Collecting and sharing the folktales & ghost stories of Southern California. 

These are our stories. Let us tell them once more & re-enchant our world.

Episode 2: THE MONSTER OF ELIZABETH LAKE with guest Denver Michaels

Susan Burns

20 Apr, 2016


It's been called "the Devil's Pet", a dragon, even a pterodactyl - but the word most often used to describe it is "monster."  What was terrorizing the early settlers of Palmdale?



Today's guest is author and cryptozoology enthusiast, Denver Michaels

Denver Michael's new book People Are Seeing Something: A Survey of Lake Monsters in the United States and Canada is now available at and        


Denver Michaels

Cryptozoology News

James Conroy 

Podcast Garden
Music and Sound Effects courtesy of



The Legend began at least 100 years earlier. At that point in time, the lake marked a dividing point between the territories of the Tataviam, the Kitanemuk and the Serrano tribes of Native Americans. The Tataviam may have called the lake “Kivarum”. Unfortunately, there are no more speakers of the Tataviam language, so whatever the word “Kivarum” means has been lost. 

But in 1780, a Spanish explorer and priest named Juniper Serra began calling the lake “Laguna del Diablo” – The Devil’s Lagoon. According to him, this was because some of the Natives who lived nearby believed that the lake had been created by the Devil himself who then placed one of his own pets inside it. They told him that if you swam deep enough, eventually you would find a secret passage that led directly to the underworld.

Now, the 18th century Native Americans may have been technologically primitive by today’s standards, but they certainly knew


something - because Elizabeth Lake is actually a sag pond created by the motion of the Earth’s tectonic plates. In fact, Elizabeth Lake lies directly on the San Andreas earthquake fault line.

Over the next few decades, Juniper Serra told the story of Laguna del Diablo and those who heard it retold it adding flourishes of their own – sometimes even added Juniper Serra himself to the narrative - until eventually the story of the creation of the lake most often went something like this: a Spanish explorer was leading his troop along a well-worn trail running deep into the valley when they all became so


stuck in muck and the mud, they could not get free.  Fearful that he and his men would die in that very spot, the Spaniard desperately called out for help to the empty hills that surrounded them. What answered his call was the Devil himself.  Having no option and facing certain death no matter what, the Spaniard sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a firm, dry road that would lead his men to safety.

The Devil gave him the road, but once the troop was safely on its way, the leader decided he wanted to keep his soul for a while longer. He told the Devil the deal was off.  Outraged, the Devil created his lake in that very spot and furnished it with a monster which would terrorize any man or animal who approached it forever more.

Fifty years passed, and the lake lived down its intimidating nickname. Briefly, it went by the much more bucolic sounding “Liebre”, which is Spanish for Rabbit. In the 1830’s, a Spaniard named Don Pedro Carillo set up shop on its shores. Carillo was a rancher, and he built a hacienda, a barn and a corral right by the water.  He knew of the lake’s reputation, and he’d heard the supernatural tales – but he was a practical man. Superstition was not going to keep him from the fertile lands of the valley and the water source of the lake. But just three months after the completion of his various construction projects, he abandoned his ranch and refused to return. Some would say that he eventually admitted that there were supernatural beings nearby that would not leave him in peace. Another version of the story claims that a fire of mysterious origin burnt down every single one of Carillo’s newly built structures in a single night.


Roughly a decade later, the lake was known as “La Laguna de Chico Lopez” or “The Lagoon of Chico Lopez” – named after the lake’s newest inhabitant: Francisco Lopez. He went by Chico. Like Carillo before him, Lopez was a rancher and moved onto the banks of the lake so that his cattle could graze and drink easily.  For several months, it seemed like Lopez had beaten the lake’s curse. Everything was fine. Nothing unusual was reported by any of his hired hands. But the peace did not last.  What happened next was told by one Don Guillermo Embustero y Mentiroso. Now, Mentiroso had been a guest at the Lopez ranch during its final days and – in what would eventually become a grand Los Angeles tradition - he wrote a manuscript detailing all of the mysterious and grizzly details.  And according to Mentiroso’s manuscript, one day around noon, Lopez's foreman, Chico Vasquez, arrived at the hacienda very upset. He said strange things were happening at the lake – that there was an agitation in the water – it was spooking the animals and he wanted them to see it. But once Lopez and his guests went out to the shore, all they saw was business as usual – and the water was in fact quite calm. This angered Lopez, who felt he had been tricked by Lopez and made a fool of in front of his guests.  He began berating Vasquez for getting them worked up and wasting their time. His tirade was stopped in its tracks, however, by the sound of a terrifying scream coming from the brush at the edge of the lake. The tall plants were whipping back and forth. In Mentiroso’s account, he would state they were so close to whatever was lurking in the brush that they could smell its foul breath. The entire group was given an additional fright when their horses reared up and galloped away in terror.

Unable to bring their horses under control, the men turned their attention back to the lake. Emerging from the depths was a large creature with enormous wings. The wings flapped over and over as it tried to rise from the muddy banks. It roared and thrashed, churning up the water around it. Don Lopez and his men fled in a panic. The next morning, all of the vaqueros on the ranch were armed and sent down to the lake to investigate. There was no sign of the winged monster, though the putrid smell of it still lingered in the air. In the days that followed, the hands reported livestock either missing or mutilated. At first, bears or wolves were thought to be responsible but then one night, there was a terrible uproar at the corral. The vaqueros came running, but when they arrived ten mares and foals had already been slaughtered with no predator in sight. Soon after, hands and visitors to the ranch alike began talking of a giant winged shadow passing over the ranch house each and every night at dusk. By this time, most of the residents of the ranch had their own story to tell of their very own sighting of the winged beast. The vaqueros would report that their bullets bounced off the creature's hide. As ranch hands quit, and the animal mutilations continued to increase, Lopez was forced to sell. The ranch, once again, was abandoned.

In 1849, a young woman named Elizabeth Wingfield was picnicking by the lake with her family. She was sent down to the water to fill buckets for cooking. They weren’t alone, there were several other families picnicking and enjoying the lake that day as well. Elizabeth, trying to save her shoes from the mud by walking along top a log at the water’s edge, lost her balance, slipped and fell in.  She wasn’t hurt – but her accident did not go unnoticed and, in jest, area regulars started referring to the lake as “Elizabeth’s Lake”.  Eventually the nickname became official.

Suited, as it now seemed, to be an ideal family recreation spot, in the years that followed a new generation of American settlers tried to establish themselves as residents.  But there were screams at night, unnatural noises, visions, and experiences which some refused to describe out loud that drove settlers away time and again. They would claim the place was haunted.  Now, whether or not Elizabeth Lake was truly haunted by spirits is anyone’s guess, but it’s a fact that during this time, the area WAS a frequent haunt of grizzly bears. Today, the California grizzly bear is extinct due to hunting —but at this time and place in the 1850’s, they were so numerous that cattle ranching


had been deemed impossible.  The area was also haunted by a number of Banditos, who used the lake as a hideout for their ill-gotten gains. And from the “It’s a Small World” file: one of those banditos was Tiburcio Vasquez (most familiar to today’s Angelenos as the namesake of Vasquez Rocks).  Tiburcio the brother of Chico Vasquez, the former foreman of the Lopez Ranch who had seen the lake monster rise in all of its terrible fury.

In 1886, another rancher, Don Felipe Rivera, claimed to see the now infamous lake monster. Rivera said the forty-foot long creature had six legs, two leathery wings and, most importantly, had attacked some of his cattle. In particular, the monster had tried to devour one of Rivera’s largest steer, but the sound of the animal bellowing and kicking attracted Rivera’s attention. The steer put up a fierce fight and managed to free itself. The monster retreated, but not before Rivera got a good look at it. He said that it was at least 45 feet long and had wings that laid flat on its back when not expanded. He pursued the monster as it started towards the lake and fired at it with his Colt revolver. Rivera said that when the bullets struck the monster's side, it sounded as if they were hitting a "great iron kettle".

But Rivera had an enterprising streak. He told his tale far and wide, announcing to all who would listen of his plan to capture the monster and sell it to the circus. It wasn’t all talk. He actually did sign a contract with Sells Brothers, who agreed to pay him $20,000 to deliver the beast to them alive – but Rivera was unable to live up to his end of the bargain.

It was during this period of time that a character enters the story who will be very familiar to those who listened to last month’s episode.  It is at this point that the land around the lake was purchased by the man whose appetite for land acquisition could not be satiated: Miguel Leonis – the King of Calabasas. Like all of the ranchers who had tried to settle the land before him, soon enough Miguel Leonis’s


ranch hands were reporting stolen cattle, slaughtered cattle, frightened animals and something mysterious moving in the water.  As we well know from last month’s tale, Miguel Leonis cowed to no one and no thing. He was determined to put an end to the monster once and for all.  Leonis camped beside the lake with a rifle at his side and waited all night for the monster to emerge from the water.  And then, in the pitch black darkness that just precedes the dawn…. it did.

When Miguel Leonis saw the lake monster he screamed – but not with fear – with RAGE. He ran at the monster, firing random shots with his gun as he went.  Leonis was face to face with the monster, pounding it in the head with the butt of his rifle and then his fists - until he connected one of his fists with the monster’s right eye. The assault to the eye wounded the monster enough to cause its retreat into the water… where it hid for months.

A ranch worker later claimed to have seen the monster flying away from the lake. It was going eastward… perhaps to Arizona, where just a year later, in 1890, a creature of similar description to the Monster of Elizabeth Lake entered into Tombstone, AZ folklore. According to an April 1890 article in the Tombstone Epitaph, two cowboys shot to death a creature that looked like a giant crocodile - with wings that stretched 160 feet. A photo reportedly accompanied the newspaper article. Now famously known as the “Thunderbird Photograph”, it pictured several cowboys holding up what appeared to be a pterodactyl. The beast had allegedly been seen flying in the area, and was lured by some ranchers into a trap in the mountains just west of Tombstone, where they killed it.

Many stories link the monster of Elizabeth Lake to the monster in the old photograph of the maybe-pterodactyl, stating that they are, in fact, the same creature. The photo, of course, also has several stories of its own surrounding it. Scholars aren't even sure if such a photograph even exists let alone if it is authentic. And while the photo appeared along with the story of the monster’s demise in the Tombstone Epitaph, the picture soon disappeared and no one has been able to find a copy of it since.

Regardless of whether or not the monster actually fled to Arizona, and regardless of if it was actually killed west of Tombstone, since the day that Miguel Leonis beat up the Devil's pet, Elizabeth Lake has mostly been quiet. The monster of Elizabeth Lake has never been sighted again. Or has it?

In 2001, LA Times writer Jason Song interviewed some fisherman and local businessmen about the lake’s supernatural past.  Everyone he spoke to knew the stories.  Most assumed the monster was shot dead in Tombstone. But there’s at least one fisherman who claims that at the eastern end of the lake, the Monster of Elizabeth still makes its presence known.

Story sources: 

Weird California

Bell, Horace. On the Old West Coast. 1918.

Schlosser, S.E. Spooky California. 2005.

The Fiery Dragon of Elizabeth Lake. August 1, 1886. Los Angeles Times.


LA Almanac

Tabitca Cope

At A Remote Forest Lake, Monstrous Legends Spawn . January 6, 2001. Los Angeles Times.


Fact from Fiction

This creature is quite fantastic indeed, especially in the breathless way the early settlers of Palmdale described it.  A couple of weeks ago, I visited the lake and was struck by how many details from these tales are still easily recognizable - even though they were told more than a century ago.  Could a combination of very natural events have created a supernatural monster in the minds of these turn of the century ranchers?  Let's look at some of the details that are often repeated from story to story:

  • The smell.  It gets mentioned a lot - and usually the smell goes right along with a sighting of the monster (in some cases the smell is described as specifically belonging to the monster).  I spent a couple of hours walking around the lake - which as of this writing is very, very low and completely dried up in some spots.  There is a stinky smell for sure.  I've not smelled a lake like it.  And locals that I spoke to said that if I'd arrived six weeks earlier it would have smelled even worse!!  So, the lake is stinky - with or without an accompanying monster sighting.
  • The mud. The mud is as much a part of these stories as the monster.  It's pivotal to the monster's origin story with the devil and the Spaniard, in fact.  The mud is also instrumental to how the lake got it's permanent name. I can tell you first hand that there is mud and it's aplenty. It's sticky and very easy to get bogged down in. My shoes were not the same after this trip.
  • The animal carnage. As I mentioned above, during the time that these events were happening at the turn of the 20th century, the California grizzly bear was still roaming this area in great numbers.  It's easy to finger them as the more likely culprit behind the missing and mauled cattle. 
  • The churning water.  Well, the lake is on the San Andreas fault.  And being right on the fault line, even the smallest of quakes could cause the water to ripple - possibly without the ranchers necessarily feeling the ground move themselves, working hard and on horseback as they were.
  • The monster. This is the only aspect I don't have a easy answer for.  There are several unrelated people all claiming to have seen an alligator with wings first hand. I can't explain it away. Can you?  Email me!