As golden hour settles in around a hiker in the Santa Lucia Mountains of the Central California Coast, what should be a peaceful moment in nature turns to one of panic. The solo traveler can’t shake the feeling they’re being watched.

Looking around wildly, their gaze settles on an eerie figure surrounded by swirling mist on a peak ahead. It looks like a very tall human with a walking stick and hat, just watching. Mustering the courage, the hiker steps toward the figure. As they do, the mysterious being quickly vanishes into the surrounding fog, leaving the hiker with a sense of dread. They have just encountered a notorious “dark watcher.”

This unsettling story is not unique. There are dozens of similar accounts of so-called dark watchers by hikers in the Santa Lucia Mountains near Big Sur, California. The stories often share details: The figure stands seven to 10 feet tall and has a walking stick and hat, for example. No one has ever been able to interact with the looming figures—they always disappear once the hiker acknowledges them.

“They don’t really do anything,” says Jason Offutt, author of Chasing American Monsters: 250 Creatures, Cryptids, and Hairy Beasts. “They just stand and watch, and if people stare at them long enough or try to approach them, they will fade out of existence.”

Dark watchers are often seen near dusk and dawn in the Santa Lucia Mountains, when light plays off the misty peaks.
Dark watchers are often seen near dusk and dawn in the Santa Lucia Mountains, when light plays off the misty peaks. Roger469 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Despite their ephemeral nature—and claims that they only appear to hikers with low-tech, old-school gear—stories of these cryptids go back hundreds if not thousands of years. Some people trace the legend to the pre-colonial oral stories of the Chumash, Indigenous peoples that have lived along the Central Coast of California and the Channel Islands for 13,000 years. But while there are many Chumash accounts of various creatures in December’s Child by Thomas Blackburn—the most complete written record of Chumash stories—it’s unclear whether any describe the dark watchers.

“These entities—whatever they are—have not just influenced the local people,” says Offutt. “They influenced some pretty famous people, too.” The earliest written accounts of dark watchers go back to the 1700s, when Spanish colonists gave the mysterious beings their name: los vigilantes oscuros. Since then, sightings have continued, and in 1937, the creatures made their literary debut.

“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,” California poet Robinson Jeffers wrote in Such Counsels You Gave To Me and Other Poems.

The following year, John Steinbeck, who grew up in nearby Salinas, penned an ode to the creatures in his short story, Flight. As a child, Steinbeck’s own mother left fruit or nuts as an offering to the entities on her way to school; on the way back, she’d find flowers in their place. In 2017, Steinbeck’s son Thomas wrote a book on the mysterious watchers.

Similar creatures known by other names have shown up across the world’s peaks. The Am Fear Liath Mòr, or Big Gray Man, for example, is a giant that follows hikers in Ben Macdui, the highest peak of the Cairngorms in Scotland.

Meteorologist Jan Null captured his own Brocken spectre in a tunnel.
Meteorologist Jan Null captured his own Brocken spectre in a tunnel. Courtesy Jan Null

Some attribute the phenomenon to pareidolia: our natural inclination to see patterns where none exist, one way we try to make sense of the world. Often, this leads to personifying nature and seeing human figures or faces that aren’t really there. Others point to the weather.

Meteorologist Jan Null at the Bay Area’s Golden Gate Weather Services wasn’t familiar with the legends of the dark watchers, but is an expert on weather phenomena along the Central Coast. Null agrees that there may be a scientific explanation for the dark watchers, one hidden in the fog. Brocken spectres form when shadows—like that of a mountaineer—are cast against the mist. The sun, especially as it rises or sets, may be behind the hiker. The mist will distort the human’s shadow, making it look huge, while also allowing it to disappear with a slight change in position or a gust of wind.

“It certainly is a logical explanation from a meteorology and optics point of view,” says Null, who has seen his own shadow form a Brocken spectre on a misty morning. “I had never heard of dark watchers before, but the types of imagery you see with Brocken spectres seem to match up with what has been described.”

For some people, however, potential scientific explanations don’t discount centuries-old local lore about something watching from the mist. “They’ve been cited by people for so long,” says Offutt, “dismissing the local legends is really shortsighted, and a little bit too cocky of us to do.”