The arid desert landscape may look foreboding to first-time visitors, but Johnson Valley is a recreational Mecca and one of California's most frequented off-road vehicle destinations. There aren't very many designated OHV areas left in America that offer the diverse terrain that can be found here. The Hammer Trails, located in the Hartwell Hills of Johnson Valley, are world famous and as extreme as trails get. The sandy washes, dry lakebeds, and vast stretches of desolate high-speed trails attract thousands of recreational enthusiasts each weekend. This area has been enjoyed by millions over the past few decades. It's disheartening that parts of this recreational haven may soon be closed to the public.
It's not uncommon to hear the geography of Johnson Valley described as a lunar landscape. As harsh as that sounds, it's not that far from reality. But it only takes a visit or two and an overnight stay to understand its natural diversity in off-road recreation and to appreciate its beauty. The Johnson Valley OHV area is just under 200,000 acres in size and sits between the communities of Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley to the north and Yucca Valley to the south. The Hammer Trails, located within this OHV area, are the premier destination for extreme rockcrawling. It would have been hard to ignore the extensive media coverage given to these trails over the past 20 years, and it would be even harder to ignore the significant role they have played in competitive and recreational rockcrawling.
Perhaps the largest event ever for the valley was this year's King of the Hammers Race, which turned out to be a major, industry-wide event. The top names in competitive rockcrawling as well as racers from other forms of racing competed for top honors. The Hammers consist of about 16 mapped trails, but it's hard to estimate how many actual trails lie within and around the Hartwell Hills. This expansive range is filled with canyons and washes that are crisscrossed with hundreds of offshooting trails. The difficulty level of the trails range from expert to novice. Body damage and breakage are normal, so it's always best to carry tools and spare parts. We're planning a feature on the event for next month.
If there was ever a place created to test extreme vehicles, Johnson Valley is it. The valley is the western border of the Mojave Desert and skirts up the eastern base of the San Bernardino Mountains. The craggy mountain trails vary in geology. The rocks are mostly igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Some trails are as easy as a cobblestone road. Others are tight notches lined with massive jagged boulders.
Rock squeezes will easily rip a rig apart when it attempts to pass. Some of the trails can be driven in 4x4s with 33-inch-tall tires, but most require tire sizes 35 inches and up. Rock buggies and rigs with 40-inch tires, lockers, skidplates, and body armor are the norm. Of course, smaller tires heighten the challenge.
The expansive OHV area gives motorcycles, ATVs, and sand buggies a great place to play. Unlike Moab, there's really no death-defying factor, but the trails can be dangerous due to weather. Summer temps hover around 120 degrees for weeks; winters can be freezing with snow and severe storms.
It wasn't until the 1850s that Johnson Valley was explored and mapped. In the 1860s, after gold was discovered in the San Bernardino Mountains to the west, prospectors filtered into Johnson Valley below in search of additional claims. There is perhaps a wild and woolly tale to go along with every part of the Mojave Desert, and this area is no exception. In the 1950s the valley saw a significant rise in population. The government auctioned off 5-acre homestead parcels of land for around $500. The only requirement was to build a 400-square-foot cabin. Hundreds of these cabins were built, and a number of these abandoned homesteads can still be seen along Highway 247.
Recreation in Johnson Valley is in serious jeopardy. As much as we admire the U.S. Marine Corps, we disagree with their proposal to take over most of the valley for expanded training grounds. At stake is the entire OHV area from Soggy Dry Lake at Bessemer Mine Road to the north all the way down to Boone Road and Means Dry Lake to the south. This land acquisition includes our beloved Hammer Trails. As four-wheel enthusiasts, we can make a difference by taking action and voicing our opinions. The Marines are actually looking to hear from us to see how many people use this area for recreation.
Voice Your Concern
Generations of families have enjoyed Johnson Valley. On any given weekend, as the sun sets over Means Lake and Soggy Dry Lake, hundreds of four-wheelers and campers settle in for the night. From a distance, the lakebeds look like small cities. Night wheeling is big at the Hammer Trails, it ups the challenge. We're not quite sure what will become of this area, but we do know that anyone interested in continued recreation here must get involved in the struggle to keep it open for public recreation.
The Hammer Trails
For information about voicing your concern and support for Johnson Valley, please visit these websites.
BlueRibbon Coalition, www.sharetrails.org
National Off-Road Association (NORA), www.nora-usa.com
Off-Road Business Association (ORBA), www.orba.biz
Tread Lightly, www.treadlightly.org