It was a cool summer morning in the foothill town of Georgetown, California. From the wood-rail balcony of the Georgetown Hotel, guests sipped coffee and took in the spectacle below. On the two-lane country street, a few dozen Willys Jeeps lined up five abreast, wheels pointed "upcountry," toward the High Sierra. Opposite the hotel, members of the Rotary Club and the Georgetown Rifle and Gun Club prepared breakfast for the gathering crowd and handed out bag lunches of fried chicken. There was an excitement in the air, anticipation of a weekend of camping and Jeeping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Twelve months earlier, a small group of Rotary members gathered at the home of Mark Smith. The focus of the meeting was to develop a fundraising event to help the town's struggling economy. Several members had made scouting treks over the Rubicon "Road" to Wentworth Springs and the Rubicon Valley, and decided a weekend Jeep trip might be the answer to their dilemma. Member Harold Krabbenhoft suggested the soirée be called the Jeepers Jamboree, and Smith was officially named "Jeepmaster." The year was 1952.
On a cool morning in late July, I pulled my rig onto that same two-lane street and parked in front of the old Georgetown Hotel. Across the street, eager four-wheelers lined up in front of the Jamboree office. Six decades had passed since that inaugural event, but excitement levels were still high, everyone anticipating the next four days of driving the Rubicon Trail.
There are few off-road events that have stood the test of time, shifting economic cycles, and the threat of environmental extremists; yet the Jeepers Jamboree has thrived. Since 1953, Jeepers Jamboree guides have led more than 35,000 vehicles and 102,000 guests to the 19th-century resort in Rubicon Springs. Over the years, hundreds of magazine articles, TV shows, and documentaries (in more than a dozen languages and 100 countries), have rendered the Rubicon an international icon of 4WD trails. As for the Jeepers Jamboree, it has earned a reputation as the "Granddaddy" of 4WD events.
Growing up less than a two-hour drive away from the Rubicon, I hadn't grasped the extent of the trail's true notoriety until traveling in Africa, Europe, Australia, and South America. When I'd mention I was from California, everyone would ask if I had been to the Rubicon and would say that they wanted to drive the Rubicon Trail if they ever came to America. The word Rubicon has become iconic, synonymous with Jeeping and 4WD sports.
On the Trail
Though the Jamboree originally departed from Wentworth Springs, today's participants stage and collect their lunches at Loon Lake, on the edge of the Granite Bowl. Lunches, provided by the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), are still a bag of fried chicken and fixings. The community tradition of the Jamboree is still strong, as this is the VFW's largest fundraiser of the year. The same applies to the Placerville American Legion, which manages the Jamboree kitchen and saloon in Rubicon Springs.
The view from Loon Lake is a spectacular example of Mother Nature at her finest. Ancient pine and fir trees rise from small fissures in solid granite, lining the approach to the fist obstacle. The Gatekeeper, appropriately named due to its difficulty and location at the beginning of the trail, filters out all but the most capable vehicles. The Granite Bowl dipped to the north, hosting a parade of Jeeps, Toyotas, Land Rovers, and vintage Broncos (the Jamboree allows all makes of 4WDs). Each section of the trail seems to have been labeled: the Big Sluice, the Little Sluice, and the Soup Can. Then there are those tough spots named after Jamboree pioneers, such as Walker Hill and Arnold's Rock.
Though only 16 miles in length, it would take the entire day to reach the cool waters of Rubicon Springs. By late afternoon, we arrived at Buck Island Lake, where the mechanic crew was busy fixing broken vehicles. The Jamboree helicopter swept overhead on a low pass and landed on a granite helipad. One of the mechanics ran off to collect parts for one of the damaged Jeeps. "Jeepers Jamboree has a motto," said Jamboree President Dan DeWolf. "We'll get you in, and we'll get you out." If your vehicle needs repair, there is no charge for the labor or helicopter, just the replacement parts.
Beyond Buck Island lies Rockbound Lake and the Desolation Wilderness area. The last section before arriving in Jamboree main camp in Rubicon Springs is a boulder strewn descent known as Big Sluice. Crossing an Erector Set–type bridge over the Rubicon River places you firmly in Rubicon Valley.
The Jamboree offers three-, four-, and five-day trips. The first day is spent on the trail, with the following days relaxing by the river, enjoying main camp, and being pampered with home-cooked meals from the Jamboree kitchen. Evenings are usually around the campfire, bellying up to the bar at Amos' Place for a cold libation, and enjoying the live band. This year, they gave away a fully equipped Jeep Wrangler to one lucky participant to celebrate the 60th Jamboree.
For many, the Jamboree has become a generational family tradition. I talked to folks who experienced the Jamboree as teenagers, bouncing around in the back of their fathers' CJ5s and whose grandfathers attended Jamboree back in the '50s in an old Willys flatfender.
Saturday afternoon, while 57-year Jamboree veteran Steve Morris gave a historical talk on the area, I sat with Mark Smith at the Rubicon Springs Ice Cream Parlor and listened to his recollections of the event. Mark, now 85, is a legend in the four-wheel-drive world. As one of the founding fathers of the Jeepers Jamboree and Jeep Jamboree USA, he has led Jeep trips around the world. He, along with hundreds of other Jamboree staff, has been instrumental in the development and success of the event.
Smith said, "It is hard to realize that 60 years ago we started something like this. I had no idea that I would even be here for a 60th Jeepers Jamboree. It is a great pleasure to be here today, to meet old friends, see faces again."
While Mark stopped to sign an autograph and take a photo with a fan, I asked Dan DeWolf about the next 60 years. He smiled and said, "Now that the Rubicon is an official county road, we have a very good chance to keep the trail open for future generations of 4WD enthusiasts. As for a 120th or 100th Jamboree, I probably won't be here, but I sure hope the Jeepers Jamboree is, and I hope people are still enjoying this amazing place."