The Dark Watchers

“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.” - John Steinbeck, Flight, 1938

Big Sur, California, is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth and has drawn explorers to its rugged coastline, blue waters, and wildflower-perfumed mountains for centuries. Postcard vistas like McWay Falls, Keyhole Arch, and Bixby Creek Bridge draw visitors from all over the world to gaze at their beauty. In addition, this magical landscape is also home to one of California’s strangest urban legends: the “dark watchers.” For hundreds of years, people claim to have had encounters with dark, shadowy figures, sometimes described as wearing hats or capes throughout the Santa Lucia mountain range and surrounding areas. They are described as being 7 to 10 feet in height and tend to be spotted in the late afternoon or early evening. They’re seen wandering through the trees near hiking trails or perched upon the mountainside where no human could climb to, observing passers-by from a distance before fading away into thin air.

Centuries of Sightings

Sightings have been documented for hundreds of years. Spanish settlers who arrived in the 1700s took to calling the shadowy figures Los Vigilantes Oscuros (literally “the dark watchers”). When Anglo-American settlers began staking claims in the region, they also felt the presence of something, or someone, watching them from the hills. Famous residents of Big Sur have passed down stories of personal encounters with the figures for generations, but the legends gained national attention in the 1930s. 

The Legend Grows

The poet Robinson Jeffers, a lifelong resident of the central coast, wrote in his collection Such Counsels You Gave To Me and Other Poems:

“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,” Jeffers wrote. “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.”

The following year, John Steinbeck (who grew up in Salinas) included the figures in a short story entitled Flight, a tale about a Mexican-American boy who kills a man and flees into the Santa Lucia mountains. When his mother bids him goodbye, she cautions him by saying, “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 Steinbeck family had a generational tie to the Watchers. John’s mother, Olive Hamilton, was a lifelong believer in them and told stories of multiple encounters with the beings. She said she would often bring them offerings of fruit or nuts as she rode through Mule Deer Canyon on the way to teach school in Big Sur. Upon her return, Hamilton would sometimes find flowers left in their place, which she took as a reciprocation of kindness. John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, also co-authored a book with Benjamin Brode in 2013, In Search of the Dark Watchers.

Although these elusive beings may sound frightening, most people who have encountered them agree that the beings are more observant than aggressive. “They did not seem to me to be sinister, however; they were simply there,” wrote Big Sur native Rosalind Sharpe in her 1989 book, A Wild Coast and Lonely – Big Sur Pioneers. Benjamin Brode says he had his own unique encounter with something while sketching in the hills of Big Sur. “I never saw the Dark Watchers, but I could feel the presence of something,” Brode says. He advises other seekers to leave the electronics behind and get quiet in the wilderness.

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