Rookies on the Rubicon


Later on that evening, after an wonderful, restoring swim in Buck Island Lake, a dinner of hot-links with sliced tomatoes and onions on hoagie rolls (with sweet mustard) and a beer, or so. We decided to walk down the hill, towards the Big Sluice Box. A challenge that we would not be able to by-pass. It was twilight, so we took flashlights to explore what we would be forced to drive the next day.

Turning around, at this point, was out of the question. We did not have the appetite to return the way we had come - that wasn't going to happen. That would also be admitting defeat and wasn't going to happen either.

We had walked just past the second switchback, when we began to see lights flashing up through the tunnel of trees, way down the trail below us. Soon, we heard music and then we could hear voices. It sounded like a party, except that it was moving up the hill towards us rather quickly.

Curious, we decided to step back into the trees for cover and wait to see what it was, that was coming our way. It was dark by then, so we were well concealed. It wasn't long before we realized that, coming up the rocky alley, at a pretty good pace, in the dark; was a crew of crawler buggies making short work of whatever challenges the Big Sluice could possibly offer them. As they approached, we could see that they had “crawl lights” underneath their frames and in their wheel wells, shining down on the rocks they were climbing over. They also had exoskeletons covering their well-abused sheet metal and 42” tires. (we asked later, it was increasingly becoming important to us)

They had girls (young women, not children) riding in the back, standing on the truck beds and holding on to the rollbars and whooping it up, in a big way; as they surfed over the toughest route the drivers could find. It was obvious that they were having fun and weren't worried in the slightest about rolling over. It was pretty amazing to see what these vehicles and their pilots were capable of driving, with little advance notice; not being able to see the trail very far ahead.

At that point, realizing that there might be something fun to learn here, we turned on our flashlights and revealed our presence. They stopped and we chatted for a while. They had nice Blue Heeler dogs and very interesting vehicles. They were from the Tahoe area and had been building these crawlers up for several years - this was what they did for kicks. Would we like a tequila shot? Well sure! Why not?

The rest of the evening is a bit blurry now, but I do remember that it was a lot of fun. A nice diversion, that took our minds off of the possibility of failure ahead. Because, if we had walked down much further, and had seen the narrow tree/rock squeezes, and the boulder tumbles that lay in our path; we probably would not have slept very well at all that night.

Tree Squeeze on the to the Big Sluice box

A fun view on the way into “crawler corner”

Being on the Rubicon is always an adventure and on every visit, it has provided some sort of an extra-curricular diversion .

The first time I was there, 26 years ago, was with my friend Dayn. We had decided to do a weekend mountain bike trip in late September; when the weather is usually a bit temperamental in the High Sierras. We rode down into Rubicon Springs (which was more primitive then than it is now) and quickly made camp. The temperature was dropping quickly and the sky looked very angry. The first thing we did was to gather lots of wood and get a nice roaring fire going. At that point, we were the only people there. It began to snow.

Near twilight, a group of jeepers showed up, and with them, a bit of excitement. First, they heaped up a bunch of firewood and threw about a gallon of gas on it and proceeded to light it off. They all had to scramble back about 20 feet to avoid the initial inferno, then, as the gas burnt off, they slowly crept back towards the fire. Until the snow finally put it out.

We were warm and our fire was ripping along pretty well - so we invited them over. They brought beers with them and began to tell us about a guy who had driven his full-size “OJ” Ford Bronco onto the trail and was in a really bad way, somewhere behind; they didn't know how far back. It was quite a sight, but he refused to be helped.

About 45 minutes later, here comes the Bronco guy and he was in a panic. By now the snow was accumulating. We surveyed what used to be a nicely fixed-up white with red truck, but now had damage, everywhere we looked. Every body panel was damaged. Aluminum trim was sticking out randomly like branches on a dead tree. You could tell he had forced his truck through some very narrow places; It was an awful sight. We felt badly for him, but he would not be consoled, or delayed. No matter how much people tried to convince him to make camp, he would not stop and headed off into the night and up Cadillac Hill.

There was quite a bit of commotion for a couple of hours as people headed off into the night to answer his distress calls on the CB. But when the next day dawned, clear and warmer, we rode and pushed our way, back up the Cadillac and he was nowhere to be seen.

After driving the current version of the trail, I have a lot of admiration for that guy. Foolhardy or not, I could not imagine doing the Rubicon Trail in a full-size Bronco and being successful in any way. Especially through the sections that were to come the next day.

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One of tomorrow's challenges.
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New member
Thanks for sharing my laundry (the bag that fell out);o) This was a fun spot, Crawlers were impressive and friendly! Everybody is your friend on the trail...except for the little Polaris 4-wheelers, they can be a little snippy.


Erik's Birthday

The run through the Big sluice was going to be our “short, easy” day. I’m still unclear on why we thought that. So, we got off to a lazy start; it was Erik’s birthday. The Rubicon Trail - a pretty cool place to spend your birthday. I cooked my breakfast frittata: baby potatoes, sweet onions, bacon, eggs and cheese all cooked up on my Partner Steel folding stove in a Snow Peak cast iron pan - Overland style. His birthday breakfast - my younger brother, by seven years. I was so happy that we were finally “getting this done”. What a privilege - what an experience!

We took our time getting going, not really expecting much trail resistance, figuring that we had seen the worst of it; until Cadillac Hill; the next day. We weren’t really looking forward to that.

Most of the research I had done on the route, talks about Cadillac as being pretty stressful, but really doesn’t show many pictures or video. Last Great Road Trip blog, sort of apologizes for not having many pictures- “With no room to negotiate, other rigs on my heals and the thought of tumbling down the hill buried deep within my subconscious, pictures are a bit scarce of Cadillac Hill.” (Last Great Road Trip)

I just knew that the "Hill" is polished slick rock in some critical places, deep and narrow in others and that you had “better stay left”. And you don’t want to do it - when it’s wet.

we weren’t expecting much from today; easy day, relax at Rubicon Springs, go for a swim. Grill some steaks for Erik’s birthday, watch a movie - enjoy the last night of our adventure. Low pressure - no stress.

I felt extremely blessed. We had been challenged beyond what we had expected But we hadn’t gotten stuck or broken anything. Sure, my skids and sliders had paid the price, but that is why they are there. A peace-of-mind investment in my rig. Erik’s Jeep had performed well beyond his expectations. He had done a great job preparing it, I was very impressed. He was driving well beyond his experience; even though he didn’t realize that he had the ability. He would understand better by the end of the next day. My brother is a natural.

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So, we hit the trail. We were back in “phase” with the rest of the flow. As we descended down the hill, we encountered up-hill traffic and pulled over as quickly as we could; to let them come on by. Once they passed, we saw a couple of nicely dressed Rubicons behind us, we let them get ahead so that we could get a read on the severity of the trail. After we did, the one in the back stopped and asked my brother if “we should let the Toyota (me) get between the two Jeeps so that we can pull him out when he gets stuck”. Jeepers. Wow!

I politely declined, and thanked him for his “thoughtfulness” - “I’ll be ok, thanks” -I replied. Ironically, he was the only vehicle who had to be tugged out that day. He high-centered, on a tree stump.

Below where we had met the buggies, on the previous evening, we met up with our first challenge. A rather nasty tree-rock squeeze that I was convinced would give me my first body damage. Erik and I managed to squeeze off to the side of the trail so that we could get some beta on the best line. The string of drivers were more than happy to offer advice from their past experiences. Everyone is like family on the trail. The guy in front of you has to succeed, before you get a chance to try.

The most successful line was to take it wide, smearing the rocks on the passenger side and delay your turn as long as possible. This sets you up to go straight through; so that you don’t take out your rear body panels on either the rock or the tree. The one that was missing a lot of bark in the contact zone. It was a bit iffy, but we both made to through fine, thanks to Josh’s excellent trail calling.

Tree Squeeze

Enter Big Sluice.jpg

It is amazing how the Rubicon stretches you. Before I drove the trail, I could never have imagined doing the things that I had no choice, but to do now. It is the off-road equivalent of a forced-labor camp. You have to do whatever work is next, no matter how hard, and you can’t say when it’s going to be over. Of course the analogy totally falls apart when you consider the beauty of your “labor camp” and the rewards of your “punishment”.

Big Sluice Erik I can't believe that this keeps coming!.jpg
All you could do was laugh and hope you could make it

Our journey continued deeper into the Big Sluice. The rocks were getting bigger and the trail was getting narrower. As the line of vehicles backed up in front of us, it gave us a chance to jump out of our rigs and watch others tackle the sections ahead, and get a better idea of what lines could work and what wasn’t such a good idea to try.

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It would have been fun to watch, vicariously, but we were participants. Watching for fun was out of the question, especially considering the limitations of my FJ, which was, quite frankly, getting beat pretty hard. Earlier we would reconnoiter about every hundred yards or so, now it was happening every 50 to 100 feet.

Big Sluice FJ bumper cam

We were fortunate that we found ourselves at the end of the line, with no pressure from behind. Pressure, in unfamiliar territory, forces mistakes, and I felt that I had no margin for error. My skids and sliders were in almost constant contact with the trail in one way of another - it was very unnerving. Especially with all of the spectators.

Erik’s roof cam through the lower Big Sluice

We finally made it through. There was a narrow spot before the bridge across the river and a particularly nasty spot coming up the other side. But we made it into the Springs and found a beautiful camp spot near all of the empty tents that are set up for the Forest Service to stay in while their crews work on trail drainage projects.

Narrow spot Entering the Springs

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Nasty high-center on the last leg to Rubicon Springs

We made camp and talked with passers by. Then had a nice swim and lazed around on the warm granite rocks until it was time for dinner.

Caleb tries out the rope swing

We met up with Dave, the caretaker of Rubicon Springs and a really nice guy. He looked at our rigs, especially Erik’s. The Rubicon is definitely Jeep territory, they speak their own language. It mainly consists of terms like “D44 (axle), JK (model), 42’s (tires), 4.11 (gears), YJ (another model), D60 (a bigger axle) an EVO Double Throw Down (whatever that is).

Then he came to mine and walked all the way around and all he said was: “By the time most of these get here, they’re usually missing most of their plastic”. That made me smile.

I grilled Tri-tip for dinner and we uncorked the Mt Baker Moonshine I bought Erik for his birthday and watched “Beyond The Thunderdome” in honor of the buggy drivers.


Cadillac Hill

The sound of rain shook me awake. It was just after 1am and I was immediately hit with panic. Cadillac Hill in the wet! The feeling of dread hit me in the pit of my stomach. For two and a half days, I had been beating-down this gnawing fear into submission. And now it was raining on the polished-rocks of Cadillac Hill. All of my vehicular and driving skill inadequacies returned to my consciousness. I scrambled down the ladder from the roof-top tent to grab things that I shouldn’t have left out in the rain.

We had stayed up rather late, enjoying Erik’s birthday and explaining things like “Juice” and “Barter Town” to young Caleb; who didn’t understand the Mad Max movie plots at all. He thinks that post-Apocalyptic, means zombies. When we retired for the night, we left the camp in a bit of a disarray. I knew that my camera was out, and maybe some other things, so I had better protect them from the rain.

I grabbed the camera, and looked up at the sky; seeking a dead-of-night weather report and fearing the worst. I expected to see clouds, accumulating, hitting the western crest of the Lake Tahoe basin, far above us. And, I saw stars. That didn’t make any sense. I looked down, the ground was almost dry. That didn’t make any sense either. Then I realized, that what I had heard was the dew falling, on the fiberglass roof of my AutoHome tent. So I went back up to bed. And never fell back to sleep.

The mind is powerful. It can help you do things you’ve never done before and it can keep you from doing things you do all the time. Like falling asleep. I tossed and turned and drove a hill, that I’ve never driven, at least a hundred times - but I never got it right. I always got body damage. Finally, I resolved myself to spending the rest of the night with no sleep and instead worried about the bear they’d seen a while back and what tire pressure I should run and how long it would take to get out and would we have to winch, and and and. So I waited for just enough light, to start packing the truck, tying things down and making coffee.

The others woke up after a while, we had a quick breakfast and hit the trail. I could tell that we were all nervous. We had asked almost everyone we had spoken with, so far, “how bad is Cadillac Hill?”. We had gotten lots of different answers, but nobody, except the buggy drivers, liked it very much. By this time, we were fearing it. It loomed larger than any thing else we had expected to worry about on the trail. You could by-pass the Little Sluice - we did. You could by-pass the Old Big Sluice and take Indian Trail - we did that also. We didn’t have any idea how rough it was going to be going around Buck Island lake, or how tough the Big Sluice was going to be; so we didn’t have any chance to worry about those. Cadillac Hill, was our worst fear.

We thought that we had gotten of to an early start, but that wasn’t the case. By the time we passed the graveyard and headed up on to the slabs, we began to run into traffic.

Approaching Cadillac Hill you pass a small graveyard on the right, that makes you think twice (or three times), but I don’t think that anyone is really buried there. Next, you climb up onto some steep granite slabs and into the forest. Once you go into the trees you pass through through a couple of very narrow spots, that, unless you can climb over, you had better watch your line.

After making a right-hand switchback, which is the start of the crux of the whole hill, a long stretch of steep, nasty, dusty, sometimes narrow, sometimes off-camber, but never dull, switchback that aims you at the morning sun. Relentless. This first corner is very steep, but not as steep as things will get. You need to aim to put your passenger side rear wheel on a well rounded stone mound, in the middle of the turn, as you come around (as Erik demonstrates in the photograph). I failed to do that and took the corner too wide.

CH Erik demo's.jpg
Remember this picture: this is the correct line!

I went too far left. Listening to voices in my head. And went up onto my two right-side wheels. Which, if you’ve never done it before - really clears you head. You are here - NOW! Living in the moment; so to speak. “I am turning too far left”, I told myself; as my rig floated in two-wheel limbo, threatening to tumble to the switchback below. Turning the steering wheel to the right corrected it, but brought me much closer to the edge and a certain drop to the switchback below. Correcting for that, got me a little sideways, but I let off the gas and that fixed that.

CH cp1.jpg CH cp2.jpg
Note to self: First corner - stay left, but not too far left.

All of the advantages of having a roof-top tent on a trail like this were immediately erased. It will stay home next time. Along with a lot of other stuff.

After surviving my first mistake, I stopped for a bit since traffic was stacking up. So I got out of the rig and wandered ahead to survey trail and to talk with Josh, who had witnessed the circus act, and Caleb who had photographed it. There was a lot of nervous laughter and “I’m glad you didn’t tip over”, was said, more than once. Gulp.


All stacked up, in the steep stuff

“Does this thing get any worse” we all asked ourselves. Speaking to each other, we didn’t verbalize our fear, lest we confirm it. Once again, we were very worried. We made it through the narrow stuff and up the steep stuff. I had a couple of buggy drivers behind me who were hooting and cheering me on, as I threw the FJ at whatever was in it’s way, as hard as I needed to. It was difficult to see at times with the sun in our face; it was about 10:30 and we were driving near, at and beyond the angle the sun, so it was often in our faces, right as we got near the top of an obstacle.

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My friends the Buggy Drivers. The rig in the background is also the one who passes in front of me in an earlier video at the beginning of the Big Sluice.

Leaping like a turtle

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Things got steeper for a while

Once the most intense stuff was over, I drove past Josh, who had just finished guiding us through a tough spot and got ahead of him a little bit. Without thinking about it, my rear passenger-side wheel slid off a rock I wasn't planted on squarely enough, and just like that. I bounced off a tree - crunch, body damage. I knew it before I even looked at it. My forecast had come true. My words from years before “ I wouldn’t mind body damage from driving something like the Rubicon” came right back to me. At that moment, I did mind, more than I thought I would. I could no longer run the Rubicon the first time, without damage to my sheet metal.

CH Body damage (1).jpg

But that’s more of a pride thing than anything. The most important thing is, that we were safe, nothing broke, we never even had to rope up and we had fun.

Erik ran it clean, he did a great job. We continued on up, to the left hand turn and the next switchback. It still posed it’s puzzles with shelves to go up and boulders and banks to squeeze around, but nothing like what we had gone through. We got held up for a bit by a Jeep with a fuel problem and met some more friendly people. Friendly people are everywhere on the Rubicon; it helps restore your faith in people.

These guys tried to convince Erik that we should do a trail called Fordyce, I think that I’d need a snorkel and I’m not sure if I want to install one. Time will tell. But we had had an awesome time on the Rubicon Trail. We never argued once; the stress brought us together, we were a team and we acted like one when we needed to. We also laughed and joked and poked fun at each other and had a great “family camping trip” it just happened to be on a dirt road.

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The rubicon Trail comes over the right shoulder of the peaks in the background. Making it's way to the left into buck island lake and further left into Rubicon Springs.

I don’t know what trail we’ll do next, but we’ve promised ourselves that we WILL do a trail next year. We probably won’t do the Rubicon. We do plan to do it again, probably in 2015, by then I hope to have 315’s and a little more suspension. I’d also like to bring my younger son Jake and maybe another old friend along for that run. Next time, we’ll try the Little Sluice, and we won’t be so scared, we'll know what to expect.

So that’s our story. Josh drove all the way back from Observation Point to the staging area. A section that still isn’t very kind - this trail never gives up. He drove very well. We aired up at the staging area and said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Josh and I stopped at the In & Out in Auburn and we both had Double-Doubles (with sliced onion and chocolate shakes and fries, he had his “animal” style - whatever that is. We added up the calories, and they were a lot, a whole day’s count. But we had earned it.

I want to thank those of you who sent encouraging replies to this thread, with kind words, that helped me know that I was on the right track, telling a story and not just giving trail descriptions. Telling one's story seems presumptuous and hard to do. In a few days or so, I will follow up with sort of a “lesson’s learned” and adjustments that I will make in my trail preparation for the next time and post any cool pictures I missed. Further out I would like to edit a video of Cadillac Hill - we have two complete perspectives, but that takes lots of time.

Post Script:

I know that the Rubicon is nothing like it used to be and in years past, there is no way I would have made it in my vehicle, so it makes me happy, that I can do it under my circumstances, and be very well challenged. And there are others, who are more capably equipped and they have fun too.

When I got back home, I was wandering around on the internet, looking at Rubicon stuff. I happened back to where I had read about a guide who was able to get your nearly stock vehicle through without body damage. He had annotated offering:

"If you insist bringing your stock 4x4
a 3 days 2 nights guided drive designed for the (almost) unmodified SUV
bring your own truck - NO previous experience needed"
no longer offered, the trail has become so mean and I hate to see your vehicle damaged

That made me smile.


New member
Keep it coming Jer and don't sell yourself short...You put that rig of yours into some pretty hairy spots, gunned it through and came out sparkly clean. I was the one that kept stopping, getting out, checking, getting back in, stopping again, getting out, checking, getting back in, and then finally driving the damn car over the rock.

As a newbie we definitely dove into the deep end on this trip but coming out the way we did I feel like we can do any trail and experiencing it with you and our oldest sons was really the best part of all! I look forward to next years adventure!

Thanks for the awesome write up and keep it coming!!!



Thanks Jeremy !! :friday: Chelle & I got home from the gym, wiped out from our swim,, she put together some pasta & steamed veggies for dinner,, and I found this! :bowdown:

Made my night Brother!,, great read,, great writing, Thanks for sharing.