2024 King of the Hammers

Where in the world can you go to the very top level of a sport and get right up next to the race cars and have casual chats with the drivers — and then at night get out on the race track with your own vehicle and party as hard as you want to without any real rules? The answer is nowhere, besides King of the Hammers (KOH) in Johnson Valley, Calif.

Sure, there are of course rules and laws in place, but, for the most part, KOH feels like a free-for-all in many ways. Outside of the racing, that is, as the racing is run at a world-class professional level, while still feeling very grassroots in many ways. Both big-dollar race teams and weekend wheelers enter this event, and all are challenged.

This story isn’t about the racing, however. It’s about the attendee experience. The video we made will better show what King of the Hammers is all about than any words I can write here.

2024 Hammertown

As you roll off the pavement onto the gravel road heading into the heart of the Johnson Valley OHV area, you start to realize that this isn’t a normal time to be out in the desert. There is traffic everywhere, consisting of every type of vehicle imaginable, including RVs, off-road race vehicles, and loads of dirt bikes and UTVs.

KOH spans three-plus weekends in late January and early February each year, and it for sure feels like the circus has come to town — or in this case, come to the desert.

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There is no shortage of interesting vehicles at KOH; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

First off, you’ll notice that while general traffic rules sort of apply, they really don’t mean much. There is general vehicle chaos in every direction, but somehow it seems to work out, most of the time.

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Hammertown 2024; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

As you roll into Hammertown, a full pop-up city of around 80,000 people, you’ll start to get a grasp of just how vast this circus really is. This year there were helicopters, food stands, a Ferris wheel, and so much more — and all that was just in the first few hundred feet of entering the massive event site!

Center of the Action

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(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

The center of Hammertown is where the racing starts and finishes, teams prep their vehicles, and all the big vendors show off the latest and greatest products in the off-road world. It’s also where there is a big jumbotron to watch the live action from the vast race course.

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Sublime with Rome on the KOH main stage; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

Also in the core of the city is a main stage, which stage hosts some big music acts each year. The big band this year is becoming a regular at KOH, Sublime with Rome. This year also featured special guest Dirty Heads, who sang a few songs together with Sublime with Rome. The concert was a great time and well attended! Even Dave Cole, KOH founder, was in the middle of the crowd enjoying the concert as much as or more than anyone.

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This is Backdoor, an off-road obstacle that can swallow vehicles whole; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

Be Prepared for Anything

While you’ll find most anything you could want in Hammertown — food, drinks, car parts, tools, etc. — you’re unlikely to find very good connectivity to the outside world. You have a hope and a prayer with Verizon for texting in a few spots, but otherwise, Starlink is your friend.

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There are very few places in the world where you can watch helicopters chase off-road cars at over 100 mph across the desert; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

On that note, you’ll want to download offline maps of the area and race course before heading out into the desert. The best, and official, source for those maps is found on onX Off-Road.

You’ll also want to be sure to plan for all the weather, as you’ll likely experience a wide range in the desert in the winter. This year we saw rain, crazy winds, chilly temps, and the expected dust and harsh sun. Layers are your friend, and I wore many during my time at KOH 2024. Also, be sure to bring recovery gear appropriate for your vehicle, as the terrain is very unforgiving — especially when wet.

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(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

While you can get into Hammertown with just about any vehicle, having a proper off-road machine will make your KOH experience that much more fun. I was able to get around in a Can-Am Maverick X3, and spend a bit of time in the brand-new Maverick R X RS with Smart-Shox.

Both are amazingly capable machines and a ton of fun, but the new Maverick R is next-level impressive in all regards. It’s nearly race-ready for just over $50,000, which is cheap for a vehicle that can climb rocks and go over 100 mph off road with ease.

KOH Overland Experience

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2024 KOH Overland Experience camp; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

I used the Can-Am for my daily commute to and from the King of the Hammers Overland Experience area — about 6 miles out in the desert from Hammertown. The KOH Overland Experience camp is a curated program away from the circus of Hammertown, but still along a section of the race course. The camp has vendors, meals, classes, tours, and more on offer, including the option to arrive and sleep in a set-up Shiftpod.

While those Mars dome-looking shelters are very cool, and worked well in the crazy weather conditions, I was lucky enough to find a bed in a campervan.

Van life is the good life, and the Outside Van Tails build was my home during KOH 2024. It had heat, was a refuge from the wind, was a secure place to stash all my equipment, and offered up a comfy bed. While I didn’t get much sleep because of my hectic event coverage schedule, the few hours I did sleep were deep.

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Racers tackle Chocolate Thunder with big crowds watching the action up close; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

KOH Nightlife

At night there are plenty of things to do, like the aforementioned concerts in Hammertown. Enjoying the campfire at the center of Hammertown or the Overland Experience area are also great ways to hang out with friends.

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Chocolate Thunder on a Friday night at King of the Hammers; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

But, you can’t come to KOH and not experience Chocolate Thunder or Backdoor at night. These infamous off-road obstacles get filled each night with thousands of people who are partying in all regards, while others drive up and down the rocks in their motorized machines. It’s really a hard scene to describe, so do watch the video at the top of this post to get a taste of what it’s all about.

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The event is named after the “Hammer” trails in the Johnson Valley, OHV area; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

2024 King of the Hammers: Conclusions

Look, most everything you’ve heard about KOH is true. There are crazy drunk drivers, lots of littering, plenty of loud, politically extreme right-wing supporters, and there is no doubt exponential volumes of fuel consumed. But, there is also a large law enforcement presence around Hammertown, Tread Lightly and grassroots trash pickup, and energy behind bringing off-road EVs to the event and into the racing.

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King’s Veto trail is no joke! Those are massive boulders on the side of a steep mountain; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

KOH is a mix of Burning Man, a mud-bog family get-together, a three-ring circus, and world-class motorsports racing. With that, it is super diverse, and has an impressively large international attendance. Make no mistake, though, this is a thoroughly American event!

Would I come back for seconds? Yes, as there are some great people, the racing and vehicles are amazing to behold — and who doesn’t like a good party? The KOH circus is something you need to experience first-hand.

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A special thanks to filmer and editor extraordinaire Josh Walker for working with me on this project; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

A huge thanks has to be extended to King of the Hammers and Kahn Media for hosting us, Outside Van for the warm, comfortable place to sleep, and Can-Am for the UTVs that allowed us to quickly and easily traverse Johnson Valley.