The Eerie Shadow Figures That Have Haunted California’s Big Sur Hikers For Centuries

Do you ever get the creepy feeling you are being watched?

dark shadow watching from mountains Rommel Canlas / Shutterstock

Legends and myths usually start with inexplicable mysteries that people overwhelmingly show interest in and try to come up with explanations that account for strange occurrences. Most of these tales are attached to places around us that are less traveled.

There are the stories of mythical beings surrounding Mount Shasta, the Marfa lights in Texas thought to be aliens, the Alaska Triangle where over 16,000 people have vanished, the paranormal Bridgewater Triangle, and the town of Dudley, Connecticut that is supposedly so haunted people are no longer allowed to visit.


But even if you are aware of some of the creepiest places in the world, you may not have heard of the legend of the Dark Watchers.

What are the Dark Watchers?

Dark Watchers have been described as tall black figures that are featureless and often wear brimmed hats and carry walking sticks. They have reportedly mostly been spotted at twilight or dawn. No one has claims to see them up close and personal, and they apparently disappear if you approach them.

These enormous shadowy figures dwell around Big Sur, California, a scenic rugged and undeveloped section of the Santa Lucia Mountains where the coast range forms a sharp incline from the Pacific Ocean off the coast.


As legend has it, the Dark Watchers sit motionless on the horizon of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range to peer at travelers. The legend is often credited to the Chumash people, a Native American tribe that inhabited the land, but nothing related to it can be found in their mythology.

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Early Spanish settlers called them Los Vigilantes Oscuros, literally "the dark watchers," after first moving into the area in the 1700s. But as American settlers began to make their homes near Big Sur, they reported having a feeling they were being watched from above.

Author John Steinbeck mentioned the Dark Watchers briefly in his story “Flight,” which was part of his 1938 collection of short stories, "The Long Valley."

That passage talked about a man named Pepé, who spotted one of the strange creatures during his travels:

"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."


Poet Robinson Jeffers also referenced "watchers" in his 1937 collection, "Such Counsels You Gave to Me & Other Poems." There, he says the following of the mysterious beings:

“...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...”

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Are the Dark Watchers real?

Whether or not the Dark Watchers are real is a matter of perspective.


For 300 years, people have claimed to see them, including John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, who claimed that he knew who the watchers were because he saw them throughout his childhood. He even wrote his own book called "In Search of the Dark Watchers."

In that book, Steinbeck details stories like that of Big Sur resident, Billy Post, who purported to have seen the Dark Watchers. A mid-1960s newspaper told the story of a Monterey Peninsula former high school principal who saw one of them while surveying the area during a Santa Lucia hiking trip. It supposedly vanished when he called the other hikers over to see.

There is likely a more logical and purely scientific explanation for the strange sightings reported by seemingly unrelated and unbiased parties for the last three centuries.

People who claim to have seen Dark Watchers actually experienced the Brocken spectre illusion.

The Brocken spectre illusion, also known as “mountain spectre,” happens when the sun is at certain angle and casts a shadow onto a cloud bank, creating the optical illusion of a big, human-like figure.


brocken spectre illusionPhoto: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons

Sightings may have been caused by hallucinations from exhaustion.

The isolation and potential exhaustion that comes from traveling through the mountains shouldn’t be underestimated. Psychologists believe that it can create a natural stimulus that is misinterpreted, leading people to believe they see something that they really don’t.


Infrasound from the mountains led to strange sensations.

The peaks and valleys in the Santa Lucia mountain range can cause strong winds that create feelings of anxiousness and make people feel uneasy. That sensation that something is amiss can cause you to "see things" and is frequently associated with paranormal sightings.

People experienced pareidolia.


Humans have the ability to see random things and create specific, meaningful images. That tendency to make pictures that make sense out of ambiguous visual patterns is called pareidolia, and could be the cause of some of the Dark Watchers encounters.

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NyRee Ausler is a writer from Seattle, Washington, and author of seven books. She covers lifestyle and entertainment and news, as well as navigating the workplace and social issues.