Rubicon Trail Jeep Adventure
Start your Rubicon Trail Jeep Adventure at the American River Resort
The Rubicon Trail. The Mecca of off-roading jeep adventures in North America and quite possibly the most famous Jeep trail on the planet, its very name conjures up images of Jeeps crawling over massive granite boulders in unbelievable, breathtaking backdrops. And what do you know – the trailhead in Georgetown is less than 30 minutes away from the Resort!
Plan your Rubicon Trail adventure and use the American River Resort as your basecamp!
In a Nutshell
The legendary Rubicon Trail is a world famous 22-mile-long route, part road and part 4×4 trail, located in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of the western United States, west of Lake Tahoe and about 80 miles east of Sacramento. The Rubicon sets the bar for all other trails, not only for its difficulty, but for its beauty, as it runs through some of the most awe-inspiring mountains and alpine lakes in the country, from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe.
Native communities originally used the Rubicon Trail to travel from the Sacramento Valley to Lake Tahoe. By the early 20th century, it had turned into a maintained road, used for transporting lumber and supplies for most of its history. In the 1950s, however, the trail fell into disrepair—a bad thing for regular drivers, but a great thing for the off-road community.
In 1952, a group of Rotary Club members decided to stage an annual Jeep trek across the Sierra Nevadas using the Rubicon Trail. The next year, Mark Smith led the first group of 55 flat fender Jeeps through the Rubicon on what would later be known as the annual Jeepers Jamboree. Since then, it has grown to more than a thousand Jeeps. Eventually, the Rubicon Trail also became a full-blown test track for Jeep, as well as an iconic test of endurance and skill through epic scenery – twelve miles that can take four days and provide memories to last a lifetime!
Driving on this trail for the first time can be an intimidating experience. This is especially true if you aren’t with a veteran of the trail or haven’t driven your Jeep hundreds (or thousands) of miles to cross the Rubicon. Multi-day guided trips on the Rubicon are available from July through September. There are no facilities or accommodations anywhere on this trail, and no shortcuts out. Once you’re in, you’re committed!
The Rubicon is most commonly run is from west to east, from Loon Lake to Lake Tahoe. The western portion of the route is called Wentworth Springs Road and is well maintained; it begins in Georgetown, about 30 minutes from the Resort. The road continues from its intersection with State Road 193 toward Wentworth Springs, where the trailhead for the unmaintained portion of the Rubicon Trail can be found, next to Loon Lake. The “trail” portion is about 12 miles long and passes through part of the El Dorado National Forest, as well as the Tahoe National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
There are two entrances to the Rubicon Trail: Wentworth Springs or Loon Lake. The drive to either of these is about 90 minutes from the American River Resort. The Wentworth Springs entrance, at Gerle Creek, is the original (and more challenging) entrance to the Rubicon Trail, and it starts with an obstacle known as Devil’s Postpile. The Loon Lake route is shorter; it begins at the bottom of the spillway at the second dam and first crosses the Granite Bowl, which is a large open rock valley. Neither route is particularly wide, flat, or straight.
After skirting Loon Lake and driving through the relatively mild section beyond Ellis Creek, you will come across the Walker Hill obstacle. Walker Hill is a challenging uphill area that offers drivers many difficulties, in three sections: First comes the lower section, making a sharp turn to the right. Second is 100 feet of extreme trail that makes a turn to the left. Finally, the third section, which is often called the “sandstone section”. It consists of difficult terrain over decomposing rock. At the top of Walker Hill is a wide spot in the trail in a small grove of heavy timber. From here, the trail carries on toward the Little Sluice.
The Little Sluice, also known as the Sluice Box or simply as “The Box”, is considered by many as the most difficult part of the Rubicon Trail. As such, it can be bypassed by vehicles that cannot ascend the main trail. Once through the Little Sluice, most drivers take a rest near Spider Lake (which is closed to OHV access), a high mountain lake just above a hill on the south side of the trail. The large rocks in the Little Sluice were reduced in size in the fall of 2012 by El Dorado County in order to reduce concentrated camping and the “spectator” atmosphere at the Sluice. The section is still difficult, but difficulty has been reduced. From the Little Sluice and Spider Lake, the trail continues for about a mile to a granite shelf overlooking the Rubicon Valley and Buck Island Reservoir.
At this point, the trail forks to the Granite Slab on the left and the Old Sluice on the right. Both routes lead to Buck Island Lake. The Granite Slab route is more scenic and less time-consuming. It makes its way to the right and down the granite face of the mountainside, rejoining the Old Sluice fork about half a mile before the Buck Island Reservoir. The Old Sluice route is more difficult, following a section of the historic Rubicon Trail that is often bypassed due to its difficulty. The route is fairly level along the mountainside, first reaching the short Chappie Rock drop-off. From here, the trail follows on its level path until it reaches another small overlook. From this overlook, the trail begins a first gentle, then steep, descent into the Old Sluice.
From here, the trail crosses over the dam at Buck Island Reservoir. The trail then skirts the eastern edge of the reservoir and bears left, up, and over a low mountain pass before heading down to the Big Sluice.
The Big Sluice is another challenging section of the Rubicon Trail. This long downhill section has rock after rock to crawl over. After the Big Sluice, the trail crosses a bridge over the Rubicon River and heads down the Rubicon Valley.
Rubicon Springs is on private property and must be respected as such. A cabin houses the caretaker family. A seemingly endless number of camp spots are available around the springs, as well as a helipad for emergencies and large events. Notable annual events are the Jeepers Jamboree, the Jeep Jamboree, the Toyota Land Cruiser Association’s Rubithon, and the Marlin Crawler Round-Up.
After Rubicon Springs, you will come across Cadillac Hill. Cadillac Hill is a rocky incline with many switchbacks up to Observation Point, which starts with a rutted-out section with many exposed tree roots. After turning a hairpin, the trail becomes very off-camber and contains a series of boulders to maneuver around or over. After that, you will come across a steep stairstep obstacle. At the top of the hill there is Observation Point, a good place to look back and see the path you have just driven through and to take a short break before the dirt road to Lake Tahoe. There are a few small sections of rocks after this, but no significant obstacles.
Things You Should Know
The trail can be run in the opposite direction, but expect traffic and be courteous in passing. A little goodwill goes a long way! You never know, you might need help at some point…
The Rubicon is, first and foremost, a rock-crawling trail. As such, slow and steady is the key! It takes 3-4 days to cover the 12 miles of trail, which is always changing due to environmental conditions or erosion. Make sure that your steering, braking and cooling systems are all in tip-top shape before beginning your adventure. Expect unbelievably difficult terrain, long days, lots of time in and out of the Jeep, and dirty… everything! Vehicle damage can and will occur, too.
The Rubicon’s status as a county road means that there are no gates or fees, just like when Smith crossed the trail for the first time. That means, as well, that all rules of the road apply, including seat belt usage and drinking and driving regulations. El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department patrols the trail, but they are more usually found lending assistance rather than handing out tickets.
Best time to Go
The Rubicon is not the subject of seasonal closures. Some extreme adventurers will venture on the trail in the winter, but we certainly don’t recommend it. Off-camber hills can be icy and slick, and holes form around trees that may swallow rigs whole! The best time to run the Rubicon is typically June through September, depending on how heavy of a winter Tahoe went through. Usually, the Rubicon is more challenging earlier in the year, particularly after a harsh winter. Later in the year, many of the holes have been filled with rocks and the trail smooths out a bit. If you enjoy crowds, show up on any weekend in July. If you’re more of an introvert, the best alternative is a midweek run.
What to Pack
Most people tend to overpack. If you are going with a group of friends with vehicles like yours, consider dividing up tools and spare parts. Not every vehicle needs to carry extra brake fluid, or even a jack or a spare tire, as long as you have the same tire size and wheel bolt pattern.
You will most certainly want to bring a full-size spare tire and a powerful jack. Also recommended is 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 for any trail. 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.
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 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. This event offers staff along the way to keep everyone moving and to help with trail repairs. These are both 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.
Summertime weather along the Rubicon Trail is generally clear and mild, with a daytime high temperature of about 80 ºF. Nighttime lows are around 50 ºF. Rain is scarce in the summer, but occasional afternoon thundershowers do sometimes occur. Frost and a light dusting of snow is possible (but highly unlikely) in the late season.
You might need a jacket in the morning, be sweating at midday, and be freezing after the sun goes down. Because the weather conditions are highly variable, 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 swimsuit, so you can cool off in the many high alpine lakes along the way. The water will likely be chilly, but it is highly recommended after a long day on the trail.
While the Rubicon Trail can be run in a day, it will miss the mark of why you are there in the first place. You should plan to spend at least one night on the trail… two nights are even better! But remember, there are no hotels, showers, trashcans or In-N-Out anywhere along the trail… or internet, for that matter! Primitive tent camping is the rule out there; you should be prepared to pack in what you need, and then pack out your trash and waste.
You will want to bring a tent, as well as sleeping bags and air mattresses for everyone in your vehicle to ensure that they get a good night sleep. When camping, make sure to also bring flashlights, headlamps, folding chairs, sunscreen, and bug spray, regardless if you are on the Rubicon or in a paved campground… you should have brought those along with you to the Resort, anyway!
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. That said, if you go at it alone, you will not only want to bring plenty of food and water, but plates, utensils, cooking gear, and a stove. 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 or at the Crystal Basin Information Station on Ice House Road.
Much like Coloma, you won’t have much cell phone service on the Rubicon. CBs and handheld radios are useful for communicating with other members of your group on the trail. If you want to reach back to civilization, a HAM radio is the only way to go. Keep in mind that you will need a license from the FCC to operate a HAM radio. This isn’t particularly difficult, but it must be done ahead of time. Handheld radios work reasonably well, but a vehicle-mounted radio with higher wattage and a better antenna will be optimal on the trail.
Regardless of the size of your party, we recommend that you take your time on the Rubicon Trail. Stop near your favorite features and become a spectator; watch other vehicles overcome huge boulders and don’t forget to enjoy the views! As the saying goes, “stop and smell the roses”. If you like to fish, bring your pole and have a go at Loon or Buck Island Lakes. If you like to hike, there are a few trails near Rubicon Springs. The opportunities are endless!
It’s Not Over Yet!
After your Rubicon adventure, head back to the American River Resort, where the luxury of hot showers and flushing toilets awaits! Wind down from the adrenaline-packed days rolling over boulders and relax by the river before returning home… or book a whitewater rafting trip if you’re ready for a different type of outdoor experience! Whatever you need, we’ve got you covered.