Whether you’re an intrepid would-be ghost hunter or a geeky archival researcher like me, ‘tis the season to dig into local lore. And while reading up on the region’s reputedly haunted landscapes has some definite thrills, I find it’s much more exhilarating to visit such storied places in the flesh. If I can get out into nature, enjoy a tasty meal or replenish some camping gear in the process: all the better!
That’s why we’ve come up with a series of outdoorsy Bay Area adventures that are top notch for spooky season. What’s more, we’ve done the initial historical detective work you’ll need to distinguish an unassuming suburban spring from a pond where a demon might lurk. (Keep in mind: these are urban legends. While they can tell us plenty about what locals past and present have feared, you should probably take the outlandish bits with a grain—or a heaping tablespoon!—of salt).
If you think the creepiest aspect of this gulch is that araña in Spanish means spider, you’re mistaken. Far more chilling than any arachnid is AJ “Jack” Sloan, the resident ghost. Over 150 years ago, Sloan met his untimely end here. Today it’s a tranquil urban park, frequented by birders, joggers, cyclists, walkers and native plant lovers. Whether your pulse rises at getting some steps or spotting some spooks, the paved multi-use trail is definitely worth investigating.
Back in 1865, the area’s vibe was much eerier. Then a gnarled oak forest, Arana Gulch was known far-and-wide as foreboding and tricky to traverse. There, a trio of bandits — Jose Rodriguez and Pedro and Faustino Lorenzana — caught Sloan and his brother-in-law unaware, and their confrontation escalated into a brawl. When Sloan had one assailant cornered, the bandit called out for back up. Sloan took three bullets to the torso. He staggered and then collapsed in the nearby creek.
History enthusiasts may enjoy poring over conflicting records of the event in online archives. There’s much to unpack about the complex racial dynamics in post-Gold Rush California. According to one neighbor’s account, Sloan’s final words cast shade on the bandits’ identities. Though they spoke English well, the Mexican War veteran proclaimed, he knew they were not American.
The first sighting of Sloan’s ghost at Arana Gulch occurred in 1895. A mother and daughter in a horse-drawn buggy saw an apparition cross the road and then evaporate. The tall, lean wraith wore a wide-brimmed hat and a long overcoat. The coroner who tended Sloan’s body confirmed it: this was exactly what he’d worn on his last day on earth.
On Halloween weekend in 2021, the REI Co-op in Sunnyvale first welcomed shoppers. From a suburban strip mall on the historic El Camino Real, the establishment sports the brand’s signature outdoor apparel and supplies. If uncanny happenings intrigue you, consider scoring your next set of hiking socks here. Why’s that, you ask? From 1970 to 2018, an iconic rumored-to-be-haunted Toys R Us Mega-Store stood in the co-op’s stead. Only time will tell if the hauntings have stopped now that REI has moved in.
REI hasn’t shied from this spine-tingling history. They even devoted a podcast episode to it!
Decades ago, employees reported echoing footsteps, disembodied voices and cold spots. Unseen hands knocked toys from the shelves and jostled the faucets in the ladies’ room. This prompted a visit from famed South Bay medium Sylvia Browne. In 1978, she held an on-camera séance in the store’s aisle.
Browne sensed the presence of an unsettled farmhand called Jan “Johnny” Johnston. She claimed his employer was Martin Murphy Jr., the settler who founded Sunnyvale. Browne said that, in 1884, Johnston grew sloppy in his labor when his boss’s daughter spurned him. While chopping wood, he axed his own leg and died. Nightly, his distraught ghost hunts through the building, grasping for his long-lost love. His spirit is paused in the past, unwitting that a store has replaced the Murphy family’s orchards.
Despite Browne’s impassioned retellings, the archival evidence doesn’t add up. Murphy had a daughter, but she died nine years too soon. And while there were plenty of local Swedish laborers, none fit the blueprint for Johnston.
Still, I had to see the co-op for myself. Would I get a strange, creeping feeling near the kayaks? The answer, perhaps predictably, is no. Save for headless mannequins in bright outdoorsy threads, I found no menacing beings. And with the air conditioning at full blast, I doubt I’d detect a hair-raising cold spot. My fellow shoppers seemed happy to go about their business, as unaware of Johnston’s ghost as the historical record is of him.
Located on the outskirts of San Jose’s Almaden Valley, New Almaden is a historic community and former mercury mine. When operations began 175 years ago, Mexican settlers then named the town and worksite Hacienda de Beneficio. That’s where the old Hacienda Cemetery — an alleged site of unearthly occurrences — got its name.
In 1898, thirteen-year-old Richard “Bert” Bertram Barrett lost half his left arm in a hunting accident. The era’s laws required that he bury the appendage. As such, a tombstone in Hacienda Cemetery reads simply: “His arm lies here. May it rest in peace.” Sixty-one years later, Bertram passed away. His body rests at Oak Hill Cemetery, nearly 12 miles from his buried limb. Each Halloween night, the story goes, his arm’s phantom emerges from the grave and scrambles down the road, like Thing from The Addam’s Family. Its aim: to rejoin with the rest of its body.
The best way to visit the cemetery is as part of a 1.6-mile walking tour. Pick up a map at the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum, which is run by our friends at Santa Clara County Parks. Exhibits include a diorama of the inside of a mine shaft, a geological display and artifacts from Cornish, Chinese, Mexican and Chilean mining families.
Once you’ve had your fill of indoor learning, you can hit the sun-dappled avenues in search of some outdoor inspiration! While traffic is light on New Almaden roads, you’ll likely encounter some cyclists and cars. Be sure and stay between the houses and the white line.
The short walking tour boasts 32 attractions, from quaint adobe houses to the former site of the town’s jail and blacksmith shop. The cemetery is 29th on the list and is well worth the wait!
Once you’ve paid your respects, it’s time to complete the walking tour. If you’d like to tack on a more ambitious trek, head half a mile up the road to the Hacienda Entrance of Almaden Quicksilver County Park.
There’s nothing like a day at the beach to leave you feeling famished. Why not follow up a gentle hike along the windswept bluffs of the Jean Lauer Trail with a romantic ocean-view meal?
At the Moss Beach Distillery, the tuna sliders come with an otherworldly side of intrigue. The resident wraith, aka The Blue Lady, even has a cocktail featuring fresh squeezed lemon and blue curacao named after her. The libation is a thoughtful homage to the ghost, who is rumored to have passed away in the Prohibition era.
Built by Frank Torres in 1927, Moss Beach Distillery was a successful local speakeasy. Coastside legend holds that in the establishment’s early days, a beautiful young woman met a handsome man, who some say was a piano player in the restaurant’s bar. The pair fell madly in love, with one major snag: The Blue Lady was sworn to another. Thus began an illicit affair. Without rousing her husband’s suspicions, the soon-to-be-spirit slipped out to meet her lover. In an effort to make her demure outsides match her stormy insides, she always clad herself in blue.
While on a moonlit stroll with her paramour, The Blue Lady met her demise. The particulars vary depending on the account. In one version, her cruel husband grows wise to her philandering and offs her. In another, she drowns herself in the nearby gnashing sea. Either way it’s the sort of catastrophe that raises some eyebrows.
It was Sylvia Browne, the aforementioned famed local psychic, who assigned a name to the shadowy figure. Mary Morely, Browne affirmed, died while enmeshed in a love triangle. When restaurant staffers skimmed County archives, they learned a woman with her name died in a car crash in 1919. But the accident happened nowhere near Moss Beach, and the restaurant didn’t exist yet.
Still, in the years since, many unexplainable happenings have occurred at the Moss Beach Distillery. The restaurant’s website cites levitating checkbooks, mysterious phone calls, missing earrings, computer glitches and more.
Santa Teresa County Park is the site of a sacred spring, with fascinating and complex ties to both Ohlone and Californio history. In recent decades, however, a gruesome urban legend has overshadowed the spring’s fabled past.
Over a century ago, according to the lore, demon’s hands yanked a murderous girl named Dottie under the spring’s surface. Like Stephen King’s Carrie, she could enact violence with her mind. When her parents forbade her from seeing her beau, she used her telekinetic powers to hang them from the barn’s rafters. Stunned at her outrage, Dottie waded into the water in a trance. It was then that the demon’s hands drowned her. Owing to reported sightings of her pint-size ghost, locals rechristened the body of water as Dottie’s Pond.
Did Dottie ever exist? It remains an unsolved mystery. Some retellings suggest that Dottie may have been short for Dolores Bernal of the Bernal family, who once operated the site’s former rancho. The records contain a single one-line account of a Dolores Bernal who was born in 1827, but no further information is available.
Having visited the pond several times, I have seen zero signs of the demon. Instead, the setting is idyllic. Sunning turtles speck the water’s surface. Considerable shade offers park-goers a reprieve from the exposed trails nearby. Still, Dottie’s tale has lured ghost hunters, podcasters and others in want of a scare.
Ready for a visit to Santa Teresa County Park? If you’re up for a sweat, grab a walking stick from a charming dispenser by the Joice Trail trailhead. Take the dispenser’s presence as a sign to get ready for a climb. As is often the case with hiking, persistence pays off. Half a mile up the trail, you’ll see panoramic views of the bay! At the fork, you can connect to a few different loops. As someone witchy might say: pick your poison!
For a good time at a slower pace, stroll to the nearby interpretive center with its chicken coop and picnic area. Soak in some old-timey knowledge via a self-guided walk past a historic ranch house and barn. The restored structures display the trappings and tools typical of California farm life in the early 20th century.
Happy Halloween and happy outdoor adventuring!
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more