Rubicon Trail, USA

James Articles, Narratives

Rubicon Trail, USA

Crossing the Rubicon Trail

Tackling America’s toughest off-road driving challenge

I was kicking myself. Left alone on the Rubicon Trail, the world’s toughest off-road route, I had forgotten the advice from the man they call ‘the father of modern four-wheeling’. Mark A Smith had told me never to watch the left-front tyre on its own, because then I’d forget where the right one was. Turns out he was right.

I was here with a group of British journalists to take part in a 28-strong convoy for the Jeepers Jamboree, an annual event which, as always, had been organised by Mark. The 78-year-old has been organising trips through California’s Rubicon Trail for over 50 years, and we met up with him at the beginning of the trail, at Loon Lake.

A yellow helicopter buzzed over head, its basket dangling below to be loaded with food to take out to our overnight campsite at Rubicon Springs. The pilot, we learnt, was the first man to do an inverted loop in a chopper. Mark was keen to point out that The Rubicon really does merit its reputation as the most challenging off-road route anywhere. It’s rated 10 out of 10 for difficulty by this man who has crossed the Darien Gap – the missing section of the Pan-American Highway that stretches across the jungle from Colombia to Panama, and which, to anyone else, would be impassable.

Rubicon Springs is in bear country: old hands tell with glee the story of a Venezuelan who had stored a chicken leg in his tent one night, and then woke at 4 am to find a bear – also inside the tent – rooting through his bags. And the trail is the standard by which all other American off-road trails are judged. This is where 4x4s prove their worth. It is the home of precision driving.

Except in my case. I’d forgotten to watch all my wheels. “Have you got your rear lockers on?” asked the motoring editor of The Sun. I had, yes. These were to control the rear wheels on my Jeep Wrangler, to help them to extract maximum grip from the rocky ground of the trail. “And what about the front lockers?”, he persisted. When these are engaged your ability to steer is somewhat reduced: but right now that wasn’t the priority. All my four wheels were in the air and even my lockers weren’t going to help. I was stuck.

Seven thousand feet above sea level, just north of the Desolation Wilderness, the trail consists of narrow passages, rocky climbs over massive boulders, river crossings and the occasional muddy track

Without a guide I had tried to follow the tyre tracks of the car in front, but my vehicle did not have the same clearance as the others when climbing the small, steep crest of this boulder-strewn stretch of the trail. And now it was rocking back and forth on a granite boulder, the wheels spinning millimetres away from the dusty track.

As I pondered its name, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, the car ahead reversed back to pull my stricken vehicle off the rock. And with a little tug, rubber met granite, those lockers kicked in, and I was back on my way – well, after a short break to change the other vehicle’s tyre, which had punctured during the rescue.

The Rubicon Trail is only 20 miles long but it took 12 hours of driving for our convoy to complete it. Seven thousand feet above sea level, just north of the Desolation Wilderness park boundary, the trail consists of narrow passages, rocky climbs over massive boulders, river crossings and the occasional muddy track.

Expansive granite slabs are dotted with pine trees and the ground undulates wildly. What seems like a large flat area of rock is interspersed with next-to-vertical drops. We didn’t drive around the drops, but down them, often leaving rear wheels three feet in the air.

Further on, the route skirts round lakes and dives down gullies, before snaking its way along a dust track to the asphalt that encircles Lake Tahoe. This final stretch is popular among cyclists and quad-bikers who enjoy the wide mountain scenery and the fresh, pine-scented air.

With a 4×4, the route must be taken extremely slowly, the line your vehicle takes must be so precise that the top speed is only 3 mph – and that, for the most part, is much too fast.

A noise coming from our vehicle had alerted the trail guides, who suggested the control arm of the suspension may be broken. Initially we were sheepish, but then a sense of pride at tackling this landscape, a landscape that may break our suspension but can’t stop our car, set in. When we learnt that it was a fairly common occurrence and had only a small effect, we just felt inept.

Rosy-cheeked yokels passed us cans of Bud Light, a baby grand piano was played enthusiastically, and those who had been ahead of us were now jumping in a natural spring to wash off their dust and dirt

Six hours in, the car still going strong, we negotiated our way down Big Sluice, a gully that led down to that night’s campsite. The boulders here were massive, and the cars rocked wildly as they bounced from the front-left to rear-right tyres. Each summer, when the winter snows melt, the boulders have changed position, and a new challenge is presented.

At the base of the gully, we crossed a river by a narrow bridge built by 4×4 enthusiasts. But then we had to cross back through the water, taking care not to create an all-engulfing wave in front of us. Moments earlier, I had overheard a trail guide’s radio gargling from his vehicle. The voice asked for our position and on, hearing the information, the radio rattled back, “Darn, those guys have been dragging all day.” And so, chastened and hastened, our white four-by-four followed the tyre tracks ahead.

This time, though, it was my co-driver in charge of our car. Having been so careful throughout the day to know exactly where our wheels were going, driving into the river was quite strange: you were, in effect, driving blind. We slid to the left, and our way was blocked by a boulder protruding from the river. We had no grip to turn right, and suggested to guides behind us that we try steering to the left of the boulder. “Well, you can try it, but I don’t know how deep it is.” We tried it and got stuck. In the middle of the river, wheels spinning, lockers on, water up to the bottom of the doors, we could not go forward or back.

A guide further down the trail spotted us and marched up. “What the hell ya doin’ there?” he demanded. “Why didn’t ya follow the other guys? Did ya see anyone go that way? No, ya didn’t, did ya?”

We agreed to disagree. He stretched out from the riverbank and tied us to a tow rope.

Coming round the next corner, we entered the Rubicon Springs campground. Rosy-cheeked yokels passed us cans of Bud Light, a baby grand piano was being played enthusiastically, and those who had been ahead of us were now jumping in a natural spring to wash off their dust and dirt. We ate large steaks and sweetcorns as Piano Bob hammered at the keyboard. Then we gathered around the campfire while Mad Dog played his guitar with gusto.

If we had wondered why these guys had been coming back here for up to 50 years, it was now becoming clear. It was not so much for the accomplishment of completing this most difficult of trails, but for the camaraderie created along the way.

To reach Rubicon Springs, the campsite on the outskirts of Desolation Wilderness, populated by men who look like Santa on his day off (today’s frontiermen), only reachable via the world’s most challenging trail, supplied by helicopter drop-offs, deep in the heart of mountainous pine forest – true backcountry – and have a baby grand piano played, gave me a sense of ‘only in America’.

Next morning on the drive out, we passed Cadillac Hill (named after a Fifties Cadillac lying wrecked below), and I understood how you could fall in love with this, with the need to come back each year, beat the trail and its challenges, to laugh and play, around that large campfire.

First published: Traveller magazine, Nov-Dec 2005
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