Rubicon Trail 101

What You Need To Know About The World’s Most Famous 4x4 Trail

By Harry Wagner, photography by Harry Wagner

Start of the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Every off-roader who has ever shifted into low range has either made the trek to the Rubicon Trail or has it on their bucket list. It is like mecca, and for good reason. Not only is the Rubicon a challenge to man and machine, it also boasts incredible beauty and remoteness. These are the qualities that inspired the staff of Roco 4x4 to come all the way from Florida to California for RAW in 2019. RAW is shorthand for Roco Adventure Week, an annual event organized by Roco 4x4 for their customers and suppliers. Each year they go somewhere different; very different. We aren’t talking about various mud parks in Florida. Last year it was Honduras. Next year is Morocco. But this year they started in Las Vegas and went through Death Valley and up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Range in route to the Rubicon Trail.

Jeep dropping down shelf on Rubicon Trail

Vehicle Preparation

All of the Jeep’s on RAW had front and rear lockers and at least 37-inch tall tires. As a result, they all made it through the trail in two days without a single mechanical issue. The trail was run over 60 years ago though by flatfenders with tiny tires. While the condition has degraded since then, you don’t necessarily need 37s and lockers to run the Rubicon. Having a more capable vehicle will allow you to complete the trail more quickly and comfortably. We recommend 33-inch tall tires and a rear locking differential as a minimum to enjoy yourself on the trail and not be fighting for every inch of ground gained. And you will definitely want front and rear recovery points and a strap no matter how built your rig is. Note that the less capable your vehicle is, the more time you will need to complete the trail and the more likely you will break something and need to repair it.

Jeep driving up granite face on Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Having the right equipment with you is critical. We carry a full assortment of tools including sockets and ratchets, wrenches, screwdrivers, vise grips, and files. Still, our hammer and our multimeter are probably the tools that seem to get used the most on the trail. Fluids ranging from engine oil to gear oil to brake fluid are handy to have along. If we have experienced a failure in the past, whether it is a fan belt or a crank position sensor, we carry a spare of that part. We also have bailing wire, duct tape, ratchet straps, electrical tape, fuses, and epoxy with us. These items are relatively light and take up minimal space. We don’t carry spare axle shafts or third members, although we know people who do. There has to be an upper limit to how much room you have and how much extra weight you want to add to your vehicle.

Jeep enthusiast cleaning up 4x4 trail

What to Bring

There are no gas stations or grocery stores on the Rubicon, you must be completely self-sufficient for the entire time that you plan to be on the trail. There also is no cell reception, so plan on going dark from social media and only communicating with the outside world via ham radio. Just getting to the trailhead is a journey, either through historic Georgetown or up the treacherous Ice House Road. Both routes will consume a generous amount of fuel before you even shift into low range, so bring plenty of gasoline.

Similarly, bring all of the food and camping gear you will need to be comfortable in everything from triple digit temperatures to below freezing. The weather was perfect during RAW, but just two days later it was snowing on the Rubicon! For food, remove all excess packaging at home so you don’t have to carry it around, and remember you will always need to pack out whatever you pack in. We avoid plastic water bottles for large jugs of water and just refill our canteen for the same reason. we just need to heat up meals with little clean up in camp. We like to do food prep ahead of time and keep things simple. This gives us more time to relax around the campfire with friends.

Camping on the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Speaking of campfires, there are often restrictions during the dry summer months, so check ahead of time to determine if camp fires are permitted. If they are allowed you will still need a fire permit, which is available for free online at http://www.preventwildfireca.org/Campfire-Permit/.

For camping, you will want a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad at a minimum. Make sure and set your tent up at home ahead of time so you know how it works rather than fumbling with it in the dark. We find a headlamp vital on the trail at night, even if you can set up your tent with your eyes close. We keep all of our camp gear together in one dry bag. This makes it easy to find in our Jeep and keeps the dust off our gear.

Jeeps climbing a section of the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Loon Lake to Little Sluice

The Rubicon is 19 miles long and traditionally run west to east. During RAW the Rubicon was run in this direction from Loon Lake to Lake Tahoe. Towing your rig to the trail is an option, but it is discouraged since you will have to exit the same way you come in and towing up Ice House Road is a challenge to both vehicle and driver. Also, the trail is patrolled by the Eldorado County Sheriff, so your vehicle needs to be street legal and registered, or have a California green sticker. After leaving Loon Lake you wind through the trees and reach the Gatekeeper. This obstacle was modified years ago to make it easier, but can still pose a challenge. If you struggle on the Gatekeeper, consider whether you really want to continue on to the rest of the Rubicon Trail.

Jeeps crawling through a rocky section of the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

From there the trail opens up in the Granite Bowl, offering spectacular views in every direction. The trail can be difficult to follow through here, particularly at night, but look for the reflective road markers to ensure that you are in the right place. The Rubicon Trail is under incredibly scrutiny and always at risk of closure, so it is important that everyone who visits stays on the trail and minimizes their impact. After the slabs the trail crosses Ellis Creek and meets up with the road to Wentworth Springs, an alternate entrance to the Rubicon. There are some great camping spots and even an outhouse in this area, it it is getting late in the day. Continuing on you climb Walker Hill before passing the optional Soup Bowl obstacle. Even if you aren’t interested in climbing up the Soup Bowl, there are typically buggies here putting on a show. Just after the Soup Bowl is one of the nicest camping spots on the trail on the left-hand side, with room for half a dozen vehicles. Shortly after that is the Little Sluice and Spider Lake.

Jeep making dust

Little Sluice to Buck Island Reservoir

The Little Sluice used to be the most difficult part of the trail, passable only by purpose-built rock buggies. These days it is still a challenge, but it is no longer the crux of the Rubicon Trail. Spider Lake is located just south of the Little Sluice and is a great place to relax and go for a swim. The water is relatively shallow, and as a result warmer than other bodies of water on the Rubicon. Note that much of Spider Lake is on private property, it can be accessed from just above Little Sluice but respect all posted signs.

Cool mountain lake along the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

The trail levels out beyond Little Sluice, but still offers plenty of challenges. As Buck Island Reservoir comes into view below the trail splits in two. Going right takes you down Old Sluice, which is one of the most difficult parts of the trail. It is extremely tight and the bottom of this section is pocked with huge rocks and equally huge holes. Going to the left takes you down the Indian Trail, which is a series of off-camber slabs that are a quicker way to reach Buck Island Reservoir.

Jeeps making their way over boulders on the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Buck Island Reservoir to Rubicon Springs

During RAW the group from Roco 4x4 camped at Buck Island for the night. It took six hours to reach Buck from Loon Lake, but that was during a weekday with minimal traffic. Buck Island is the half way point of the trail, and makes an excellent place to camp for the night. Note that on crowded weekends in the summer this can become a part spot, with music and rev limiters blaring well into the night. The rest of the time Buck Island is very peaceful, with flat camping spots, outhouses, and chilly water to knock off the dust. There are several obstacles just past Buck Island Reservoir that are very challenging due to the smooth, polished granite and abundance of dust that makes traction hard to come by. If you are just starting for the day it is easy to get overwhelmed, so make sure your head is in the right place and focus on the trail.

Boulders to cross for a Jeep on the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Leaving Buck behind, the trail drops to the Big Sluice, arguably the most difficult section of the trail. Going down makes things easier since gravity is on your side, but it is still a challenge. A tree located smack in the middle of the trail is flanked on each side by rocks half way down the hill. The right line is easier, but too narrow for full-width vehicles. The left line requires a you to back up to snake around a huge boulder, but is a better choice for longer, larger vehicles. After the tree things don’t get any easier. The bottom of Big Sluice has a 90-degree right-hand turn that is full of huge, loose boulders. After that things get easier as you cross the iconic bridge to Rubicon Springs.

Bridge along the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Rubicon Springs to Lake Tahoe

Rubicon Springs is on private property and must be respected as such. There are several buildings and structures on the property, including a helipad, stage, bar, and a cabin where the caretaker lives. There are numerous camp spots at the springs, and hundreds of Jeeps can be found camping here during Jeep Jamboree and Jeepers Jamboree. The prime campsites are right along the water where you can swim and relax on a hot summer day.

Cadillac Hill on the Rubicon 4x4 Trail

From the Springs you must climb Cadillac Hill to reach Lake Tahoe. The hill is named for a car (actually a La Salle, not a Cadillac) that rolled decades ago. The remains are scarce, but with a keen eye you can still find them part way up the hill. This is not the most difficult part of the trail, but it is the tightest and contains several off-camber sections and narrow trees that make passing difficult. During RAW we encountered traffic on the hardest part of Cadillac Hill, taking nearly an hour for the group of ten Jeeps to work their way past four Toyotas headed in for the Marlin Crawler Roundup.

Jeeps finishing Rubicon 4x4 Trail

Cresting Cadillac Hill takes you to the Observation Point, which is a great place to take a group photo with the trail in the background. This is also a great place to celebrate, which is exactly what the crew from Roco 4x4 did. From here it is another seven miles of bumpy, rocky road, but no real challenges compared to what you just conquered. Once back to pavement you can air up and unlock the hubs. The closest fuel is six miles north on Highway 89 in Tahoe City. The Bridgetender Grill in Tahoe City is a great place to enjoy a hot meal, bask in your accomplishment, and reacclimatize to society. And also to start planning you next trip back to the Rubicon for more rock crawling and camping.