Long lived is the idea of a rite of passage, whether they be religious, cultural, or based on some other measure of growth. It is widely known that nobody can be considered a real desert racer until they have experienced Baja, even snow skiers can’t claim to be hardcore until they have some heli-ski operations under their belt, no engine builder will be worth a mention they have never assembled their first big block. In the world of rock crawling, the Hammer Trails found in Johnson Valley, California are an undeniable right of passage for anyone that wants them self or their rig to be considered hardcore.
Johnson Valley has been at the forefront of the off-road scene since hardcore rock crawling was first conceived. The Rubicon Trail and Moab certainly have a longer history of trail rides and passers through, but most likely because the terrain in Johnson Valley was simply impassable for the rigs of an earlier time.
In the 1990’s, the Hammer trails came onto the map, as hardcore off-road pioneers including Chuck Shaner, Larry McRae, and Walker Evans cut and named the new trails. The King of the Hammers race earned its name because of trails such as Jackhammer, Sledgehammer, and Claw Hammer.
In our quest to push the limits of man and machine while enjoying what nature has to offer, we set out to conquer one the early and likely most famous Hammer trails; Jackhammer. Chris Paul in his brother’s 2008 Jeep JK Unlimited, Rand Bagi in his 1983 Toyota pickup, and Directly Connected in our 2002 Jeep TJ project were by most all accounts under equipped to tackle the trail. The vehicles more often found on trails of this difficulty are 40-inch tire and one ton axle’d rock buggies.
We hit the trail around noon after getting camp set up, airing down tires, and taking doors off the Jeeps. As this was our first time attempting to traverse this trail we were all aware of the risks involved; vehicle roll overs, body damage, broken parts are all very real risks for any full bodies vehicles taking on such trails. Going in a group is a must for help with any possible issues on the trail.
The trail does not waste any time getting to business, a steep and slippery waterfall obstacle known as “The Gate Keeper” arrives after just a few minutes of driving. Chris quickly showed that the JK’s long wheelbase and wide track width was the ticket on the waterfall. The trail continued into technical rock crawling for some time, demanding driver attention and vehicular performance. While the very challenging section of Jackhammer trail is only a mile or two long, it can take all day depending on trail conditions and the vehicles involved. After crawling for a little less than an hour we got to the section where the trail difficulty greatly intensifies.
A good idea for anybody running a trail for the first time is to get out and hike sections of the trail to decide how to get through in the safest manner. As we hiked up a particularly nasty section of waterfalls formed by boulders the size of CJ-2a Jeeps, smaller rocks, and loose dirt, we walked next to the Jackhammer trail plaque. A number of the Hammer trails have plaques cemented into the trail just after the most difficult obstacles. Victor Valley Four Wheelers are responsible for establishing the first Hammer trails and trail plaques. These obstacles as such are just called “The Plaque Obstacles.”
While the plaque is a good way to share the history of the trails and those that led the way, they have now become a way to prove that drivers made it through the trails. Having a picture of a rig next to the plaque shows that the vehicle and driver made it through the toughest part of the trail, this is where the rite of passage comes in to play. We can’t pretend that we made it to the plaque easily.
The roughly 100 yard section of trail before and after the plaque took our group a few hours to traverse, and none of us pulled it off without a tow strap or winch. One of the beauties of hardcore rock crawling is that vehicles and drivers can and must continue to evolve in order to conquer the next obstacle that is even more difficult than the last.
While the plaque obstacle was punishing, we suffered no mechanical issues and made it through. The following few miles of trail take drivers up the ridge of the mountain range before dropping into a small valley on the way out. Those that aren’t fond of heights will not enjoy this section. Though we finished the trail at night, Jackhammer provided no shortage of stunning views, wildlife, challenging terrain, and adventure.