Samuelson's Rocks – Twentynine Palms, California - Atlas Obscura

Samuelson's Rocks

The only thing stranger than stumbling onto these philosophical musings is the story of the homesteader who created them. 


You wouldn’t expect to find philosophical musings or political insults aimed at Herbert Hoover carved into a cluster of desert boulders. But that’s exactly what you’ll find at Samuelson’s Rocks, along with an unbelievable story of how they came to be there.

John Samuelson, an immigrant from Sweden, etched his musings onto the rocks while living on a homestead in what would later become Joshua Tree National Park. Not much is known for sure about the mysterious man’s early life. Pulp fiction writer Erle Stanley Gardner happened to meet Samuelson in the late 1920s and after hearing his life story—though believing it was likely false—bought the rights to Samuelson’s tale and published it in Argosy magazine.

According to the tale Gardner told, Samuelson was shipwrecked on a strange island off the coast of Africa during his days as a sailor. He was then kidnapped and held captive by a tribe of natives that spoke to monkeys. Samuelson also supposedly encountered a trove of gold guarded by intelligent killer ants and made a tribal chief’s daughter fall in love with him. But his jungle adventures soon came to an end after he caused trouble with the tribe’s elders. Samuelson was forced to eat the “bread of forgetting” that nearly wiped his memory and caused him to fall ill with sleeping sickness whenever it rained.

It was this sleeping sickness that apparently caused Samuelson to head west to the parched desert, where a lack of rain would keep his ailments at bay. While living on the ramshackle homestead he and his wife established, he spent his free time recording his thoughts on several large rocks strewn about the arid land.

Just a couple years after he began carving the rocks, Samuelson discovered he was unable to buy the homestead property because he wasn’t a United States citizen. Frustrated, he packed up shop and moved to Los Angeles. While there, he got in a fight with two men at a dance and wound up murdering them. Instead of being imprisoned, Samuelson was declared insane and sent to an asylum. He then escaped and worked as a logger until he was killed in a logging accident. The rocks are among the few concrete pieces of Samuelson’s extraordinary past. 

Know Before You Go

It is possible to hike to the rocks, though there’s no official marked trail. One of the boulders even has a bench conveniently placed right in front of it. The path is a 3-mile loop, accessible year-round. 

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