Local Legends in Utah

Local Legends in Utah

By Brian Higgins
September 29, 2022

Are there sea creatures in our lakes? Curses in our forests? Treasures in our caves? Read on to find out, but spoiler alert — there totally are.

Every state in the U.S. has its own collection of myths, legends and folklore, and lots of them think their collection is the best. But let’s be real, we’ve already had this conversation with national parks, fry sauce and Snow on Earth™ — Utah does it best. It might not surprise you to learn that in a land with such unique history, from Native American tribes to European explorers and early pioneers, that some stories have etched themselves forever into the fabric of the land and culture. Here are some of the best local legends in Utah. 

There’s a Monster in Bear Lake

Is the Caribbean of the Rockies home to a horrible monster that lurks beneath its beautiful turquoise waters? It’s tough to say, but yes. 

According to witnesses, the Bear Lake Monster is a serpentine creature at least 50 feet long with spikes along its back. Its head resembles either a cow, otter, crocodile or walrus, and you know people are telling the truth because of how similar those animals all look. It can move incredibly swiftly through the water, but has legs that let it wander slowly on land too. 

(Disclaimer: Those descriptions are conjecture — the experts at Utah.com know that the Bear Lake Monster either looks like this or this.)

The story of the Bear Lake Monster originated in the Native American folklore of the area, but its first officially documented sighting was in 1868, according to an article sent into Deseret News. After the widespread article, the Bear Lake Monster seems to have left the realm of speculation and become a simple fact of Utah life. Nearly everyone around Bear Lake claimed to have seen it, and curiosity even got the better of Brigham Young, who sent a large rope to Idaho to help capture the monster.  

People continue to be entranced by the Bear Lake Monster to this day, despite the fact that the author of the original article eventually admitted it was all a lie. That doesn’t stop the residents of Bear Lake from having a bit of fun, though. From parade floats to tour boats and a polar plunge, the Bear Lake Monster has become a staple of the community over the years. And who knows? Maybe it’s out there lurking under the surface, just waiting to take revenge on the elementary school kids who voted to name it Isabella in 1996.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park Is Cursed

If you head to Escalante Petrified Forest State Park for a daytrip, you’ll probably have a nice day of hiking, canoeing or fishing. But if you take a piece of petrified wood from the forest, things might start to go downhill for you fast. That’s because the park is haunted by a legendary curse, which states that whosoever should take from the ancient forest will see nothing but misfortune for the rest of their days, or until the petrified wood is returned to its home.

If you think the curse sounds far-fetched, park rangers have plenty of evidence to prove you wrong. At the park’s visitor center you can find letters from folks who took a piece of petrified wood home with them and met all kinds of bad luck, from everyday slip ups to serious accidents and illnesses. One person even said “TGIF” to his work crush on a Thursday. Chilling stuff. 

If you’re still doubting this petrifying tale, there are even some letters that claim that the sender’s luck turned around once they sent the petrified stones back. People have gone so far as to return stones from other countries, some weighing as much as 30 pounds! You know it’s real when someone’s willing to pay those kinds of shipping charges. 

Petrified wood is beautiful to look at, and even marvelous to touch, but you should leave it at that. Not only because of the curse, but because you want to be a responsible recreator. And the Curse of the Irresponsible Recreator is the worst curse of all. Legend says, if you disobey Leave No Trace principles everyone will think you’re a huge jerk and stop hanging out with you.

There Are Whales in the Great Salt Lake

Science claims that whales “couldn’t survive in the Great Salt Lake due to the high concentration of salt,” but science also claims the Bear Lake Monster isn’t real, and we’ve already established that it is. 

One of the quirkier urban myths in Utah history, the story of whales in the Great Salt Lake began in 1890. That’s when a Provo newspaper ran a story about an eccentric scientist named James Whickham who started a colony of whales in Utah’s salty waters. 

The story goes that Wickham, a British scientist, imported whales from Australia to San Francisco, took them by rail (in custom rail cars with 30,000 gallons of seawater) and released them into the Great Salt Lake near the mouth of Bear River. Wickham had installed fencing to keep the whales contained for his research, but the whales immediately broke free and set about exploring their new habitat. The whales were spotted regularly for the next few years until they were killed by poachers. 

But it’s Utah, so you can bet those two whales had a big ol’ family before they met their untimely end. That’s why whales have been spotted over the years in the deepest parts of the lake. And in case you don’t believe this story because “it’s biologically impossible,” there are historical pictures of the whales and custom rail cars to prove it. And don’t believe the local artists at the Luminaria historical photography studio who say they created the photos to drum up business. They’re obviously lying.

Montezuma’s Treasure Is in Kanab

Sure, Kanab is a treasure trove of desert adventures, but did you know that it’s also a treasure trove of … well, treasure. At least that’s what treasure hunters have conjectured over the last hundred years or so.

The story begins back in the 1500s, when the Aztec Emperor Montezuma was killed by Aztecs who believed he had cozied up to Spanish invaders. With their leader dead and the Spanish driven away for the moment, the Aztecs were left with the question of where to hide their vast riches should the Spanish return.

In Kanab, of course! At least that’s what aptly named prospector Freddy Crystal believed when he strolled into town in 1914. Crystal, who will probably be played by Nic Cage in a movie someday, had found a hand-drawn map in a crumbling Mexican monastery that he believed belonged to Hernán Cortés and led to the treasure. The map looked an awful lot like the terrain around Kanab to Freddy, so he headed north in search of glory.

After eight years of searching, Freddy found a cave that matched his map, complete with stairs that lead down to a sealed entryway — the universal sign of secret treasure. Freddy brought word to the townsfolk of Kanab, who dropped everything to help him dig. It turned out that they had stumbled upon an extensive tunnel system filled with false walls and booby traps, which is usually another good sign for treasure. But after months of digging, there was nothing to be found.

That’s probably because like any good treasure, the Treasure of Montezuma is cursed. That’s why so many who have continued to hunt for it have met both untimely deaths and eerie experiences. Such stories include treasure-driven divers whose oxygen tanks failed in waters filled with shadowy figures, and a prospector who finally found gold in Freddy’s cave before dying suddenly that night.

Today, much of the land believed to house the treasure is home to a no-kill animal sanctuary. So if you see any Dachshunds with diamonds or Setters with scepters wandering around Kanab — sorry, they got there first.