If you were awake one morning back in June 2016 as the sun rose over Placerville, California, a small town nestled in the eastern side of the state not far from Sacramento and Reno, you would have seen twenty-some lifted 4x4s overflowing with gear headed out of town. It was mid-June and this was our group, up early, to get to the most famous trail in the world: the Rubicon.
The Ultimate Adventure is a weeklong four-wheeling trip where we spend days living out of our 4x4s. Every year we explore a new area with invited readers, supporting sponsors, staff rigs, and a handful of cronies. We hunt for the best trails an area has to offer. This year we started our week struggling across record heat in the deserts of southern California. (Read all about it in "Ultimate Adventure 2016, Part 1,"). The trip was led by Editor Christian Hazel in his inaugural role as leader of this "no trailers allowed," "run what you brung," "it's all about the adventure," event we've been putting on since 1999. The UA has become legendary for the challenge of taking your built 4x4, running the toughest trails you can find, and then driving it on road days between those trails.
Our troop battled overheating engines, transmissions, and drivers, but now we were climbing to the cooler temps of NorCal with a sigh of relief. There were also jitters of excitement from the attendees who were about to mark off some of bucket-list trails. The attendees come from all across the country, so you can imagine the sleepless night before we left Placerville as these guys, a long way from home, were about to go run the trail they had heard about for years. As the sun rose over Placerville, the attendees of UA 2016, well rested or not, were buzzing to see what the 'Con had to offer. And if running the Rubicon in a very post–hard winter, torn-up state wasn't enough, we had almost no sooner departed the Rubicon when it was time for an overnight trip up through the Fordyce Creek trail; arguably one of the most beautiful and entertaining 4x4 trails in the world.
After several epic days running bucket-list obstacles and world-renown routes, Ultimate Adventure 2016 sadly came to an end at the Boomtown casino just east of Reno . . . because why not?
What's in store for next year? Where will our band of hardcore T-case jockeys get their wheeling fix? You'll just have to wait to find out. But be sure to stop by fourwheeler.com/ultimate-adventure/ to enter if you want to see firsthand...because you can't come along if you don't enter.
The Rubicon trail is still an El Dorado county road and as such it’s open to everyone. We fully expected it to be busy on the cool clear June day we headed onto the slabs at the start of the trail. We rose before the sun in hopes of getting to the trail before other groups so we could have fun on the trail and still find a great camping spot at the end of the day.
Before we could even hit the road that morning returning support crew (old crony) Keith Bailey found a leak in his transmission cooler in the hotel parking lot in Placerville. He has wanted to run the ’Con for as long as he can remember, and being from Alabama it was always a long shot. When he found the problem he was bummed that he may miss the trail or waste time fixing his Jeep buggy while all his friends were having fun. But in normal UA fashion everyone pitched in, a quick trail fix was invented, and we raced to the trailhead right on (or only slightly behind) schedule.
Once we hit the trail our first taste of the Sierra Nevada rocks are the Slabs, a wide-open rocky area requiring following the posted signs to get to the wooded parts of the trail. Trent McGee, one of our longest attending UA campers, proved that the Rubicon can be run in one day when he drove all the way through the trail, picked up some camera crew at the other end in his buggy, and backtracked to meet up with us at camp. It can be done, but we recommend taking two days or more to really enjoy the trail.
The first challenging obstacle we encountered was the Soup Bowl. This off-camber climb has mismatched ledges of various heights and depths that make it look a lot easier than it is. We ran almost every attendee through the bowl and found that longer-wheelbase vehicles seemed to have an advantage (but not always). Mike Ruzicka, representing Rugged Radios, our official communications sponsor, made short work of the bowl in his capable trail TJ.
Cooper “Smash” Rasmussen refrained from his normal exuberant driving style while attempting Soup Bowl and opted to throw a bone to our longest-running sponsor, Warn, rather than hammer his well-built fullsize Jeep. Rasmussen, representing Power Products Unlimited, has learned the limits of the front Dana 44. He knows when to throttle down and when to winch out.
We were cruising along the Rubicon when a helicopter swept over us and circled once before landing. Everyone wondered what was going on when Pearse Umlauf jumped from the chopper and came running towards us with a box. Umlauf is the vice president of Jeep Jamboree USA, the organization started by the late Mark Smith and one of the largest supporters of the Rubicon Trail. Though we hadn’t broadcasted that we were going to be there, Umlauf figured it out and surprised us with a special delivery of fresh coffee! Yes, we were brought coffee on the ’Con by chopper. How cool is that?! It was a perfect surprise after our early morning start. Thanks, Pearse!
Wayne Lambert and his co-driver, Jack Geigle, hadn’t been rockcrawling a lot in their 1971 Chevy, but they worked through the Rubicon with little drama. The big green machine crawled over boulders, and Lambert earned a few battle scars on the trail, but we just consider them honor badges from summer camp. The big-block power and NV4500 manual transmission had no major issues with the old-iron rock machine.
The Rubicon Trail is well known, and in recent years the trail has had some of its harder sections smoothed out for easier travel, but don’t think the trail is easy. There are bypasses for many sections, but we stuck to the harder stuff and gave our 4x4s a good workout. Dave Chappelle is a California native but hadn’t run the trail before. His little Toyota on airbags worked great twisting through boulders as big as itself.
The day of wheeling ended at Buck Island, a campsite along the Rubicon where we and many other groups converged for a great night of cooking over a fire and reliving our escapades from the day. This is the reason we do UA, getting to wheel all day and then hang out with new and old friends around camp. Even if you never go on our UA trip, we hope you’ll organize one with your friends and go enjoy some wheeling, camping adventures.
This is Sebastian from Sweden; he was on the Rubicon with some friends for a Land Cruiser event and came by our camp to talk about UA. We’re pretty sure he’ll be applying to ship his 4x4 over next year and go on the trip.
Many of the UA attendees use these tent cots for camping because they keep you off the ground (great if the ground is muddy or rocky) and they fold flat for pretty good storage in a 4x4. Here you can see the morning Verne Simons peeking out of his nest to see if his sandals and truck are still where he left them the night before.
We rallied the troops and hit the trail as early as possible the next morning and worked our way down Big Sluice to Rubicon Springs. The Rubicon can be busy any day of the week all summer long, so be courteous of faster-moving groups or folks going the other direction so everyone can enjoy it.
The low-slung chopped and cropped custom JK that Chris Durham and Fred Perry brought representing Warn is a rock-slaying machine. They are from South Carolina and not only drove the Jeep across the country for UA, but Durham then drove it up to Alaska for even more wheeling after our event. The Jeep has a healthy 5.9L Dodge V-8 under the hood, as well as an onboard welder, tons of aluminum armor, and built 1-ton axles. It doesn’t hurt that the two guys in the Jeep are some of the best trail drivers in the world.
Rubicon Springs is the destination for when you’re ready to rinse off the dust of the trail. There are large flat rocks to park on and a chilled stream for soaking a bit and getting the grime off. Many groups camp here overnight, as there are plenty of out-houses, but even if you’re just passing through you don’t want to miss a quick swim.
As you head out from the springs it is time to climb famous Cadillac Hill. As we mentioned the trail is a county road and it was once so mild that cars were common at the springs. One such two-wheel-drive vehicle met its demise on this hill, and the climb has borne its current name ever since. The Skyjacker crew was representing with a double dose of Old Glory as we worked our way up the hill.
Before long, some were getting really low on fuel, especially if your engine is a 505-inch stroker Chrysler that loves the go-juice. We scavenged and siphoned from the other guys with bigger tanks and eventually got everyone off the trail and into the cool little mountain town of Truckee, California.
We rolled out of Truckee early the next morning with bellies full of coffee and tanks full of gas and headed towards the final trail of the trip, Fordyce Creek Trail. The climb out of Truckee heads up towards Donner Summit, and we crossed our fingers that there would be no need to cannibalize our fellow adventurers before the end of the adventure. In case you don’t know the story of the Donner Party, here is a quick recap: In the winter of 1846 a group of settlers got trapped in the High Sierra show near Truckee. Half the group died. The other half ate the dead to survive.
Though the Rubicon is the crown jewel of NorCal wheeling trails, Fordyce deserves just as much praise if you’re looking for the tough-as-granite obstacles and amazing scenery with five-star camping opportunities. And by “five-star camping” we mean great views and mountain streams, not room service. Fordyce is the home of the annual Sierra Trek and offers about 11 miles of very challenging rockcrawling.
The trail is known for winch hills, but obstacles that aren’t even considered winch hills can give lesser-built 4x4s a challenge. This unnamed obstacle has an easy go-around, but when you bring guys together for a week of wheeling from all over the country you better expect we’ll try the hard stuff. This slippery V-notch climb required the perfect mix of wheelbase, traction, throttle application, choice of line, and luck to make it up. Keith Bailey brought some Southern-style throttle to bump his buggy (loaded down with food and supplies for the video crew; note the rooftop fridge-freezer) and bounced his way over the hurdle.
The Falken Tire Jeep, driven by Andrew Hoit and copiloted by Drew Hoit, also made short work of the challenging “which hill 0.5,” as it’s otherwise known, with a rappy 5.3L GM engine under the hood and 38-inch Falken Wild Peak M/T rubber. The Hoits wheeled hard and had few if any issues from their Jeep all week. You could count on them to serve up a big dose of throttle, driving finesse, and a good-natured smiles all week long.
We then headed to Winch Hill 1, a long rock chute with axle-grabbing boulders and a tight V-notch at the top. There is a bypass, but few took it. We opted for wheeling versus getting to camp before dark.
The thick rock fields of Fordyce had our Ultimate Summer Camp Jeep all twisted up as the Falkens gripped for traction. The Jeep had seen some struggles with high temps earlier in the week as we crossed Death Valley, but the cooler rock trails of Northern California were a welcome reprieve. The hot rod Jeep worked its way up the trail with glee.
Even though his truck sits superlow Dave Chappelle walked up Winch Hill 1 like it wasn’t even there.
Stephen and James Watson probably felt at home amongst the tall pines of Northern California since it resembles their native Colorado. There big square-body trail machine was right at home crawling over the Fordyce boulders and never missed a beat. The Watsons had the rig thoroughly sorted out and dialed in.
Beside the rockcrawling there are several water crossings on Fordyce, and some can be very deep. Rich Conlon was plagued with gremlins on the trip this year in his yellow Wrangler, but lucky for him no major carnage would occur until the final portion of trail when his mostly stock rear axle gave up the ghost.
Sam Gillis has been part of our crony support crew for years, and we were stoked that he was able to finally run some West Coast trails so far from his Alabama home. His Jeep “Liberty” is a long way from stock, and we’re pretty sure that color isn’t even factory, but Gillis made the entire trip without so much as a vehicular hiccup, all the while providing help to anybody needing it.
Just like any group of guys we found ourselves getting competitive as we raced the setting sun to get to camp. It’s not really like we had anywhere to be, since we didn’t even know where we were camping, but there might have been a bit of rubbin’ and racin’ as we tried to cut each other off and be the first one to wherever we were headed.
As usual, dinner was cooked after we arrived at camp, and we arrived at camp after dark. We bet the cronies can cook a meal over a campfire to rival a meal at any five-star restaurant—plus, there’s never any wait for a table under the stars.
Though there was much more of Fordyce to explore and enjoy, we had to cut out at the halfway point and end our adventure—but not before one more fun obstacle and another water crossing. This year’s UA returning reader, Robert Keller, stuffed his big patina’d K-series GMC in the crack of this climb and let the big truck do its thing.
Shortly behind Keller came reader Wayne and his big Chevy. It was great to see these guys pushing their vehicles through the tough stuff when there was an easy bypass just yards away.
As the group wound its way up the trail and towards the exit, Clifton Slay and his blue LJ pulled tail gunner duty, making sure no one fell behind, broke, or got lost.
And before we knew it our trip was almost over and we were heading back down Donner Pass to our celebration dinner. Everyone had survived (though we may have voted and picked out which adventurer was going on the spit if we all got stranded). Our great summer of 2016 adventure was over. Before long we all headed back to our day jobs. Some of the group were home the next day, while others had two or three days of driving left before they would roll in their driveways, but all of us were wondering when we would get to see our pals again and do more four-wheeling together. If you want to be a part of this wacky weeklong wheel trip, then get your 4x4 dialed in and apply for Ultimate Adventure 2017. We’ll be looking for a few good readers with a great attitude and a sense of adventure.