Around 1998 when my children were tiny, I visited San Juan Capistrano and took pictures of the many haunted places there.  Following are some of them. The article text is based on information available to me while I was researching in the 1990s.

–Elisabeth Busch, July 2020

The following sites are all in or near the Los Rios Historic District in San Juan Capistrano, California.

The El Adobe Restaurant

The building that now houses the El Adobe de Capistrano Restaurant was originally two separate structures. The Miguel Yorba Adobe (the north half) was built in 1778 as a private residence, and the south half of the current building was built in 1812. This second half was called the juzgado and used as a justice court and jail. The jail portion has been converted into a wine cellar for the restaurant, and it’s here that waiters and others report a feeling of being watched. In addition to the creepy jail, the ghost of a headless monk has been seen wandering the street outside of the restaurant.

31891 Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano

In 1912 the Vanderleck family connected the Miguel Yorba adobe and the courthouse to form one home. Later the building was turned into the restaurant. The adobe, besides being a jail, also served as a store, a stage depot, and a hotel.

Montanez Adobe

This small two-room adobe, built in 1794, is across the road from the Mission SJC on a sidestreet. Like all adobes, its interior is cool year round, and it is easy to imagine a spirit finding itself at home in the little-disturbed interior.

The sala.

A ghostly ball of light has been seen by some visitors in the sala (living room) of the adobe. Perhaps this is the ghost of Dona Polonia Montanez, who owned the home during the late nineteenth century and taught local children there.

This adobe, like the Rios home, is one of the original forty adobes built for Mission housing in 1794. Dona Polonia, after whom the adobe is named, was known as the “Pied Piper of San Juan” because she was always surrounded by children. The adobe was restored in 1980.

31745 Los Rios St

Rios Street

On Rios Street in SJC is a large, old pepper tree that is the site of one of the most famous hauntings in San Juan Capistrano. The White Lady of Capistrano has been seen under this tree, as well as walking Rios Street, for almost 100 years. Several other phantom ladies keep company with the White Lady. One is known as the Phantom of Del Obispo (or the Del Obispo White Lady) and is associated with a ghostly black dog. In life, the Phantom of Del Obispo was Dona Bernadino, and legend has it that she was either a healer or bruja (witch). Various spectres have also been seen walking along the railroad tracks in the center of the historic district.

Los Rios St.

Old Cemetery

In 1778 the Mission San Juan Capistrano cemetery filled up and they began burying people here instead. Unlike other historic spots, this old graveyard is not kept up or open to visitors. It’s surrounded by a chainlink fence with padlocked gates. (No, we did not climb over the fence to get our pics 😉 It’s hard to find, too–without precise directions it would be easy to miss. Because of its out-of-the-way location, it is an eerie place even on a hot summer’s day. Many of San Juan Capistrano’s oldest residents were buried here, along with Native Americans and Civil War veterans. The most famous ghost said to haunt the cemetery, however, is none other than La Llorona herself.

DIRECTIONS: The Cemetery is located just off the freeway (Ortega Highway) in San Juan Capistrano near the historic district. [Directions from a reader: From the 5S, make a left on ortega and make another left directly into a seemingly dead end road (after where the shell gas station used to be and is now torn down). The cemetary is hiding on the hill above the 5 freeway and Ortega Highway.]

My two year old in jail. Fortunately he did not take up a life of crime after this photo, and is now a well-behaved adult.

“This jail cell was built in 1896 to serve as a holding cell for miscreants on their way to County jail. Originally located on the west side of Camino Capistrano at the intersection with Ortega Highway, it was the scene of several jailbreaks and one hanging.”
Text from OC Historical Commission plaque

Historical Sites in San Juan Capistrano:
The Haunted Southland by Richard Senate, 1994 Charon Press, pp14-16
“The Ghosts of San Juan Capistrano” by Lyn Sherwood, for OC Now, March 23, 1998
Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck, 1996 Penguin Books, p76
Historic Spots in California by Douglas E. Kyle, 1990 Stanford University Press, p251

3 Replies to “Haunted San Juan Capistrano, CA”

  1. I also love to go to haunted places and I have visited many but I have not seen any entity during all these years. You can only feel their presence but cannot see them. I wish I could see them one day. By the way, have you seen any yet?

  2. I’m a near life long resident of San Clemente, just down the road from San Juan. I’ve had many friends over the years from some of the oldest families in SJC and they’ve told me many stories, most having been handed down to them from their elders and to them from the earlier generation, so on and so forth. Needless to say, the tradition is rich. I happened to have been fortunate enough to have seen the “White Lady” and indeed, it was along the low sloping hills that used to be open land along Del Obispo. The night myself and a car load of friends saw her was after a football game when we were Seniors at San Clemente High which served everything south of Laguna Beach back in 1970 when this happened. We were driving along a dirt road below what once was “Capistrano by the Sea”, a psychiatric hospital. We used to love to explore these hills back then, mostly looking for a place to have a few beers where we wouldn’t be seen, boys will be boys y’know. In any case, we were stone sober when we saw coming down this dirt road towards us, the figure of a woman dressed in white. Our first impression was that someone had gotten out of the Psych Hospital but as we drew closer and could see more clearly, we could see there was something odd about this woman. She had long black hair that was flowing lightly in the night’s breeze and glowing eyes that seemed almost red. What struck us as odd though was she wasn’t moving as people do when they walk, she was more or less floating! As we began to pass her right off the front right of the car, it was clear that from the knees down, there just wasn’t anything there! She continued, looking straight ahead, never acknowledging our presence we passed by her and she passed by us. I continued on up the road a little while we were all pretty stunned and didn’t say anything. Suddenly, I decided to spin the car around and go back down to look for her. She was gone, no trace of her and she should’ve still been there on the road as there was no way off it but to go all the way to the bottom and she hadn’t had time to get that far. She was just. . . gone.
    My friends that were present that night and myself will still talk about this all these years later and our stories of the experience all match to this day. It really happened, there is no question in any of our minds.

  3. 20 years ago a group of friends and I did hop the fence to the Old Cemetery at around 1am. While there, two of us saw a shadow of a human form on air (air cant support a shadow), and when he ran away it turned bright wight and fled very quickly with an agonizing look on its “face”.

    Totally terrifying.

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