The Rubicon is a legendary trail in the Sierra Nevada’s in northern California. Formerly called the McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe, much of the route nowadays is paved. The remaining unmaintained portion is the Rubicon Trail – about 19 miles of technically challenging and grueling 4×4 trail in drop-dead gorgeous high-country scenery. The Rubicon Trail is a test of man and machine, driving and preparedness skills, and sometimes courage. The reward for taking the challenge is the 4×4 adventure of a lifetime.
With my husband George and our partner Kristoffer, I’m a co-founder of Offroad Passport, a 4×4 club. In the summer of 2014, we took a trip to the Rubicon Trail. It was our club’s ‘big trip’ that year as well as my and George’s third time leading “The ‘Con”. Beforehand I began wondering if the trail would still be as remote and rugged as I remembered. Since our last visit in 2009 I’d been following improvements made on the trail, and I’d also read scathing rants claiming it was ‘practically paved’ after projects on the obstacle called ‘Little Sluice’. With all the bridges and port-a-potties being installed, I halfway expected a crowded Disneyland atmosphere and queues at the obstacles!
As it turned out, the Rubicon is still a tough trail. It’s quite remote and a stellar 4×4 experience. Moderately built rigs can do the Rubicon, but it is by no means ‘practically paved’. Our rigs were put to the test throughout. And like before, we were completely off the grid in a staggeringly beautiful mountain setting with a bunch of friends swimming every afternoon at camp, and we saw only a few other vehicles and people the whole trip.
This was the largest group we’d lead so far; seven vehicles and eleven people gathered Sunday evening in Georgetown, CA., the group’s meeting point 50 miles northeast of Sacramento. One additional person would join us at Loon Lake the next night, making the total eight rigs and twelve people. Our anticipation and excitement was evident during dinner, and after spending one last night in civilization (running water, comfy bed, the corner store and cell service), we lined up Monday morning on Main Street for a picture of our rigs before embarking upon our 4 day adventure.
Even though our club is open to any capable 4×4, on this Rubicon trip everyone drove Jeeps. There were two Cherokee’s (Scott and his son in his ’01, and George and me in our ’92), two Grand Cherokee’s (Kristoffer in his ’03 and Chris and Sarah in their ’02), and four Wranglers (Steve in his ’94, Wayne in his ’97, Dennis in his ’05 Unlimited Rubicon, and Christian in his ’08 Unlimited Rubicon with his friend Elias). Sometimes I think we should be called ‘The Station Wagon Club’.
The biggest challenge of the Rubicon Trail is the difficult terrain, and all our Jeeps are all at least moderately modified to negotiate obstacles and add strength so nothing breaks. The two newer Jeep Rubicons came with a dedicated off-road options package named after the iconic trail: stronger axles with electric locking differentials and lower gearing, 4:1 transfer-cases, electric release front sway-bars, rock-rails, and oversized aggressive-tread tires. And while no two of our vehicles are alike, they all have some permutation of aftermarket modifications like those of the Rubicon package, plus suspension-lifts, skid plates, differential-covers, high-clearance metal bumpers, heavy-duty steering components, and more. They are purpose-oriented rigs built to be road worthy and yet capable on challenging trails. Some in our group drove over 800 highway miles just to get there, ran the grueling trail, and then drove the 800 miles back home. There was only minor damage to body panels, under carriages, one tire, one leaf-spring, and one tail light. However, nothing stopped our progression and nobody experienced any vehicular failure.
The remoteness of the Rubicon is also creates a challenge. The nearest auto-parts store is a two-day drive. That’s a day there and a day back – if they have your part. Not only should you bring food, water, clothes, personal items, and camping gear, it’s highly recommended that you also carry tools, spare parts, and fluids in case something does break. We try to consolidate by not duplicating each other on heavy things, but still bring common parts that would leave us dead-in-the-water if broken. All this ‘stuff’ is heavy, so although it’s your goal to pack light so your vehicle handles on the rocks, bring everything you need to fix a mechanical failure. Maybe that’s why so many of us drive station wagons!
On Monday morning we headed west from Georgetown to the traditional trail-head near Wentworth Springs. Twenty-seven miles down the road we stopped at the historic landmark Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A one-room shack less than a half-mile off the pavement; in 1864 it was the only stopping place around. It was built by an African-American trapper and trader who welcomed weary travelers, so it became a favorite stop for hunters, prospectors, loggers and others during the gold-rush. That tradition continues, only it’s mostly 4×4 enthusiasts on their way to the trail-head. The bartender explained the legend of the money hanging from the rafters, window frames and walls. “Back in the day gold-miners would write their signature-mark on paper money and nail it up so even if they came back penniless, they could still get a drink”, another tradition that still lives on.
Some people run the Rubicon Trail beginning at Loon Lake, thus by-passing Wentworth Springs and the Devil’s Post Pile. We take the old historic route, passing remains of old Wentworth Springs Hotel, a significant stopping point between Georgetown and the more popular Rubicon Springs during the 1800’s. We also enjoy stopping at a waterfall on Gurly Creek. The trail is easy until the rocky obstacles throughout the Devil’s Post Pile where the driving-skills challenge begins. Littered with large loose rocks that shift under the weight of your rig, the trail ascends a lush forested slope. Now in 4-low, our progress was slow as we crawled over rocks, carefully placing tires on large ones to gain clearance, and spotting each other through. If you don’t know, to ‘spot’ someone means a person outside the vehicle, the spotter, gives the driver instructions for going over difficult or dangerous terrain safely and not getting stuck or causing damage.
Then we reached the “Granite Bowl”, much less technical and a relief after the post-pile. Also just called ‘The Granite’, it’s miles of rolling granite dotted with occasional sand patches and trees. Loon Lake, our planned camp for the night became visible in the distance. Everyone struggled up a rounded ledge where the Jeeps all skated sideways instead of going up it. Route-finding was tricky through here because markers glued to the rocks were often obscured by being opposite a slope or rock.
Everybody was already kind-of tired and looking forward to stopping when we finally got to the Gate-Keeper near Loon Lake. It used to be an indication of the trail’s difficulty, and if you thought it was hard, you had no business on the trail. It’s been repaired over the years and gotten easier, but it’s still pretty technical. Proper tire placement, good articulation and ground-clearance are needed. Those running the Rubicon from Loon Lake drive through this gauntlet only once. We ran it once in each direction.
We crossed the dam at Loon Lake, found our reserved group-site, and set-up camp. Running the Rubicon is dirty business. Imagine boulders with fine powdery dirt in between and all over them. I’m in and out of the Jeep a lot spotting people and taking pictures, and I get really dirty. I’ve learned to appreciate camping where we can go for a dip with some biodegradable soap to get clean. It’s possible to do the trail in less time, but we enjoy a leisurely pace and camping next to water daily, and that’s why I rate the Rubicon a premier 4×4 adventure destination.
Our friend Steve who was supposed to meet us at camp but never showed up. With no cell service, we had no way to know if he canceled, got lost, or worse – broke down somewhere. Tuesday morning we left Loon Lake crossing the dam, back through the Gate-Keeper and the granite to the trail. At Ellis Creek we saw some new additions I’d read about – a bridge and an outhouse. A 2009 clean-up and abatement order addressing water quality impacts was the impetus for several bridges, some water diversion, rocks in low areas, and a lot of outhouses and other improvements. The outhouses are definitely being used, stopping contaminating runoff. However, the ones we saw were full and extremely unpleasant, so I was glad we brought wag-bags anyways.
It’s only about 5 miles from the Gate-Keeper to our favorite camp at Buck Island Lake, but it was a long day of obstacles and what I call obstacles between the obstacles. Everybody was in 4-low as we made our way; you could probably walk it faster than we drove it. Kristoffer broke his tail light lens on a wedge-shaped obstacle near Walker Hill, so we stopped while he glued it together and set it with duct tape. This part of the trail is very scenic with lush forest, pristine mountain views and several lakes visible in the distance.
We got to the Little Sluice after lunch, and sure enough, one of the more formidable obstacles on the Rubicon Trail had been tamed. It used to be a chasm full of boulders that only rock-buggies with super big tires and low gears could do, but now it’s a chasm full of big rocks, doable in a moderately modified Jeep with somewhat large tires. At least that was the case for Wayne and Christian who drove it while George spotted them.
The rest of us took the by-pass, which is hard enough in its own right going down a steep off-camber rock with a rock smack in the middle at the bottom. Nearing the now closed Thousand Dollar Hill, we were met by a representative from Friends of the Rubicon. It’s nice to know he’s out there with a ham radio to help if needed. We worked our way past the Soup Bowl, and soon came to the by-pass to the Old Sluice. This section is also challenging as to route-finding. Rock slabs gradually step down toward a basin, with multiple ledges along the way, some very steep. George walked ahead finding the safest way down and I drove the lead behind him.
We passed the bottom of the Old Sluice and arrived at Buck Island Lake, another favorite place to camp next to the lake and great swimming. Boulders along the shore make getting in and out of the water easy and you don’t have to step in dirt. No sooner had we set-up camp when Steve rolled in saying he’d confused days, and the camp host at Loon Lake told him he’d missed us by a couple of hours, so he’d actually been behind us all day!
Wednesday morning we left Buck Island Lake with only three miles to go to Rubicon Springs, but it sure was a long three miles. Rock obstacle after rock obstacle, I was spotting people most of the time. The first couple miles runs along a ledge overlooking the western tip of Buck Island Lake. Rocky descents along a narrow trail, some so steep the drivers put their heads out their windows to see where to put their tires. A particular right-hand turn between two boulders gave the bulbous Grand Cherokees each a door dent.
The Big Sluice is about halfway to Rubicon Springs, and there are no by-passes to this mile-long series of obstacles down the hill towards the Rubicon River. At the boulder near the top on the inside of the sharp left turn, our Cherokee slid sideways and landed on the front axle, with the passenger-side tire just dangling. Backing-up would mean dragging the tie-rod on the rock and possibly damaging it, but going forward was impossible, so we stacked rocks under the tire to build a ramp, and then went backwards off of it. We lined up again going higher on the driver’s side and made it through.
Our Cherokee has a custom exterior roll-cage integrated with the bumpers and rock-sliders, which came in handy further down the Big Sluice where we squeezed between a tree and a boulder. Scratches on the cage don’t bother us, but the other guys don’t have cages, so we carefully spotted everybody through without damage. Then we came to an extremely intimidating place where a terribly slippery off-camber rocky patch is right next to a steep drop-off into the forest. We all helped spot each other on that one. There were more extreme rock-crawls to go, and once again I was out of the Jeep more than I was in it, spotting people and taking pictures. Steve slit a sidewall, so we plugged it put air in near the bottom of the Big Sluice.
Finally at the bottom of the hill we came to the old green iconic bridge over the Rubicon River – almost to Rubicon Springs, and I couldn’t wait to reach the other of my all-time favorite camping places. Who can resist a spending a warm summer afternoon hanging out alongside a beautiful gurgling river with multiple swimming holes and a rope-swing?
In the late 1800’s, Rubicon Springs was a popular resort owned by a woman named Sierra Nevada Phillips (Vade for short), who purchased the land and built a resort hotel where the mineral water was advertised to be ‘better than whiskey’. Supplies were carried over the hazardous trail by pack mule from barges at Lake Tahoe. As the resort became more popular, Vade appealed to El Dorado County and persuaded them to build a road to Rubicon Springs, and that historic county road is The Rubicon Trail we still use today.
After a relaxing afternoon lounging riverside, some tasty beverages and our last dinner on the ‘Con, we retreated to our beds under a light rain-drizzle. Thursday morning the sky was clear and blue, and we were set for our last day on the trail – up Cadillac Hill to Observation Point, and then out the long dirt track to Lake Tahoe. Cadillac Hill is a very steep set of switch-backs up a narrow shelf-road. The bottom is wet, off-camber, and riddled with slippery exposed roots, followed by a massive rock that pivots your rig to the right. The best approach is slow and steady, keeping momentum through off-camber maneuvering over or around boulders. At the top is a steep rock to drive up, and then the trail smooths out and becomes much easier.
Everyone parked in a row on the vista overlook at Observation Point; the symbolic end of the trail since the challenges were behind us, even though we had several miles to go. From this vista we looked back at the trail we’d conquered. After taking pictures we continued to the end of our long journey on a maintained dirt road past picturesque mountain lakes and rocky outcroppings.
Tired, dirty, and victorious, we drove out to South Lake Tahoe and civilization. We had survived the challenges of the legendary Rubicon Trail and were rewarded with memories of the epic adventure, legendary in its own right.