Johnson Valley is a forbidding portion of the Mohave Desert with equally forbidding terrain. The trails that snake through the hills above the valley carry ominous names, such as Sledgehammer, intended to be descriptive of what your truck will look like it was beaten with by the end of the trail. The seven hardcore trails in the area are commonly referred to as The Hammers, and Johnson Valley has become one of the premier spots in the country to collect some well-earned rock rash on your rig's sheetmetal.
You've no doubt seen event coverage of these trails in this magazine and others; it's one of the four-wheeling hot spots in the country that continues to hold the spotlight. As a result, we decided to show you the trails in a way that will put you closer in touch with what they're like and give you all the information you need in order to go-with a complete guide to the Hammers.
Johnson Valley OHV is located between Lucerne Valley and Yucca Valley roughly 50 miles east of Victorville, California. The sparsely populated area is brutally hot in the summer, so the best way to experience the Hammers is by attending an event hosted by the Victor Valley Four Wheelers, the club responsible for building and maintaining the trails and the surrounding land. The largest and most popular event is Fun in the Desert, held every Columbus Day weekend for the past seven years. Organized trail rides are run Saturday and Sunday, and Monday rides are optional. The event attracts more than 100 vehicles over the three days, but since the main camp is located in the middle of the enormous Means Dry Lake, there's plenty of room to spread out. The club provides breakfast Saturday and Sunday, and there's even a big barbeque followed by a raffle Saturday night.
Check out the photos and captions for a rundown of what the trails are like as well as the recommended mods for this intense but overwhelmingly fun area. For more information on Fun in the Desert and any of the other events held by the Victor Valley Four Wheelers, check out www.cal4wheel.com/events/FunVI/Funtrail.html and www.cal4wheel.com/events/FundezVI/fundezVII.html. You can also contact Paul Winters at 760/244-2346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clawhammer is considered the baby of the Hammers and is arguably the easiest trail in the Valley even though it has a 4+ rating. The Claw starts out with a rough, rocky climb (shown here) and then settles down to more moderate obstacles. Generally speaking, a mildly equipped, short-wheelbase vehicle with a small lift and 33-inch-or-larger tires can make it through with few problems, and it's passable for fullsize rigs. There isn't much risk of body damage, and it's a good warm-up for first-timers. Clawhammer is the shortest trail in the valley (a medium-sized group can make it back to camp by early afternoon), but a recently added small upper canyon increases the opportunity for fun.
Aftershock is the closest thing Johnson Valley offers to a typical trail ride. The obstacles are more spread out than on the other trails, so there's more time to kick back and enjoy the cool trailside rock fissures created by old fault lines that crisscross the area (thus the name). Aftershock is rated a conservative 4+ (all the trails in Johnson Valley are rated on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the most difficult) and is passable by a well-equipped fullsize vehicle.
Although most of Aftershock is pretty tame, it does feature one notable obstacle toward the end called Depreciation Knob that's largely responsible for the trail's rating. As you might suspect, it's named Depreciation Knob because vehicles decrease in value every time they go over it. The Knob requires twisting back and forth through a nasty rock garden, avoiding rocks while simultaneously crawling up and over others. It's a section that requires careful positioning and low gears to keep speed to a minimum.
Johnson Valley may be a forbidding desert, but it's teeming with wildlife that should be respected and left undisturbed. Desert tortoises, several types of lizards, scorpions, and snakes are commonly seen sunning themselves on the rocks during Fun in the Desert. Be especially wary of rattlesnakes when hiking the trails, as they are very poisonous and blend in with the rocks. Closed-toed shoes are mandatory, and keep a close eye on children and pets.
The newest trail in the area is unofficially called X Rated (the club hasn't decided on an official name yet). It requires plenty of no-nonsense hardware, including lockers, a 4- to 6-inch lift, 35s, and plenty of low-range gearing. It's also strictly a short-wheelbase trail. One obstacle is so tight that a Jeep can barely make it through but an early Bronco will leave plenty of paint (it's called Bronco Squeeze for that reason) if the go-around isn't taken. After all the extreme rockclimbing is through, there's a good loose hillclimb topped off with an off-camber squeeze that also makes Bronco owners wish they could suck in their truck's sheetmetal.
X Rated debuted at Fun in the Desert VII and is regarded by some as the new king of the Johnson Valley trails. It's currently so difficult (rated a super-high 5+) that it was run by invitation only this year. The trail kicks off with a gnarly waterfall climb followed by a tight right-hander over a 3-foot boulder with several Jeep-sized boulders that must be climbed on or around immediately after the corner.
Sledgehammer was the first trail created by the Victor Valley Four Wheelers, and as a result it has seen the most trail traffic. Many veterans claim Sledge has lost much of its bite due to road building, but it's still rated a 5 and is a formidable trail that requires a minimum of 33-inch tires, a locking differential in the rear, and a tight limited-slip up front at the least. The risk of body damage is moderate for properly equipped, short-wheelbase vehicles, but any driver mistake can result in some rock rash. It's also a trail that a fullsize truck can conquer, although body damage is imminent and several of the corners will require multiple-point turns. A couple of squeeze rocks can also make things hairy, including one that's marked with a dedication plaque for Donna Jean Shaner, the mother of the Hammers.
Sledge is fairly short (1.2 miles), but the obstacles are stacked closely together and it's nonstop action once you're in. The mailbox marks the halfway point of Sledge (a good lunch stop), and shortly after the rockclimb shown here, there's a shortcut back to camp over a large sand dune. The rest of the trail is more gnarly rockclimbs and diff-snagging rocks, and the return road features an extremely loose, steep descent over a sand dune that some people have described as a religious experience.
Outer Limits is very, very far away from the base camp compared to the other trails, but it's one of the more technical and carries a low 5 rating. It requires circling around to the far side of the mountains east of the camp, then working your way back the hard way. Rock cairns help mark the way into the canyon. Once there, you're treated to the typical rocky climb with several challenging sections that demand constant attention. As with many of the other trails, several tight squeezes prevent fullsize vehicles from crossing without major damage.
Outer Limits is very short-wheelbase friendly, although there's a good chance you'll leave some paint on the squeezes during a hillclimb that's not quite as severe as the one on Jackhammer. One of the hairiest obstacles is a squeeze that requires placing the right tires on a huge rock and snaking around another rock while off-camber. It's not for the faint of heart, but some people claim it's not as difficult as Jackhammer or Sledgehammer.
The trails in Johnson Valley claim more tires in one weekend than at any other event we've seen to date. The jagged rocks are murder on sidewalls, and it's not uncommon to see 1/2-foot gashes in the stoutest tires on the market. Always have a fullsize spare tire on hand, and it's strongly recommended that you bring a patch kit. As most Fun in the Desert veterans will tell you, more than a few people have blown two tires on one trail ride.
Unlike most of the trails in Johnson Valley, Sunbonnet Pass (rated a solid 5) offers a little of everything: hillclimbs, squeezes, rocky obstacles, and off-camber situations. Sunbonnet is dedicated to Muriel "Sunbonnet" Rahder, and a memorial plaque marks the entrance to the most serious part of the trail. Sunbonnet has a few extremely tight squeezes (including one appropriately named Hell's Gate) that make it virtually impassable for fullsize trucks without major body damage.
Sunbonnet follows two canyons. The first is reasonably mild until you reach Devil's Slide, a long, steep, and loose descent with several turns and off-camber spots that add plenty of pucker factor. In addition to the squeeze rocks, the trail offers several opportunities to destroy rocker panels and other body parts, but only if the wrong line is taken.
Until the opening of X Rated, Jackhammer was considered the king of the trails. Jackhammer is rated a 5+ and with good reason. The trail doesn't let up from start to finish, and there's no way out once you're in the canyon. For these reasons, breakage is common and Jackhammer runs often don't get back to camp until well after dark. There are multiple types of rock obstacles as well as tight turns that require most Toyotas and Broncos to execute 10-point turns. Lockers front and rear and 35-inch tires are the best setup, although having an ARB in the front can really help while negotiating the corners.
Jackhammer snakes up one canyon, crests a ridge, and comes back down the next canyon, so there are several challenging obstacles going up and coming down. Among the most notable features of Jack is the section that follows a narrow, rocky ridge with a quick turn at the top that puts the truck in an extreme off-camber situation. The trail then drops down into the second canyon, but the going doesn't get any easier with ledges and drop-offs that can put the rearend way in the air if you're not careful. Fullsize trucks are strongly discouraged from attempting Jack because of its tight quarters.
Due to the extreme nature of the trails in Johnson Valley, you should expect to put a few dents in your truck's sheetmetal. Although major dents can be avoided with careful driving, fender corners and rocker panels are often ginked on the rocky terrain. The damage can be kept to a minimum with proper body armor, including beefy bumpers and a set of stout rocker-panel protectors.
Setting Up for the Hammers
You may be wondering what the hot setup is for preparing your rig for the rigors of the Hammers. We wondered ourselves, so in addition to gathering all the information on the trails during Fun in the Desert VII, we observed the 4x4s that were doing well and then pulled the owners aside to interrogate them about the combination of goodies that helped them out. Here's what we found: