Loren Healy may be the current King of the Hammers, but Chuck Shaner of Victor Valley Four Wheelers is widely credited with being the Father of the Hammers. When the BLM opened Johnson Valley to off roading in the early 1990s and the Victor Valley Four Wheelers were asked to help build some trails, Shaner, along with the help of other club members, studied topo maps and explored the mountains identifying possibilities.
Sledgehammer was the first trail built and it took over 1,100 man hours to finish, using Jeep winches and prybars to move enough rocks to make passage possible. Shaner is quoted in the on-line newspaper InlandDaily.com as saying that the trail got its name after a rock dented the side of club member Gary Brown’s almost-new Jeep and he said he would never sledgehammer his Jeep up there again.
The trail is a steep climb through a narrow canyon and is non-stop technical rock-crawling from start to finish. There is just over one mile of off-camber sections, tight squeezes, waterfall climbs and boulders the size of minivans to navigate, and there is no rest or escape route. Once you start up the canyon, you are committed to it.
When you are watching King of the Hammers or tackling the trail yourself, it can sometimes be hard to remember that this trail was originally broken by guys driving Jeeps on 31” tires. That’s something we had to keep reminding each other when I recently rode shotgun with Tin Bender member Joe Lelah, who was the trailboss on Sledgehammer at the recent Tin Bender Jamboree in Johnson Valley. The current recommendation is for 35” tires, high ground clearance, low gearing, and lockers front and back. The trail can be done by full-size rigs but they are more susceptible to body damage in the tight squeezes.
Many in our group had never been on Sledgehammer before and didn’t know what to expect when we set out early on a Saturday morning toward the canyon. Our group consisted of a variety of rigs, everything from rock buggies to full-size trucks. As we entered the mouth of the canyon and started to work our way up, a few of the rigs had a little trouble with one of the ledge climbs, but nothing serious.
It wasn’t until we hit a monster ledge-climb that required placing a tire on top of a huge pointy rock, putting the rig in a seriously off-camber position, that the real trouble began. The first few rigs in our group climbed up with ease and you could tell that they’d been here before. For anyone unfamiliar with the trail, there appeared to be an “easy” line but Lelah pointed out that the line is deceiving and is where most people get into trouble and roll their rig. The line that appears to be more difficult is actually the safer and correct line… if you can get up it. Sticky tires are a must, and several drivers in our group had trouble with their tires sliding off the rock.
After watching several rigs struggle and a few incur damage, someone asked what the name of this obstacle is, certain that an obstacle this challenging must have a name. “This is Sledgehammer,” replied Lelah, and sure enough there on the rocks was the plaque announcing that we were at the gatekeeper to Sledgehammer Canyon.
We had to use the winches a few times getting through here.
We lost one drive shaft and one axle at the gatekeeper, and a few more drivers decided that they had enough of a challenge just getting to this point and that it would be smarter to turn around and head back to camp. All in all about a third of our group didn’t make it past this point.
The entire trail is one obstacle after another, but after the gatekeeper comes a waterfall climb. Since only the most capable rigs were left in the group, it was fun and challenging but luckily we didn’t incur any more carnage.
Being a JK owner, riding with Lelah was my first time in a rock buggy and a whole new experience for me. As we approached a ledge that I’d swear was as big as my house, I gasped “No way!”, then was amazed as Lelah’s rig crawled up it with ease. I could only imagine what it would feel like in my short-wheel base Jeep. It’s amazing how easy it feels when done by an experienced wheeler in a capable rig.
We stopped at the mailbox and signpost at the top to eat lunch. After the mailbox the trail bears off the to right and from here our group split up, with a few of the guys heading out to do more trails and the rest of us heading back to camp to get dinner ready for the Jambo.
As we headed back to camp Lelah paused for a second at the top of a steep drop and my heart stopped while I thought “You have got to be kidding me!” (or maybe I said it out loud). Steep drop offs are my Achilles Heel ever since a bad experience on Foshay Pass in the Providence Mountains (if you like slippery loose gravel on an extremely steep non-stop roller coaster ride, give that trail a try!). When we reached the bottom Lelah turned to me and laughed, “It’s actually steeper than it looks!”
Sledgehammer has a difficulty rating of 5. Although it’s not the toughest of the Hammers trails, it is very challenging and you should be prepared for possible body damage and vehicle breakage.
The coordinates for the trailhead are:
N 34° 24.872 W 116° 28.464
If you're coming to King of the Hammers, just be sure to stay off the trails during the week. This year there will be guided groups the Saturday following the race, so plan to stay an extra day or two in order to do some wheelin'!
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