2020 King of the Hammers: Off-Road Chaos in Johnson Valley
Dirt, mayhem, and adventure in Hammertown.
The mayhem that is the King of the Hammers first began in 2007 when a group of off-road diehards came together in the Johnson Valley OHV (off-highway vehicle) area of San Bernardino County, California, for the ultimate off-roading battle. As the story goes, these desert mavericks went to war purely for bragging rights and a case of cold beer. Armed with 4x4s that were capable of going through hell and coming out OK, they blasted across the desert landscape on a path toward the unknown.
Their Ultra4 vehicles dominated mountain climbs and descents, crawled over clusters of rocks, and maneuvered skillfully around massive boulders. Driving their rigs around, through, and over extremely technical obstacles opened up new frontiers, and in the process, the experience inspired something straight out of the Mad Max playbook.
Today, the spontaneous off-road battle over a case of beer—it's as much of a festival and celebration of all-things off-road as it is a race, despite races taking place—has transformed into a weeklong annual bash that brings upward of 50,000 people from all over the globe to gather in the California desert. When I enlisted for a two-night camping trip to the 2020 King of the Hammers, I was naïve about the chaos I signed up for. Nonetheless, the idea of sleeping in a camper on a dry lakebed where there would be no cell phone service seemed fun—a quick getaway.
I loaded my gear into the "Altimeter," a one-off behemoth built on a Ford F350 Super Duty with a Lance 855S camper, which made its debut at the 2019 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. With plenty of water, a pair of boots, and no experience in operating a jumbo-sized camper truck, I ventured east into the desert.
In Burning Man style, thousands of off-roading zealots haul their expensive toys to the Means Dry Lakebed for one of the most groundbreaking motorsports events of the year. They set up their camper trucks, RVs, tents, camper trailers, and make the desert their home for an entire week. One of the coolest things about camping at here is that reservations are not required. To establish your temporary nest, you need only to explore the grounds, find an empty space, and charge in.
At the heart of the makeshift desert city, appropriately called Hammertown, there is a large cluster of vendor booths where you can score everything from a new suspension or new set of tires to a cheeseburger and an ice-cold beer. Motorcycles, UTVs, trucks, and ATVs run amok, yet despite the lack of designated roads or stop signs, everyone navigates the terrain to near perfection.
The action-packed King of the Hammers (KOH) features a plethora of competitive racing events, including short-course, extreme rock-climbing obstacles, and high-speed racing. Everywhere you turn there are UTVs, T1 desert trucks, motorcycles, and Ultra4 off-road vehicles in full combat mode, each angling for a shot at the grand prize in their class or competition. Of all the events held at KOH throughout the week, the 4WP Every Man Challenge, Toyo Desert Invitational, and Nitto King of the Hammers races attract the most spectators. This year, new additions to the growing list of activities include the Gambler 500 and Jump Champs.
The most exciting part about being a spectator at KOH is rushing to the next obstacle course to watch a convoy of UTVs crawl down rocky mountain slopes. Even more fascinating are the names of these obstacle courses, including Backdoor, Chocolate Thunder, Sledgehammer, Guacamole, and Wrecking Ball. After I set up camp with the mighty Altimeter, a GMC pickup shuttled me to Chocolate Thunder, where I learned the art of hanging out on rocky terrain to watch UTVs duke it out. When I no longer felt like a timid newbie, I climbed up Backdoor and Sledgehammer for a closer look at the action—and that's where I got hooked. Every time an Ultra4 vehicle emerged from either side of the mountain, the crowd of spectators roared with cheers.
Given King of the Hammers' chaos and no-rules nature, I expected to see the grounds trashed with beer cans and other food scraps; however, that was not the case. It seems the KOH crowd embraces the "leave no trace" motto—well, aside from the rubber left on rocks, anyway.
Check out all the KOH rage in the accompanying gallery. It just might convince you to join the mayhem next year.