I became aware of Skinwalker Ranch earlier this year when The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch became a part of the we-need-a-distraction-what’s-on-tv conversation.
When I started asking around about the ranch, I got a lot of “Oh you mean the cattle mutilation place?”
So I did some googling, as one very online elder millennial does, and learned that dead cows are what first caught the public’s attention and gained the ranch the notoriety it has today among paranormal enthusiasts.
But the cattle corpses—cut open with surgical precision and vacuumed of organs—are just one of the unsolved mysteries that make up the history of Skinwalker Ranch. Others include dire wolf sightings, poltergeist-like shenanigans, strange lights in the sky, unexplained electronic malfunctions, and possible portals to other dimensions. There’s a lot going on at Skinwalker Ranch.
After falling into more than one internet rabbit hole that led to a number of sites with green type and grainy photos, devouring the History Channel series, and polishing off George Knapp’s book Hunt for the Skinwalker (a read I do not recommend if you have any sort of affinity for livestock or meditative hippies, and one that I own in both paperback and audio form), I knew I had to see the ranch and experience some hair-raising encounters for myself.
Getting on the ranch took months of coordination and scheduling, and quite honestly, being very annoying and texting ranch owner and commercial real estate juggernaut Brandon Fugal at least once a week from June to mid-October. After my millionth request, he graciously found an open afternoon for our tour.
So, with hours’ notice, my husband and I left our kids with grandma and drove east three hours, passing a reflective Strawberry Reservoir and a series of tiny towns I had not known existed. “It’s so beautiful out here,” we kept saying to each other as we made our way through the autumn landscape.
When we arrived in Roosevelt, it felt like a booming metropolis compared to the swaths of empty fields we had spent the previous 200 minutes driving by. Another twenty-minute journey through tribal land and we arrived at Skinwalker Ranch.
The gates, armed guard, and elaborate camera system, we learned, are all necessary to keep out the daily looky-loos, some of whom have tried to scale the northern mesa to access the ranch property. One hopeful visitor even flew in from Sydney, telling ranch security that seeing Skinwalker Ranch was on his bucket list, only to be sent away. Crikey! (Sorry. I'm sorry. I just couldn't not, you know?)
When we arrived, Thomas Winteron, a soft-spoken Roosevelt native met us at the gate in a black pickup and asked for our identities. Then he asked if we would agree to sign some paperwork. We said we would, so he let us through the gates to the command center, an unassuming beige building next to the helicopter landing pad.
We stepped out of our car and Winterton said, “You picked one heck of a day to visit,” referring to the gale force winds nearly knocking us off our feet. He showed us inside to the control room, illuminated by green lights beneath the desks, where Fugal’s team monitors the camera feeds, electromagnetic readings, and all other data collected on the ranch.
As we snooped around, Winterton told us of an encounter he had in the very room we stood.
One night, the cameras on the ranch went down, so Skinwalker Ranch principal investigator Erik Bard sent Winterton to the ranch to investigate. Winterton and his wife pulled up to the command center, and just as they arrived the cameras turned back online. He and his wife walked inside and heard footsteps run across the floor and into the back room. But when Winterton searched, he found no one. A minute later, he heard what sounded like a cord being slammed against a wall in a different room. Winterton searched the room, but found nothing. Then he and his wife both heard a voice say, “You need to leave now,” and as he reached to grab the hard drive he had been uploading files onto, they heard the voice again, stronger this time, say, “YOU NEED TO LEAVE NOW.” So they booked it to their car and drove away. Winterton’s phone, which had frozen when they first heard the voice, did not unfreeze until they were far beyond the ranch on Highway 40.
As we continued poking around we found a number of maps and images pinned to the wall in the command center, including this portrait of a skin-walker:
You may know of skin-walkers from the Arizona friends you met in college who told horrifying stories about skin-walkers running alongside cars on desolate roads at night. Just me? Okay, well, a skin-walker, as far as I understand it, is a human turned animal, whose mission is to haunt and harm. But it’s hard to know if I’m stepping into territory I shouldn’t, in terms of what’s sacred to the Navajo tribe, if I dig in much deeper.
Despite being the namesake of the ranch, the skin-walker seems to be the most vague and least talked about phenomenon of Skinwalker Ranch. At times the tales of skin-walkers are conflated with dire wolf sightings, as the skin-walkers of Navajo lore are known to be shape-shifters, and those who have reported dire wolf sightings describe bullet-resistant wolves four times the size of normal wolves, walking on their hind legs.
Fugal’s team has had little to report by way of skin-walkers, since taking over the ranch in 2016, though ranch manager Jim Morse recalls seeing a pair of red eyes one night. The eyes looked at him, looked away, looked back, and then disappeared. Morse also says that since the first season of The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch aired, members of the Ute Tribe, whose land surrounds the ranch, have approached him with their stories of skin-walker encounters, but are hesitant to share specifics.
Next to the portrait we found an odd printout:
Winterton met our confused looks with a terrifying explanation.
One day Bard received a notification on his phone – there was movement in the control room of the ranch. He checked the camera feed connected to the control room, but the camera showed no one in the room. But the movement notifications persisted. They persisted for five hours. Bard grew frustrated and anxious until he finally said out loud, “If you have something to show me, show me. If you have something to tell me, tell me.” Then the pixels on his screen appeared to melt, so he snapped a screenshot, and in the bottom right corner appeared a message:
After our tour of the command center, we loaded into an ATV and headed to the top of the mesa along a cliff on a dirt road approximately the width of ¾ an ATV. While wind beat at our side, I suddenly understood why we had signed a liability waiver.
On our way up, between what I assumed were my final prayers, we passed a masonic symbol etched in stone by a Buffalo Soldier stationed at the ranch to protect the early Uintah Basin settlers:
We made it to the top of the red rock mesa in one piece, and from there Winterton, yelling over the wind, pointed out a triangle of land where the team has recently observed unusual activity. It appears to be undergoing a dig, although everyone with any experience on the ranch has advised the current occupants NOT TO DIG.
When the Sherman Family bought the ranch from its previous owners the Meyers in the nineties, not only did they find mysterious locks on all the ranch house doors, they also found a line in the purchase contract that required the Shermans to agree not to dig on the property.
When the team last dug, Winterton has twice ended up in the hospital with a mysterious head injuries that his doctors could not explain that he incurred at the time of digging on the ranch. When you dig on the ranch, things get weird.
After another brush with death/ATV ride down the trail, Winteron drove us westward, past a long field of tall grass toward Homestead 2.
Everything I had read/listened to/watched about the ranch described Homestead 2 as the epicenter of bizarre on Skinwalker Ranch. Poltergeists. Creatures climbing out of portals to other dimensions. Weird lights. All part of Homestead 2's charming curb appeal.
As cavalier as I was and am about uncovering the spookiness of the ranch, I didn’t dare step into the feeble wooden structure first. Instead I waited for Winterton to welcome us inside and as soon as my big toe entered the shelter, my vibe shifted from calm to chaotic. I felt hyper-aware, my pulse quickened, and I found myself scanning every corner of every room, fully expecting to see a floating figure or darting shadow.
Such a sighting would not be unprecedented. Winterton has witnessed shadow figures run across the back wall. Not corner-of-your-eye shadows, but shadows in human form, running along the wall in plain sight.
And there have been a series of visitors who have experienced bizarre medical episodes after time spent near the homestead. Like radiation poisoning. And, if I learned anything from watching Chernobyl it's that 1. No one will care if you cast a show about Russia with exclusively British actors and 2. Radiation poisoning is no joke.
Once, Fugal escorted a high profile guest and his bodyguard, around the ranch. While the group explored the dilapidated home, the bodyguard, a six-foot-seven, viking-ship-of-a-man named George, went missing. Fugal walked around to the field next to the homestead and found George standing upright—in a catatonic state with his eyes closed—on the back of the ATV. As Fugal approached the vehicle, his ears felt like they were boxed and all ambient noise was blocked. He eventually reached George, and called to him a few times, until George’s eyes fluttered open. He looked stunned.
The same afternoon as George’s incident, the group witnessed an unidentified flying object hovering over the northern mesa.
“There was this disk-like, silver, grayish object, literally hovering above the mesa, forty to fifty feet long,” Fugal says. “Like in Mars Attacks,” I almost responded but thought better of it. “It wasn’t a dot in the sky. It was literally right there, in line of sight, plain as day.” The object moved positions instantaneously, from one spot to another, then disappeared. “You can’t unsee something like that,” Fugal says.
Turns out, UFO sightings are somewhat of a constant on the ranch. Morse told me about one of his own. He has worked with the Air Force and had top security clearance, and says these objects are unlike any he’s seen coming out of the military, and move in ways no earth vehicle can, sometimes disappearing into thin air. “I know what I saw,” Morse says, describing a triangle shaped craft that humbled the dozen people who saw it.
And Dragon (Bryant Arnold) who works as head of security on the ranch, witnessed yet another unidentified flying object. “I saw it with my own eyes. My blood pressure went through the roof, my heart started racing.” He says the object showed up, showed itself, then disappeared.
Winterton drove us along a dirt path to the south side of the ranch, and we enjoyed a spectacular view as Winterton, in his no-nonsense, non-aggrandizing way, shared his best stories. Like the time eight dogs appeared in the gully and then disappeared minutes later. And the nights he’s seen pulsating lights on the mesa. He pointed to the patch of grass next to a cottonwood where a dead heifer was found by ranch staff.
As we looked out over the gorgeous 512 acres, speckled with red, yellow, and orange leaves, I felt a pang of disappointment and looked longingly at the mesa, wishing more than anything that I would see a spacecraft, or a giant wolf, or hell, even a mutilated cow. But the most chilling thing we had seen that afternoon was a dead skunk.
I felt like I had been stood up for my date with a menagerie of malicious, paranormal forces. Why hadn’t they shown themselves? Why had they let me down?
It could be because I'm not the right type of person to be harassed by whatever does the harassing on the ranch. I’m excited by, and hopeful for, a spooky encounter. Not just because I’m a writer, social media rat, and attention-lover, but also because I believe it would be genuinely thrilling.
But, as I’m told, it’s those who proclaim their disbelief in the forces of the ranch who are often targeted, or even punished, by said forces.
I was too eager. Too willing to communicate with the aliens/ghosts/giant magnets underground (a theory I haven’t really covered here, but one that exists).
As we drove away from the ranch, I ruminated on the stories Winteron had shared, and gave the mesa one more long glance, hoping something would show itself. But all I saw were ominous gray clouds moving over the horizon, finally delivering the storm the wind had threatened all afternoon.
We made the three-hour drive home, excitedly talking about our theories of the ranch and watching the sun set behind the hills of Heber. When we arrived to pick up our kids, my dog, who usually bounces with glee and barks at us until we yell at him to stop, refused to look in my direction. And when I called to him, he tucked his tail and cowered.
That night, as I prepared for bed, a metallic taste filled my mouth. And not the mild distaste I often experience after I’ve had a few too many diet cokes. More like someone had poured a jar of old quarters into my mouth.
The next day I met Fugal at his Cottonwood Heights office. We had done so much texting at this point that it felt like meeting a penpal after years of correspondence. Fugal offered a quick tour of his state-of-the-art office and introduced me to his colleagues in a way that truly made me feel like an honored guest and not some girl with an alien obsession.
Then he showed me his extensive literature and cinema collection, worth millions of dollars, gathered over decades. While admiring a first print edition of The Hounds of Baskerville and a chilled brain monkey head from the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it hit me that when Fugal has an interest in something, he spares no expense to get it. He goes all in. Which is precisely why he purchased Skinwalker Ranch in 2016.
“My whole life I’ve asked the same questions most people ask: what is this all for? Are we all alone in the universe? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going...I saw [buying the ranch] as an opportunity to potentially prove that we are not alone in the universe, and that there is perhaps more to our reality than meets the eye,” Fugal says.
After my tour he introduced me to the core team of Skinwalker Ranch:
The team of four men seem as though they walked right out of central casting for a movie about a group of guys who you’d never expect to team up, teaming up to save a city/stop a supervillain/whatever. Morse speaks gruffly of the extensive time he’s spent in the Uintah Basin, “shaking hands and kissing babies.” Dragon sits and listens intently, adding to the conversation only when he has something very important to say, and says it in a measured drawl. Bard talks in highly technical terms about electromagnetic readings and Gilsonite. And Fugal smiles the smile of a man pleased with the team he’s assembled.
These men talked over each other for an hour and a half, unable to contain their excitement about this plot of land they love and the things they have witnessed there. They shared their stories, many of the stories I’ve shared with you above, the way you would share stories with an old friend, using half sentences and relying on a collective enthusiasm for the story subject. And as they told me more of their stories, the stories beyond the headlines, I started to understand the broader picture of Skinwalker Ranch.
While there are major, news-making events that happen every so often on the ranch, such as a UFO sighting or a mysterious cow murder, most of what makes Skinwalker Ranch such a mystery is a series of small things – a cell phone battery draining, the sound of a basketball bouncing when no one is around to bounce it, audible voices, acute medical episodes- they are what Winteron calls “death by a thousand cuts.”
During the course of our conversation, Bard mentioned that visitors often report a strange taste in their mouth and olfactory hallucinations. He also mentioned William, the ranch dog. Bard describes him as docile and cheerful, but says on certain occasions he will cower, refuse to come when you call, and refuse to go onto certain parts of the ranch, sometimes even cry in fear.
Neither the metallic taste nor my dog’s fear suggested anything paranormal on their own. But their occurrence right after my visit, Bard’s descriptions of similar experiences, and all the stories these men had shared about the thousand cuts made me wonder if maybe I had had my very first flirtation with the paranormal after all.