You need not spend the night in a spooky Victorian house or wander through a Gothic-looking cemetery for ghostly happenings. Our Anza-Borrego desert offers bone-chilling tales that will keep you huddled in your tent or around the campfire until the rising of the sun.
After the tragedy of the Donner Party in 1846, travelers became wary of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California and began looking for an alternate southern route. They discovered a long, desolate passage that stretched from Ft. Yuma to San Diego. Although it was free of snow, it proved to be even more deadly. It was called El Camino del Diablo (the Devil’s Highway) and travel along it was referred to as the Journey of Death. From this route came many stories, legends and folklore, including gunfights over buried treasure, lost mines that held untold riches and murdering bandits. These tales always ended in death and visits from the Other Side—spirits who wander the desert to this day.
Spirits of Yaqui Well
Traveling across the barren sands, the most precious commodity was water. Coldwater springs were rare throughout the Anza Borrego Desert. In the early 1850s, three emigrants were making their way from Yuma to a new life out West. After some time without water, they came across Yaqui Well, a natural spring. The men pounced on the well. One man drank his fill and reportedly told his companions, “Shoot me while I am happy, for I never expect to feel so good again.” His companions didn’t need to for shortly thereafter, the man fell down in incredible pain. Cramps caused his body to seize painfully. He died a horrible death.
Searching the body, his fellow companions found some gold nuggets in his pockets. Greed lit up their eyes as they circled each other around the well, looking for an opening. When one of the men stumbled, the other jumped on him and smothered him in the mud surrounding the water. The sole survivor ran off screaming into the desert, supposedly to look for the source of the gold, and was never seen again. Hot summer nights bring these three men together in death. Many travelers and outdoor enthusiasts tell of seeing three men dancing in the moonlight near the now-dry Yaqui Well.
Haunted Stagecoach Stations
In 1857, the Butterfield Mail Company established a stagecoach route that ran from St. Louis to San Francisco, passing through the Anza-Borrego Desert. Stage stations were often the scenes of robberies, murder and other treachery. Two particular stops—Carrizo Station with its phantom stagecoach and the Vallecito Station—are reputed to be haunted.
The Carrizo Station story goes back many years, when stages traveled regularly through the desert before the Civil War. A coach carrying a strongbox of gold coins was traveling from El Paso to San Diego. In Yuma, the guard became ill and could not continue. Unable to secure a replacement, the driver carried on alone. Right before it arrived at the Carrizo Station, the coach was robbed and the driver fatally shot. The horses continued on with the dead man slumped over, still holding the reins. Campers staying near the ruins of the old station have reported seeing a phantom stagecoach arrive in the middle of the night and continue on its journey, leaving behind actual wheel marks.
Vallecito Station is even more notorious, boasting several spirits including a white horse that rides through the area and a lady in a white dress. The horse is supposedly the favored mount of a bandit that was shot by one of his partners shortly after they had buried their loot from a stagecoach robbery. The bandit’s loyal steed still searches for its lost rider.
The Lady in White is a famous local story. In the 1850s, riding in a stagecoach bound for Sacramento, a young frail woman braved the long desert trek. She became ill sometime after leaving Yuma and perished in the small adobe that served as the Vallecito stage station. When her belongings were searched, they found a long white gown with hand-sewn lace and pearls—her wedding gown. She was placed in the gown and laid to rest in the small cemetery near the station. Many park rangers as well as campers in the area report seeing her apparition wandering the grounds, looking for her lost love.
Ghost Lights of Borrego
The Ghost Lights of Borrego were first spotted in the late 1850s by stagecoach drivers and have continued steadily over the years. Described as flickering or burning fireballs, they arch through the sky. Some of the earlier accounts describe lights that would rise into the air and explode, similar to fireworks. Witnesses claim that they make no noise as they travel across the desert sky and some believe they mark the location of hidden treasures. Unfortunate explorers have blindly followed the lights and fallen into the surrounding ravines or caves.
There is even an unverified story of a fatality attributed to these spectral globes. A train making its way through Goat Canyon in 1977 derailed when the engineer saw some lights on the tracks and mistook them for an oncoming train. The buckling train cars tumbled down the canyon, where they remain today. The best place to view these ghost lights is near Oriflamme Mountain, not far from the town of Borrego Springs.
On the lighter side of the odd and unexplained, stories circulated in the 1960s of an “Abominable Sandman of Borrego,” a Bigfoot-like creature. Alleged casts were made of the creature’s tracks left in the sand in 1964. Don’t look too long into the dark evening of Anza-Borrego … for there is undoubtedly something looking back.
Charles Spratley is a local historian and paranormalist, who, when not giving guided tours, spends his evenings exploring the darker side of the County’s past.