The Rubicon Trail is the Mecca of off-roading jeep adventures in North America. It sets the bar for which all other trails are judged by, not only for its difficulty but for its beauty. While the entire trail is only about 22 miles long and only about 10 of it are off-road, it runs through some of the most beautiful mountains and lakes in the country, finishing at Lake Tahoe.
With the right vehicle and crew, the trail can be completed in one day. However, it is far more fun to take the 3 day leisurely route. This allows for many stops to enjoy the views, swim in the lakes, have a drink at the “beer tree,” watch other jeeps attempt difficult maneuvers, and cook and sleep by a campfire in the great outdoors.
You don’t want to attempt this trail unprepared. A responsible attempt requires a high performance off-road vehicle with over $10k in after-market parts to lift the clearance and reinforce the entire bottom of the vehicle with steel plates to protect it as it slides over boulders. Fortunately we came prepared.
The off-road section of the trail begins at Loon Lake, a stunning lake with surprisingly clear blue water, not your typical brownish-green dirty looking lake. We drive past Loon Lake in awe, and the excitement really begins to kick in as we peer over our other shoulder down a steep hill to where hundreds of jeeps have gathered for a Labor Day jamboree called the Cantina on the Con near the beginning of the trail.
We stop briefly to air down our tires from 30 to 10 psi to gain maximum traction for the daunting trail. As we are airing down, a large truck that looks like it has been crushed by a wrecking ball crawls past us going the opposite direction towards home. We gawk at the shattered front windshield and twisted truck body and frame. Our excitement gets an adrenaline boost as our mind begins to process the potential danger we are embarking upon.
Sesar, our crew leader is an army veteran officer who owns a jeep shop called “The Chop Shop” and has about twenty years of experience off-roading. We know we are in good hands, but I still have to ask him – “What’s our chance of rolling the jeep on this trip?” “About 30%” he responds. With that, we buckle up and begin climbing across the first few boulders on the trail.
The trail starts off pretty intense. The first section is very narrow with lots of boulders and trees seemingly coming at you from every direction. I have no idea how far the jeep can lean before tipping over, so I grab on to the frame of the truck to brace myself, but Sesar warns me that my hands will get crushed if we roll the jeep. He instructs me how to cross my arms and lean toward the center in the event we roll. I comply but still wonder what will protect me from getting impaled by a protruding rock or branch when we roll. “Just don’t roll” I say. After a few minutes of rocking and climbing over the boulders at 0-3mph, the fear turns to excitement again. This is surprisingly fun! I now understand why Sesar does what he does.
We complete the first section of the trail and stop for a refreshment near the “beer tree,” on a huge granite slab called the granite bowl. We can see for miles in every direction as we toast to our adventure and soak in the incredible views. There are 13 of us in four jeeps, all four of which have been given the full Chop Shop upgrade.
After a refreshing break we load up and continue on to the Soup Bowl, a big boulder pile that regularly attracts crowds of weekend warriors looking to test their vehicle’s mettle. We continue on the trail for the rest of the day, stopping every 30 minutes or so to soak in the views, swap stories, and get to know each other better. We are all friends or family of Sesar, but we don’t all know each other before this trip.
As night falls, we drive in using our headlights to Buck Lake, our chosen campsite for the first night. We devour our first meal since breakfast by a campfire with plenty of wine and Crown Royale. However, it’s not until sunrise the next morning that we can fully appreciate the prime location of the rock slab we slept on for the night.
After coffee and breakfast, a few brave souls take a dip in the cold lake before we pack up and begin the next leg of the trip. It is here that Sesar passes the wheel over to me for my first real off-road driving experience. I am hesitant to drive at first because it looks like a stressful job. Kicking back and letting Sesar and his brother do all the driving had suited me just fine. However, within minutes of bouncing over a few boulders I’m having the time of my life. The Jeep is extremely user friendly and capable of handling the terrain.
He guides me from the ground with hand signals over boulders and between trees, all the while I’m watching his signals as much as I’m watching the road. My leg shakes a bit as I hold the brakes down as hard as I can while the jeep crawls down a steep 2-3 foot drop-off using downhill assist (cool technology). At this point, I’m more worried about his $70k jeep that I’m scraping against the boulders than I am about injuring myself. I have no idea how long I’m driving, but eventually we reach “Big Sluice,” a more difficult section of the trail, and Sesar decides it’s time for him to take over. At this point, I’m pretty content to hand over the wheel unscathed.
We continue our journey, stopping briefly for a few of our crew to backflip off the Rubicon River Bridge into a 3 foot deep stream, resulting in the only Injury of the trip (only a flesh wound). We then barbecue some carne Asada at Rubicon Springs before beginning the treacherous “Cadillac hill,” a steep 1-2 mile rocky incline with many cutbacks (not a good place to roll the jeep).
As if Cadillac Hill isn’t hard enough on its own, we spend two hours towing a stranded Land Cruiser up the hill. Their rear driveline was broken, a common occurrence for anyone attempting the trail without reinforcing the underside with steel protection. We knock on wood, grateful that we have made it this far without any problems.
Eventually, we make it to Observation Point at the top of Cadilllac Hill in time for a beautiful sunset and a meal cooked over an open flame. The next morning we complete the last 1.5 hours of the trail which leaves us at Lake Tahoe where we all high-5 and begin the drive home. While I’m not ready to buy a $70k jeep, I am excited to crash his annual jeep adventure next year: the Moab in Utah!