Rugged granite peaks stretch upwards, seemingly impenetrable. The history of these mountains is a story of struggle to find a passage (there is even a park nearby that memorializes the spot where early settlers died trying to get across). And that theme of struggle suits the Rubicon. It is supposed to be one of the toughest Jeep trails in America, and it is surely a “test” for any driver and vehicle.
The Rubicon Trail is legendary for a reason. This is the place vehicle manufacturers put their toughest trucks to the test. It is also home, of sorts, to a very committed community of serious off-roaders. And for a few days, the Rubicon would be our ultimate Jeep challenge. I was making the four day there-and-back journey with a small group of international Jeep enthusiasts led by Barlow Adventures. I knew it would be a challenge to my driving skills but I also hoped the journey would help build up my mental “endurance” — something I had been repeatedly told would be key to making it through the upcoming Gazelle Rally.
The sun was shining through the trees in a mottled pattern of light and shadow as our convoy of purpose-built Jeeps moved toward the trailhead. Driving with no doors and soft tops, the mountain air felt a bit fresh. One after another big log trucks came barreling down the road at high speed fully loaded, reminding us that the local economy is kept afloat by the logging industry, though Rubicon Trail traffic is almost equally important to the small communities that surround it.
As we reached the “official” start of the trail via the Wentworth Springs route, Nena Barlow, owner of Barlow Adventures, pointed out that the Rubicon was not the “hardest” trail in the U.S.A., even though it was the most well-known challenge in its class. What the Rubicon offered was a unique experience of non-stop complex obstacles that were in a constant state of flux — so that no two trips on the trail would be the same. And Barlow would know — she guides Jeeps along this trail for roughly twelve weeks per year and is intimately familiar with the length and breadth of it. She practically knows each rock by name.
The trail quickly got interesting from a technical driving perspective, with obstacles that built up to more complicated obstacles ahead. Rocks and road became one, melding into a three dimensional puzzle as we moved forward. Optional lines offered even more challenges and Barlow encouraged us to push our own limits.
The complexity of the landscape in front of us was daunting. On first glance there were things that just seemed impossible. Yet I focused and assessed the terrain ahead, picking my line to the next big rock. I was beginning to find a mental “rhythm,” identifying the “biggest” obstacle ahead, and working back from it to pick the best line forward.
We were driving through an “other-wordly” space. The landscape was rugged and beautiful. Not the harsh desolate beauty of the desert, but a rough-hewn and wild beauty all the same. We had the luxury of taking some time to appreciate the surroundings for their own magnificence, wandering around the edges of the “trail” and stumbling upon the most majestic views.
As we moved from “rock gardens” to tippy shelf ledges and the granite equivalent of “v-ditches,” the Rubicon did not disappoint — even the “easy” parts were interesting driving-wise. Every turn in the trail brought a new discovery or a different kind of obstacle. And as one challenge was overcome, another presented itself, with the layered build becoming an exercise in extending our capabilities.
The day progressed and it was more difficult to maintain a constant level of intense concentration. However, I was becoming better at judging the terrain and picking lines with confidence. Initially I relied completely on Barlow’s skilled guidance across the bigger obstacles, but little by little I began to “see” the better lines myself.
I was also learning an important lesson in “feeling.” The Rubicon Trail requires drivers to put their vehicles into some “tippy” positions, and it took a while to get used to the physical sensation of some of the odder angles. Extremely steep “straight up” and “straight down” angles were not a problem, and even the more “off-camber” side leans were fine — as long as they were straight. My personal challenge became the spots that combined steep straight down with off-camber. Driving over rocks down a steep incline while simultaneously turning into a tippy curve was intimidating when the “down” was a deep drop into the valley below. I felt like I was a tire’s length away from toppling off the edge and plummeting straight into the ravine.
Barlow patiently spotted me through with with an easy precision that made it less intimidating, and with time I got used to the sensation becoming more able to focus on picking my own line. My definition of “hard” was evolving.
The trail began tossing up even bigger challenges as we drove on. Narrow passages, tight turns and more complex combinations of obstacles tested our skills. Concentration was key. I remembered the comments about “endurance” as I strained to see the trail ahead over the nose of my Jeep pointing sky high in a twist of flex. After several hours on the rocks, my mind was less “sharp” and I had to make a greater effort to focus.
Barlow was giving us more independence as we progressed, letting us find our own way over sections that just yesterday we might have needed guidance on. With her expert eyes, she knew exactly where we still required careful spotting — even if we didn’t think so. She watched silently as we moved from rock to rock, interrupting only when a Jeep started to take a bad direction, at which point she would quickly guide the driver back on track. Other times, she would make us take a different line than we wanted to in order to set us up better for a more complex obstacle ahead. I began to see the real application of “strategy”: identifying the key make-or-break spot and taking a line that sets up the best approach to get over it.
Instead of just following her direction, I started carefully watching Barlow’s choices, trying to “see” the thinking behind them. I analyzed the lines taken by each of the drivers in our group, looking at what worked smoothly, and how just a slightly different placement of tires could make the same spot “difficult.” I started to “experiment” more with my own choices.
As the sun moved across the sky another intense day of driving was coming to a close. It felt good to just sit on a rock in the middle of this amazing landscape, savoring the beauty all around. Massive stone mountains sculpted by the hands of time encircle us. We are small in the vastness, hidden by a fold of rock, invisible from across the valley.
For two days we have been crawling over and between these rocks, feeling each line of the relief, becoming intimate with its cracks and crevices. Covered with a light layer of trail dust we are almost becoming one with the landscape. It is as if we are somehow closer to creation here and maybe that is the true reward of this journey.
Fatigue and philosophy mixed together, but the Rubicon still had some more surprises ahead.
The lake below sparkled blue in the fresh morning air as we pulled out of camp to start another day on the Rubicon. Familiarity with the granite face of the trail had made us bolder. We were “cruising” along at a fair pace, flexing to the contours of the stone with “grace.” Someone mentioned the word “ballet” to describe it, though I think to most eyes the line of Jeeps crawling over the rough-hewn rock resembled mountain goats more than ballerinas.
Picking the right line had become a multi-dimensional exercise. We were moving through creases and bends of solid rock that formed tight “passages” for a big Jeep. Odd angles and inward sloping rock walls sometimes only gave us inches of “safety” to make it through unscathed. We had to calculate our “tip” to make sure we didn’t snag the top of the Jeep on the rock above. The angles were bizarre — a mild exercise in spatial disorientation as I had the impression the Jeep was lying on its side against the slope of the rock wall.
The day continued like that, with a positive vibe, as we approached a steep narrow curving crevice filled with loose boulders — “Property Line” was a complex challenge throwing a little bit of everything into the mix. Barlow explained that the Rubicon Trail is constantly evolving, as weather, heavy usage and “land management” efforts all move rocks and earth in different directions. Some places that once were near impassable are now “easy,” while other spots have become true gauntlets threatening twisted metal for the least misstep. This particular section of the trail had never really posed much difficulty before, but the past year’s snow melt had left it in such a state that it now presented a formidable obstacle.
We watched two Jeeps from Oregon power through it. Around a sharp curve, one driver picked a line that had his vehicle leaning uncomfortably close to a rollover. Barlow and the driver’s buddy physically pushed the Jeep in the opposite direction to prevent it from tipping. The little push, along with some more throttle, was all the driver needed to right himself, and he continued through without incident.
I felt a spike of adrenaline as I lined up for my “turn,” assessing the options across the rocks in front of me.
Concentration. Barlow signaled me to start the descent, and I visualized my path from big rock to big rock. Go. I made the first stretch without help, and negotiated the sharp curve on my own line. Pause. Facing two massive round boulders next to a tree. This was tricky, as the clearest line would push me right into the tree. I looked at Barlow, standing a few boulders beyond. She pointed out the path she wanted me to take. I moved forward, following as her hands gestured precise nuances of movement when I could no longer see the rocks in front of me. Sky. And then steep drop down, and back to solid ground. The rest of the “gauntlet” felt easy by comparison.
Fatigued by the intense concentration, but elated by the accomplishments on the trail, I Iooked around at the rugged rocks beautiful in the sunlight, the fresh blue water of the lake glistening. I was in a small corner of paradise. Time seemed temporarily suspended and I just wandered around the rocks absorbing the sensations of place, the warmth of the sun on my back, the crisp mountain air.
The last night out under the stars had gone late, aided by a giant bonfire and the unexpected surprise of a group on a “night run” cruising up the trail out of the darkness. We heard them long before we saw them, but they were quite the spectacle when they appeared, their big modified rigs lit up like alien christmas trees moving conspicuously through the forest. They camped to the other side of us, and in the morning played with radio controlled Jeeps that mimicked the movements of their larger-than-life cousins parked nearby.
We began the return. Working our way back through the rocks, it almost seemed easier. A final “wow” moment as the landscape opened up into a “granite bowl.” The vast rolling swath of flat rock dipped and rose almost like sand dunes of solid stone. I felt a bit of sadness to be leaving, as if by lingering just a little bit longer I could somehow soak up the primal energy of its magnificence. My personal quest to build endurance had been eclipsed by a true fascination with this special place. Some small part of me just wanted to stay on the Rubicon forever…
(Additional photos courtesy: Nena Barlow, Yoav Baumgarten, Deborah Crawford, Omer Gonen)
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The Rubicon Trail is a 22-mile-long route, part road and part 4x4 trail, located in the Sierra Nevada of the western United States, due west of Lake Tahoe and about 80 miles (130 km) east of Sacramento. The trail portion of the route is about 12 miles (19 km) long and passes in part through the El Dorado National Forest as well as the Tahoe National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Barlow Adventures runs trips along the Rubicon from June through September.
The Rubicon Trail can be reached by road from either Sacramento CA or Lake Tahoe NV. An experienced trail guide is highly recommended for anyone planning to drive the trail for the first time. Barlow Adventures has specially prepped Jeeps available for rent and offers guided trips along the trail during the summer (+1.888.928.JEEP). Jeep Jamboree USA runs an annual event on the trail each August (+1.530.333.4777).