Is Mount Madonna County Park near Santa Cruz haunted? I slept under the stars to find out.

The ruins of Henry Miller's summer estate at Mount Madonna County Park.

The ruins of Henry Miller's summer estate at Mount Madonna County Park.

Image courtesy of Yelp user Daniel W.

The advice I was given prior to my overnight stay at Mount Madonna County Park was to meditate and visualize a white light surrounding me. 

“Have the light come from the top of your head and envision it all around you,” Maryanne Porter, author of the book “Haunted Santa Cruz, California,” told me. “Tell yourself that this is your protection, okay? And do this before you go there.” 

Mount Madonna is a 4,605-acre park in the mountains between Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, located off a winding highway that connects the agricultural towns of Gilroy and Watsonville. The park is home to lush redwood and oak forests, miles of hiking trails and multiple campgrounds. It’s also known for its residents, particularly ones of the paranormal variety.

“We've heard some visitors mention ghosts. I don't know if they did their research or just heard about it by word of mouth,” said Scott Christopher, the park’s Senior Park Ranger. “But I heard stories about the ghost of Sarah Miller.”

Sarah Miller was the daughter of Henry Miller, a rancher and landowner once known as the “Cattle King of California” (not the lascivious author). At one point, Miller was the largest producer of cattle in California and one of the largest landowners in the country, owning over a million cows and 1.25 million acres of land before his death in 1916. 

In 1875, Miller built a summer retreat on 13,000 acres of land he purchased that includes where the park is now. That’s where eight-year-old Sarah died after falling off her horse in 1879. Some legends say she broke her neck, others say that the horse fell on her and crushed her — but all versions of the tale agree that her ghost hasn’t left the mountain. 

“People say that her ghost appears up by the Miller area,” said Christopher, referring to a part of the park where ruins of the Miller’s summer estate sit beneath the redwoods. Sarah is said to show up there sometimes, either on horseback or standing in a frilly white dress. 

“A lot of eyewitness accounts have heard screams and cries for help. Many people have seen apparitions on the road,” said Porter, who has researched paranormal happenings in the Santa Cruz area for over a decade. “I’ve interviewed quite a few different people, including some rangers, and they all seem to say the same thing: that they hear a voice screaming for help, and they’ve seen a girl in white, or a woman in white.” 

But Porter, along with others who are familiar with the park, doesn’t think Sarah’s ghost is haunting the mountain alone. 

The author's dog at their campsite at Mount Madonna County Park.

The author's dog at their campsite at Mount Madonna County Park.

Sam Moore, SFGATE

I’d almost forgotten about the park’s spooky reputation by the time I pulled into my campsite. It was a gorgeous late summer day; sunlight splashed around me and laughter echoed from several groups of families riding bikes and scooters through the campground. Kids were drawing butterflies and smiley faces on the roads with chalk. It seemed like the last place a ghost would want to hang out.

“I don’t think many visitors are aware of [the ghosts]. I mean, there might be a few people that seek that out and come up here. But I haven’t run into anything myself,” Christopher told me before my trip. 

I spent my first couple of hours like I do on most of my camping trips: setting up camp, lounging in the sun and throwing my dog’s tennis ball around. Porter told me that spirits tend to pop up around dusk, so I waited until then to hike to the Miller ruins.  

The hike led me past several picnic areas and a pen that once housed a herd of rare white fallow deer, whose ancestors were gifted to Miller by William Randolph Hearst. Past the deer pen is a dense redwood forest with trails leading to the stone ruins of the Miller estate. 

Standing alone with my dog among the ruins, watching the sunlight slowly start to leave the sky, I got my first case of the heebie jeebies — not just from thinking about Sarah Miller, but also everything else that may roam the park with her. 

The author's dog near the ruins of Henry Miller's summer estate. 

The author's dog near the ruins of Henry Miller's summer estate. 

Sam Moore, SFGATE

“On a real serious note, the area does have a reputation for some not-so-nice things happening there,” said Mike Monroe, a naturalist and guide who has volunteered with the Santa Clara County parks department for over 30 years. 

The park’s location — remote and forested, yet proximal to more populated areas — has lent itself to some gruesome crimes over the decades. Newspaper clippings from as early as the 1930s detail shootings, suicides, fatal car crashes, stabbings and even decapitations that have taken place on the mountain and along Hecker Pass, the highway that winds through it. 

“The area is out of the way. It’s an easy place to dispose of a body without getting caught,” said Porter, whose research on the park has led her to believe that Sarah Miller might not be the ghost in a white dress who visitors have reported seeing. 

“I don’t think it’s little Sarah Miller,” Porter said. “When I kept doing my research and learned about a lot of murders on Mount Madonna, I happened to find one murder that I found was kind of interesting.”

She’s talking about the murder of Sara Chavaria, an 18-year-old expectant mother who was killed by her boyfriend near the park’s entrance in 1969.

“She was killed so violently. And the descriptions that people give, it doesn't sound like an eight-year-old girl, it sounds like it's somebody who's more of a teenager. So that's always been my conclusion when it comes to who the spirit on Mount Madonna is,” Porter said. 

But both Porter and Monroe feel that something besides the ghosts from these more recent tragedies is lingering among the trees. It’s something I felt during my time there, and something I feel in most places around the country — energy left over from the atrocities of colonization. 

“There is a lot of pain in that area,” Monroe said. “If there are spirits still lingering, they’d be calling out to us about the injustices and the murderous nature of early settlers.”

Before the arrival of Spanish missionaries, the area was an important connection point linking Ohlone communities along the coast to those in the valley. 

“What the Spanish missionaries did left a stain on the land, and I think there’s a paranormal element to it that is being drawn to the area,” Porter said. “I think a lot of this is residual energy.”

At the base of the mountain was an Ohlone village that was destroyed once its inhabitants were either forcibly taken to nearby missions or killed by diseases brought over from Europe. 

“We don’t know too much about the village there except that its people were related to the Aptos people,” said Patrick Orozco, chairman of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council in Watsonville. “Over the years, Indians didn’t identify themselves because it was dangerous to be an Indian. They were killing Indians for nothing, just for land.”

Many of Orozco’s relatives were born and raised on Mount Madonna. Every year he helps organize the Annual Elders Gathering, where members of tribes from all over California come to the park to honor tribal elders through song, dance and ceremony. 

“When you show the songs and the dances, the culture of our people in this way, you open up to the public so they’ll know we’re still here. A lot of books say that we don’t exist anymore, but we’re still here. We gather on Mount Madonna and people are really happy that we have that going,” Orozco said. 

Mount Madonna campsite in the evening. 

Mount Madonna campsite in the evening. 

Sam Moore, SFGATE

I didn’t experience any paranormal encounters during my time on the mountain. What I did experience was a lovely hike back to camp from the Miller ruins, followed by a starlit evening and a crackling campfire. And though I was grateful to be sleeping under my pickup truck’s camper shell instead of in a flimsy tent, both my dog and I slept through the night undisturbed. 

I woke up to misty redwoods, chirping birds and a new understanding of Mount Madonna: as a stunning place steeped in grim memories.