Located in the Mojave desert between Victor Valley and the Morongo Basin, Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Recreation Area is perhaps best known in the off-road community as home to King of the Hammers, the toughest one-day race in the world. With names like Sledge Hammer, Claw Hammer, Jack Hammer and Wrecking Ball you know that these are extreme trails built for extreme vehicles and highly experienced drivers.
For the mere mortals among us, Johnson Valley also offers less difficult trails – which is where this story begins, as a group of friends and I decided to tackle Bullfrog Trail one beautiful October morning. It was easy to spot the bullfrog shaped rock formation for which the trail was named, perching atop a rocky hillside mid-trail.
At 188,000 acres, Johnson Valley is the largest OHV area in the United States. With its flat dry lakes, steep mountains, sandy washes, rock slabs and sand dunes, the scenic and varied landscape is popular with off-roaders of all types and skill levels - including motorcycle and ATV riders. Thanks to the hard work of local clubs and individuals, new trails have been added on a regular basis ever since the area was first designated as an OHV area as part of the 1980 Desert Conservation Plan.
Bullfrog trail is situated in the southwestern corner of Johnson Valley known as Cougar Buttes, which is easily the most scenic area of the region. Huge rock slabs make fun and challenging trails for rock crawlers. Right at the start of Bullfrog Trail you’re introduced to what you and your vehicle are getting into with “Chicken Rock,” a steep climb up a large rock slab. The crowds love to gather to watch everyone make this climb.
Once you are up on the rock slab the trail continues to wind its way over and through the rocks. The ledges, steep rocky descents and climbs, off-camber sections and boulders bigger than our tires continued to make for a fun and challenging ride. Definitely not a beginner trail, Bullfrog takes nerves of steel, good tires and an experienced driver to make it through undamaged. A good spotter is helpful too, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience in choosing a line.
Other trails in the Cougar Buttes area include Cakewalk, Hammerdown, Crazy 8, Do or Die, and On The Rocks. In a place where trails are rated as Difficult, Most Difficult and Extreme, what the locals consider an “easy” trail would be considered Black Diamond or 10 by most trail rating systems.
Most of the trails were created with a modified 2DR Jeep Wrangler in mind (lifted, minimum 33” tires, at least one locker and rocker protection). If you’re considering trying the area out, keep in mind that they can also be run by a longer wheelbase. Stock vehicles piloted by experienced drivers may also conquer the trail, although they’ll probably need to be strapped through some sections.
The scenery all along the trail was spectacular and some of the best that the Mojave Desert has to offer.
Before embarking on Bullfrog Trail, don’t forget to disconnect your swaybar! The hairiest moment we had on the trail was when someone got a little too tippy in one section, but tragedy was averted by the spotters. Other than that and some scratches and dings, the only thing close to carnage that we experienced was when someone popped a spring. Jacking up the vehicle with a rock, we quickly got the spring back in place and continued on down the trail.
Although marked with the standard BLM Open Route trail markers and the occasional red arrow, we found that it isn’t always clear what direction to proceed - at one point we think we actually diverted onto another trail, at least for a while. It’s best to bring along someone who is familiar with the trail the first time, unless you’re comfortable with finding your own route through the rocks.
After getting everyone through the trail, my group headed to camp for some more rock play and relaxing. Johnson Valley OHV is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, with camping permitted anywhere within the riding area as long as it does not block travel on a road. Most people prefer to set up camp in one of the coves at the base of the rocks.
While the most popular camping areas can get crowded during peak season, with 188,000 acres there is plenty of space to find a suitable spot. Come prepared, there are no formal campgrounds here, this is dry primitive camping only. There is also plenty of open play area if you didn’t have enough fun on the trails.
Bullfrog proved to be one of the most fun trails I have ever run. To make it even better, we were rewarded with a beautiful Mojave sunset at the end of the day.
If you haven’t been to Johnson Valley before, access is via Highway 247 at Old Woman Springs Road or Camp Rock Road, 55 miles southeast of Barstow. The staging area for most competitive events is at Anderson Dry Lake, ten miles north of Highway 247 and east of Camp Rock Road. Access roads are graded dirt roads. For more information about the Johnson Valley OHV area see http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/barstow/johnson.html.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that a large part of the OHV area of Johnson Valley continues to face the possibility of closure due to the expansion needs of the Twentynine Palms Marine Air-Ground Combat Center bordering the eastern side. In addition to off-roading, Johnson Valley OHV provides opportunities for rock, gem and mineral collecting, stargazing, model rocket launching, photography, camping and hiking. SaveTheHammers.org is leading the fight to preserve public access to Johnson Valley. A favorably received bill (H.R.1960) that will protect our access to Johnson Valley while providing a reasonable alternative to the Marine base has passed the House and is currently on the Senate Calendar, but the fight isn’t over. Until we know how this is going to turn out, get out there and enjoy your public lands while you still can and join the fight to preserve access.
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