Thursday, June 15, 2017

Samuelson's Rocks Part 1

[Note: I'm dividing this post into two parts to keep things to a reasonable length. Part 1 is the hike in and some interesting "discoveries" along the way, and Part 2 will be the actual rocks. Thanks!]

File this under "truth is stranger than fiction"! One of the most interesting and bizarre stories in the Joshua Tree National Park history books, and you won't hear about it from the National Park Service.

"Johann Samuelson was an old Swedish prospector who lived in the mountains above the oasis. One of Samuelson's tall stories - about being shipwrecked in Africa - had earned him the lead in a chapter of Erle Stanley Gardner's book Neighborhood Frontiers. Later he had killed two men in a Los Angeles bar, avoided trial on grounds of insanity and then escaped from the asylum - forever."
     From The Man from the Cave by Colin Fletcher

Google "Samuelson's Rocks", and you will find a lot of information. According to, of all the wide-ranging and unique characters who have lived in JTNP, John Samuelson might have the best story! 
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.
Talk about a weirdly interesting background!! Once Samuelson settled in what is now JTNP, he used his free time (when he wasn't working for Bill Keys, mining, or sheep ranching) carving philosophical thoughts onto flat rock faces. When you look at his spelling and punctuation, you might conclude his command of the english language was less than proficient. However, his rock carving skills were quite good! But I'm getting way ahead of myself!!
Stepping off the main highway on the start of the hike, this is the view you will see. To your left is a large mound of rocks. We will be hiking straight ahead (approximate SW direction) for about 1.5 miles (3 miles round trip), so a comfortable hike on mostly flat terrain. I'm going to be angling over to the right in hopes of finding an old jeep trail that's visible on Google Maps. One of the cool things about Samuelson's Rocks is that there is no trail leading to it, no sign pointing it out, and it is not on any Park Service map. I didn't see another human being for the entire hike. I'm hiking in late afternoon to a place I've never been, so I've taken a lot of precautions with regard to pre-hike research and marking GPS waypoints. Since I get no cell reception in the Park, I've downloaded maps of the area in advance to my phone for offline use.

After hiking about 1/4 mile, I turned around to take this shot (looking NE). Can you see the old, faint jeep trail? It's hard to see, but more visible using Google Maps satellite view. Back in the day, this must have been a "road". Desert land heals very slowly, and this road hasn't been used in many years. There was a lot of dry brush, stickers and thorns in this area, so hiking along the jeep trail made things a little easier and less impactful on the environment.

This old rusty can stuck on a cholla skeleton seemed to be telling me I was going in the right direction!

Here's the first sign of human activity I ran across (not counting the old rusty can). An old standpipe of some kind... perhaps an old well?

I was surprised to see a lot of sand verbena blooming in the area.

Here's the second sign of human activity. What a cool old car to find out in the middle of nowhere!! I'm guessing this is the car that, years ago, made the "jeep trail" I've been hiking on. Who knows, perhaps it belonged to Johann Samuelson?? I love finding this kind of stuff in the desert, and what a great mystery!

Not too far from the rusty car I found this pile of wood that is the remains of an old desert homestead cabin. I'm not sure who it belonged to, although I don't think it was Samuelson. From the bit of research I've done, it sounds like Samuelson's homestead was up on the hill where his "rocks" are located. More on that in my next post.

Perhaps this stonework was the front porch? Looks to be well built and like it might have been a very nice little cabin back in its day!

Right next to the house is this... outdoor BBQ? Outdoor cooking station?

Here's a view of the BBQ from the back. Perhaps you loaded your wood into this barrel in the back and had yourself a nice big cookout!

A nice piece of desert glass!
The handle is long gone, but the shovel head still remains. I bet it got a lot of use years ago by whomever built this place!

Another memorable find, ranking right up there with the car. As I moved a couple old cabin boards to see what was underneath, look what I found!!
Steps! Leading down to a... basement? I've never seen a homestead cabin with a basement, but it might make sense. It would likely be a lot cooler and perhaps could be used for storage. Proceeding very cautiously and looking for critters, I continued down the steps.
Wow! Actually appears to be well built, and quite a bit of room. Prior to the floor boards caving in, a shorter person could comfortably stand up straight and walk around in this basement.

It's time to continue our hike. The shadows are already getting long, and we haven't even reached our primary objective. After replacing the boards back over the "basement" and leaving everything as I found it, I turned back toward the cabin remains and took this photo. You have to look closely to see the pile of boards, and one could walk right by this spot and never notice there was once an old cabin here!

They say no two Joshua trees look the same. Here are a few growing near the homestead cabin remains.
I call this one "Tripod Joshua Tree"!

This one seems to be saying "turn right!!"

I'll leave you with a couple nice sunset shots I took during my hike back. Be sure to stop by next week for "Samuelson's Rocks Part 2"!

Linking with Skywatch Friday.
Click on the link to check out great skies from around the world.
Thanks for stopping by!!


  1. I really enjoy your showcase of this magnificent spot under heaven.

    Worth a Thousand Words

  2. Terrific outing. Thanks for taking me along.

  3. wonderful images and amazing landscapes ! for me this is an other world
    and I love it !

  4. fascinating place and great shots ~ some beautiful sky shots ~ ^_^

  5. Pictures and narration are excellent. Well done!

  6. That's a fascinating discovery, and I love that last sunset shot.

  7. May I say WOW! The things you find in the desert!

  8. Great to read. Wonderful place.
    Amazing photos.

  9. Fascinating pictures. The last one is particularly beautiful.

  10. Wow great story and nice pic's of the discoveries. Can't wait for the second part.

  11. What a story (and yes, I loved the Perry Mason TV seres when I was growing up)! Looking forward to Part 2.

  12. I'm hooked! Promises to be a great part 2 as part 1 was super with those awesome finds and sunsets!

  13. That was a brilliant and interesting read, with really good photos, especially the sunsets.
    Al the best, Gordon.

  14. Hello, what an interesting story. Cool shots from the hike, the jeep, homestead and I love the trees and beautiful sunset. Happy Friday, enjoy your weekend!

  15. I can understand why you are there tge whole day, the sunset makes a good ending.

  16. I can understand why you are there tge whole day, the sunset makes a good ending.

  17. amazing what kind of (photographer's) treasures one finds in a desert. great post and photos.

  18. Can't wait to see Samuelson's carvings in the next post! That's a cool basement! Thanks for coming by!

  19. Great shots to go with that fascinating story!

  20. The wilderness is beautiful and unpredictable. It contains many secrets and many interesting discoveries.
    These photos are wonderful.

  21. Thanks you for sharing this with us, I love exploring like this. Your last shot is breathtaking.

  22. The old car is really great - but my favourite shot is the last photo - a sky like a dream

  23. Lovely pictures! happy weekend!

  24. It's incredible, the things you can find in the desert. I can't wait to find out what's on the rocks.

  25. Superb story and hike I can't wait for the next intallment

  26. What a wonderful story with some great finds along the way. Great images and I'm looking forward to part 2.

  27. Thank you for sharing Joshua Tree NP. I have heard of it but have never seen photos of it. Fantastic photos and information. I wonder if the old cottage you found may have been built by the Swede or some other Europeans as basements would have been common for them.

  28. Hello,
    a very interesting story and wonderful fotos!

    Happy weekend, greetings

  29. people leave their stuff everywhere. Don´t they? For good and bad.
    Love your sunset :)

  30. I loved this Peter...what a story .actually two great stories. Sameuelsons history ...and the part about ESG ...$20 huh! Wow. But your hike, so beautifully illustrated, fascinates me as much. Love when you share your "local knowledge" treks.... places most of us would never even learn about. Look forward to the rest of the story.

  31. Fabulous pics, each has a story. Fascinating.

  32. Amazing to find the remains of the old homestead in such an isolated location. Love the history of Mr. Samuelson, too. Fascinating. Beautiful photos.

  33. I just love your adventures and pioneering spirit. What great finds. The car, she cabin, and the basement. No way I'd of gone down there!! But to just deadhead across the desert is great also. I'm heading right over to part 2.

  34. Beautiful photos + a great narrative = A FANTASTIC post!
    I haven't been to that area for many years. I think about every time I pass by on the road.
    I think I've been there a couple of times, but I've NEVER seen, or even known about the basement/cellar.
    Now I have to return!

  35. This was soooo exciting to read! Thank you for sharing! I'm impressed of what you are able to find, and so exciting to see the basement of the cabin! Beautiful pics!