The Rubicon 2003
By Norman Hall
Most Australians have heard of only two Four Wheel Driving Adventures in the USA, Moab and The Rubicon. Both have infamous reputations ranking up with the Canning Stock Route, Simpson Desert and Cape York. I had crossed off Moab from my list of things to do and only had the Rubicon to go. The Solihull Society had been trying to get a club trip going for the last few years with some barriers always seeming to appear at the last moment. I was determined that nothing would stop this trip and through pure power of will it happened.
A brief History
The Rubicon is located on the mid eastern border of California as part of the Eldorado National Forest just west of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. The area has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years being part of an East / West trade route for the Maidu Tribe which inhabited the Northern Sierras and the Washo tribe to their east on the Nevada side.
Europeans did not venture into the area until the mid 1840s with a virtual invasion occurring following the discovery of Gold in 1848. The Western start of the Rubicon, Georgetown, was established in 1849, having expanded to a population of nearly 5,000 within only one year.
As the Rubicon has one of the lowest passes in the Sierras at approximately 7,100 feet and due to its relatively gradual topography, the Rubicon was chosen to become a major trading route for the non indigenous populous. By the 1870s Loon Lake dam had been established by the California Water Company. The Rubicon then became a major Stock Route for moving all types of livestock, a practice that continued up until the 1940s.
The Rubicon has enjoyed the status of being a public highway from 1887 with its status being reconfirmed, albeit as an un-maintained county right of way, in 1991. Unfortunately due to over use and the environmental exclusionist efforts of many preservationist groups the Rubicon remains under threat of closure. Efforts need to continue to preserve access.
Roy Mills 1995 Discovery on one of the flatter sections
The Trip and it's Participants.
o Jeff Solomon [Reno Nevada] & Jim Molter [Breckenridge Colorado] - 1996 Discovery
o John Brown & Pat Dougherty [Los Angeles California] 1994 Defender 90
o Roy Mills [San Antonio California] - 1995 Discovery
o Norman Hall [Castle Rock Colorado] 1988 Range Rover
All of the participants are members of the Solihull Society based out of Denver Colorado. It may seem funny to have only two people from Colorado attending and representing a Colorado based Club; however it has to be remembered that the Rubicon is over 1,000 miles west of Denver and here it is not easy to get large numbers of Four Wheel Drives to take such a long journey.
The route from Georgetown in the west to the Wentworth Springs turnoff is now all sealed road. As a result of this most off roaders only follow the last 18 miles of the Rubicon. We also chose this abridged route and our group met at the Forest Service Office located on Ice House Road within the park boundaries on the morning of Wednesday 9th July. We had given ourselves 3 days to run the trail and had chosen a mid week timetable to minimize traffic delays with other groups. We were thankful of this given our experiences to come.
There are now basically 3 western entrances into the off road part of the Rubicon; the southern being the Loon Lake option; the northern being a seldom used Forestry Road and the option we took being the Wentworth Springs entrance. The turnoff to Wentworth Springs from the bitumen is rather innocuous and can easily be missed [N0 39 00.730 W 1200 24.424 at 5,856 feet]. Luckily we had Roys Mills along who is a member of the Friends of The Rubicon[http://www.delalbright.com/rubicon.htm] he had run the trail in excess of 15 times previously.
Ruins near Wentworth Springs
During our drive in we saw evidence of the past occupation of the area with many derelict wood shingle buildings being prevalent, in particular around Wentworth Springs. The Wentworth Springs area was used by Native Americans for thousands of years due to the mineral springs which are located close by. This also attracted tourists to the area between 1880 and 1940. The drive started off rather easily as we wove our way parallel with Gerle Creek. This was to be the calm before the storm. The first well know driving obstacle we came across is known as the Post Pile[N0 39 00.850 W 1200 18.906 at 6,300 feet]. This area is named after the basalt rock outcropping on the southern side of the trail. As suggested in most guide books, we missed the outcropping as we had other things on our minds, just getting through. Whilst some of our group took the bypass, the lure was too enticing for my Range Rover so we took the hard option straight up and over this challenge, just to get our feet wet mind you.
Our group near to Lookout towards Loon Lake
After the Loon Lake, the trail option joins back with the Rubicon the next obstacle is Walkers Hill [N0 39 01.379 W 1200 18.341 at 6,529 feet] and Walkers Rock [N0 39 01.265 W 1200 17.331]. This area starts after Ellis Creek, initially being a very rocky climb followed by about 30 meters of Very Hard Core rock climbing. This section of sandstone strewn trail is known as a frame bender and required careful spotting of our Land Rovers to minimize potential damage.
John Brown's Defender 90 coming back down past Walker Rock
After this challenge we moved onto the Mud Lakes area. This is not one lake but a number of very small lakes of which Spider Lake is the largest.
The first major obstacle in this area is know as Little Sluice[N0 39 01.232 W 1200 16.244 at 6,665 feet]. This obstacle is a short cut through granite rock like the bed of a dry creek. It is strewn with large and small boulders alike causing significant clearance and traction difficulties. There is also a bypass to the northern side which rides over slab rock to a less rigorous path. Our group was split in two; the two Discoveries took the easier bypass whilst the Defender 90 and I took on Little Sluice. Whilst we came out unscathed we did bypass some of the hardest obstacles to preserve our rigs for the unknown that lay ahead.
My 1988 Range Rover attempting Little Sluice
Our campsite was just after here once we negotiated a rather tricky descent. We later found out that the descent is known as one of the steepest sections on the whole trail yet the Land Rovers over-came it with ease. 8 miles in 8 hours, not a bad effort for our first day.
John Brown's Defender 90 going back up the infamous steep rock
Unfortunately the next morning we took the wrong path and headed down the mountain from Mud Lake. This was when things started to get interesting! Unfortunately just after turning around, Jeff Solomon proceeded to destroy his rear differential and turn a perfectly capable Discovery into a Front Wheel Drive only vehicle. When we eventually got the vehicle back to civilization we discovered that the center retaining pin had broken causing the spider gears to become useless pieces of scrap metal. To recover the Discovery we required approximately 8 different winching direction changes as this section of the trail was particularly windy around some very large obstacles including a large tree, large boulders and an off camper climb. Also during the recovery the Discoverys winch decided to also give up making things just a little more interesting for us all. After 5 hours we have returned to our previous nights camp site ready for a well deserved break and some lunch.
Jeff Solomon's Discovery just before it broke
During our lunch time discussions we pondered the options before us, do we continue or do we return the way we had come. After considering the alternatives we chose to return back the way we had come as the thought of towing a near dead vehicle through and up Big Sluice and Cadillac Hill was not appealing, particularly as I was to be the designated tow vehicle.
My 1988 Range Rover having some fun on one small obstacle
So we started off, Discovery in Tow and others following. Due to the nature of the trail we took our time to insure that the Discovery was not destroyed by our efforts. We also chose to have John Browns Defender winch the Discovery up many of the climbs instead of towing to further reduce the potential for damage to the wounded vehicle. By about 5.30 pm we had covered 2 ½ miles when another problem arose. As we were getting the Discovery up a particularly nasty stretch one of the tyres gave way requiring another on the trail repair. Since this occurred on an upward slope and the trail was blocked we also had to act as traffic police directing vehicles coming the opposite direction around a nasty bypass. People seemed amazed that we had four Land Rovers on the Rubicon. We saw Suzukis with dual wheels at each corner, Jeeps so tall you needed a step ladder to get in and some very radical Jeep modifications. After changing the tyre and winching the Discovery up the hill we chose to stop for the night [N0 39 01.284 W 1200 16.796 at 6,724 feet] near an obstacle known as the Soup Can, a mere 3 miles from our previous nights stop after a grueling 10 hours of work. Luckily one of the mud lakes was only a ¼ mile walk so we all headed off for a well deserved swim in some pristinely clear waters.
Our last day, Friday 11th July, was to see the most amount of traffic on the trail so far. Whilst the last few miles out of the trail we not without difficulty, they did go with little further trouble. Well assuming you exclude the fact that my Range Rover bent a front steering arm whilst towing the Discovery through a difficult section! We passed many vehicles that day including a highly modified purpose built Bronco that was front and rear wheel steering and running 44 inch tyres. By that time Jeff was feeling a little depressed due to all the work involved in recovery his vehicle, that was until we started coming across broken down Jeeps, and lots of them. We came across a number of jeeps who seemed to have every tool imaginable out fixing various breakages, these included welders, angle grinders and other heavy equipment. We took some solace in noticing that many far more highly modified vehicles had failed to get even half as far as our land Rover group had done.
Despite the trouble our group had a great time and were challenged at every turn. We have already started planning our return next year to finally conquer the trail. The Rubicon is truly an adventure that people need to experience to understand. For those wishing to read more about the trail I can highly recommend 4 Wheelers Guide to the Rubicon Trail by William C. Tate.
Check out my Range Rover to see what I needed to get me through.