The Santa Lucia Mountains stand sentinel over the coast near Monterey, California. This rugged range offers a wealth of natural beauty for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Though, if you intend to visit, be advised that while exploring the wooded trails or watching the sunset from a majestic overlook, something might also be watching you.

They are called “The Dark Watchers,” and they’ve been keeping their watch over the Santa Lucia Range for at least the last 300 years. Early Spanish settlers to the region called them “Los Vigilantes Oscuros” and described them as ten-foot-tall, shadowy figures wearing dark cloaks and wide-brim hats. Encounters with the Watchers are exclusive to the twilight hours and generally involve lone travelers. Typically, witnesses report seeing them in the distance, standing very still and staring at them. When noticed, the watchers fade into the shadow as if they were never there.
Precisely what the Watchers are or what their intentions might be are unknown. While unsettling, most sightings have been peaceful, though it is recommended that travelers do not stare back at them or attempt to interact, as this may provoke them. It is said that those who have tried to follow the watchers have disappeared without a trace.

Those seeking a visit from the Watchers are advised to travel with as little technology as possible. It is said that they are attracted to travelers who travel light and use simple equipment, like natural walking sticks. Also, don’t look for them; they’ll find you. Apparently, they have outstanding vision and can observe you from a great distance. Most importantly, don’t try and photograph them. This will anger them and increase your odds of joining the Missing 411.

There are many documented encounters with the Dark Watchers, though probably the most famous was author John Steinbeck. He wrote about them in his 1938 short story “Flight,” which sums up the myth succinctly in this short passage:

“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.”

In fact, the whole Steinbeck family seems to have been familiar with the legend. John’s son, Thomas Steinbeck, and artist Benjamin Brode collaborated on the book In Search of the Dark Watchers. Thomas claimed that he had several encounters with the beings as a child. John Steinbeck’s mother, Olive, said that she used to leave gifts of food and trinkets along the trail and that the Watchers would reciprocate by leaving her flowers along her return path.

Another local author and Watcher witness, Robinson Jeffers, wrote about them in 1937 in his collection of poems Such Counsels You Gave to Me & 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. 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…”

The Steinbecks and Jeffers certainly did their part in galvanizing the myth into folklore, but they are far from the only sources. There are newspaper articles dating back decades with eyewitness accounts of the Watchers, and the phenomenon continues to this day. Of course, their aversion to photography makes them a ripe target for skeptics.

Obviously, these sightings could all be hoaxes, but taking them at face value, there could be some explanations. The most common and plausible debunker is simple pareidolia. This is the tendency of the mind to interpret random visual stimuli into some kind of image, like seeing faces in clouds. Another, more intriguing one is a phenomenon known as the Brocken Specter. This is where the sun imposes a shadow through mist or water vapor onto the clouds, and is common in mountainous regions. However, this phenomenon is usually accompanied by a rainbow corona surrounding the shadow, which does not fit the descriptions. Also, this effect requires the sun, making it all but impossible for twilight occurrences, which is when the Watchers come out to play.

Are the Watchers real? I don’t know, but I can say this; there are few places more beautiful to debunk a strange legend, so why not find out for yourselves? What’s the worst that could happen?