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The Mysterious Dark Watchers

The Santa Lucia Mountains or the Santa Lucia Range is a rugged mountain range located in the coastal area of central California. Named in 1602 by a Spanish cartographer as the Sierra de Santa Lucia, the mountain range stretches for 105 miles or 169 kilometers from Monterey County in the north all the way south to San Luis Obispo County. Among its southern peaks stands the famous Hearst Castle. The Santa Lucia Range is the coast north of Ragged Point, forming a 100-kilometer wall of wave-dashed cliffs known as the Big Sur, to which the Pacific Coast Highway clings.

It is a land of immense beauty and tranquility, where California Condors fly high above its mountains, and sea otters and elephant seals populate the turbulent waters at their base.

But lurking within these mountains is the strange and mystifying phantoms that stand motionless in long black cloaks. Surveying the crags and peaks of the mountains of Santa Lucia, these unfathomable creatures have been spotted by travelers to be looking out to the sea, often wearing broad-brimmed hats, and sometimes carrying either a staff or a walking stick. But what is consistent with the description of those who have seen them is that they are always still, silent and featureless. Those who try to get a good look at these fantastical beings fail because, by the time that they attempt a second glance, they have already vanished.


These mystical entities are believed to reside in the misty hillside of Big Sur in the Santa Lucia Mountains. The early Spanish explorers and Mexican ranchers that came after referred to these creatures as “Los Vigilantes Oscuros.” In modern times, they came to be known as “The Dark Watchers.”

The Dark Watchers are a group of migratory entities that have appeared in California Folklore for supposedly the past several hundred years and are purportedly stalking travelers along the Santa Lucia Mountains. They are apparently giant human-like phantoms that are only seen at twilight, and they are usually spotted standing silhouetted against the night sky along the ridges and peaks of the mountains. These beings are believed to possess incredible hearing as well as impeccable eyesight. They are also immune to high-tech detection and prefer to only reveal themselves to travelers or trekkers who are equipped with simple items like hats and sticks.


Tales about the Dark Watchers appear in many books, and many personal accounts of encounters with them can also be found online. A description of the Dark Watchers can be read in many books about California’s famous supernatural stories, but these descriptions always referred to the writings of Pulitzer Prize-winner John Steinbeck and poet Robinson Jeffers as literary sources that mention this phenomenon.

In 1938, John Steinbeck was living near Monterey at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Mountains when he published his book of short stories titled “The Long Valley.” One of the stories included in the book is the short story “Flight,” which most famously mentions the Dark Watchers specifically. The Dark Watchers had notoriety in the area at the time because of poet Robinson Jeffers – who also lived in Big Sur – published the poem “Such Counsels You Gave to Me” in 1937. In his poem, Jeffers described the Dark Watchers as “forms that look human… but certainly are not human.”

Steinbeck and Jeffers writing around the same time in the same region and drawing inspiration from the same local traditions implied that some form of Dark Watchers lore predated both of their literary creations. But what was it?

Original accounts of the Dark Watchers date all the way back to the Chumash – a native American tribe which has lived along the central coast of California and among the Channel Islands for around 13,000 years. These Chumash natives have included stories of The Dark Watchers in their oral legends and traditions since the Pre-Columbian era.


One of the most detailed and authoritative accounts of Chumash beliefs is arguably the 1974 1200-page doctoral dissertation by Thomas Blackburn, which was later on published as “December’s Child: A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives.” Blackburn’s principal source in writing his dissertation about Chumash beliefs was the massive archive collected by American linguist and ethnologist John Peabody Harrington between 1912 and 1928, including 111 oral narratives of the Chumash native tribe. Harrington’s body of unpublished research was housed at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, and Blackburn went through it all, compiling virtually all there is to know about the Chumash beliefs.

With an expert having researched extensively on the subject matter, we are now left with a very important question: Did the Chumash really tell stories about the Dark Watchers? If we are going to base our answer to this question on Blackburn’s work about the Chumash beliefs, then we can conclude that there were no creatures anything like the Dark Watchers mentioned in the oral narratives of this native American tribe.

The closest thing that can be connected to these watchers was a creature called nunašīš. The Chumash believed that the Earth, as we know it, is the Middle World, which is an island surrounded by the ocean. The sun and other celestial bodies are a part of the Upper World, and down below are a Lower World. Among the dwellers of this Lower World are the Nunašīš, which are monstrous and misshapen animals who come up to the Middle World at night and spread bad luck, illness and other negative things. These creatures can also be shaped like humans, but they are neither dark nor cloaked. They are also not known for standing still against the night sky along mountain peaks.

The Chumash also believed in shape-shifting animals and humans, which is a belief widely held by many Native American cultures. However, so far, claiming that the Dark Watchers can actually be linked with any Chumash tradition cannot be done without casting doubts on its validity. Hence, it is also just as likely, if not more so, that the supposed connection of the Dark Watchers with Chumash oral stories could be just an invention of the 20th-century ghost story authors. After all, what better way to lend credibility to an urban legend than to tie it to an ancient culture?


So, if the mysterious dark watchers are not at all a supernatural or mystical phenomenon, why are there people claiming to have seen one while hiking in the Santa Lucia Mountains in the fading twilight?

We do not need to be an expert to know that our minds and eyes can sometimes play tricks on us, especially when we are in spooky environments where we are on edge, and our senses are on high alert. According to psychologists, illusions, hallucinations or misrepresentation of natural stimulus can be brought on by either exhaustion or isolation – conditions that are prevalent when you are traveling alone on the mountain trails of the Santa Lucia Range.

Infrasound, which can be generated by the wind, can also cause feelings of uneasiness and anxiety in some people, which is why it is often connected to paranormal sightings. Studies show that infrasound between 7 and 19 Hertz can cause feelings of fear and panic in human beings. Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire conducted an experiment where they played music with and without tones of 17 Hertz frequency in the background. Results of the study showed that when the participants heard or felt the music with the 17 Hertz tones, they felt nervous, anxious and fearful. They also felt some pressure on their chests and chills crawling down their spine – feelings which are described by most people when they experience a paranormal event.

An optical illusion known as the Brocken specter could also be a plausible explanation for the legend of the Dark Watchers. “Mountain Specter” can occur in certain atmospheric conditions when the sun is shining at a particular angle. A person’s shadow can be cast onto a cloud bank around them, which could create the illusion of a large shadowy humanoid figure.

No one knows for sure who or what these Dark Watchers are. Where they come from or where they go when they disappear remains an unsolvable mystery to this day. As we have explained, it is likely that these creatures are nothing more than fictional legend, but even if they are real, these Dark Watchers were wise enough to have left no footprint behind that would have served as tangible proof of their existence.


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