Meandering along the coast of California from Monterey County all the way up into central San Luis Obispo County is the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, a rugged expanse of peaks and wilderness that is imposing enough to have posed a hurdle to early Spanish explorers making their way to the California coast. It is a place of undeniable natural beauty and history, and it has also long been said to be the haunt of inscrutable shadow beings that seem to stand and observe our world from afar.
What have come to be known as the “Dark Watchers” are typically said to be very tall humanoid entities ranging in height from 7 feet tall all the way up to around 15 feet tall, dressed all in black and wearing flowing cloaks and wide brimmed hats, with many sightings also mentioning some sort of staves or sticks in the beings’ hands. Facial features are not typically seen, and they are almost always silent, enigmatic figures usually seen at a distance up on ridges silhouetted against the darkening twilight sky, always at around dusk or dawn, quietly looking over and surveying their domain with unknowable purpose and often vanishing in the blink of an eye, especially if one is to try and draw closer.
Such bizarre entities have been reported for centuries, with the accounts supposedly traced back to at least the Native Chumash tribe of the central coast of California and the Channel Islands, who apparently had a rich tradition of lore on these enigmatic beings and called them “The Old Ones.” Early Spanish explorers and Mexican ranchers also knew of them, referring to them as Los Vigilantes Oscuros, and they were often seen by early explorers and soldiers in the region, who described the unsettling experience of being observed by them from cliffs high above. These beings have been sighted ever since, going on to be mentioned in countless literary references and sightings reports. One very well-known literary mention of the mysterious beings was written of in John Steinbeck’s 1938 book The Long Valley, in which the creatures were written of in a short story called Flight, particularly in one passage that reads:
Pepe looked up to the top of the next dry withered ridge. He saw a dark form against the sky, a man’s figure standing on top of a rock, and he glanced away quickly not to appear curious. When a moment later he looked up again, the figure was gone. Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment; but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.
This is undeniably based on the pervasive lore of these entities, and other writers at around the same time made mention of the Dark Watchers, including notably poet Robinson Jeffers, in his poem Such Counsels You Gave to Me & Other Poems, in which he calls them “forms that look human… but certainly are not human,” and says of them:
He thought it might be one of the watchers, who are often seen in this length of coast-range, forms that look human to human eyes, but certainly are not human. They come from behind ridges to watch. But when he approached it he recognized the shabby clothes and pale hair and even the averted forehead and concave line from the eye to the jaw, so that he was not surprised when the figure turning toward him in the quiet twilight showed his own face. Then it melted and merged into the shadows beyond it.
These literary accounts draw from the same local traditions, which have gone back centuries and continue on into this day. In the mid 1960s there was an alleged sighting of the Dark Watchers made by a high school teacher, who was out hiking in the range at the Monterrey peninsula. As he walked along he claimed that he had seen a tall dark figure looming up upon a ridge, which seemed to be in the process of merely standing and contemplating the scenery. The hiker called out to the mysterious figure and at that instance the entity simply dissolved from sight as if it had never been there at all. There have been numerous supposed sightings of these strange entities since, right up into very recent years. One strange occurrence was told of by a witness from Moreno Valley, California, who in 2011 said:
Many many years ago I was with a friend driving through a dirt field here in Moreno Valley near Allessandro (old east part) near what I believe were old abandoned barns, that I always had heard were haunted when my friends car broke down. (could have been coincidence, it was a beat up volkswagen bug) It was dusk at best and there was no way we were going to make it out of the field before it was pitch black and instead of chancing getting retardedly lost and/or hurt in the dark we decided to sleep in the car and set out in the morning to go get help to tow the car. (it was wayyyyy before the days of everyone having cell phones and quick help) As we were killing time, in the pitch black now, we were hanging out inside and outside of the car, killing time, sharing smokes, and we started to distinctly see what looked like black shadows, evenly distributed completely encircling us, they did not move, they stayed motionless but were of significant size and based on the distance, I would say at least the size of a small car like the bug we ourselves were in. Whatever these were seemed hunched over, perhaps kneeling. Time passed, they never moved and though we walked around the car and got in and out of the car to see if what we were seeing was some sort of optical illusion, yet we couldn’t explain or discredit what we were seeing. To this day, it racks my brain.
In 2013 there was a report made by a Elizabeth Benitez of San Mateo, California, who claimed to have seen the specters in broad daylight near the San Luis Obispo reservoir. She would say of this encounter:
I remember one day my friend and I were coming back from Los Angeles. We passed the San Luis Obispo reservoir, and as we drove on the road I saw something at a distance down at the end of the mountain. It was a really big human figure, but it wasn’t. It had a black cape kind of like the grim reaper and it was leaning over holding on to a staff at a “puddle of water” or so that is what it seemed at a distance. It was in daytime too, so I could identify it wasn’t a person. Even in mid light he was very black and reminded me of a raven. I told my friend that was driving to look over at the mountains, and surprisingly she was able to see a glimpse of it. I asked her what she saw without giving her my details, and she said exactly what I saw. She only looked at it for about 5 seconds, but she was able to see it. She almost lost control of the car too when she looked away at it, and I begged her to go back and see it, but she was very tired of driving already. These Dark Watchers are real!
Also in 2013 was an account from a witness known only as “Brian,” from Hollister, California, who claimed to have seen the entities as they were driving home. He would say of the incident:
We where coming home to the San Juan Bautista/hollister side when we saw a very large dark figure standing at the edge of the mountains which is extremely weird since I’ve never seen anyone cross over the barbed wire fence and I travel that road daily and at all hours. We drove by it slowly behind the figure noticing it staring off into the distant valleys and mountains (fremonts peak). It appeared to have a large cape with straight shoulders that where very broad. It seemed to have a hunch on it’s back. At first from a distance I thought it was a condor but when I got closer it stood almost over 10 ft tall. It did not notice us driving behind it but when we found a spot on the cliffy road to turn around and get a better look it was gone.
In 2015 there was a report from a long distance runner calling himself Joey, in Sylmar California. The witness said that he had been out training for a race in the mountains when he saw something peculiar, saying of his experience:
Time of day was 2:00 pm I was running and up in an area where no human could climb without gear I saw a black figure in plain day light. I never seen anything like it up in the mountain. Was darker than dark could not explain it. A year past and today again January 24th I saw it again and in the same spot.
There have been many other reports as well. As recently as 2018 there was a report from a witness from Ojai , California, who was out hiking in the mountains when he came across something very bizarre indeed. He would say:
I was hiking up a remote trail up the 33 in Ojai, I was about an hour up the mountain, no people, no cars in sight. as I was hiking, I had this eerie feeling I was being watched. I looked up at the top of the mountain. It was a black figure. I waved, jokingly, not really thinking the object was a person. It waved back. Thinking I was maybe tripping, or that it was a tree waving in the wind, I took a puff of my cigarette, only to see the figure blow out a plume of smoke as well. I started seeing it flowing, and I say flowing, almost floating vertically. I ran like hell back to my car, spraining my knee in the process.
There are numerous other accounts of seeing these inexplicable shadow beings out in the wilderness silently surveying the land, to the point that, rather interestingly, John Steinbeck’s own son Thomas Steinbeck wrote an entire book on the subject after having his own encounter. He would go on to research the lore of the Dark Watchers and pen the book In Search of the Dark Watchers along with co-author Benjamin Brode, which goes into quite a lot of depth into the phenomenon and its cultural origins. Some have pointed to this being a trick of light or illusion, but that somehow seems to be an inadequate explanation for the entirety of this phenomenon.
It seems that this is a phenomenon for which there are no clear answers, and those enigmatic tall beings dressed in dark upon the cliffs and ridges of these mountains at twilight remain a baffling mystery. Are these just illusions or hallucinations? If so, why should they be confined to this one mountain range? There is also the idea that this may be due to the presence of infrasound signals in the area, which can be caused by natural processes such as the wind along the rocks and can have strange effects on the human psyche, but again why should the Dark Watchers legend take root here of all places if that is the case, and why would the reports be so consistent in the appearance and behavior of the entities? Could this be something else? Are these some sort of supernatural or even inter-dimensional entities here on some unknown mission? It is impossible to tell, and the Dark Watchers of California remain a compelling mystery that really captures the imagination.