Visit some Bay Area parks and bring back a few good photographs, with scale, of Black Panthers. California, as we all know, is well-known for its long history of Black Panthers.
Bottomline, all joking aside about the two-legged variety, there are not suppose to be any “black panthers” – i.e. melanistic large felids – in California. Yes, mountain lions exist there, but black mountain lions are not verified zoologically. Black leopards and black jaguars are known, but they do not naturally live in California.
But California’s Black Panthers are a cryptid population with a well-established legacy, for example, that inhabits several pages of reports in my book, Mysterious America.
Outstanding outdoors reporter Tom Stienstra of the San Francisco Chronicle, known for his insightful articles on Sasquatch, has tackled the issue of a new wave of Black Panther encounters in the Bay Area. As he notes, the “sudden rash of ‘black panther sightings’ this fall at Bay Area parks has given new spark to the region’s greatest wildlife mystery.”
Despite rumors of released cats (of a decade ago), or of out-of-place jaguars, or of misidentified black domestic cats, the sightings of large, black cats have a long history and continue as a mystery in several Northern California wild sites. Indeed, in Mysterious America, I discuss in Chapter 12 the flap of sightings beginning in 1972 of the melanistic pumas seen on Mt. Diablo and the booklet at the time, which already talked about the “Black Mountain Lion of Devil’s Hole” often seen in Las Trampas Regional Park.
Ten years of rumors of “escaped cats.” Give me a break. The Mt. Diablo and Bay Area Black Panthers have been actively observed for over four decades, at least. I have a report in my files of a melanistic giant cat sighting from Marin County for September 1964.
Stienstra shares some of the recent eyewitness accounts in a section of his treatment he calls, “Seeing is believing.”
Once fooled, twice right: “People seem to think I’m ‘crazy’ when I told them today, that I’ve seen this big black cat that was not a housecat: approximately four feet long or so without the tail, jet black, very beautiful and sleek. I have this big ridge, part of Miller-Knox Park, right in front of my house. Every morning I hike it up to Point Richmond and walk back on the middle-level ridge trails. The first time I saw it I only got a glimpse of it from the side. I saw something black run past me. When I turned my head I just saw the back. I immediately had the thought ‘mountain lion’ and then immediately thought ‘Nah, they don’t have mountain lions here’ and ‘mountain lions are brown.’ I thought that it’s maybe a dog or maybe a deer that looked very dark. Talked myself into thinking that it must have been some kind of black deer. This morning around 8.30 a.m. or so, when I was walking in a little canyon I saw it again. No questions, a big black cat, no housecat, but a large cat. Jet black, no other colors.” – Michaela Graham, Richmond
Like a jaguar in the jungle: “I was curious about EBMUD’s protected watershed off Redwood Road in Castro Valley, so I obtained a permit and checked it out . . . I decided to navigate into the gully, walked maybe 30 or 40 feet to the east and suddenly found myself locked eyes with this big black cat. It was roughly 50 feet from me, through several barriers of logs and overgrowth. The first thought is that it looked like a panther, but the weird thing is that sort of animal should be in Africa, not the East Bay. It was so out of place. – [Name removed at witness's request], Berkeley
Point Reyes surprise: “We came up a short rise through a grassy swale (near Tomales Point), and then, looking up, saw a large, jet-black mountain lion calmly sitting, eyes half asleep looking out at us from about 30 yards away. This lion was not darkish, not a brownish-tawny like some I’ve seen since, but jet black. My friend (Burke Richardson) and I stood there, stunned. It then started to slink away from us in a large semi-circle, attempting to hide in the grass. We were sadly without a camera, which was not like us at all, but, oh well.” – John Balawejder, Santa Cruz
Stienstra also gives a virtual guide to the “Best-chance parks” to visit to observe these Mystery Cats:
Animals resembling “black panthers” or black mountain lions have been reported at these parks and watershed lands in the Bay Area:
Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, San Ramon: Black panther sightings are higher at Las Trampas than any other park in the Bay Area; shocked hikers occasionally show up at the adjacent Las Trampas Stables and tell their tale. The park has ideal habitat for mountain lions, with water (Bollinger Creek), space (5,430 acres plus miles of adjoining EBMUD land) and food (lots of deer and squirrels).
Info: (888) 327-2757, option 3, ext. 4537;
Pierce Ranch, Point Reyes National Seashore: The swath of land from Pierce Ranch to Tomales Point provides the best wildlife viewing in California, home for more than 500 elk, along with deer, foxes, bobcats and mountain lions. Wildlife thrives across the park’s 71,000 acres, with plenty of food, water and protection. The best of it is at Pierce Ranch. From the ridgeline, you also get sweeping views of Tomales Bay to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Note: In one two-hour sequence near the water hole at Pierce Ranch, I counted 13 elk, six deer, three rabbits and a fox, and a week later on a return trip, saw a mountain lion and 200 elk.
Sunol Regional Wilderness, Sunol: Sunol is at the center of an extensive stretch of hilly wild lands. The park covers 6,800 acres, but is surrounded by other parks and watershed lands that encompass more than 50,000 acres. A high density of ground squirrels provides food for the large numbers of golden eagles that spend the winter here. Mountain lions are occasionally spotted above the rim of Little Yosemite by hikers heading out to see the waterfalls on the headwaters of Alameda Creek.
Info: (888) 327-2757, option 3, ext. 4559;
Chabot Regional Park/EBMUD watershed, Alameda County: These adjoining parcels, split by Redwood Road, provide ideal mountain lion habitat and lots of deer. Chabot spans more than 5,000 acres and features gorgeous Grass Valley, eucalyptus forest and adjacent Lake Chabot. East Bay MUD lands here are stunning, with pristine Redwood Creek feeding into huge Upper San Leandro Reservoir.
Note: When the sloped meadow in Grass Valley sprouts fresh growth from winter rains, you can often spot deer browsing in the early morning. Where you find deer, you have a chance to find the critters that eat them.
Info: (888) 327-2757, option 3, ext. 4502; ebparks.com; trail use permits required for EBMUD watershed at (925) 254-3778; form available online at link – click on services/recreation.
Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline, Martinez: This park covers 1,415 acres of hills, bluffs and waterfront along Carquinez Strait. There’s a great shoreline bike ride here, but better yet is the trek up to Franklin Ridge; at an elevation of 750 feet it provides sweeping views of the lower delta.
Note: On one exploration here I came across a herd of goats, including some that looked like unicorns with horns sticking out of their foreheads. You couldn’t ask for better bait for mountain lions.
Info: (888) 327-2757, option 3, ext. 4514;
Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline, Richmond: Some might be surprised that this park is on the list. That is because it’s best known for its gorgeous swimming cove, Keller Beach, located in a protected area at the north end of the shoreline. From here, the wildlands extend north to Point Pinole, an area where mountain lions have been verified multiple times. The park also extends into the Richmond hills, with a ridge connecting to excellent wildlife habitat.
Info: (888) 327-2757, option 3, ext. 4544;
- Tom Stienstra