TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Rough and rocky, Johnson Valley is considered the perfect place to test the mettle of men and their machines.
An estimated 200,000 people a year flock to the desert valley for recreational pursuits: hiking, camping, rock-hounding, star-gazing and a new sport called "geocaching," a treasure hunt using GPS technology. Moviemakers use the desert floor for chase scenes.
But the valley has gained its greatest acclaim in recent years as an untamed, unregulated venue for off-road vehicles. Off-roaders take their Jeeps, motorcycles, dune buggies, ATVs, "rock crawlers" and other souped-up vehicles over, around and through the rills and hills and rocks.
The annual King of the Hammers race, billed as the toughest desert race in the nation, draws more than 20,000 participants and spectators.
"There's not another place in the country where we could hold our race," said Dave Cole, one of the race organizers. "This is our Daytona 500."
The Marine Corps, whose Twentynine Palms base is directly adjacent to Johnson Valley, also likes the valley's challenging terrain -- for similar yet different reasons.
The Marine Corps would like to include the land inside the boundaries of its Air-Ground Combat Center as a training area for large-scale, live-fire exercises where three battalions could simultaneously practice assaulting a fixed location. The land is controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management.