What Is The Rubicon Trail?  

If you enjoy off-roading in the western U.S., then you have probably heard of the Rubicon Trail. If you haven't heard of it, or you're interested in more details, then you need to continue reading. Simply put, the Rubicon Trail is one of those Bucket List destinations for American overlanders. The 22-miles of alternating 4x4-trail and road has something for everyone.

Where Is The Rubicon Trail?

Located in California's historic gold rush territory, the trail snakes its way through parts of the Sierra Nevada range. Approximately 63-miles east of Sacramento, on Interstate 50, is the junction with Ice House Road. Traveling on this road north out of Riverton will put you at Loon Lake after 23.4-miles. The trailhead starts on the west side of the lake, near the dam.

Map of the Rubicon Trail

Source: rubicontrail.org

Rated "Extreme"

The Loon Lake trailhead sits at an elevation of 6,331 feet. The trail continues to climb in this section and it is here that overlanders will experience many of the legendary obstacles. The Little Sluice Box, located on the south-east side of Devils Peak, sits at 6,684 feet in elevation. The remainder of the major obstacles is found at lower elevations, with Cadillac Hill finishing out the major challenges at 6,162 in height.

The Rubicon then begins to meander down towards McKinney Lake. The Tahoe side of the Rubicon trail and staging area are located on the north-east side of the lake.

waypoints for you to save

Junction with Ice House Road - GPS Coordinates: 38.769457, -120.447371

Ice House Resort where you can stock up on ice, food and drinks for the last time - GPS Coordinates: 38.814286, -120.374983

Trailer Parking, but it's not guarded - GPS Coordinates: 38.985626, -120.329628

Loon Lake Dam, cross over to get to the trailhead - GPS Coordinates: 39.002572, -120.310646 

Dam Parking, not very safe to leave your tow rig. Billboard for rules on the trail! - GPS Coordinates: 39.003193, -120.311421

Trailhead - GPS Coordinates: 39.003350, -120.312450

Gatekeeper, lives up to it's name, even though it had been altered to be easier - GPS Coordinates: 39.005427, -120.309890

Wooded section with very tight parts- GPS Coordinates: 39.006730, -120.307267

The Granite Bowl - GPS Coordinates: 39.008219, -120.307203

Up the Granite Bowl - GPS Coordinates: 39.011021, -120.308268

Rocky Area - GPS Coordinates: 39.013246, -120.307510

Granite Bridge, shallow water crossing - GPS Coordinates: 39.022818, -120.306832

Difficult Spot, if rocks have been stacked - GPS Coordinates: 39.022055, -120.283805

Rock Climb - GPS Coordinates: 39.022368, -120.290668

Soup Bowl, stair-step obstacle, but there are ways around it - GPS Coordinates: 39.021646, -120.279966

Little Sluice, best camping in the area - GPS Coordinates: 39.020384, -120.274946

History Of The Rubicon Trail

Tradition holds that the original Rubicon trail was used by Native Americans. They used the trail to travel back and forth between Lake Tahoe and the Sacramento Valley. It was discovered by European travelers to the region in the 1840s. Over the next 50-years, they slowly converted the trail into a road.

The Name

The name of the trail comes from the Rubicon river that it crosses at Rubicon Springs. The river takes its moniker from the Rubicon river in northern Italy. It was there that Julius Caesar famously declared "the die is cast." He was referring to reaching a point of no return as he marched his army into Italy in 49 B.C.E.

The First Vehicle

The roadway provided access to the Rubicon Springs Resort and Hotel. The first automobile to drive the trail made quite a stir in 1908 when a woman drove to Rubicon Springs from Lake Tahoe. Regionally, the Rubicon Springs road was hailed as the best route to take between Lake Tahoe and Georgetown to the west. Locals even promoted an automobile trip to foster this belief.

What is the Rubicon Trail
Where is the rubicon trail

Jamboree

While plans were made to improve the roadway, it fell into disuse when the hotel closed in the late 1920s. It wasn't until after WWII, and American's love of Jeep, that the trail began to be known to the off-roading world. Businessmen teamed with the Georgetown Rotary Club to establish an event to help boost the local economy. In 1953, the first Jeepers Jamboree had 55 vehicles participate.

The annual event has grown over the years to the point that it is often called the "Granddaddy" of four-wheeling events. A Jeep only event (called Jeep Jamboree) began 24-years later. Today, these Jamborees are highly sponsored and include many mechanics and vendors that offer their services during these events.

Rubicon Trail Requirements

The Rubicon Trail will push you and your vehicle to the limits. It has an extreme rating for a reason. There will be damage to the vehicle and you should be prepared to get stuck during the trip. That is why you need to make preparations beforehand.

The Minimum

At a minimum, there should be at least one frame-mounted recovery point (preferably more) on the front and rear bumpers. A locking or limited slip differential will help to prevent too much power from being allocated to one wheel. Rocker guards for body protection as well as skid plates for the gas tank, transfer case, and transmission pan are needed. Added protection for the lower control arm would also be advantageous.

Depending upon the length of the wheelbase, the tires need to be at least 33-inches (including the full-sized spare). To prevent a bad experience, make sure they are three-ply sidewalls with a good tread. To take full advantage of those tires, you should have a properly sized lift kit installed. A functioning parking brake and seatbelts for all passengers are important considerations.

Rollbar, Winch, Transmission

To help prevent your overland adventure turning into a disaster, a factory hardtop or rollbar (even a full cage) need to be in place. Make sure that your winch is rated for twice the vehicle weight and that your jack is working properly. For better torque when crawling, a recommended gear ratio of 55:1 for automatic and 65:1 for manual transmissions is recommended. Make sure your overland vehicle has been serviced and is in proper working order before you reach the trail.

More Safety Gear And Tools

Install proper battery hold downs (no bungee cords), a fire extinguisher, and a first aid kit as bare necessities as well. A good set of tools, extra extraction equipment, and a good pair of gloves will be of use. It is worth noting that many four-wheel clubs and tours may require additional features or equipment. If you plan your trip with them, they will let you know these details ahead of time.

Non Street Legal Vehicles

While any street legal vehicle from any state is allowed on the Rubicon, a non-street legal rig will require a green sticker and must have a spark arrestor installed. This information, along with other California vehicle codes can be found on their DMV site. It would be wise to check with the El Dorado and Placer County authorities as well.

Rubicon Trail Camping

The Rubicon Trail is best enjoyed over at least two days. Dispersed camping, camping outside of designated sites, is allowed throughout most of the area. Popular spots include Buck Island Lake, Ellis Creek, Wentworth Springs, and the observation point at Cadillac.

You are not allowed to drive off of the trail, and you will need a permit for fires. Remember to exercise proper camping etiquette, including using Wag bags for human waste. There are a few designated sites with various accommodations near the trail including Airport Flat, Loon Lake, Gerle Creek, and Kaspian on the Tahoe side.

camping at rubicon trail

Lake Tahoe

Bucket List

Finally, there is only one question to ask: is the Rubicon Trail on your bucket list?

And remember the most important rules of the Rubicon Trail:

  • Leave no trace (applies actually everywhere)
  • All vehicles must remain within 25 feet of centerline of the Rubicon Trail

Before you go, make sure you check the full list of regulations. A good place to start is the Rubicon Trail Foundation's website.