Off-Roading In The Southern California Desert


The 100-degree weather of the Southern California desert has passed and cooler temperatures are upon us. For the desert rats of the area, it is time to take our prepped vehicles out to enjoy in the wide open spaces.

We wanted to take a look at three areas that attract off-roaders, and what makes them so unique, including Johnson Valley, Glamis, and Ocotillo Wells. Each area offers something different than the other, while also suiting different types of vehicles.


Johnson Valley

Johnson Valley is made up of 188,000 acres where off-highway vehicle riding can take place. This desert is an area that any off-road driver can have fun at, whether he’s a rookie or a veteran. It has every type of terrain that you can imagine  – steep, red rocky mountains, rolling hills, open valleys, dry lake beds, and sandy washes.

Johnson Valley is mostly known for one of the most grueling off-road races in the United States where Ultra4 Racing’s King of the Hammers (KOH), which takes place in the beginning of February each year. The 2016 KOH runs from January 29st to February 7th.


This race takes drivers and fans through flat land to technical sections in the mountains. The event not only tests the vehicles a capabilities, but also tests the mental stamina of the teams, as the technical sections require co-drivers to get out of the vehicle and be a spotter for the driver.

KOH is a no-chase, no help race. If it happens on the course, it is fixed on the course, with only what is packed onto the race truck. The week hosts a multitude of events leading up to the King of the Hammers. There are events going on every day of the week including the Everyman Challenge, King of The Motos, and the Polaris RZR KOH UTV race.


Some of the technical sections that racers have to go through during KOH.

With this race, it brings one of the most rapidly growing towns in all the United States – Hammertown. Hammertown is the area where the vendors and racers stay for the week. It is located on the dry lake bed, and when all is said and done it even has street names.

North of the area where KOH takes place is an area for novice and intermediate riders. This area has some small dune riding, and there are two-car or truck courses for racing in the north central and western portions of the valley. Anderson Dry Lake on the western boundary of the area is used for casual riding for intermediate and novice riders.

Cougar Buttes has many uses and is a very popular with off-roaders. The butte boasts areas with small rolling hills for beginners, rocky ridges for the more experienced riders, and huge rock structures for rockcrawlers. We had a blast out here recently, as we spent time with the Fabtech Jeep checking out all the fun places to go wheeling.


We spent time with Fabtech’s Jeep out at Cougar Buttes.

Overall, Johnson Valley is an area best suited for rockcrawling. The extensive amount of rock formations and technical sections makes it a perfect area for the advanced off-road driver, but gives novice riders plenty of places to play around too.



If you are into off-roading and live in Southern California, chances are that you have heard of Glamis. Known to others as Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, it is one of the more popular regions of the desert locations.

This area also encompasses the largest mass of sand dunes in California. Formed by windblown sands of ancient Lake Cahuilla, the dune system extends for more than 40 miles in a band averaging five miles wide. Dunes often reach heights of 300 feet above the desert floor, providing outstanding opportunities for recreation.


Glamis can get packed during major holidays, so be careful when you head out.

Most of the off-road action takes place in the recreation area south of Highway 78. The limited areas surrounding the dunes may have street legal requirements and require vehicles to travel only on designated routes. Closed areas prohibit motorized vehicle use entirely.


Plenty of big air jumps in the sand.

One note about Glamis is the requirement of a permit, which is required from October 1 through April 15 each year, and can be purchased online before arriving. Permits cost $35 per week if purchased beforehand, while permits purchased on-site cost $50 per week. If you plan on going out multiple times a season permit costs $150.

Another safety item that is required for all off-highway vehicles is a whip mast and a 6×12-inch red or orange flag. Masts must be mounted on the vehicle and extend eight feet from the ground to the mast tip.

If you are looking for the popular desert location on major holidays, this is the spot for you. This area is well known and can be busy on any holiday weekend. Glamis hosts a wide range of activities to watch or participate in.

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One of the more popular events out at Glamis are the sand drags.

One of the more popular events that in Glamis are the sand drags. It is exactly what it sounds like: “Run What You Brung” sand racing. You do not have to participate to have a good time here. Spectators line the drag and watch as people go turn after turn, with high-powered sandrails, prerunners, UTVs, and ATVs running down the drags.

Other popular areas include Oldsmobile Hill, Brawley Slide, and Boardmanville – a bar literally in the middle of nowhere. Glamis has plenty of areas to explore, but the soft sand can wreak havoc on drivers of two-wheel drive vehicles who do not properly air down or have paddle tires.


This is definitely one area where preparation comes into play. Airing down is recommended for better traction, but requires a compressor to air up before the ride out of the dunes. Paddle tires make it easier to grip the soft sand and keep your vehicle moving.

Overall, this is a great area for people of all ages, with plenty to see even when not cruising around the desert. We suggest you prepare before heading out, and have a four-wheel-drive capable vehicle or sandrail. When heading out to the sand, be prepared for what you are getting into before heading out.


Ocotillo Wells

One of our favorite areas in Southern California is Ocotillo Wells. It has more than 85,000 acres that are open for off-highway vehicles, and hosts plenty of terrains types, including from dirt roads and trails, sandy washes, narrow canyons, mud-hills, rocky slopes, to dunes.


Pumpkin Patch does not include any real pumpkins, just rocks that look like them.

Blow Sand Hill is a hill where wind-blown sand has gone uphill, thus giving way to a challenge. The hill is illuminated by headlights and LED light bars on many weekend nights as people sit and watch countless drivers take on the steep dune.

Another great area to check out is Pumpkin Patch. These are not real pumpkins, this unique landscape is the result of wind and water continuously eroding the surface soil and revealing globular sandstone concretions that resemble the orange gourds.

Ocotillo Wells is a great area to off-road, but even more fun to explore. It gives you a chance to have an adventure to different locations, and offers something for everyone.


Truckheaven gives 4x4s plenty of obstacles to attempt.

Prerunners have areas of flat open land to go fast, rockcrawlers have areas like Truckhaven obstacle course. Truckhaven consists of 22 colorfully named obstacles spread across 30 acres in the northern section of the park. The obstacles are built out of heavy equipment tires, logs, concrete tubes, boulders and more. The obstacles are ranked in three difficulty ratings – easy, more difficult, and most difficult.

Ocotillo Wells is an area where you do not have to have a heavily modified vehicle to enjoy everything it has to offer. This location is great for two-wheel drive vehicles. There is not an off-road vehicle that we would not recommend for this area.



Even though we recommend one specific vehicle for each of the location it does not mean that you cannot have fun unless you have that one. Going on any off-road adventure can be a great time, but just remember to play it safe and know the limits of what your own rig can handle.

No matter where you go, prepare for the worst case scenario, but most importantly remember to have fun as these memories can last a lifetime. With all the great off-roading spots in Southern California, there are plenty of locations to hit the dirt.

Stay tuned as we start exploring more trails and regions within Southern California. What other areas in Southern California do you head to this time of year? Tell us in the comments below!



About the author

Steven Olsewski

Steven Olsewski grew up with a true passion for anything with a motor. He loves his wife and kids, and during the year can be found enjoying quality time together. They are a huge part of his life and their passion for God.
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