What You Need To Know To Take On The Rubicon Trail
Photography: Harry Wagner
The Rubicon. The very name conjures up images of Jeeps crawling over huge granite boulders in one of the most beautiful settings you can imagine, full of high alpine lakes, rocky mountain peaks, and pine trees as far as the eye can see. Crossing this trail for the first time can be an intimidating experience, though. That is especially true if you aren’t with a veteran of the trail or have driven your Jeep hundreds (or thousands) of miles to cross the Rubicon. The name itself is derived from the Rubicon River. When Julius Caesar led his army across it in 49 BC, he said, “the die is cast.” He knew as he entered Italy, he was defying Pompey and began a long civil war. Since then, the Rubicon has come to symbolize passing a point of no return.
History Of The Trail
In the 1880s, mineral springs were discovered near Lake Tahoe at Rubicon Springs. The springs were reported to have therapeutic qualities. The area quickly became a vacation destination for the newly rich from San Francisco. In the western tradition of boomtowns, a hotel was erected and guests were brought in by stagecoach, and later by horseless carriage. As the Great Depression hit, the resort was abandoned and fell into disrepair through two world wars. Similarly, the Rubicon/McKinney Road, between Georgetown and Lake Tahoe, was unused.
That was until 1953 when Mark Smith led the first group of flat fender Jeeps through the Rubicon on what would later be known as the Jeepers Jamboree. The Rubicon’s status as a county road means that there are no gates or fees, just like when Smith crossed the trail over 60 years ago. That designation also means that all rules of the road apply including seat belt usage and drinking and driving. El Dorado County Sheriffs Department does patrol the trail by Jeep and UTV. But they can usually be found lending assistance more often than handing out tickets.
Can You Do It?
People often ask, “Can my rig make it through the trail?” It really depends on what you consider a good time. If you like a challenge and the goal is to survive, even if it means turning a few wrenches along the way, you can get a stock 4×4 through the Rubicon. If you are more interested in swimming in Buck Island Lake and getting into camp before dark, a few modifications will make the trip much more enjoyable. You don’t need a dedicated rock buggy, but some upgrades are a wise investment. The smaller the tires you have, the more skid plates, rock sliders, and similar armor you should add to keep your vehicle from looking like a crumpled beer can when it exits the trail. Consider running at least 33-inch tall tires for ground clearance, and those tires should be LT rated (not P metric) with strong sidewalls and plenty of tread depth. Vehicles with supple suspensions that keep the tires on the ground can get away with open differentials, but it does make the trail more challenging. We recommend at least one locking differential, preferably in the rear. Low gears (either in the differentials or the transfer case) will provide more control and generate less heat, particularly if you have a manual transmission.
The most common direction the Rubicon is run is from west to east from Loon Lake to Lake Tahoe. An alternative (and more challenging) route starts at Wentworth Springs and meets up with the Loon Lake entrance at Ellis Creek. To get to Loon Lake, you can either go through Georgetown on Highway 193 or up Ice House Road from Highway 50. Neither route is particularly wide, flat, or straight, and we have seen many a Jeep and tow rig on the side of the road before they even reach Loon Lake. Make sure that your steering, braking, and cooling systems are all in tip-top shape before beginning this journey. On the other end, you come out in Tahoma on the shores of Lake Tahoe after a long, cobbled dirt road finally gives way back to pavement. The trail can be run backward, but expect traffic and be courteous when you encounter it. A little goodwill goes a long way on the Rubicon. You never know when you might need the help of other trail users.
When To Go
The Rubicon isn’t subjected to seasonal closures. There are some of the lunatic fringes who wheel the trail in the winter, but we don’t recommend it. Off-camber hills can be icy and slick, and holes form around trees that can swallow rigs whole. The best time to run the Rubicon is typically June through September, depending on how heavy of a winter Tahoe has experienced. Usually, the Rubicon is more challenging earlier in the year, particularly after a harsh winter. Later in the year, after large organized runs, many of the holes have been filled with rocks and the trail smooths out somewhat. If you like crowds, show up on any weekend in July. If you’re more of an introvert, your best bet is a midweek run.
What To Bring
We have seen the full spectrum on the Rubicon from people who bring power tools and spare differentials to those who only pack a cooler of beverages for the weekend. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, depending on how many people are coming with you and how much room you have. Most people tend to over pack. But if you are going with a group of friends with vehicles similar to yours consider dividing up tools and spare parts. Not all of you need to carry extra brake fluid, or even a jack or a spare tire if you have the same tire size and wheel bolt pattern.
You will definitely want to bring a full-size spare tire and a jack capable of lifting your vehicle to change the tire (or place rocks under them if you are high centered). We also recommend a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, recovery points front and rear, and a strap at a minimum. These are good ideas not only for the Rubicon but any trail. When it comes to tools and spare parts, if we have needed it on the trail in the past, we definitely bring it along. If it has been in our toolbox for more than a year or two and we have never used it, we leave it at home. If you are trailering your Jeep to the trail, you can split the difference and take some things with you and leave others at the tow rig where they can be retrieved if necessary.
Jeepers Jamboree and Organized Runs
Going on an organized trail ride isn’t a requirement on the Rubicon. But it isn’t a bad idea, especially if you are not familiar with the trail. The Jeepers Jamboree continues today when 500 Jeeps cross the Rubicon in a single weekend. This trip is a fully catered party with steak dinners in Rubicon Springs and plenty of time to relax and have a good time. Jeep Jamboree is catered more towards families and those who are new to the trail. It has more emphasis on staff along the way to keep you moving or help with trail repairs. Other smaller events take place throughout the summer as well, with varying levels of organization and costs. Many, such as the Rubithon, Rubicon Scrambler, and the Marlin Crawler Roundup, cater to specific makes and models of vehicles. These are great opportunities for people who are new to the trail to experience the Rubicon in an environment where there is plenty of help along the way.
While the Rubicon can be run in a day, it kind of misses the mark of why you are there in the first place. We like to spend at least one night on the trail, with two nights being even better. If we are going out the same direction we came in, we typically camp in one spot. But if we are going all the way through the trail, we will camp at a couple of different places along the way. While rooftop tents are all the rage, a ground tent is the most common shelter found on the Rubicon. You will also want to bring sleeping bags and air mattresses for everyone in your vehicle to ensure that they get a good night sleep. When we camp, we also bring flashlights, headlamps, folding chairs, sunscreen, and bug spray regardless if we are on the Rubicon or in a paved campground.
If you go on Jeep Jamboree or Jeepers Jamboree, you don’t need to worry about food beyond some snacks and drinks while you are on the trail. If you go it alone though you will not only want to bring plenty of food and water, but plates, utensils, cooking gear, and a stove. Some people eat better on the trail than they do at home. Others survive for days off of cold pizza. Note that if you plan to cook over a fire, you need to check with the Forest Service first to ensure that there are no fire restrictions and get a permit. This can be done online at preventwildfireca.org or at the Crystal Basin Information Station on Ice House Road.
Weather conditions on the Rubicon are highly variable. You might need a jacket in the morning, be sweating at midday, and be freezing after the sun goes down. We recommend planning for anything from snow to triple-digit temperatures and dressing in layers so you can easily add or remove clothing. Also, remember to bring your swim trunks so you can cool off in the many high alpine lakes along the way. The water will likely be chilly, but it is invigorating after a long day on the trail.
You won’t have cell phone service on the Rubicon (or much of Ice House Road for that matter) regardless of who your carrier is. CBs and handheld radios are useful for communicating with other members of your group on the trail. But if you want to reach back to civilization a HAM radio is the only way to go. You do need a license from the FCC to operate a HAM radio. This isn’t particularly difficult but must be done ahead of time. Handheld radios work reasonably well, but a vehicle-mounted radio with higher wattage and a better antenna will have no issues anywhere on the trail. The Rubicon Repeater is located near Spider Lake and covers most of the trail. It operates on frequency 444.9875 +5.00 PL 156.7. The KA6GWY repeater (146.805 -.600 PL123.0) covers the west slope of El Dorado County and is linked into the Rubicon Repeater.
What To Do
Remember, four wheeling is supposed to be fun! Take your time on the Rubicon. Stop to watch buggies conquer the Soup Bowl and enjoy the expansive views in every direction. If you like to fish, bring your pole and try your luck at Loon or Buck Island Lake. If you like to hike, ask the caretaker in Rubicon Springs how to get to the old abandoned cabin or Rockbound Lake. Or maybe you just want to cool off in the water at Rubicon Springs and watch the rolling Jeep show drive by. You are bound to see anything and everything on the Rubicon and get ideas for modifications and gear to make your own rig more capable and comfortable for your return to the Rubicon Trail.