Samuelson's Rocks

One of the most fascinating things about any desert region are the things that have been left behind, either unintentionally, or intentionally, along with the attendant legends that surround these modern or ancient historical artifacts. From the Mexican border up through the volcanic tablelands near Bishop, California is honeycombed with strange and unique spots, such as Ballarat and Corn Springs. In Joshua Tree National Park alone, however, there are numerous unique locations, both known - like the Desert Queen Mine - and unknown. Out of all of these spots within the park, Samuelson’s Rocks are one of the better preserved locations, and one of the more unique as they comprise the thoughts of a strange man who lived a very interesting life. For those visitors with a map or GPS, the rocks also present an “off-trail” adventure that, when prepared for properly, allows one to experience a side of the park that typical visitors may not see.

Although not technically challenging, the hike to the rocks requires directions to ensure one reaches the ruins and rocks safely.

John Samuelson was among other things, a prospector, a sailor, a Swedish immigrant, and at the end of his life, a murderer. While much of his life is shrouded in mystery, what is known was related by Samuelson himself to the author, Erle Stanley Gardner in 1928. As an interesting aside, Gardner later went on to write the famous Perry Mason stories that were later adapted for television. However, in 1928, Gardner was just cutting his literary teeth, but also recognized a good story when in this case, he heard it. After encountering Samuelson at Quail Springs and speaking with him, Gardner knew that he wanted to hear more, so he invited Samuelson over that evening for drinks and conversation. 

John Samuelson was an interesting character, whose story remains his enduring legacy, along with the rocks he carved.

During this conversation, Samuelson told Gardner a number of fascinating things - that he had been abducted (or as he put it “shanghaied”) in Capetown while a sailor, shipwrecked on a strange island, held captive by native tribes in Africa, that he had encountered a monkey-man (Perhaps an African Bigfoot?) that spoke english, that there had been giant (possibly carnivorous ants) that were intelligent that guarded a huge section of gold in Africa, and that there had been a beautiful daughter of a tribal chief that had loved him. Perhaps because of the ants, the monkey-man, or the chief’s daughter’s love interest, Samuelson had been exiled from that part of Africa, and forced to eat the “bread of forgetting”. After eating this bread, Samuelson had been left at a colonial outpost, where the one thing that was established was that he had contracted sleeping sickness during these adventures. Through a number of other adventures, Samuelson had made his way to the Joshua Tree region, and was working part-time at the Keys Ranch. As I mentioned above, Gardner knew a good story when he heard it, and after hearing it, bought the rights from Samuelson for a mere $20.00, and later published it.

Depending on which route one takes to the rocks currently, there are other desert ruins that can be seen, including this truck.

What Gardner did not know was that Samuelson was living a short distance from Quail Springs with his wife in a homestead, and had been carving down his thoughts about life and politics on a number of rocks with a chisel in his spare time in 1927. After his meeting with Gardner, Samuelson attempted to file a claim for the property his homestead was on, but as he was not a United States citizen, his claim was denied. Disappointed, Samuelson left the region, and ended up in Los Angeles, where in 1929, after a dispute with some men at a dance in Compton, a fight broke out - a fight that Samuelson won by killing the other two parties! Instead of being tried, Samuelson was declared insane, and sent to a mental hospital, before later escaping and fleeing to Washington, where he was killed in a logging accident in 1954. Today, his story lives on in Gardner’s book, legend, and on the rocks he carved in 1927.

There is also the ruins of a homestead that can be explored near the rocks. 

Directions: Samuelson’s Rocks are located within the confines of Joshua Tree National Park, but in 2017, the Mojave Desert Land Trust acquired the property. While there is no “trail” to the rocks, the area is remains accessible to all visitors that have either good directions, a map, or GPS coordinates. One of the constants from Samuelson’s time to today is the area is rugged, and for a large portion of the year experiences over one hundred degree temperatures. Unfortunately, on a regular basis, parties do get lost inside the park and do perish. Do not be a statistic; be sure you know where you are going and be prepared. The easiest way to access the rocks is to proceed on the park road for four miles from the entrance station, and then pull out by a large mound of rocks on the side of the road. From here, one will want to walk roughly one and a half miles to the southwest until one reaches a smaller mound of rocks where the rocks are located. The return is through the same route process for around a three mile (mostly flat) trek. Having said this, do not be a statistic, use a map, get a GPX track or GPS coordinates that are not provided here; in short, do some research as I did when I visited. While the area is not the most navigationally challenging, it is possible to get lost, and there are other routes to the rocks as well, including one that leaves from Quail Springs. 

The homestead also has a basement that can be explored cautiously and carefully.

The Rocks: Once at the mound, there are numerous rocks scattered around, including the main panel to the northwest that requires no climbing or scrambling that is dated. The other rocks require a slight bit more effort in terms of scrambling (but nothing technical) around the mound, and good visual acuity. There is an old bedframe on the mound; and Samuelson’s old corral at the rear (south) of the mound as well. While not say, ancient petroglyphs from thousands of years ago, the site is something that should be preserved, and has been preserved for the last ninety one years. Like any historic location, be sure to take only photos, do not deface the rocks, and do not litter. While all of the rocks require some exploration to be found, a careful explorer can and will find them.

Samuelson's Rocks, January 2018

Tips: The best time to visit these “desert tweets” is during the winter months, where while still exposed, the hike is not as hot. For those willing to look a little more off the direct route, there are the ruins of a derelict truck (not Samuelson’s) nearby, and a separate homestead (also not Samuelson’s). The homestead ruins has a basement, that again, can be explored carefully even though it is small, and if care is taken.

Samuelson's Rocks, January 2018