Off-Road Travel: The Rubicon Trail - Video

Aug. 21, 2012 By Josh Burns, Photos by Jaime Hernandez and Josh Burns
We entered the Rubicon at the Loon Lake entrance. Only about a mile into the trail it becomes clear just how amazing the trail will be when the Granite Bowl appears.

The Rubicon Trail is one of the most recognized trails in the off-road world. It’s so iconic, Jeep named its hard-core off-road package after it. The history of the trail dates back to the Gold Rush era in California history. Even if someone has never been on it, chances are they’ve heard of it.

The Rubicon Trail is roughly 22 miles in length, being part maintained road (called McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road) and part 4x4 trail. The Rubicon is situated west of Lake Tahoe and about 80 miles east of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On a scale from 1 to 10, it has long been considered a 10 in terms of difficulty. Even as hard-core rock crawlers have scoped out newer and more extreme trails, the Rubicon is still considered one of the toughest off-road trails regardless of its proposed rating.

According to, the Rubicon does in fact take its name from the river in northeastern Italy. Julius Caesar, should he chose to cross the river, would be declaring war on Rome. “Crossing the Rubicon” is a phrase meant to suggest passing a point of no return, much like Caesar’s action would clearly signal his intentions. The same holds true for off-road enthusiasts for the Rubicon trail, because once you’re far enough into the trail it’s just as hard to head back out – you’re committed to seeing it through essentially.

Just off of Highway 50 is Ice House Road, which is the entrance to the trail from the south. There’s one last stop here to grab ice (of course), fuel, snacks, or there’s always time for a drink at the bar.

Our group shot (from left to right): Rick Strawn, Jim Brightly (wife Saraine not shown), Robert Foster (wife Gabby not shown) and Josh Burns. Photo by: Jaime Hernandez.

Share the Trail, Respect the Trail
It may be a “bucket list” trail for off-roaders, but the Rubicon Trail has faced constant threat of closure by anti-access groups partially due to its popularity. A number of groups have helped to keep it open (scroll to the bottom for more information), and therefore certain rules are suggested to follow when exploring the area. Del and Stacie Albright, who both have been extremely active in organizing and fighting to keep trails open, even had a book on proper trail ettiquite and ways to help called Shortcuts to Landuse & Volunteerism (more info at Although it is maintained in areas and regulated by law enforcement and the BLM, there are certain responsibilities off-roaders need to understand about the area, something which the Rubicon Trail Foundation offers guidance.

The group makes it way down Granite Bowl to begin the adventure.

First and foremost, the trail is not for beginners. It is considered one of the most difficult trails in North America for a reason, so make sure your vehicle is well equipped and that you travel with others in case winching is necessary to complete obstacles (10 Must-Have Items for Your Off-Road Vehicle). There are bypass sections for some of the major obstacles (such as the Little Sluice and Big Sluice), but creating new bypasses is not ok. It is suggested to stay within about 25 feet of the middle of the trail, which prevents erosion off trail and will prevent damage to the natural vegetation near trails.

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Obstacles range from easy to extremely difficult on the trail. Some of the tougher sections have bypasses. Whatever happens, do not create a new bypass! Expect this trail to be difficult, because it is.

We may venture to the High Sierras to escape the freeways and hustle of our everyday lives, but we spoke with a number of locals who are concerned with the many trails being closed around the El Dorado National Forest. This means there’s been some added trail traffic on the Rubicon—especially on weekends and holidays.

The Rubicon is open to two-wheeled motorized vehicles, ATVs and UTVs and 4x4s, but it is also open to non-motorized travelers as well.

Del Albright points out that keeping your cool and sharing the trail is important. There are tight sections on the Rubicon that are only wide enough for one vehicle. Those traveling uphill have the right-of-way, so try to honor that whenever possible. If you notice a faster group behind you, find a safe place to pullout and wave them by. Most importantly, bring a good attitude; it will make your adventure that much more enjoyable.

The terrain of the Rubicon shifts from massive granite slopes to rocky section, but just about the entire trail is lined with big green trees. Pretty much everywhere has a great view – unless it’s from under your busted rig!

Hitting the Dirt … and Rocks
For our recent adventure, our small group of four vehicles gathered to tackle the trail over a few days, camping and enjoying the outdoors along the way. We had four Jeep Wranglers in our group consisting of three JKs and one TJ. None of our rigs were hard-core crawlers, and a few of us would be tackling the trail for the first time. We had two vehicles with 35s and the other two with 33s – we pretty much were at the bare minimum of what’s considered appropriate clearance for the trail. Our trail leader, contributor Jim Brightly, was leading the charge. He and wife Saraine were leading the way, while the other two JKs had Robert and Gabby Foster and Rick Strawn.

Having someone in the group spot is necessary for much of the trail. Bring some hiking boots – chances are you’ll be doing some hiking at some point.

After getting a late start on Sunday, we decided to enter the trail at the Loon Lake route entrance, which is slightly shorter than the original Wentworth Springs entrance at Ellis Creek. Entering near the damn, we aired down, made sure our gear was properly strapped down and headed in.

The trail starts out with a few rocky sections and a couple of small hill climbs, eventually opening up to an open, somewhat-smooth rock valley referred to as the “granite bowl.” It’s a great way to start the trip because it shows a glimpse of what to expect during the course of the trip. We traveled only a few miles in before the sun started to set and we made camp, enjoying the coolness of the evening and having dinner before heading to bed.

After we set up camp on the first night, we had a perfect fire pit to contain our evening fire. Fire permits are required on the trail. 

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