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Rubicon Trail

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Cole Quinnell | Writer
Posted July 1, 1999

The Granddaddy of Rock Crawling

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  • The Rubicon has been called the Granddaddy of all trails, and at one time it was revered as the most difficult. Without a doubt it is the most well known. We think you owe it to yourself to cover the Rubicon at least once to take in its beauty, try your 4x4 at the world-famous obstacles, and enjoy a unique section of the country.

  • If you enter the trail at Loon Lake, the first obstacle you come to is a section of large rocks embedded in the trail. You have to maintain forward momentum while negotiating a left turn halfway through and avoid hitting sheetmetal on the passenger side. It’s not that difficult, but it sets the tone for potential rocker-panel and other sheetmetal damage.

  • The most enjoyable way to do the Rubicon is to plan on multiple days and camp out on the trail. Some people start at Georgetown and spend the first night near Spider Lake and the second near Rubicon Springs. Others start at Loon Lake and only camp one night. You can camp at Rubicon Springs, but reservations are required, and it’s packed on popular weekends. There are a few camping areas just beyond the Springs.

  • You have to be ready for any type of weather on the Rubicon. It can snow one day and be in the mid-80s the next. We’ve also found that you can take fullsize trucks over the trail without too much damage or hassle. The worst parts were a couple of trees and rocks that left only about an inch on either side of the bed.

  • The last real obstacle on the trail is Cadillac Hill, a steep climb out of a valley that was the site of the Rubicon Springs Hotel. There are two difficult sections. The first is a series of rocks that stick up enough to catch drivetrain parts and are evenly spaced to limit traction.

  • The second obstacle on Cadillac Hill is more challenging: a waterfall. Water often runs down it, and 4x4s before you in line carry mud onto the rocks, which makes it more difficult for your tires to get a grip.

  • Finding the Rubicon isn’t too difficult.

  • This map--along with a California state map--will get you there. We highly recommend Sidekick’s detailed map of the Rubicon. It shows the entire trail, locates obstacles, and points out alternate routes.

The Rubicon isn't the most difficult rockcrawling trail in the world, but it's the best known, and it's on almost every four-wheeler's list of trails to do. The season for running the Rubicon is just beginning, so we've put together a guide to help you get there.

In the 1880s, mineral springs were discovered about 9 miles from Lake Tahoe. The find was named Rubicon Springs. The springs were touted as having therapeutic qualities and the area soon became a vacation hot spot. A hotel was erected and guests were brought in, first by stagecoach and later by a 10-passenger Pierce Arrow car. During the '30s, the area's popularity declined. By 1953, the hotel had been deserted and it eventually collapsed.

The next few pages should help you decide if you're ready for the trip and let you know exactly what to expect.

When to Go

There are a few borderline insane four-wheelers who hit the Rubicon practically year round. If the risk of freezing to death on the trail doesn’t score high on your adventure list, the season runs from about June through October. If the area has had a hard winter and the snow isn’t melting off quickly, then the first full runs may come as late as Fourth of July weekend. It can snow on the trail anytime during the year, and it’s just as common for temperatures to reach past 90 degrees--it’s difficult to plan on avoiding either of these conditions.

If you want the trail to be as challenging as possible, go early in the season, preferably before Fourth of July weekend, and definitely before the Jeeper’s Jamboree (the end of July). The first few runs over the trail are always the best. Winter snow and runoff have moved some of the rocks away, carried away dirt, and have often left surprises in the middle of the trail. By the end of July, enough vehicles have crossed the trail (and enough drivers have stacked rocks to make the going easier) that the trail isn’t quite as challenging. Also, the trail generally has more water on it in spring and late fall, which also adds to the challenge.

If you like crowds, show up on any weekend in July. If you’d like to avoid crowds, your best bet is a midweek run.

To join the Jeeper’s Jamboree trail ride (you have to own a Jeep), contact Jeeper’s Jamboree, P.O. Box 1660, Georgetown, CA 95634, 916/333-4771. This trail ride size is limited, but if it’s sold out by the time this is printed, you can sign up for the 2000 run.

Recommended Vehicle Mods

You can drive the trail in a stock Jeep if you really want to, but a few modifications will make the trip more enjoyable and lower the risk of breakage. Tires at least 33 inches in height will cut down on dragging rocker panels and transfer cases. Lower axle gearing helps maintain control of the vehicle, and a locker in the back will help keep your vehicle off the tow strap.

You can travel the trail in just about any make or model vehicle--we took two fullsize trucks over it last fall and did everything but the Little Sluice and the Old Sluice. However, as a courtesy to others, it’s best not to take a fullsize during busy weekends. It takes longer and you’ll be nobody’s buddy for holding up their trail ride.

The more advanced your vehicle mods, the more alternate loops and famous obstacles you can tackle. The Old Sluice is supertight and is best suited for short and narrow vehicles. The Little Sluice has a few giant rocks in it, which makes it a real challenge even for the most radical 4x4s.

Getting There and Driving the Trail

The Rubicon Trail is located on the west side of Lake Tahoe in California, and is normally run from west to east. You can enter the trail at Georgetown or at Loon Lake. Entering at Georgetown adds considerable mileage to the trail, but not many challenging obstacles. Even starting at Loon Lake, the trail can take 10 or more hours to run. A realistic approach is to plan for two days and bring camping gear.

Most of the trail is easy to find, although there are no longer any signs pointing out the main trail or alternates. An extremely detailed map is available from Sidekick (Dept. 4WOR, 12475 Central Ave., Ste. 352, Chino, CA 91710, 909/628-7727).

See You on the Trail

If you weren’t drooling to go before reading this article, we’re sure you are now. The scenery is unmatched as the trail takes you from 2,650 feet to 7,000 feet, and even though you’re never more than 10 miles from a town, you truly feel as though you’re in the middle of nowhere. As we said at the beginning of this article, the Rubicon isn’t the most difficult trail, but nothing matches its combination of beauty, moderate difficulty, and history.