California’s “Dark Watchers” Have Been Spooking Hikers for Centuries

For at lest 300 years, hikers in California’s Santa Lucia Mountains have been reporting sightings of shadowy, mysterious silhouettes popularly known as “dark watchers”.

The first reports of giant figures ominously perched on mountaintops date back to the 1700s, when the Spanish first came to California. They were actually the first to dub these mysterious strangers “los Vigilantes Oscuros” (the dark watchers), but the first Anglo-American settlers that came after them reported similar sightings, and the figures eventually became part of the local folklore. The strange thing is that dark watchers still show themselves to hikers in the Santa Lucia Mountains, and some have even been captured on camera.

Photo: Stefano Pollio/Unsplash

SFGate managing editor Katie Dowd recently wrote a piece on California’s dark watchers and their history, as well as possible explanations to their existence. An interesting fact mentioned in the article is American writer John Steinbeck’s experience with the dark watchers. Steinbeck, who grew up in Salinas, apparently saw them himself and even included them in his 1938 short story, “Flight”, about a boy who kills a man and is forced to flee into the Santa Lucia Mountains.

“When thou comest to the high mountains, if thou seest any of the dark watching men, go not near to them nor try to speak to them,” the main character’s mother tells him in the book.


It turns out that Steinbeck’s family had some sort of experience with the mysterious dark watchers. His mother, Olivia, would bring them gifts like fruit or flowers, as was customary in the community, and the writer’s son, Thomas, went on to co-author a book about the mysterious figures.

According to local stories, no one has seen a dark watcher up close, as even when brave hikers try to approach them, they magically disappear. While some believe them to by cryptids, like the Sasquatch or Bigfoot, most scientists believe that they are the nothing more than examples of pareidolia or simple optical illusions.


You know when you look at a fluffy white cloud and start to spot a resemblance to a rabbit or a even a human figure, or when you start seeing faces in the surface of the moon at night? Well, that’s pareidolia, and for many this explains the sightings of the Dark Watchers in the Santa Lucias.

Another likely explanation is a natural optical illusion known as the Brocken spectre, after the Harz Mountains’ Brocken Peak, where locals have also been reporting sightings of shadowy silhouettes. The phenomenon actually became a muse for writers like Lewis Carroll and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which used Brocken as a byword for high strangeness.


“In reality, the Brocken spectre … happens when shadows — like those of a hiker — are cast on particularly misty mountain peaks. If the sun is behind the observer, the mist plays with the shadow, making it look huge and menacing,” Katie Dowd wrote in her article.

Apparently, the phenomenon is more frequent in the Harz Mountains, where fogs regularly forms at low altitudes, it can occur on virtually misty mountainside when the sun is at your back and the clouds are below you. The dark figure, which often has a rainbow halo around it can disappear if you move, or if the mist shifts, which would explain why the dark watchers are usually seen for only a few moments.


Basically, hikers reporting dark watcher sightings may be the actual dark watchers. It’s only a theory, one I’m sure many believers in esoterism will promptly contest.