowstone in the summer of 1890 as part of a project for the U.S. Fish Commission. Linton, his colleagues and his guides heard the mysterious sounds more than once during that trip, and he drew from his own diary entries when he wrote an account of the odd experience for the Nov. 3, 1893 edition of the prestigious journal Science.

“On the following morning, we heard the sound very plainly,” Linton wrote. “It appeared to begin directly overhead and to pass off across the sky, growing fainter and fainter towards the southwest. It appeared to be a rather indefinite, reverberating sound, characterized by a slight metallic resonance.”

Linton and others have described the sounds as “harp-like” or similar to human voices or the sound of metal cables crashing against each other, but no satisfactory explanation has yet been offered for their origin.

Lee Whittlesey, historian at Yellowstone Park and a longtime resident of the region, said that the Yellowstone Lake sounds aren’t often discussed by park insiders.

“You have to have a real interest in Yellowstone history to even be familiar with it,” said Whittlesey, who has written several books and articles about Yellowstone history.

“There are a number of pieces written about it, but it’s often deeply buried in the literature,” he said.

Despite how far-fetched the phenomenon sounds, Whittlesey said he’s confident the sounds have existed and the historical accounts about them are credible.

“It has been reported by too many people for it to be any kind of Bigfoot thing or something like that,” he said.

Respected scientists and prominent park figures have reported hearing the sounds, and accounts have appeared in books, journals and newspapers, Whittlesey said, although the last new written report may have been as far back as the 1930s.


Yellowstone Lake phenomenon

Typically, accounts of the sounds state that they take place at or near Yellowstone Lake or Shoshone Lake on a clear day when there is little or no wind and the waters are still, usually in the morning.

Frank Bradley, in tent, relaxes with his colleagues in Yellowstone National Park during an 1872 geological expedition. Bradley reported hearing strange sounds along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. (USGS photo - click to enlarge)

Frank Bradley, in tent, relaxes with his colleagues in Yellowstone National Park during an 1872 geological expedition. Bradley reported hearing strange sounds along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. (USGS photo - click to enlarge)

Geologist Frank H. Bradley explored and documented Yellowstone’s natural wonders as a member of the Hayden Expeditions, and wrote in 1873 about hearing odd sounds along the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

“While getting breakfast, we heard every few moments a curious sound, between a whistle and a hoarse whine, whose locality and character we could not at first determine, though we were inclined to refer it to water-fowl on the other side of the lake,” Bradley wrote in his account of the geologic survey of the area.

“I have listened for it because I found it so interesting,” said Whittlesey, who has lived and worked around Yellowstone for more than 35 years.

“I first learned of it in the early 70s, and over the years kept running into references to it here and there,” he said. “So I listened for it any time I was camped in the backcountry anywhere near Yellowstone Lake or Shoshone Lake, and I never have heard it.”

Terry Dolan, a tour guide based in Cody, Wyo, said he has not only never heard the sounds, but was not familiar with details of the historical accounts of them.

There have been various explanations proposed for the sounds, ranging from fanciful speculation to educated guesses, often centered around the park’s unique geology.

An August 1930 article in Popular Science magazine cited “mild earthquakes, their sounds possibly magnified in underground caverns like sound boxes” as one potential explanation.

The article also referenced a theory put forward by F. C. Marvin, chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, who based his ideas on observations by Glen Jefferson, a Yellowstone meteorologist.

Marvin noted that temperature inversions are not uncommon above Yellowstone Lake, where warmer air above the lake sits atop cooler air near the water’s surface.

He posited that such inversions “may alter the normal way that the air conducts sound,” the article states. “It might produce sound mirages, in which distant noises of geysers, birds or steamboats might appear to come from near at hand.”

A frozen horizon hangs in the far distance as cloudy skies loom over frozen Yellowstone Lake. At least one scientists believes temperature inversions over the lake may expalin why some Yellowstone National Park visitors hear odd sounds there. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate - click to enlarge)

Other theories are referenced dismissively by Stephen Forbes, of the Illinois State Natural History Survey, who wrote about hearing the lake sounds while on the same expedition as Linton.

“No scientific explanation of this really bewitching phenomenon has ever been published, although it has been several times referred to by travelers, who have ventured various crude guesses at its cause, varying from that commonest catch-all of the ignorant, ‘electricity,’ to the whistling of the wings of ducks and the noise of Steamboat Geyser,” Forbes wrote. “It seems to me to belong to the class of aerial echoes, but even on that supposition I cannot account for the origin of the sound.”

If the sounds are related to the park’s geology, they come and go along with thermal features like geysers or hot springs, which wax and wane over years or even decades depending on a complex set of natural factors.

It’s possible that some people in recent years have heard the sound but kept mum about it for fear of sounding foolish or being ridiculed, Whittlesey said, but for whatever reason, the lake sounds are not a topic most guides discuss with visitors.

“I was a tour guide and a ranger naturalist, and I don’t remember ever using it in a program,” Whittlesey said. “It’s just not something that is well known among Yellowstone interpreters or Yellowstone tour guides.”

Despite the lack of any recently documented lake sounds and the lack of a solid explanation for them, Whittlesey is sure the sounds existed as described.

“I feel quite certain these people all heard what they wrote about,” he said.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected]

15 thoughts on “Yellowstone ‘lake music’ remains mystery a century after written reports

  1. I think this is interesting in that such sounds have been heard in many places around the world over time. Earth works in mysterious ways and we have much to learn from the natural world. It is worth a chuckle that people would not want to say anything about such things for the sake of being seen as ‘whacked’….such is the human species. Good article. Thank you!

  2. I want to go up there now more than ever. I went as a child of 12 and I did get to spend part of an evening there driving from Seattle to Denver. Though, it was almost nightfall and wintertime when I was there. Needless to say I didn’t get much time to spend and only the fort area was open due to winter closings.

    I read the caption of the smaller picture in the margin, a look across the lake. And it said something to the effect of “temperature inversions”. Now, I’m no scientist, but, I’ve never heard of differences in temperature creating sounds. Much less melodic. Think that might be a bit of a stretch. Maybe it’s just God’s special place?

    • Sound waves are refracted by a temperature inversion sometimes causing more distant sounds to be heard much like AM radio signals are refracted by the ionosphere.

  3. With the upcoming Solar cycle peak in 2013, perhaps the Northern Lights may play a part in this phenomenon. Good time to set up some listening posts.

    • With those listening posts, an ultra sensitive magnetic wave detector needs to be setup. I’ve heard sounds that seamed to come from the sky when watching Aurora. They would change in tone as the Aurora changed. I always wanted to setup an experiment to see if my theory that they were being caused by reverberations in earth’s magnetic field. If the sky was properly charged, it should be spossible for the earth’s magnetic field to push it about some. That could cause audiable sounds. What likely drives all this, the solar wind. It contains embedded magnetic fields, and they cause the eart’s magnetic field to reverberate as they pass.

  4. Great article and a very interesting subject. I was immediately curious when I read “ human voices..” due to this phenomenon being associated with unknown cryptid animals which inhabit remote locations often having large bodies of water. It’s a good fit for a cryptozoological explanation imv. See the hair analysis of the Sumatran Orang Pendek for further information.

  5. I lived on a lake in northern Minnesota, and my first winter there, I had heard a deep, melodic groan that came from the lake, it seemed. The more I listened, the more I realized it was the sound of huge ice pieces rubbing up against either the shoreline or other ice chunks that hadn’t knit together, yet. I think the ice groaned the way a ship groans. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.

  6. Although I live some distance west of Yellowstone, near the Idaho border, I once experienced a similar event, and have always wondered about it. I was camping in a truck mounted camper, while hunting. In the pre-dawn hours, I was awakened by a fairly loud sound, that reminded me of a leaking propane gas cylinder. Sort of a metalic whistle. I arose, and searched all over, but there didn’t seem to be any source for the sound. It seemed to be all around, and the metal skin of the camper seemed to be reverbrating from it. By the time it was getting light, and I started making my way down the mountain to catch (hopefully) the Elk working up from the fields below, The sound was fading, and soon was lost in the noises of the awakening people in the valley below. It
    never varied, or changed pitch, there was no clashing or harsh sounds, just the “hum”
    that was from the sky.

  7. I just returned from a 4 day trip kayaking on Shoshone Lake. On two early, calm mornings, we heard something, several times, that sounded like a small, fast jet or flock of birds. But of course, we saw nothing. The sound seemed to move very fast, sometimes right overhead, sometimes seeming to come from over the opposite shore (we were near the narrows, on the north side). It was very bizarre; our thought was that it was some unmanned jet drone being tested! I was searching the web to see if anybody knew what we heard when I came across this article. The conditions were very calm, early morning, no wind, no waves on the lake. Sound was traveling far, as we could hear people in canoes talking more than 1/2 mile away.