A lot of what we know about John Samuelson was recorded after a chance encounter with Erle Stanley Gardner, of Perry Mason fame, who bought rights to his story for $20. On a February morning in 1928, Samuelson and Gardner stumbled upon one another at Quail Springs while filling up water. Since then, the facts of Samuelson’s life have been embellished to such a degree that I’ll leave it to you to decide what to believe. However, his story is certainly best appreciated over a few hot toddies (as it was originally told).
Samuelson was a Swedish immigrant who began his journey after being shanghaied into working the Eastern trade routes on a merchant vessel. While off the coast of Africa, his ship flounder in a big storm. Everyone was killed except for Samuelson, who was washed ashore. He was immediately captured by natives and taken deep into the jungles of Africa. After a number of adventures, including surviving man-eating ants, winning the attentions of a beautiful tribal princess, and finding a huge stash of gold, the tribal medicine man forced Samuelson to eat the “Bread of Forgetting.”
The natives stashed Samuelson at a nearby colonial outpost where he couldn’t remember a single detail since the shipwreck. His memory, wrecked from the “Bread of Forgetting,” continued to fail during rainstorms. So, after visiting a doctor in Boston, it was recommended he move out west to a more arid climate. Luckily for all of us, his memories slowly returned in his dreams and he was able to pass his story along for Gardner to jot down.
In the 1926, Samuelson set up shop near Quail Springs and went to work for Bill Keys.
Despite the tall tale of Samuelson’s arrival, it’s his writings that are his true Joshua Tree legacy and the reason to visit today. In his free time, he used the clean desert patina as a canvas for his philosophical and political thoughts. There are a total of eight messages chiseled into seven different rocks which makes it a fun, but not terribly difficult, challenge to locate them all.
There is no designated trail to Samuelson’s Rocks. The desert is a fragile environment that is easily trampled, so I’d like to propose three routes instead of one. If you do decide to try and find the rocks, please remember to minimize your impacts by walking on durable surfaces (washes are the preferred option) as much as possible.
Samuelson’s Rocks is located west of the Quail Springs Day-Use Area and the mouth of Johnny Lang Canyon, south of Park Boulevard.
Option 1) Quail Springs Trail
This is the best route to minimize your impact because it follows a historic trail and wash almost the entire way. It is also the longest route at 5 miles out-and-back.
Park at the Quail Springs Day-Use parking lot, located on the south side of Park Boulevard. Follow the deeply rutted Quail Springs Trail heading WNW from the parking lot -- make sure you aren’t following the more faint trail that heads WSW towards Johnny Lang Canyon.
Stay on Quail Springs Trail for 2.5 miles, crossing the large Quail Wash after a half a mile.
Once the trail reenters a wash, look for a small hill to the northwest -- this is Samuelson’s Rocks.
Option 2) Direct Route
This cross country route is the most challenging navigationally if you don’t have a GPS, but it is the shortest trek at 2.4 miles out-and-back. Please be especially mindful of your impacts if you choose this route.
From Quail Springs Day-Use Area, head west on Park Boulevard for 2 miles. Park at either the large pullout on the north side of the road or the smaller pullout on the south side of the road just to the west.
Look for the mouth of Johnny Lang Canyon to the southwest. Head a few degrees west of the opening until you intersect with the large Quail Wash, after about 0.6 miles. You might pass by an old well site along the way.
Follow the wash west for another 0.6 miles to the confluence with another wash to the north.
From here, Samuelson’s Rocks is on the small hill just to the south.
Option 3) Northern Wash
This is a lower-impact route than option 2 and a slightly shorter route that option 1 at 3.7 miles out-and-back. This route is also much easier to navigate than option 2.
From Quail Springs Day-Use-Area, head west on Park Boulevard for 3.3 miles. Park at the large pullout on the southwest side of the road.
Hike parallel to the road south for 100 yards until you see a small wash.
Follow this wash south for 1.8 miles -- it becomes larger the farther south you go. At the confluence with Quail Wash, you’ll see a small hill directly in front of you -- this is Samuelson’s Rocks.
Explore the hill for the messages, and check out the remains of his homestead nearby.
Later in 1928, Samuelson tried to file a homestead claim but was rejected because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. He sold his land and moved to Los Angeles shortly afterwards where he got into a brawl and killed two men. Samuelson never went to trial. Instead, he was declared insane and sent to California’s State Hospital in Mendocino. One year later, he escaped and fled up to Washington where he went to work at a logging camp. We don’t know what happened over the following 24 years, but in 1954 Bill Key’s received a letter from Samuelson expressing how much he wanted to return to the desert but explaining that he couldn’t for fear of being captured again.
Shortly thereafter, Bill received another letter saying Samuelson had died in a logging accident. The legacy of Samuelson is forever engraved on his rocks. While it makes for a wonderful story and look back into history, it also serves as a reminder of the long-term effect of vandalism in our natural spaces.