For the curious, the experience starts with a night drive down the parkway to the Thomas Divide Overlook, about two-thirds of the way between Maggie Valley and Cherokee, mile-marker 464 to be exact.
From there what happens is out of your control — some claim flashing your high beams or honking your horn helps, others claim that is the last thing you should do. In the end all you can really do is wait — and that’s when the lights come out.
Against the backdrop of the distant mountain range, they dance like orbs of yellow and white across the ridges, sometimes moving rapidly, other times standing in place. Sometimes they stay out for a long time, other times they never appear.
Unlike the famous and more reliable Brown Mountain Lights of Boone, the Thomas Divide Lights are little known outside local circles. An Internet search will reveal several postings on supernatural blog sites, a forum or two that mentions them and at least one home video of a family who went camping nearby and drove over to see the lights.
Other than that documentation is scarce.
Marsha Bowers, a park ranger for more than 20 years along the parkway, said she was confused at first when she would come across the busy parking area at the Thomas Divide overlook while patrolling on the night shift, until she asked someone what was going on.
“It’s mostly people from Cherokee. They say they see lights in the distance, and they move,” Bowes said, though she has never seen them herself. “People swear by it.”
But to those in Cherokee, heading a few miles out of town on the Parkway to take a gander at the Thomas Divide Lights is a popular pastime — be it a coming of age experience for teenagers cruising with their friends or kids dragged out on a chilly night by their enthusiastic parents.
“It’s a fun thing to do with young people because they get excited and scream; some older people do, too,” said Lynne Harlan, a public relations coordinator with the Eastern Band of Cherokee. “It’s been a folktale over here for generations.”
Harlan first saw the lights about 35 years ago, when she was a teenager. Since then, she’s heard a multitude of explanations for the lights — from car headlights to combustible methane gas to fireballs hurled by the Cherokees’ legendary giant, Judaculla.
Some even say the lights are the lanterns of the Cherokee’s mythical “Little People,” mischievous dwarves that are said to populate mountainside caves. One park ranger who has worked on the parkway for 20 years postulates they are simply the lights of distant houses, or campfires.
But, Harlan still hasn’t heard one she is willing to settle on.
“There are lights in the mountains — I really do believe that,” Harlan said. “What the lights are is a question I would not be comfortable betting on.”
One of the oldest personal accounts of mysterious mountain lights in Cherokee comes from Jerry Wolfe, a respected elder in the Cherokee community and an employee at the local museum. Wolfe, who’s almost 90, remembers his first encounter with the lights when he was 16.
He was walking home with a friend along the parkway late one night when they saw an erratic set of car headlights on a distant mountainside — or so they thought.
“Those two lights would go in, disappear, then they’d come out, then go into a valley and disappear,” Wolfe said. “They’d be on the ridge, in and out, in and out.”
The next day they investigated the area the lights seemed to be coming from — where Big Cove meets the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and he realized those were no headlights.
“There’s no highway up there,” Wolfe said. “That’s the roughest terrain there is.”
The phenomenon has caught the eye of a local paranormal author and lead investigator of the Smoky Mountain Ghost Trackers, Micheal Rivers. Based out of Whittier, Rivers has made several trips to Thomas Divide, occasionally outfitted with infrared photograph equipment and claims he has been able to capture images of orbs of light.
But he has yet to see the lights with his naked eye, despite one six-hour marathon stakeout. Meanwhile, other viewers will be lucky enough to see the lights on their first visit.
However, after investigating countless supernatural and possibly haunted sites across the country, Rivers said he does feel something special about the overlook area and the adjacent valley. On one occasion, when he was alone at the site, he noticed what he called anomalies appearing on the pictures he was taking, so he stopped shooting and called into the night, “I want to know if anyone is there but me.”
He then heard someone walking along the nearby creek.
“You knew you were not alone. You can feel something in the air with you,” Rivers said. “It was just paranormal. There was no other way to explain it.”
But what has proved even more useful than his onsite investigations are the oral histories Rivers has documented surrounding mountain lights near Cherokee.
Rivers, who is 59, has known about the lights since his youth, when he used to spend summers in Western North Carolina. A family friend who constructed roads through the Appalachian mountains in the early 1900s — sometimes working late into the night when the lights would appear — was the first to recount the story of them to Rivers.
Later, Rivers gained the trust of Cherokee elders, many of them dead now, and claims that they had family stories of the lights dating as far back as the 1700s. The elders believed the lights are guardians of the mountains, the life and secrets of the Cherokee people, Rivers said.
And as for the other explanations floating around in the darkness, Rivers said he’s staying with what the native Cherokee elders have told him.
“When you bring in outsiders, they start second guessing with the UFO’s, swamp gas and ghostly spirits,” Rivers said. “I’ve heard a lot of theories on it — most of them were pure bullshit.”