Rookies on the Rubicon • WCXC
All photos: Caleb Knight, Jeremy Knight. Story editing: Nik Schulz

The off-road section of the Rubicon, the famous 4×4 trail in California’s Sierra Nevada, west of Lake Tahoe, is packed with 12 miles of boulders and almost non-stop obstacles. On the 1 to 10 difficultly scale that we, and others, use, the Rubicon is a 10. The trails don’t get much tougher than this.

What’s it like to tackle this grandaddy of the off-road world for the first time? Well, Jeremy Knight, an overlander from Washington State, will tell you. His account, first published in the Expedition Portal forums, is offered here with his permission.

Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 1

The Ground Rules

There were times in my life when, had I known how hard something was going to be beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have tried it in the first place. Caution would rule and I would be content reading about other people, more capable or better equipped, grinding it out. It’s almost always good that I don’t know in advance about the degree of difficulty, challenge, or stress involved in the endeavor, since life is much duller lived within my comfort zone. For me, attempting the Rubicon Trail in a relatively stock FJ Cruiser, with my brother, who has never spent much time off-road, was one of those times.

I’ll admit it, I’m an overlander. I love the idea of the adventure, of getting out there and seeing what few people do. I like driving trails, seeing dinosaur tracks, petroglyphs, and the history of a place, before making camp near a beautiful vista, with a cold beer and great food, and following it all up with a marvelous sunset. Having a nice warm shower, sleeping in a roof-top tent, and waking up to a cup of Peet’s espresso before the next day’s stage, just adds to the attraction. The Rubicon belonged to a bucket list from a much earlier time.

When my younger brother, Erik, purchased an older Jeep JK a few years ago, the Rubicon was squarely in his sights as he began to complete his list of modifications. At family gatherings I always said, “Sure, I’ll do the Rubicon with you, no problem,” figuring that, if it ever came to pass, my overlanding experience would pull me through. After all, hadn’t they just taken the teeth out of the Rubicon so that people could drive stock vehicles through it? I would be fine.

Our history with the Rubicon had begun many years ago. We rode it on mountain bikes back in the ’80s and saw its challenges: the Gatekeeper, Granite Bowl, the Sluice Boxes Big and Small, Rubicon Springs and Cadillac Hill. It was amazing to us that a vehicle could negotiate that incredible procession of obstacles. We saw broken down vehicles, people in a panic for their survival, weeping over their ruined vehicles and lost hope of success. We always said we’d give it a try.

But that was the Rubicon of old; now I imagined it as a veritable dirt highway. All we had to do was to make sure that we had enough beer for the trip. After all, I had 285s, a 2″ lift, full skids, and some nice sliders…

Rookies on the Rubicon • WCXC Rookies on the Rubicon • WCXC Rookies on the Rubicon • WCXCRookies on the Rubicon • WCXC
Time went by and Erik completed his mods: 4″ lift, 35″ tires, front locker, 4.11 gears and cropped fenders! Wow, I had 32s (30s @ 18psi) and he was locked or limited-slip while I was open in the front with stock gearing.

Meanwhile, my overland mods were progressing: ARB fridge w/drop slide, Maggiolina tent, hudson sprayer shower system, dual batteries, solar power, and a nice Snow Peak table.

I took a solo trip from my home in Bellingham, Washington to Big Water, Utah, where I began an overland adventure from the Grand Bench to the bottom of Comb Wash—15 days solo (nearly 800 dirt miles) across southeastern Utah, on my way to the Overland Expo 2013, (the subject of a future post). Heck, my driving the Grand Bench solo, or driving down Flint Trail to the Dollhouse with my friend Doug, was an achievement akin to the Rubicon.

I told myself, “I can do this!”

Then the phone call came. Erik said, “We’ll do the Rubicon starting on August 15.” So it was on. Whether I really wanted to do it or not, I was going to do the Rubicon. How could I not? He was ready to go and, by default, was I too.

I had done my research. Some guy was offering damage-free trips in “your stock vehicle.” Others were saying that the Gatekeeper had been neutered, that the trail was a “freeway,” and had “all been filled in.”

Then my brother sent an email which read:

“I am thinking that we will be at Loon Lake by 5:00, which will give us about 3 hours on the trail before it gets too dark. I don’t have aux lights but may consider… I am running out of the ability to spend money and, with the risk of destroying my Jeep, spending money on it is not a popular discussion. ;o)

I will look through the trail info and see if there are so good stops about 3 hours in… I like the idea of getting a jump!

Rookies on the Rubicon • WCXC

Based on my trip to the Expo, I came up with some rather mature ground rules in response:

“There won’t be any destroying—I have to drive home!

We have to lay some ground rules:

  1. We will always discuss the safest way to accomplish the task and not act impulsively.
  2. We will walk ANY questionable trail and discuss the best line.
  3. We will stack rocks, discuss other recovery options—and rehearse them prior to execution—whenever there is a question of vehicle damage.
  4. We will bypass riskier sections whenever possible.
  5. We will not succumb to pressure, personal or outside.
  6. We will not rush the trail.

This is our first time on the Rubicon we can come back later and take the toughest line, but only if we are successful this time—there is no honor in stupid luck!

Preserve our people—protect our rigs. Good driving makes all the difference, and good driving is the result of good planning, and executing that plan.

This will be fun, we will take our time and the outcome will be awesome!

Rookies on the Rubicon • WCXC

We were worried that we would get into a crowd, fall prey to peer pressure, and do something regrettable. We would by-pass the Little Sluice, park, walk back and watch to see what we could learn. Being ahead of the crowd would take some of the outside stress off and we would be able to deal with the natural stress of the trail.

Next, Part 2 -> Loon Lake Trailhead

Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 1, The Ground Rules
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 2, Loon Lake Trailhead
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 3, Little Sluice
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 4, Buck Island Lake to Martini Tree
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 5, Midnight Buggies at Martini Tree
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 6, The Big Sluice
Rookies on the Rubicon, Part 7, Cadillac Hill

Expedition Portal: Rookies on the Rubicon