This article originally appeared on VICE US.
The long red mesas of Utah’s Uintah Basin greet us as my driver, an American real estate mogul and tech investor, pulls us into Fort Duchesne. Looking out my window, we are finally out of the mountains and in the valley. My mind is lost in thought about the legends here, the supposed curse that now haunts this land, and the men and women who have experienced that curse head on. I have monsters on my mind. Well, actually just one: the Skinwalker.
A quick right turn shakes me from my daze.
“We are almost there,” my driver tells me. “Are you excited?”
He has a childlike grin on his face. We had travelled for nearly three hours from Salt Lake City. A snow storm had interrupted our journey through the mountains, blinding us and covering the highway in a sheet of ice.
Safe in the valley, the sky is blue, a sharp contrast from the grey storm skies at higher altitudes. The sun bounced off the mesa that made the area famous for paranormal junkies and UFO enthusiasts alike. Local lore has always told that strange lights hover over this area and that strange creatures roam the wilderness here. One tale tells of the Ute, an Indigenous tribe from this valley and their uneasy alliance with the Navajo. Siding with American military forces in the late 19th century, the Ute helped force the Navajo people out of the area. Local lore suggests that the Navajo unleashed a Skinwalker, a shapeshifter who can possess animals' skin.
Two massive concrete blockades dotted with “No Trespassing” signs and a massive “STOP” sign loom at the end of the road. As we roll past, a 20-foot-tall black steel gate greets us. Standing on the other side is a guard carrying a black rifle. He gives us a friendly nod and the gate slowly opens.
My host gives me a smile: “Welcome to Skinwalker Ranch.”
We hadn’t originally planned on driving. My host, who bought the ranch from hotel and aerospace magnate Robert Bigelow in 2016, planned to fly me there in his private helicopter.
Since he bought the ranch, he hasn't opened it up to too many people, but that’s slowly changing. A crew from the History Channel has been filming a new documentary series that will air this year. He agreed to let me visit on the condition that I not reveal his identity as part of this article. Few journalists have ever been on the ranch, and as a reporter who typically covers anomalies and weird news, it’s long been a place I wanted to visit. I decided to go.
As we took off in his helicopter, the owner of the ranch got philosophical about why he bought it.
“You know, facing the reality of our mortality is sobering. The anomalies at Skinwalker Ranch, the things that have been reported there over decades, if not hundreds of years. They seem to attest to the fact that we live in a strange universe. Perhaps we are not alone,” he said. Salt Lake City disappeared into the distance as we made our way into the narrow mountain passes.
“Perhaps there is more than meets the eye. The nature of our existence, our physical reality. It is much more complex. The nature of our consciousness and our place in the cosmos. It is funny to think that people are still asking the same questions that our species has been asking for thousands of years,” he told me.
“I think the opportunity to take a living laboratory like the ranch, a place that seems to be the center of gravity of so much of the unexplained, it is a unique experience,” he said. “I manage and lead an effort that I believe is the greatest science project of all time.”
Upon entering the mountains, the storm made it unsafe. We had to turn around and drive.
Skinwalker Ranch has a long and sordid history well catalogued by researcher Ryan Skinner. It’s hard to make sense of what’s real and what’s not.
The Uintah Basin has always been home to strange tales of odd lights, sounds and visions. In the 1950’s, Joseph “Junior” Hicks, a local high school science teacher, began cataloging people’s stories of their experiences in the basin. With Dr. Frank Salisbury, Hicks published a book on the subject in 1974. Sightings of strange creatures and UFOs continued in the area and the mythology became entrenched.
Decades later, things came to a head when ranchers Terry and Gwen Sherman bought the property in 1994. Documented in the book Hunt for the Skinwalker, the Shermans alleged that their cows were mutilated with surgical precision in broad daylight and that their family was hunted by strange aerial objects and floating orbs of light. They heard disembodied voices, experienced poltergeist activity, witnessed horrible monsters emerging from portals, and claimed they encountered a wolf that, when shot several times by a high powered rifle at point blank range, did not die.
Their story became public in the summer of 1996, and the Sherman Ranch was launched into the paranormal spotlight. Weeks later, Las Vegas aerospace billionaire and paranormal aficionado Robert Bigelow bought the ranch from the Shermans. Bigelow’s National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) and Bigelow Advanced Aerospace Space Studies (BAASS) spent more than two decades studying the strange anomalies that apparently occurred on the property.
In 2017, the New York Times broke the story of a secretive government UFO program run by Pentagon counter-intelligence staffer Luis Elizondo. According to the article, in 2007, a Defense Intelligence Agency official visited the ranch, and a short time later, met with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Reid said he met with [DIA] agency officials shortly after his meeting with Mr. Bigelow and learned that they wanted to start a research program on UFOs.” That program, the Advanced Aerospace Weapons Systems Application Program, was given to Bigelow under government contract. His company received $22 million dollars to study and generate reports on exotic science, UFOs, and other anomalous phenomena. The strange events on the ranch, as well as other locations bearing purported paranormal anomalies, were involved in the study, according to the New York Times. AAWSAP was cancelled after two years and, in 2011, Bigelow’s government funding ran out. Attempts to secure more money for research was denied. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s UFO investigation program, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP, continued looking into unknown aerial encounters by the US military.
Bigelow has been silent as to what occurred on the ranch during his tenure as owner, and wild rumors have ranged from the ranch being a site of secret government weapons testing to hiding underground alien bases. Stories about shapeshifting monsters, interdimensional portals, UFO sightings, and poltergeists continue to this day. In 2016, Bigelow sold the ranch to a company called Adamantium Real Estate Holdings. In 2018, Las Vegas reporter and long time UFO researcher George Knapp and filmmaker Jeremy Corbell released a documentary film about the ranch which only added more to the enigma which surrounds it.
That documentary called it "the most scientifically studied site in paranormal history."
Just because it’s an infamous place for UFO and paranormal hunters doesn’t mean that everyone feels that way, or even knows what it is.
Louise Tsinijinnie, a spokesperson for the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Service, told me that Skinwalkers were not something that many Navajo will discuss. I asked her about her thoughts regarding Skinwalker Ranch and the curse allegedly placed there centuries ago.
“It is within the realm of possibility,” she said. “In times of great desperation or wrong doing, the oral storytelling does point to such events occurring.”
Tsinijinnie said that, mythologically and within oral tradition, the Navajo do have stories about Skinwalkers, and Skinwalker Ranch could fit into those narratives. She has heard of the ranch, but was unable to confirm with absolute certainty that such a curse was placed directly on the land.
Betsy Chapoose, the Cultural Rights and Protection Director for the Ute tribe, explained that in her 30 years of working in tribal administration, she had never had anyone come into her office to talk about the ranch. She said people who live near the ranch may have their own stories and traditions regarding the Skinwalker legend, and those were something that ought to be respected. But when I first asked her about the legend and alleged Navajo curse, she didn't know what to make of it:
“That is the first time I have ever heard that story,” her voice breaking into laughter. “It’s true that the Ute and the Navajo have had a strained relationship over land ownership, but I’ve never heard any stories about a curse.”
As I hop out of the SUV the next day on the ranch, a black dog bounds towards me.
“Hey pup,” I put out my hand. The dog eagerly accepts a scratch behind the ears.
“That’s William,” the owner says. “He came with the ranch. He knows all its secrets.”
“Seen it all have you pup pup?” I ask. “You must be that big bad monster everyone keeps talking about. You don’t seem so scary.”
The dog accompanies me as I look around the main buildings. The first is a farmhouse, occupied by the live-in caretakers of Skinwalker Ranch, Kandus Linde, a published anthropologist, and her partner Tom Lewis, a freelance graphic artist.
“You hear a lot of stories about what goes on, but most of it is just stories. Do weird things happen? Yeah,” Linde explained to me. “The best way to describe it is that the ranch has a personality. It sounds crazy, I know.”
“It’s over 500 acres,” Linde explained. “It’s a beautiful place. It’s quiet. We literally live in the middle of nowhere, but it’s home. It does have ‘a feeling’ though, and every once in a while, we know we need to get away for a bit.”
More interesting is the second building, only a few steps away. This is the nerve centre of the ranch’s scientific project, known as the Command Center. This hub is the brainchild of Erik Bard, a plasma physicist and partner in a small company that designs and manufactures components for x-ray analytic systems that are used in U.S. national labs.
The new owner has heard all the bizarre stories and rumors, of course. He admits many are far-fetched, but if the ranch does hold strange secrets, he’s out to try his best to confirm them. Over the past several years, he and his staff have completely revamped the ranch, installing surveillance systems and scientific equipment all over in order to try to detect UFOs, paranormal activity, or otherwise explain some of the strange happenings that occur on Skinwalker Ranch.
The Command Center is the core of that effort.
Behind a locked door, accessible only by code, is a room about the size of a large bedroom. The Command Center, though designed by Bard, was built by the ranch’s superintendent, Thomas Winterton after it was purchased by the current owner. The Command Center has five 55-inch flat screen monitors showing live feeds from nearly a dozen cameras, workbenches, computer systems, microscopes, and just for a touch of fun, embedded green LED rope lights that give the room a cool sci-fi vibe.
"I've made consumer and scientific products in my career, but this ranch and the whole story connected with it are where I find a different and potentially important kind of meaning," Bard tells me.
The first screen that catches my eye monitors air traffic over the ranch. Bard is very clear that their aircraft transponder data feed was not relying on online services like FlightRadar24, an online flight tracking website.
“This data that we are receiving at the ranch is tracked by the equipment that we have here,” Bard explains. “We have receivers on the ranch that track both 1090 MHz ADS-B and 978 MHz UAT signals.” The vast majority of aircraft are required to use either ADS-B or UAT transponders to tell air traffic controllers who they are and where they are. The ranch system provides a live feed, but also stores historical data, so if several witnesses saw something strange in the sky, they could cross reference it with all known flights in the area. Bard explains that the system also creates a secondary historical log as a redundancy.
“The local historical log gets compared against independent sources of what are supposed to be the same data, the latter being the secondary witness. In turn, these get compared against such things as our readings and surveillance footage. A secondary witness is helpful in the event that we have interference with our local equipment during some episode,” Bard says. “We have a lot of equipment problems here because of some strange electromagnetic interference.”
Over the last year, several strange cases of extreme electromagnetic fields have been logged on the ranch. According to Bard, these EM fields are transient, they come and go, move around and at times have reached levels dangerous to humans.
According to the ranch team, several times in the last few years, people on the ranch have become ill and some even required hospitalization. Thomas Winterton was hospitalized with a life threatening subgaleal fluid collection with associated subcalvarial inflammation, or in layman’s terms, swelling in the brain and the collection of fluid between the skull and the scalp, which the team believes occurred when he attempted to dig on the ranch.
I was able to confirm with medical records that some of the medical tests resulted in inconclusive results for common causes of such an injury. It seems the jury is still out and Winterton is currently being monitored by his doctors. Over the summer, three guests on the ranch reported strange skin inflammation, nausea, and extreme lassitude within a close period of time and several went to the local emergency room, according to the owner. I was unable to independently verify why they needed medical attention.
Another screen monitors the radio frequencies at which electromagnetic signals are detected on the ranch. Due to the ranch’s significant distance from radio and cellular towers, the radio signals typically remain at a very low level. On occasion, there are several anomalous occurrences of sudden bursts across a wide range of the RF spectrum, which is not typical of a single signal source or station.
“We have not been able to determine the origin of these,” Bard tells me as the screen suddenly became erratic with activity. A cell phone or walkie-talkie will only elevate the levels in one area of the RF spectrum, and would create a small peak on the band, he says. “It doesn't make sense when you see a very wide portion of the spectrum jumping up and down like this. My best guess, if I had to come up with a plausible explanation, these could be signals broadcast by automation on some of the oil and gas drilling equipment that’s around the ranch.” Bard has not yet been able to determine the actual cause.
The ranch is also equipped with a weather monitoring station, dozens of stationary and mobile HD camera systems, as well as infrared, night vision, and thermal imaging cameras. Large portions of the 512-acre ranch are under 24/7 surveillance. Bard can view all this remotely, with enough server space to store all those video feeds. Bard often jokingly refers to the ranch as Eden, and much like God, he has eyes everywhere.
Bard explains that any strange events require significant amounts of data to be considered actual anomalies by him and his team. If a strange event does occur, such as the sighting of an aerial anomaly or a sudden surge of electromagnetic frequency, the team examines data across all the monitoring systems to see if and how each device recorded the phenomenon.
Major events, the ones “that count,” not only end up getting picked up on video, but usually correlate to multiple readings on the various sensor platforms. Bard’s favorite system is something he designed and built himself. SATAN, or Sentinel Assignment Telemetry And Notification is a four-legged metal unit with a built in computer and screen. SATAN is equipped to detect vibrations in the ground and air at very low frequencies, transient magnetic fields, as well as infrasonic and seismic activity.
“Now this unit is inside because I am doing some upgrades, but normally, it sits way out on the ranch in a pit. We call it the SATAN pit.” Bard chuckles at his odd Biblical sense of humor, “I know.”
Typically, Bard considers an event anomalous when multiple sensors detect activity simultaneously, and, as yet, defies a straightforward explanation. While Bard is not prepared to say paranormal interdimensional entities or aliens are visiting the ranch, he does believe it’s strange when random electromagnetic frequencies bombard a localized area of the ranch, get logged by all the equipment, and then, a few minutes later, vanish.
“More has occurred on the property in the last two years than the two decades Bigelow’s group was here,” Bryant ‘Dragon’ Arnold, the ranch’s head of security, tells me rather gruffly as we leave the Command Centre. While that’s impossible to verify, many people on the ranch seem to believe it. “People talk about Bigelow Aerospace and NIDS and BAASS and the Pentagon’s $22 million. I’ll tell you right now, people would be surprised if they knew what we have seen and the money that has been spent since we took over.”
"I take my truck up the road, and as I start to get closer, I start to get really scared. Just this feeling that takes over. Then I hear this voice, as clear as you and me talking right now, that says, ‘Stop, turn around.’"
Arnold, Winterton, and I are touring the property in a black Jeep. The melting snow has turned the usually red dusty trails into a rough brown muck. As our vehicle is getting knocked around by the bumpy road, the two men explain that the ranch was in a state of disrepair in 2016, and significant time and money was spent into upgrading the facilities. Winterton says the septic tank was improperly installed, and the toilets barely worked. He did many of the repairs himself. The surveillance and data collection platforms have also been modernized and improved.
“Whatever the thing on this ranch is, it can drain your phone battery in a second, give people radiation burns, and generate insane levels of electromagnetic frequencies. When we first got here in 2016 after buying the ranch,” Arnold laughs shaking his head. “Shit, some of the gear and tests they left behind, well, let’s just say we’ve taken a more scientific approach.”
A licensed private security expert with significant experience as an outdoorsman, Arnold has known the ranch’s new owner since they were 19. They are basically brothers. He tells me that people show up at the gates all the time wanting to come onto the property. Some people can be belligerent, but most people just stand at the gate and leave when they are asked to.
“One time this guy pulls up to the gate and asks if he can see the ranch. He tells me he that he is from Australia and the ranch was on his Bucket List,” Winterton tells me. “I can’t believe that guy would fly all that way just to come here.”
As we slowly traverse the pothole-strewn roads, I ask Arnold if he has ever had any paranormal experiences on the ranch. He laughs.
“Nothing at first. I thought it was all a bunch of crap. Then, one night, I’m in one of the bedrooms in the ranch house. I’m lying down trying to get to sleep, and then all of a sudden, BAM, something slams into my bed. It’s like when your kids jump into bed with you or someone big kneed the bed. I sit up and turn on the lights. Nothing’s there.”
Something else happened to Arnold this summer, he says. He explains that there was a large film crew on the ranch during the summer. They were filming the first season of the History Channel TV series.
“We all saw it. We were looking at the West field, and then there it was. I thought it was a drone for a second because I try to rationalize everything. It was just hovering there,” Arnold looks at me. “I don’t think I can talk about this. It sounds insane. All the sensors we have went crazy.”
The two men take me to the field where Arnold had his sighting. He tells me that he can’t talk about it. I decide to leave it alone as I look across the snow-covered field. It is quiet. Peaceful. In the distance are some old abandoned buildings.
Heading towards them, I know that these three decaying houses are what they call ‘Homestead 2.’ On the verge of collapse, these old homes housed ranchers and their families since the 1930s well before the ranch became the infamous paranormal hotspot it is now. Over time, these families slowly moved away and none lived on the ranch when the Sherman family bought it in 1994. Winterton hands me a Trifield meter, a handheld device that acts as a gaussmeter, electric field meter, and radio field strength meter in all in one. Grabbing my camera, I slowly walk through these old buildings which probably have countless stories to tell. Even in the middle of the day, they were dark and ominous. There is an odd feeling to these old peeling walls and empty wooden kitchen cabinets, a stillness and silence, and I feel nervous.
“We get a lot of weird events at these old homesteads,” Winterton tells me as I return to the Jeep.
“When we first took over the ranch, Bigelow had an older couple here who were the caretakers. They liked living on the ranch, so they stayed here until about a year and a half ago when they decided to leave for health reasons,” Winterton continues. “One night in 2016, they called me, it was probably 2 a.m, and said someone was on the ranch. There was this old basketball they kept by the front porch, anyway, they said someone was bouncing it against the house.”
Kids looking for kicks, overzealous paranormal enthusiasts, and UFO investigators occasionally try to trespass onto the ranch. Winterton, who only lives about 15 minutes from the ranch, jumped in his truck, pistol in hand, and sped to the property.
“When I got there, I made sure they were OK and I just walked through the house making sure no one else was there. I told them to stay inside and went out to see if anyone was walking around,” he says.
Using one of the thermal cameras they kept on the ranch, Winterton began going to all the sheds and outbuildings, scanning the fields and the mesa. Nothing.
“I had this feeling I was being watched, but no one was there. I get my shotgun from my truck and, just for good measure, I go to the front yard there, and blast a few shots into the air and yell a few obscenities. Just to scare them,” Winterton tells me with a chuckle.
He decided to search the old homesteads, since a lot of trespassers go to those buildings.
“I take my truck up the road, and as I start to get closer, I start to get really scared. Just this feeling that takes over. Then I hear this voice, as clear as you and me talking right now, that says, ‘Stop, turn around.’ I lean out the window with my spotlight out and start searching around. Nothing. So I get out and blast a few more shots and yell some more.”
The ranch’s bizarre history tends to get into people’s heads. Knowing the history of the ranch, I let my mind run wild. I feel like some invisible presence is watching me. Walking through these old homes, knowing the myths, my logical and rational brain are wrestling with the possibility that something may haunt this ranch like the stories say.
Thinking it was all in his head, Winterton told the couple everything was fine and went home. He had a similar experience six months later while he was plowing snow at the ranch. The same voice. The same feelings of fear and anxiety. He thought he was losing his mind.
One evening, Winterton and his wife went to the ranch because Bard told him that he wanted a hard backup of the video files due to some cameras failing. He asked Winterton to use one of the external hard drives to download the videos from that night. As Winterton began the backup, he and his wife heard a banging sound coming from one of the back bedrooms.
“It sounded like someone had an electrical cord and they were smacking it against a wall. So I jump up and run back there. Nobody was in there. I’ve spent tons of time in the Command Centre. I know the usual sounds that it makes, what the water heater sounds like when it turns on. This was different,” Winterton says. “So we are freaking out at this point. I sit down back at the computer and the download is taking forever. Then, all of a sudden, like someone was standing between us, I hear, ‘Leave now.’ I look at Melissa, she looks at me. Then it happens again, ‘You need to leave now.’”
Tom and Melissa Winterton both jumped up and did as they were told.
“We get into the truck and we got the hell out of there. I am trying to text and call Erik but my phone won’t respond. It’s all frozen. My wife is trying to get it to work. I try. It’s like 10 minutes goes by, and eventually, the phone responds then it just dies. It started to work for a second or two then the batteries are totally dead.”
Melissa Winterton later recounted the story to me in much the same way.
We continue down the road to another decaying house, ‘Homestead 3.’ Surrounded by a circle of old trees, this house is the end of the line. As I explore, the two men point to the west and the property line which separates the ranch from reservation land owned by the Ute.
Winterton and Arnold take me up to the southern side of the ranch which has us climb up a hill that overlooks the entire property. This high up, I can see the entire ranch, the mesas, and the snow covered mountains in the far distance and it truly is a majestic place.
“For all the weird shit that happens here, this is my favorite place in the world,” Arnold tells me as we stand there. “Some of the people here say the ranch is alive. Maybe. I don’t know. But when I’m not here, all I want to do is come back.”
“All I want to do is grab a tent and my camping bag. I could stay here for a week,” I say. “I just want to go exploring.”
“It’s like the ranch calls to you, you know,” Winterton gives me knowing smile.
I eventually have to leave the ranch, and as our SUV gets back on the highway, I can’t help but think that Skinwalker Ranch is so much more than the paranormal mythology that has been crafted around it. Perhaps it is too late to separate the ranch from the lore that has made it famous, but from my short time there, the ranch does seem to have an aura.
For the Defense Intelligence Agency, it was a national security and defense project. For the owner and his science team, it is a place for scientific research into questions that humanity has been grappling with since time immemorial. For the live-in caretakers, for Winterton and Arnold, the ranch is home. For locals, it is a place not spoken of and avoided. For me, a journalist, it is a story I will someday tell my kids around a campfire. For paranormal researchers and UFO enthusiasts, it is a place of myths and legends where unspeakable entities roam and unknown objects travel.
Whatever the truth is behind the strange events which plague Skinwalker Ranch, it is fundamentally a place one ought to respect. As our SUV enters the snow-covered mountain passes on the way back to Salt Lake City, I can’t help but smile. I avoided the curse of the Skinwalker, at least for now.