Jeep Wrangler Rubicons take on their namesake 4X4 track in the USA.
Candle light flickers across gaunt faces. Eyes are sunken, exhaustion is obvious. Conversation is muted because everyone is too busy eating. We know the fight begins again in the morning so it’s important to re-stock energy. Sleep awaits in our tents not far away.
This is not a bivouac behind some battlefield and we are not soldiers. We’re at Rubicon Springs campground deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as guests of Jeep, about two-thirds of the way through a crossing of the legendary Rubicon Trail.
Incongruously, there’s a grand piano tinkling in the background, helicoptered in especially for this occasion. There’s an open bar and fresh-cooked steaks. There are all the makings of a pretty decent party.
Except we’re too knackered to think about festivities. The day began at 7am at our digs down near Squaw Valley and it took three hours just to get to the trailhead. It’s taken us another 11 hours 30 minutes to make it here, just 13 kilometres further on. Yep, that’s an average of just over one kilometre per hour.
That should give you a hint of just how tough this place is and why it has become globally famous as the ultimate 4X4 trail.
The Rubicon’s origin can be traced back to a time when it was an Indian walking trail. But for four-wheel drivers its history began in 1953 when a group of 155 friends took their Jeeps across the rough granite path through the Sierra Nevada Mountains on their way to Lake Tahoe, California.
This trek, originally conceived as a way to support the economy of the local community, was to become the first official Jeep crossing of the Rubicon Trail and the first-ever Jeep Jamboree.
The trek was led by Mark A Smith, who is still deeply involved with the Jeep brand and the Rubicon Trail. Since then, tens of thousands of 4X4 enthusiasts and their vehicles have traversed the famous trail.
The Rubicon is a 35km route – part road and part 4X4 track – located west of Lake Tahoe. The maintained portion of the route is called the McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road, and it begins in Georgetown, California, a hamlet in the state’s Gold Country.
The McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road was originally established for stagecoaches to access resort hotels at Wentworth Springs and Rubicon Springs from the 1890s until the 1920s. The trail saw the first motorised travel in 1908. From the 1950s through today, the Rubicon Trail has largely been used by off-road enthusiasts for recreation.
The trailhead for the unmaintained section of the route begins in a location adjacent to Loon Lake. The 4X4 trail portion is about 19km long and passes in part through the El Dorado National Forest.
The trail crosses a river at one point close to Lake Tahoe. Early settlers named the river Rubicon after its counterpart in Italy – a small river north of Rome that Julius Caesar fatefully crossed in 49BC.
Drawing on that history, the term Rubicon now means ‘a limit that, when passed or exceeded, permits no return and typically results in irrevocable commitment.’ To ‘cross the Rubicon’ means ‘to irrevocably commit to a course of action, or make a fateful and final decision’. Appropriate really.
WRANGLING WITH THE RUBICONS
The Rubicon Trail has also been used for over four decades by Jeep engineering teams to improve the off-road capability of Jeep brand vehicles and to aid in the development of new models and technologies.
This time round, Jeep had invited us here to try out the model year 2012 Wrangler, which most significantly swaps its outdated overhead valve 3.8-litre V6 for the sophisticated new Pentastar DOHC 3.6-litre V6. It does all the things a new generation engine should, bringing with it more power and torque and better fuel efficiency.
Naturally, being the Rubicon Trail, we were driving the Rubicon edition of the Wrangler, which adds even more off-road capability compared to the Sport. Considering all Wranglers are decent off-road, that is saying something! It achieves that distinction via such features as Dana 44 front and rear live axles, Rock-Trac two-speed transfer case, electronic front and rear locking differentials, disconnecting front swaybar and 32-inch rock tyres.
Having cruised up from Squaw Creek in a 17-strong convoy of Wrangler Sports, the collection of four Aussie media and two Jeep staffers, as well as a big group of Chinese journos and one Filipino, transferred into Rubicons at Loon Lake.
Co-driver, and fellow freelancer Josh Dowling and I agreed we wanted the security and protection of a fixed roof. We ended up in a long-wheelbase Ultimate with a manual gearbox. An hour later we had travelled 300 metres, been stuck several times and already overcome 4X4 challenges exceeding anything we’d seen before.
Already we were wondering where they got the idea the Rubicon was, in fact, a trail. All we’d encountered so far was a bunch of rocks and boulders, over which we had crashed, banged, graunched and grinded. It sounded like icebergs dragging on the Titanic. Thankfully, the Rubicon’s features include substantial underbody protection.
And when we inevitably did get hung up – turtling it’s called – the guides would rebuild the trail literally on the run, making ramps and grip points so the Wranglers could at least get one wheel pushing forward once more.
AVERAGE SPEED: 1KM/H
Ah, the guides. In their yellow T-shirts, these 4X4 enthusiasts were our lifeline as we inched forward over one obstacle after another. They ran forward and back, never riding along. Instructions were detailed and minute. It’s definitely a case of slow and steady rather than bull at a gate.
“Stay left, back up, stop, turn wheels to the right, good, turn wheels back to left, that’s where I want you, straighten wheels a little, c’mon come forward, straighten a little, keep coming right, keep it straight, go straight down there all the way over the obstacle. Very nice.” That’s another two metres conquered. “We do this for a hobby,” explained guide, Brian. “I’m just a member of a local group. It’s an awesome place to live.”
Indeed it is. When we could tear our eyes from the fascinating sight of the Jeep in front of us teetering and slithering over piles of rocks the size of haybales, bouncing up and down granite steps and assuming attitudes more extreme than a drunken teenager at 4am, the Sierra Nevadas were a truly spectacular place to be.
We were at 2000m and beyond, yet the mountain tops still reared over us, covered in pines, snow still dappling their peaks. When we broke out into open territory on what’s called Granite Bowl we could see for miles. No wonder people ask to have their ashes scattered up here. More than once we saw white crosses on hillsides marking such a spot.
Mind you, it wasn’t hard to wonder if any of these crosses belong to people who actually died driving up here. It really is that extreme. In one rocky sluice, I had two wheels in a ditch, two on a granite side wall and then turned hard left up a sheer bank, executed a two point right turn around a boulder with al-o-n-g drop-off to the left, then went straight up another wall. Repeat several hundred times and you’re getting the idea.
My confidence level peaked and troughed from obstacle to obstacle. One moment I was punching the air after clambering up or down an impossible rock garden without a mistake, the next red-faced and embarrassed after getting hung up on something that looked straightforward. Then the yellow-shirted guides would descend like worker ants, bouncing front and rear, rearranging rocks and issuing their explicit advice.
Everyone went through it, often watched by locals pulled to the side of the trail, sucking on a beer and enjoying their Sunday afternoon fun. They were universally friendly and happy, watching on almost incredulously as this convoy of stock Wranglers fought its way forward.
We saw not one other standard production vehicle out there in two days. All were heavily modified with massive suspension travel and tyres giving them huge clearance. Toyota 4Runners were the most popular choice, many of them with external rollcages. Turns out the track was hosting a 4Runner convention, with about 180 vehicles involved.
Considering what they were up against the Wrangler Rubicons were doing brilliantly. In low-first they could clamber over almost anything. With the diff locks engaged and swaybar disconnected, erase the ‘almost’. Sure, sometimes it required more than one go and a little trail modification, but damn they were impressive.
But the ‘monster trucks’ could go just about anywhere on the trail, kicking big rocks into the centre where our convoy was being delayed or having to stop while the worst moveable obstacles were rolled or winched out of the way.
“We also had a late winter, and during the winter those snowbanks tend to choose the trail as their run-off,” explained Sean, a 20-year veteran of trail guiding. “With each winter you get more and more erosion, not just from the vehicles, but from mother nature too. So every year it gets that little bit harder.”
The verdict from the guides was we were negotiating the toughest conditions seen on the track in 10 years. Which explained why we arrived at the top of Big Sluice – a mile-long, 1000-foot drop – as night fell. This was our last major obstacle before Rubicon Springs. In darkness, it also proved to be the most difficult.
Nine hours of inching progress had exhausted everyone, including the trail guides. Now, lit only by headlights and head torches, the drop-offs, rocks, boulders and obstacles were harder than ever to negotiate. Standing and watching as Wranglers crunched, banged and scraped their way toward the night’s camp was a wincing experience. It was a shock when a sturdy bridge loomed out of the dark. This was the Rubicon Bridge, and I was happy to cross it.
“It was a long day, probably an hour or two longer than normal,” conceded expedition logistics manager Gregg Kitchmark, after we had arrived at the campground, piano surreally tinkling in the background. “This is the longest day we’ve had in 10 years.
“The trail was a bit beat up so it was a bit hairy,” he admitted, in what seemed a gross understatement. “It’s usually hairy, but it was just one of those things.
“The good news is, the worst and longest day is day one. We should be out of the trail and on pavement in four hours tomorrow.”
Twenty minutes into day two and we were cursing Kitchmark and his forecast. We could still see the campground, having hit gnarly track the moment we’d exited the property, dropping into our now traditional 1km/h pace as we headed for the rutted switchbacks of the Cadillac Hill climb.
This used to be a county road, providing access to Rubicon Springs when it was a plush resort. Well. The springs are no longer plush and nor is the road. Bang, crash, grind, smash. By now Josh and I were immune to the sounds of tortured metal. Our Ultimate looked awful. A wheel was buckled, a door scraped, a mirror housing smashed and the front bumpers stoved in.
Our Wrangler was one of the worst abused, but plenty of others had copped it too. No problems, we were assured; some new bumper skins, wheels and some smash repairs and they would all be pristine and ready for the next group.
The magnificent views of Observation Point signalled we had conquered Cadillac Hill and much of the Rubicon. There were still some hard sections to go, but the most severe challenges were done.
If we had champagne we would have popped it like racing drivers atop the Grand Prix podium. Instead, it was time for a happy snap or two, a drink of water and time to get back onboard.
The battle had ended and we’d survived the fight. Yesterday we had been rookies, now we felt like grizzled vets. It was time go home, or at least to the hotel for a hot shower. And a cold beer. Or three.