I pulled into Sam McDonald Park off Pescadero Road on a clear but brisk Friday afternoon. There were only one or two other cars in the parking lot as I set off on a slightly modified version of the Forest Trail Loop. Though I had been looking forward to exploring the park for many reasons, this time I had a goal in mind other than experiencing the healing qualities of nature: I wanted to celebrate Black History Month and honor the park’s namesake — Mr. Sam McDonald — with a visit to his old cabin (find details on this hike here).
You don’t have to be a La Honda local or an alumnus of Stanford to have heard about this inspiring man. Maybe you’ve seen the athletic building and street named after him on the university campus. Regardless, his incredible life story is worth telling again and again. He achieved many “firsts” for a Black person in the Bay Area, and his story represents a major milestone in the conservation movement.
Emmanuel (Sam) B. McDonald’s story starts in 1884 on a plantation in Monroe, Louisiana where he was born. Though his father was a free and educated Black man (even before Civil War times) who worked as a farmer and a minister, his mother and their ancestors had endured the horrors of slavery. When Sam was a child, the family moved to Southern California to seek new opportunities. When Sam’s mother tragically passed, they moved again — this time north to Santa Clara County. They would become the first Black family in Gilroy, California.
After a few years in the area, his father chose to join a caravan of families heading even further north — to Oregon. Sam, just 16 years old at the time, made the difficult decision to stay behind in California and set off on his own path. It would be the last time he ever saw his father.
After working various jobs in San Francisco and Sacramento, Sam made his way to the Peninsula. He used his experience training horses on his father’s farm to get work as a teamster in Mayfield (which would eventually become part of Palo Alto). As an expert teamster (a person that drives and maintains a team of horses), Sam became a prominent local figure. He would eventually be named Deputy Marshall of Mayfield, making him one of the earliest Black lawmen in California.
In 1903, he began his illustrious career at Stanford University. His charisma, good nature and acumen were immediately apparent and Sam quickly began taking on more responsibility at the university. With time, he would become the superintendent of athletic buildings and grounds at Stanford, making him the first Black administrator at a major university. He became nationally recognized for his innovative athletic field maintenance techniques, still visible today in the signature crisscross pattern mowed into football fields. Sam was a central figure for three generations of Stanford students including a former President Herbert Hoover, who was himself a Stanford grad. More importantly, he became legendary for his unparalleled altruism.
For Sam to have moved into such a prominent role within a culture of institutionalized racism is truly humbling. He accomplished what most could only dream of despite the innumerable hurdles he faced just for being Black. Sam’s unequaled willingness to help others was remarkable.
He would often hold massive barbeques, feeding large numbers of student-athletes. During World Wars I and II, when Stanford faced major budget cuts, he loaned his own money to help pay university staff. He saved and invested his money wisely and, at one point, constructed a large “victory garden” on campus to supply staff and students alike with fresh food. He paid to have the track house on the athletic grounds updated and even advanced the university money for occasional equipment purchases.
The majority of Sam’s time, however, was spent volunteering at Stanford’s Convalescent Home for Children, where he worked regularly. He would be at the home (which would eventually become the Children’s Hospital at Stanford in 1970 and then the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in 1991) for every holiday, rallying students to volunteer with him during “Con Home Day” and bringing joy and mentorship to countless children. Because of his dedication, Con Home Day eventually became known as “Sam McDonald Day.”
In 1917, Sam purchased land near La Honda and built a two-room cabin. At the time, there was a concerted effort to prevent Black people from purchasing land in this area, so it’s hard to overstate how exceptional it is that Sam was able to do this. It’s at this cabin that he would spend time enjoying the serenity of nature, taking contemplative walks amongst the redwoods and hosting his many friends. He recognized how special the land was and created a reserve on his property to prevent trees from being cut and wildlife from being disturbed.
Over the years, Sam continued to buy the surrounding acreage until his property grew to 430 acres. It’s the same property that would eventually become the northern portion of Sam McDonald Park. Toward the end of his life, Sam bequeathed his cherished estate to Stanford’s Convalescent Home for Children, who would eventually sell it to San Mateo County to be used as a park. Since then, it has grown to 850 acres (partially thanks to POST), providing everyone the opportunity to appreciate its serenity.
While any of us would be content to have lived such an accomplished life as Sam led, the true legacy he left behind was that of breaking barriers while exuding generosity and selflessness. The fact that he was a direct descendant of enslaved people should not be lost on any of us. There are many philanthropists we celebrate for their accomplishments, but Sam defied a system that many of them did not face — it was rigged against him, and yet he gave back time and time again. His park is now everyone’s park.
It’s critical we recognize that Black, Indigenous and people of color are not sufficiently represented in the conservation community and face significant barriers in safely enjoying open spaces like Sam McDonald County Park. And it is our role, at POST and as allied citizens, to help build a more equitable future and make Sam proud.
As I came toward the end of the trail where Sam’s cabin still sits, I felt a great sense of humility. The cabin itself is modest and worn down after decades unused. If I didn’t already know what it looked like through pictures, I may have passed it unknowingly. There is no need for a sign or memorial to signify its former owner. Much like Sam himself, the cabin sits humbly where it has for over a century. The lovingly maintained surrounding park is the real testament to him. I tipped my hat then made my way back up the trail, thanking Sam under my breath for the gift he unknowingly gave us all.
To catch a glimpse of Sam’s cabin, head to the main parking lot at Sam McDonald Park and take this slightly modified version of the moderate 2.6-mile Forest Loop Trail, which cuts through the original boundaries of the park: Follow the Forest Trail to Old Stage Road. Continue on Old Stage Road, past Trail Marker 2 (where you’ll see a few private residences near the creek), and Sam’s cabin will be located just past Trail Marker 1. Head back up Old Stage Road, where you can backtrack or head down Uncle Man Road, which will connect to Youth Camp Trail — looping you back to the main parking lot.
This is only the short version of Sam’s story, so if you want to learn more before planning your visit to Sam McDonald Park, I suggest reading his autobiography, Sam McDonald’s Farm. But even without that context, you’ll enjoy the park’s lush forest, a variety of ferns, oak trees and even an old-growth redwood forest at the Heritage Grove. Many species of wildlife call it home including deer, bobcat, banana slugs and California newts.
Over the years, POST has contributed 126 acres to Sam McDonald County Park (see dark green on adjacent map). One key piece of property was donated to POST in 1988 by Albert Wilson, a longtime friend of Sam McDonald and fellow Stanford staff. POST subsequently transferred the land to San Mateo County Parks for long-term management and protection.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 86,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more