Many people incorrectly think of Johnson Valley, California, as a place where only extremely built, $100,000-plus King of the Hammers race vehicles are taken to be destroyed in mere miles. Yes, it’s true, actually running the Hammer Trails a few times will make the underside of your 4x4 look like it’s been pulled over a cheese grater, but there is so much more to enjoy and explore in Johnson Valley. Unimproved roads spiderweb all over the 188,000-acre OHV area, leading to challenges for all levels of off-road enthusiasts, even stock vehicles. Here are some of our favorite hangouts and hideaways.
GPS Coordinates: 34.368717, -116.545696
Boone Road, the dirt road used to access the Means Dry Lake bed and the most popular parts of Johnson Valley, is easy to miss if you don’t keep an eye out. It’s about 22 miles north of Yucca Valley, California, or 26 miles east of Lucerne Valley. Look for the near 90-degree corner in the California State Route 247 (Old Woman Springs Road)—a good landmark. Coming from the south, watch the right side of the road just after navigating the sharp left-hand turn. If you’re coming from the west and reach the sharp right, you’ve gone too far.
The road is far better maintained now than a decade ago. In the past, heavy seasonal rains regularly washed the road out and loose deep sand caused many vehicles to get stuck. Today, the road is graded often. Much of the road is gravel and just about any vehicle can pass, including motorhomes and 18-wheelers.
Means Dry Lakebed
GPS Coordinates: 34.413410, -116.515057
Means Dry Lake bed is about 4 miles down Boone Road from CA 247. It becomes a small town during the King of the Hammers race every February. The lakebed is well known for being miserably freezing, windy, and dusty in winter, and miserably hot, windy, and dusty in the summer. Camping in a tent on the lakebed can be an adventure all its own. Don’t be surprised if the winds pick up and Mother Nature decides to scatter your stuff across the desert. Tie and stake everything down, including your trash. More than one easy-up shade tent has tumbled across the lakebed and dented someone’s expensive motorhome. Don’t be that guy.
Actually, the rookie move is camping on the lakebed. At night, it’s the coldest place in the valley because the cool air sinks to the lowest elevation. It gets so cold, in fact, we’ve had 2.5-gallon jugs of water freeze near solid overnight. Those in the know typically park away from the dusty and cold lakebed. Many of the surrounding hills and rock outcroppings to the north and west of the lakebed provide wind protection.
Of course, one look at the lakebed and you will instinctively want to blast across it as fast as you can go. Be forewarned: Old bomb craters sit on the eastern end, leftover from military training many years ago. They can be extremely treacherous when water accumulates on the dry lake. A few of the craters will easily turn your 4x4 into a submarine.
Small Dune Area
GPS Coordinates: 34.408494, -116.479157
This small dune area is not far from Means Dry Lake. It’s fun for heavily modified and stock 4x4s alike. Off-road magazines have been known to do sand testing here for annual best-of-the-year competitions. Watch for hidden rocks, especially near the top of the dune. Some are big enough to do significant damage to your vehicle if you don’t pay attention.
Trailhead: 34.414118, -116.473882
Mailbox: 34.411227, -116.468129
Dune climb out: 34.408064, -116.468334
Sledge Hammer is the quintessential Johnson Valley trail. It was one of the first trails built by the Victor Valley Four Wheelers when 31- and 33-inch tires were the norm. More than a decade ago, it used to be an all-day deal to cross Sledge Hammer. Today, some vehicles can get from one end of the trail to the other in minutes. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not necessarily an easy trail. It’s best to have low gearing, plenty of ground clearance, lockers front and rear, and a mindset immune to body damage. For those who have never run Sledge Hammer and want to, it’s a good idea to hike up it to at least the mailbox and see if it’s your cup of tea. Once you reach the mailbox, the trail stays to the right. The early dune exit is just a bit farther, but the trail continues on over a couple more climbs.
Jack Hammer Trailhead
GPS Coordinates: 34.414650, -116.474396
Jack Hammer is another one of the early trails and one of our favorites. Like Sledge Hammer, it’s not a great trail for first timers; however, the first few hundred yards are fun in even mildly modified vehicles. It’s easy to turn out here early on. Farther into the trail, the only option is to trudge on or turn around and come back the way you came if something goes wrong. This trail takes you all the way to the other side of the mountain ridge. An unimproved road circles several miles back around to the main camp area.
Large Dune Area
GPS Coordinates: 34.442713, -116.494805
Coming from the south, the unimproved road up to the large dune area is unusually loose and sandy with lots of hidden rocks. For most 4x4s, it’s best to air down before attempting. At the top of the road, you’ll see a giant dune on the left with a sort of shelf in the middle. Stock 4x4s with properly aired-down tires can usually navigate their way up near the top by sidewinding back and forth. Those with heavily modified rigs will enjoy the challenge of the steeper sections of the dune. If your 4x4’s suspension isn’t set up properly, you’ll quickly find out if you have an axlewrap problem.
Old Comp Area
GPS Coordinates: 34.437949, -116.449318
In the early rockcrawling competition days, this rock outcropping was easy to for spectators and crews to access. It provided plenty of difficult and damaging terrain for the competitors to conquer. Today, it’s mostly unused, but still fun to poke around with more modified 4x4s.
GPS Coordinates: 34.421622, -116.523663
Backdoor is one of several newer trails that no longer use the hammer-themed naming system. If it weren’t for the one large, dug-out waterfall, the trail would be relatively easy. The waterfall is extremely difficult and is known to regularly rollover or break even the most custom off-road rock buggies with experienced drivers. It’s close to the lakebed and often becomes a nighttime hangout for those willing to put up or shut up. It’s a notorious place for hecklers, too. Needless to say, it’s not the place to take your stock 4x4 unless you simply want to see what the trail looks like or watch the circus.
GPS Coordinates: 34.440470, -116.465187
Many mines can be found in Johnson Valley. It’s not uncommon to see small random open mining test pits, so be careful while hiking around. Some mines are on private property, so heed all no-trespassing signs. If it looks like someone doesn’t want you on their property, they most-likely don’t want you driving or walking around.
GPS Coordinates: 34.332813, -116.388723
Giant Rock is a cool destination point south of the Means Dry Lake bed. It’s a huge granite boulder that covers 5,800 square feet and reaches seven stories high. Purported to be the largest freestanding boulder in the world, it’s certainly worth the short trip to it and a unique photo opportunity.
Good to Know Info
Travel with a buddy in Johnson Valley in case of a breakdown or injury. Summer is too unbearably hot for most people, so don’t expect help to come anytime soon if you venture off the beaten path and break down. Always bring plenty of food and water (and warm clothes, depending on the season). If local weather forecasts predict wind, plan for the worst—bring a pair of goggles. Although rare, seasonal rains can cause flash flooding. Keep an eye out, particularly if you are in one of the narrow canyons or washes when water starts pouring from the sky.
Cellular phone service is extremely limited. Verizon seems to have the best coverage. Calls can usually be made from the dry lakebed. A GPS with breadcrumbs capability is extremely handy for first timers because there are so many dirt roads, trails and canyons that look similar. Shotgun shooting in the Johnson Valley OHV area is legal, but the use of other firearms is not. Johnson Valley is a known habitat for the protected desert tortoise. Do not disturb or pick one up and move it, it’s against the law. Rattlesnakes are extremely common, especially in the warmer months. Many are not afraid of humans. Keep a close eye on kids and pets so they don’t get bitten. The eastern boundary of the park is shared with the Twenty-Nine Palms Marine Air-Ground Combat Center. Do not enter this area. Obey the posted signs.
For news and info on keeping Johnson Valley open to OHV use, regularly visit www.savethehammers.org. Visit www.sharetrails.org to see how you can help save trails all over the United States. For even more info on the Johnson Valley OHV area, visit www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/johnson.html.
Some Other Notable GPS Coordinates
Chocolate Thunder trailhead: 34.422712, -116.488702
Claw Hammer trailhead: 34.439690, -116.479287
Outer Limits trailhead: 34.456296, -116.447732
Sunbonnet Pass trailhead: 34.403181, -116.433651
Wrecking Ball trailhead: 34.422556, -116.472047