High Strangeness at Skinwalker Ranch

Welcome to Skinwalker Ranch, a sprawling 512-acre property at the center of the Uintah Basin—home to tales of the paranormal and unexplained. After decades of study, the ranch remains a disquieting enigma. It’s a real-life X-file. The area continues to lure new investigations to document and discover the source of these strange events, whether it be natural, man-made, extraterrestrial, interdimensional, spiritual or the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe.

The thrum of a propeller precedes the arrival of a black helicopter at Skinwalker Ranch. The ranch’s new owner, Brandon Fugal, and his brother are on board. His brother Cameron, the pilot, lands the helicopter, disturbing the otherwise quiet scenery with a cloud of dust. Fugal steps out onto the helipad, the one he had built specifically for his regular visits over the last six months. He has no reason to suspect this visit will be any different. They walk the perimeter under a punishing sun, now accustomed to the gruesome sight of animal entrails ceremoniously draped over the fenceline. Then, there it is above the mesa, where there had been only cloudless sky an instant before. Wide and flat like a saucer and gleaming silver, an object hovers in the air, moving at angles and trajectories that defy logic or explanation. The group of men freezes, staring, transfixed. The disc moves in the blink of an eye, like a bullet unhindered by physics, and vanishes. 

A pioneer homestead on Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.
A pioneer homestead on Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.

The Uintah Basin in Northeastern Utah is no stranger to the strange. It’s home to hundreds of reported sightings of UFO (or UAP, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, which is now the official, government-approved terminology) and the notorious Skinwalker Ranch, the alleged center of the unexplained activity in the Basin. The ranch has had three owners since the early ’90s, and its last two owners have dedicated time, money and untold resources to unearthing its secrets. The owners before them were cattle ranchers trying to get by while immersed in the high strangeness. 

The current owner, Brandon Fugal, a Utah-based commercial real estate executive and chairman of Colliers International, bought the property in 2016. “I was immediately taken aback by how striking the property was,” he says of his first visit to the ranch. Skinwalker Ranch is 512 acres of manifold landscape, from a red rock mesa plateau that runs the expanse of the property to natural waterways and cave systems, dotted with old pioneer homesteads. “It’s surprisingly beautiful,” says Fugal. 

Fugal professes, even though he acquired the property with the intention to research the unexplained activity, he’s more of a Scully than a Mulder. He was a skeptic of its paranormal significance, which he retained on that first visit. “I found nothing unusual about the property, other than, on that first tour, we noticed something unusual about the fence line perimeter,” he says. “These body parts were hanging from the fence line. Animal bladders that were blessed and hung for the purpose of keeping the demonic spirit entities on the property.” Fugal ascribes the act to people living on the nearby reservation. But, despite the efforts to keep any entities from leaving the property, visitors to the ranch have reported that unknown entities followed them home after they left the ranch. The disturbing tableau aside, Fugal’s skepticism remained until he had an unexplained experience of his own.

Brandon Fugal on the Skinwalker Ranch Property. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.
Brandon Fugal on the Skinwalker Ranch Property. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.

The ‘X-file’

Years before the ranch passed into Fugal’s hands, he read about the strange happenings on the property in a book called Hunt For The Skinwalker, written by Dr. Colm A. Kelleher, a biochemist, and journalist George Knapp. It details the efforts by the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) to study and document the strange activity on the ranch as well as the accounts of Tom and Ellen Gorman (the pseudonyms used in Hunt For The Skinwalker), the aforementioned cattle ranchers who used to own the ranch. The founder of NIDS, Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas millionaire, set up the organization specifically to study UFOs and related phenomena. He bought the ranch from the Gormans in 1996 to study it further but hired them on to maintain the ranch and owned the property until he sold it to Fugal in 2016.

The experiences of the Gormans are what brought Bigelow and NIDS to the ranch in the first place. When the cattle ranchers first moved in, they were surprised to discover there were deadbolts on the inside and outside of the doors of the home. Even the windows were bolted. They were also perplexed by a clause in their real estate contract that stipulated there was to be no digging on the ranch without first notifying the previous owners. After settling into their new home, the Gormans’ strange experiences included several cattle mutilations and the appearance of a massive wolf that mangled a calf but whose tracks disappeared suddenly. They witnessed large black objects hovering above the ranch, orange shapes in the sky that appeared to transport passing objects to some other world and blue orbs that killed three dogs. 

When the NIDS team arrived to document the Gormans’ accounts, they began to have experiences of their own. They tell of seeing moving lights with no known source and the mysterious destruction of their surveillance cameras, but the bulk of the unexplained phenomena, as described in Hunt For The Skinwalker, continued to occur around the Gormans. 

But what about before the Gormans got to the ranch? They bought it from a man named Garth Myers in 1994, who had inherited it from his brother and sister-in-law, Kenneth and Edith Myers, who in turn had bought the ranch in the 1930s, by some accounts. In interviews, Garth Myers has denied that there was any sort of UFO activity on the property while his family owned it, and he also disputes parts of the Gormans’ story, like the deadbolts and the digging clause. While the Myers family might not have experienced any strange phenomena, their neighbors did. 

Frank B. Salisbury, who headed the plant science department at Utah State University before he died in 2015, also wrote a book on UFO sightings in Utah, The Utah UFO Display. For the 2010 edition of the book, he included interviews with people whose land neighbored Skinwalker Ranch. One neighbor, John Garcia, saw an orange object, as large as a house, floating above his fence before it shot up into the sky and zoomed away. Another, Charles Winn, was out one night when he saw a bright light that he compared to an arc-welder—white and bright, but not hot. The light came for him, and, fearing for his life, he dropped down into a ditch full of water and covered his head with his arms. Others in the area saw orbs in the sky, blue on the outside and orange at the center, giving off slow sparks.

UAP sighting at Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.
UAP sighting at Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.

Salisbury, along with his collaborator, Joseph Junior Hicks—a fastidious record-keeping school teacher in Roosevelt—interviewed witnesses and collected first-hand accounts of hundreds of UFO sightings, dating back to the 1950s, in the Uintah Basin. The writers of Hunt For The Skinwalker suggest strange events started long before then, back when the Uintah Basin was still part of the Ute Tribe’s ancestral hunting grounds before the U.S. Government relegated them to the reservation (what is now the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation) and opened up the area to white ranchers. 

The name “skinwalker” itself is appropriated from the beliefs of some Southwest Native American tribes, in which a skinwalker is often a malevolent magic-user capable of turning into animals. Hicks has collected accounts of people who claim to have seen skinwalkers, often in the form of a large wolf, sometimes capable of walking upright. These beliefs are not just spooky ghost stories or campfire tales for Native Americans whose cultures include those still-living traditions. Traditions that they are often unwilling (understandably so) to share or explain.  

‘I Want to Believe’

One thing that is certain about Skinwalker Ranch and the greater Uintah Basin, the mystery has remained resistant to years of investigation, study and scrutiny, but the same could be said for the broader mystery of UAP in general. Fugal believes the current investigation going on at Skinwalker Ranch could provide the key needed to unlock both mysteries. 

When he acquired the ranch, Fugal installed his own team to begin investigating. He says, “As part of our investigation, I have brought forward a team of multidisciplinary professionals. Physicists, engineers, scientists from an array of disciplines in service to better understand what is at work.” Fugal says his team has conducted drone aerial surveys, soil surveys, seismic record reviews, with the purpose of trying to determine whether there was a natural, prosaic explanation for what had been recorded there. 

As far as what has been recorded, he says, “We’ve seen everything from daylight to nighttime UAP [events] to extreme electromagnetic anomalies, equipment malfunction, even damage, to acute medical episodes experienced by a number of participants.” None of this is a secret. The current Skinwalker Ranch investigation is the subject of a HISTORY channel documentary series, The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch

Fugal says he was hesitant to sign off on the show, and the producers (the same guys behind Ancient Aliens and other docu-series and reality TV hits) spent a year trying to convince him. Fugal agreed as long as, “Nothing was fabricated or contrived and I could use my own team whom I trusted.” Fugal originally asked for anonymity as well, but felt, in order for the show to be genuine and authentic, “I needed to come forward. As this was my spiritual journey with my group of closely held confidants, I was persuaded to go public as part of the series.” Now the show has aired for two seasons, and they started filming for season three this summer. 

Part of Fugal’s desire to remain anonymous was to protect his reputation in his other business ventures. Who wants to be known as the UFO guy? But the response, he says, has been largely one of support and genuine interest. After all, almost everyone has a story about experiencing something they can’t quite explain. It begs the question, why are we not taking the scientific study of UAP more seriously? Well, some people are. The U.S. Government for one. However, those efforts to investigate UAP and other unexplained phenomena have not been quite as public until recently. 

Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy History.
Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy History.

‘The Truth’ Is Out There?

In 2017, The New York Times broke a story on a multi-million dollar “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program” in the Pentagon’s budget. Since 2007 (as far as we know), the program investigated reports of unidentified flying objects. Funding for the program reportedly ended in 2012, and most of the money was handed to none other than Robert Bigelow (the one-time owner of Skinwalker Ranch and founder of NIDS, which conducted the investigation laid out in Hunt For the Skinwalker) and his aerospace research company. Bigelow is a definite Mulder, a true believer in the notion that aliens exist and that they have visited Earth. The writer of the book on the topic of government involvement in UFO research, and The New York Times story, investigative journalist Leslie Kean, won’t rule out the possibility of an extraterrestrial explanation but maintains that it is just one of the possible explanations (more on that later).

Fugal poses with rapper Post Malone on a visit to Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.
Fugal poses with rapper Post Malone on a visit to Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.

What we do know, the Pentagon program documented sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high velocities or hover with no discernible form of propulsion or lift. It also studied videos of encounters between UAP and military aircraft—including the video of an “encounter” near San Diego between two Navy fighter jets and a UAP in 2004, which was publicly released.

It’s not the first or even the most recent time the government would invest resources in investigating UAP encounters. In 1947, the Air Force began looking into upwards of 12,000 sightings before they officially ended the project two decades later. The project concluded that most sightings had mundane explanations like clouds, conventional aircraft or spy planes, but 701 sightings were never debunked or explained. 

This year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a Preliminary Assessment on Unidentified Flying Phenomena. According to the report, intelligence officials have not found any evidence that 144 recent UAP encounters with military pilots have anything to do with aliens, but they do not offer another explanation. 

What the report does conclude is, “if and when individual UAP incidents are resolved they will fall into one of five potential explanatory categories: airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena, USG or U.S. industry developmental programs, foreign adversary systems and a catchall ‘other’ bin.” What the report is saying, without actually saying it, extraterrestrial involvement has not been ruled out, it just falls squarely in the “other” bin. 

The report also found in 18 of the incidents, “observers reported unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics. Some UAP appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly or move at considerable speed, without discernible means of propulsion.” In a small number of cases, military aircraft systems also received radio signals associated with UAP sightings. 

There also might be more UAP encounters with the military than those of which U.S. intelligence officials are aware. Why? No one wants to be known as the UFO guy. Or, as the assessment puts it, “Although the effects of these stigmas have lessened as senior members of the scientific, policy, military and intelligence communities engage on the topic seriously in public, reputational risk may keep many observers silent, complicating scientific pursuit of the topic.” (Sound familiar?) 

But, as Agent Mulder would say, “no government agency has jurisdiction over the truth.” That brings us back to the privately funded Skinwalker Ranch investigation and Fugal, who believes it’s time the scientific community, and the greater public, took the study of unexplained events like UAP more seriously. According to him, “It really adds up to being the greatest science project of all time.”

Thomas Winterton and Erik Bard pour environmentally friendly green dye into water on the ranch for an experiment. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.
Thomas Winterton and Erik Bard pour environmentally friendly green dye into water on the ranch for an experiment. Photo courtesy Brandon Fugal.

‘Are We Truly Alone?’

We don’t want to jerk you around. No one knows what’s behind those UAP or the source of the high strangeness in the Uintah Basin or Skinwalker Ranch. But there are theories. Fugal takes a cautious approach, advising everyone who visits the property, beforehand, “to prepare themselves spiritually. To armor themselves. To enter the property with a degree of reverence and humility. For we are dealing with forces that are not only unexplained, but also have proven harmful, potentially.”

Others have developed their own ideas. Salisbury outlined three hypotheses for the phenomena documented in Uintah Basin in The Utah UFO Display. The first is that favored by UFO debunkers—that all the unexplained phenomena can be explained within the physical laws of the universe with enough data collected. The second Salisbury calls the “Nut and bolts hypothesis,” which theorizes that UFO are advanced machines “traveling through space from civilizations on planets in other solar systems.” You know, aliens. The third is the “Star Gate” hypothesis. This posits that UFO and other paranormal phenomena represent beings with technology to travel from some “nearby parallel universe or another dimension” or using wormholes to “transport from one part of our universe to another.” 

Salisbury recognizes, in some ways, he and the writers of Hunt For the Skinwalker come to the same conclusion: “If there are portals or wormholes between alternate realities, all consistent with [natural] laws that we simply don’t yet understand, it would explain many of the outlandish goings-on that so many have witnessed.” Salisbury also flirts with the possibility of the spiritual (some might say “religious”) explanation. 

The hypotheses outlined in Hunt For The Skinwalker include the possibility of a hoax on the part of the Gormans, delusions on the part of eyewitnesses, a here-to-forth undiscovered advanced civilization here on earth, aliens, ancient aliens and the Tectonic Strain Theory—developed by neuroscientist Michael Persinger hypothesizing that “transient and very localized geophysical forces are a major source of phenomena that have been traditionally labelled as haunts and poltergeists.” He also suggested these geophysical forces could affect the human temporal lobe, causing people to report more paranormal experiences. 

I was raised to believe there were worlds without number

Brandon Fugal

Whether or not this line of study is being pursued at Skinwalker Ranch is unclear at the moment, but Fugal hinted that further expansion of the investigation would include human consciousness studies. He describes the phenomena as being “precognitive, sentient, nonhuman intelligence.” He says, “It can anticipate and even be aware of your thoughts and consciousness and react according to your intention that you bring to the property.” This supposed entity or, perhaps, multiple entities, has remained evasive in revealing its nature or intentions to Fugal’s team. He believes they’re observing a “diversity of origins and agendas” and suggests that there are “malevolent, benevolent and benign” forces at work. 

Fugal also believes Skinwalker Ranch holds the answers to much more than just what is happening on the property itself. “If we can approach the ranch as a sort of living laboratory for verifying that we are not alone in the universe, whether that means we are interacting with extraterrestrials, interdimensional phenomena or spiritual entities, it is all extremely compelling,” he says.

So, after years of frequent visits to the ranch, which does he believe could be the cause? A) Extraterrestrial? B) Interdimensional? C) Spiritual? “Why not ‘D,’ all of the above,” he says, and some of that goes back to his faith and LDS upbringing. “I was raised to believe that there are worlds without number. That there is an intelligent and divine design to our existence. And I believe what we are witnessing and documenting at Skinwalker Ranch is proof of that.”

Could this “science project,” as Fugal calls it, at a remote ranch in Northeastern Utah really be the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe? Whatever they’ve found has made Fugal a true believer. He says, “We have to gain the most compelling evidence regarding the reality of the phenomenon on the planet, that we’re not alone, that our reality is more complex than it may seem and that there is more at work in our world than we know.” In other words, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Dana Scully, than dreamt of in your philosophy.”  

The Skinwalker Ranch crew as featured on HISTORY'S The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy History.
The Skinwalker Ranch crew as featured on HISTORY’S The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch. Photo courtesy History.

This article was originally published Dec. 7, 2021.

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Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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