A First-timer's Trip to the Rubicon Trail

Merchandising is everywhere
Merchandising is everywhere!

---Rubicon Trail, California, USA-------


Author: Don Huysmans
Photographer: Don Huysmans
Edited by: Phil Hansford - 11/2001

Don Bites off more than he can chew?

The group lines up for a photo op, before heading onto the trail
The group lines up, before heading into the Rubicon.
From left to right: Don, Steve, Lloyd, and Ray.

It started out harmlessly enough, a group of mixed-experience Mitsubishi Montero/Raider owners with a desire to challenge a difficult trail. Four trucks and six men, from California, New Mexico, and British Columbia, met east of Sacramento in mid August at Bassi Falls near the trail-head.
*Just from the equipment list differences, I should have known there could be some problems, but hey, optimism is inexpensive!

The Boys and their Toys

Day 1

The scenery was breathtaking.
The scattered pines made a nice contrast with the granite.

I left Vancouver at 6PM Thursday for a quick overnight drive south on I-5 to Sacramento then east to the Icehouse near Bassi Falls by 2PM Friday. Run out of gas on the freeway in Oregon in the middle of the night only 200 yards from an all-night service station. Dumb and lucky! When Steve, and later, Lloyd (with Greg) also arrived at the Icehouse, we all filled up on their expensive, $3.10-a-gallon gas, and then went in search of the nearby Bassi Falls Campground. We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains at an elevation of around 6000 feet. It was a very dry, but pretty area, with scattered pines and bare granite. And dusty, very dusty. We should have packed more water, but didn't realize it yet. The maze of unmarked dirt roads seemed confusing, and since we weren't familiar with the area it became obvious very quickly that the previously plotted GPS coordinates were going to prove very useful!

The falls was dry, but the vehicle scenery was still nice!

All three trucks enjoyed this first opportunity to get off the pavement, lock the rears, and explore. Using our GPS units, we were able to make our way to the location of the falls. But much to our chagrin, there is no water at this time of the year! Oh well, a few pictures of the dry falls, then off to find a campsite nearby. A nice flat open area near a drying pool in the creek bed was eventually chosen, and we settled in for a good round of vehicle comparisons. Then the wasps came and stayed for dinner, buzzing around even though someone blew up a pipe-bomb in a nearby campsite that evening. No automatic weapons fire, so I guess it still counted as a peaceful night! Ray and Wit were supposed to meet us there that evening, but without our camp's GPS coordinates, finding us in the maze proved impossible! Oh well, there was still cell phone coverage, so the next morning we hooked up, and began a new round of vehicle inspections!

Day 2

Exploring our way out of the campground on Saturday proved interesting, there were several climbs up dusty rocky slopes which were enjoyed as a warm-up for the task ahead! Wrinkled a rocker panel on one climb, but didn't notice it until later in the day. Ouch #1. Arriving at the trailhead, we aired down our tires, and the official adventure began. The approach was over a rolling bare granite surface, where traction was absolute. Using the locker on this stuff caused serious wheel hop, and equally serious tire abrasion. Discovered the OFF position on the locker switch real quick that day! The beginning of the trail was something of a tourist attraction, with many non-offroaders watching the excitement as we tackled "Pinch Rock", a deliberately set obstacle placed to discourage the unprepared from proceeding any further. The rocks were well positioned, and were an immediate test of lift and rocker panel protection. I had neither... Overheard: "Mom, can we take our (stock) jeep through here? No, if you want to go through there, get your own jeep." Lloyd made it through quickly, but it took some time to spot Steve's big rig through. Ray was more willing to bounce off rocks, and made it through somewhat faster. Then it took some serious spotting and some rock stacking to get me through with my lack of height, but it went quick enough. Oh well, I didn't like those rocker panels anyway. Ouch #2.

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Don's rockers get welcomed to the Rubicon! Steve points his LWB into the granite bowl

Thinking (wrongly) that this was a difficult barrier set to keep the lesser qualified traffic out of a wonderful and easier 4x4 playground, I was looking forward to the coming trail and the opportunity to try out some serious wheeling with a group of like-minded truck owners. Then around the next corner I saw the first omen: a Toyota pick-up with a broken rear spring, trying sadly to get back out. Then not much further along, an omen of opposite proportions: a monster built-up lifted Jeep, making everything look easy, AND he was taking the bypass around the next, as yet unseen, obstacle that were just about to drive through! Well, that proved to be a sudden rock-face drop of 4-5 feet into the beautiful Loon granite bowl. Each truck made it down, and proved conclusively the need for custom rear bumpers in this environment! I don't got any. Crunch! Ouch #3. So now I've got a rock-customized rear bumper, but I doubt that's the same thing...

A photo session in the granite bowl, at Loon Lake

After meeting in the granite bowl for a group photo op, we drove across this beautiful 4x4 playground and looked at a fair number of trucks, ATV's, and dirt bikes trying many of the slopes and obstacles. Wish we could have stayed longer to explore this area more thoroughly, but our late start that morning was working against us here and we needed to move on. The exit involved either a steep climb over two steps, or an even steeper climb with a nasty approach angle. The first climb stopped the 2-door trucks cold, as both front and rear wheels met the steps at the same time. Then before the 4-door trucks could show us the benefit of their longer wheel base, along comes the previously mentioned built-up jeep, determined to show us how a "real" 4x4 gets the job done. He revved that big bad V8, and slowly advanced over the first step, then as both axles meet both steps, another big rev on that REAL engine, Vroooom! CLANG!! clink-clink-clink-ptwing-shhhhhhhhhh! His rear drive-shaft U-joint had broken, and a piece got thrown through the radiator. Now he's stuck big-time. His buddy drove up, took one look, and said "Yer f--ked". Apparently that's what buddies are for on the Rubicon. We offered to help, but the guy said "No problem, I got spares". It's a Jeep thing, and I guess I don't want to understand.

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A last look at Loon Lake Don removes a bumper end cap for clearance
Lloyd negotiates the long climb out.

Then it was on to plan B: negotiating that steep approach angle on the alternate route. Well my stock rock-modified rear bumper dragged on the ground and hung me up until I pushed the gas a bit more than I wanted to. This got me moving, albeit with an even more modified bumper than before. Ouch #4. Beginning to regret those stock bumpers. About this time I noticed that one of the front bumper's end caps had already been knocked loose on some unknown object. Ouch #5. So I pulled the end cap off, and tossed it into the back of the truck for later repairs (HA!). Oh well, I thought (wrongly, again), maybe that had been the worst part of the trail, and maybe there would be good bypasses around the ugly bits ahead. Hey, I'm a slow learner... During the steep exit climb, I noticed that my oil pressure gauge hit "0", (Ouch #6), so during a brief photo stop at the top of the hill, I quickly added a liter without checking the dipstick. Ouch #7. I figured (wrongly, yet again) that all the steep driving had burned some oil.

Then it was on up the rock slope, around a corner, and a last view of Loon Lake. The beauty of the lake and its surroundings just forced me to stop and take some more pictures. Though it sometimes went against the wishes of those in more of a hurry, I was determined to photograph this adventure! On and on we crawled, varying the vehicle order depending on the obstacles, and all the while in 1st gear low range. The terrain changed and became large boulders poking out of a dry dusty dirt, and soon it became apparent that this was not going to be as easy as I hoped. Not anywhere near easy. While the other 3 trucks were lifted, protected, and had taller tires, I was unprotected, and woefully close to the ground. I soon learned to tell the difference between that sharp metallic clunk of frame on rock, from the more aggravating soft crumply sound of body panel on rock. Ouches #8 to #??. I can still hear it, and it still makes me cringe.

Ray elects to baypass the bypass

About this time Ray chose to test his locker/bumpers/tires on a big rock channel that the rest of us chose to avoid. Yeah, a bypass. Not many, but there were some. Well, that soon gave Steve an opportunity to test out his winch, and a little later, Lloyd's winch as well. Hey, those differential housings sure are strong, aren't they, Ray! Then a brief chat with the police (patrolling the Rubicon on their personal ATV's), who remarked "That's the first time I've seen a leather interior on the Rubicon" in reference to Steve's `95 SR. Hey, we're on our way to the Mall! The trail began to deteriorate, becoming more ugly as sections of exposed bedrock barriers, with little in the way of options, became more frequent. It also became obvious that although this used to be a surface road 100 years ago, it was now eroded down almost 10 feet into the ground in some places. Climbing out of these channels was interesting, and once more proved the need for lockers. And wow, that rear locker sure paid for itself quickly. Having one rear wheel high in the air was rather a common occurrence!

The routine became familiar quickly, and soon the pace was reasonably consistent, with the trucks beginning to choose their own paths for the most part. On the more difficult sections, Lloyd was willing to wait for us to catch up, and would spot as needed to get the trucks through. He usually chose good lines, which usually required rocker protection. Not a problem for the other 3 trucks, but certainly a constant reminder that I'd better get proper protection, and soon. Like maybe yesterday! Ouch-count off the scale now. Strange feeling to have caused more off-roading damage to my truck in less than 1 day than I had in the past 14 years. After getting winched out of a groove in the rock by Steve, and getting pushed off a high-center by some bystanders, I was starting to realize that this was the reality of Rubicon. There was no easy way through. I had no idea of what lay ahead, but I knew now that retreat was no longer an easy option, and certainly could not be done alone. Each truck got stuck, and each truck assisted. We needed each other, and it was certainly good to have extra spotters and rock-stackers. When we passed yet another broken jeep along the trail, still with tow strap in place, and full of camping gear, it really hit home just how far away help was. Self-rescue was not an option. Outside help was a day's walk away, and $100/hour.

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"Winch way" is Ray going? "Well, are you coming?
Its not that bad!"
The guardian of the Sluice

Our destination for that night was Spider Lake, beside the Little Sluice, and after about 8 hours into the trail we finally reached the Little Sluice. So far the scenery in general was certainly beautiful. The big sky and the open horizons. No buildings, no tourists, not even a Starbucks! And now we could see that massive cedar tree that leaned out over the entrance to the sluice like it was some form of caretaker, or gaurdian, overseeing the madness beneath its branches. A very striking profile, perfectly placed by nature to punctuate what had become the most crucial location on the trail.

Dusk was coming on as we walked into the sluice to watch the Pirates of the Rubicon being, well, the Pirates of the Rubicon. Apparently having someone push your truck while it's in a precarious position, causing it to roll over, is a special privilege. And the same fellow got to enjoy it several more times as we looked on in bewilderment. We eventually found a camp spot on a beautiful landing just off the Little Sluice's bypass, and quickly set up camp. No time to find the lake, it was getting dark. The camp spot was beside a small group of pines, with nearly a 360 degree panorama view of a wide valley. Camping on this scenic location seemed to make all the day's hardships worthwhile, and almost forgotten. Briefly, however. As nothing came easy here, and the pounding had taken its toll. That night I needed to push down the rocker panels with a 2x4 and a hammer so that I could open and close the doors again. It was also a good time to bend the transmission shifter's skid plate back down. That proved to be a nightly event, which helped eliminate some rock-induced gear shifting! Not counting the ouches anymore, there were now too many. The bypass was right behind us, and as we discovered at 3AM, the trail is a 24 hour per day adventure traveled by all forms of noisy vehicles, with headlights mounted inside their wheel-wells to better study the ground!

Day 3

Lloyd puts on a show with his front and rear lockers

The next morning, Sunday, Lloyd made his appointment with the Little Sluice, with the help of Greg, Ray, Wit, and a few bystanders. This proved the main attraction for him on this trip. Steve and I captured the event on film. Through an amazing display of rock stacking, winching, and controlled movement, Greg and Lloyd got that truck through the Sluice, negotiating around and over rocks and ledges that exceeded 4 to 5 feet in height. This was a different playground from anything else on the trail. This was the reason for the monster build-ups. 40" tires, crawl gears, lifted everything, spare axles, portable welders. In short, life itself for the extreme off-roader. Though these big rigs certainly looked down on our mainly stock, road-legal toys, they were for the most part quite accepting of any rig that could actually get to the Little Sluice. This made Lloyd and Greg's feat of actually navigating it even more outstanding. It wasn't likely a street truck had been though it in years.

The aftermath of the Little Sluice: A strippped axle spline

It was certainly interesting to watch, and photograph, but here was a form of off-roading that, while I don't mind watching, I have little interest in doing. This place had drive-train damage written all over it. There was something surreal about walking through the Little Sluice that evening when no one else was there. At the first challenge, with the dirt and rock still warm from the day's sun, the smell of gear oil faintly wafted up into the cooling night air. There were oil pools in several places on the rocks from the vanquished, and an ominous sense of challenge just seemed to hang in the air. Here were the lions in the coliseum, smug in their inevitable and unrelenting victory over their hapless prey. Lloyd almost made it through unscathed, but some last minute throttle action cost him a stripped front axle spline, though didn't prevent him from driving back to camp on the bypass. The attempted replacement of the axle part with another part from a spare for the other side took up the rest of that day. The different lengths of the parts proved the undoing of that project. So after picking up the scattered Birfield bearings, we re-set camp in the same location.

The view of Spider Lake makes the trip worthwhile, all by itself

Spider Lake finally provided a very welcome relief from the heat and dust. Undiscovered by our group until that evening, it was stunningly beautiful. Of course I just had to take a swim in the invitingly warm (by Canadian standards!) waters, and even managed to wash the trail dust off some clothes! Extraordinarily scenic, and worth the trip on its own, the lake was delightfully located, with occupied camp spots on it's perimeter. In the setting sun the view was unforgettable, and definitely worth a few pictures! Here was a place to stay for a few days and recharge the human battery. Too bad there wasn't enough time... Back at camp, we enjoyed a more peaceful night this time, as the weekend night-time drivers were now back at home, getting ready for Monday morning.

Day 4

That Monday morning, with a pressing schedule due to the repairs delay, Ray decided to solo back out the way we had come, thinking it would be the quicker way out. His adventure is another story, and definitely worth reading! So the 3 remaining vehicles continued on towards Buck Island Lake, Old Big Sluice, and the Rubicon Springs campgrounds. Well, after a day of just playing near the camp spot with our trucks, driving up the side of a huge boulder, or posing against the skyline, the pain of being back on the trail hit hard. This may have been a bypass, but it proved more difficult than much of the trail so far and shellshock soon set in. Lloyd's truck seemed to have no problem driving in 3wd (it's a Mitsubishi thing, you might understand), and was soon out of CB radio range, leaving Steve, Wit, and myself to negotiate the steps, ledges, and rock fields on our own for the most part. By now we were becoming quite familiar with our trucks, and could pick lines quickly, though we would have preferred to keep all 3 vehicles in a group. The scenery was changing again, and we seemed to be dropping altitude slowly. We could now see Buck Island Lake off in the distance, and the area was still beautiful, still dry, still dusty...

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Ray does some posing before heading off on his own misadventure! This was the BYPASS. What kind of cruel trick of nature is this? Buck Lake comes into view, and Don considers swimming again.

When we finally arrived at the lake, Wit and I went for a very welcomed swim near the retaining dam, where we also met up with Lloyd and Greg again. Lloyd had gone for a fully clothed swim earlier, and was nearly dry already and eager to continue. Not swimming in our clothes meant we needed a few minutes to get dressed again, during which time the lead vehicle had already left. We met up with Lloyd and Greg again, further along the lake at a camp spot which had timed itself well with a lunch break. While there we noticed others swimming at the far end of the lake, and even across the lake from us. It seems that there is easy road access to the other side of the lake. The entry to the lunch spot was not one that we wanted to use as an exit, so we took a different, hopefully easier exit route. Ha. HAHAHA. Easier? Nope. But we made it. Gonna have to pound the door sills down again, though. Ouch just isn't a big enough word for this anymore. My video camera's battery charger was beginning to fail, and the focus stopped working. This trail is certainly taking its toll on all the equipment. Oh well, still got the Nikon SLR camera and the backup non-SLR camera.

Steve starts feeling the "pinch" in his LWB

After leaving the lake and continuing east, the trail crossed a ridge and turned north down along the face of the ridge. Better know as Big Sluice (or Old Big Sluice), this section of the trail was a boulder field in very deeply eroded dirt. Much different from the Little Sluice's bare bedrock. And no bypass here. The approach went quickly downhill through a boulder field, where my truck landed on its gas tank on a rock, reducing its capacity by 40% immediately. Really glad it didn't rupture! Mega-ouch. Yeah. Mega's better. We were going downhill now, and the entry into this section of trail required a tight turn on a drop-off that challenged the clearance and traction of the 3 trucks. Fortunately, the relatively light weight of my truck, and the traction of the Yoko's, allowed me to control my descent quite well, even letting me stop partway down the face. Steve's truck had more difficulty, sliding partway down, and forcing his steering wheel into an awkward position that required very forceful steering wheel action to avoid.

Now the fun started as we were fully into the sluice. I managed to slide off some rocks with all four wheels simultaneously, and landed with a loud THUMP full-length on the frame. Giga-ouch. Mega's not big enough for this one. This jarring action stalled the motor. Oh sh-t. I don't need a dead engine here. I turned the key, sweating bullets and hoping that it would start. Eventually it did start, though it refused to idle smoothly now, and would stall unless I kept my foot on the gas at 2000 rpm. No fun attacking some of these rocks downhill with more gas pedal than I wanted. Learned really fast to use the brake pedal with my left foot. Two-footed driving! This actually turned out to be the best way to control the truck anyway, but the need for 2000 rpm caused me a few more problems than I wanted!

Once more Steve and I caught up to Lloyd, now about halfway down the sluice, this time perfectly perched nose up on a huge boulder. Rear bumper dug in and trapped at the back, and front skids high-centered up on the rock. There was nothing for the tires to grab. Winch time, once more. Strangely though, on either side of this rock was perfectly usable trail, so how and why the middle??? Another of life's little mysteries! About this time my main camera's battery died, and I also slipped on a dusty rock and landed on the back of my head. Things were not looking good anymore, and I was now very sore and tired. Really tired of the incessant pounding to body and truck. Very fortunately, other than a lump on the back of my thick skull, and a ding on the camera lens rim, there were no other problems caused by that slip. But at that time I was more frustrated about being down to only 1 camera!

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Steve carefuly pilots his big Monty through the Big Sluice. Lloyd knows that spotting is invaluable in these situations. Don finds a nice line to avoid the Montero-sized boulder!

Here we met a Jeep group from Washington coming up the sluice from the other direction, and they even helped with the winch cable wrangling as Lloyd continued to extract himself from the latest "optional" rock. We moved to the side of the trail as well as we could, and their large group of vehicles passed us by, including a street-tires, stock height, open-diff'd jeep bringing up the rear. He was in serious do-do! And it hadn't fully dawned on him yet. But it was soon going to. Real soon. As we drove on down the Big Sluice, we could still hear them in the distance trying to get this one truck up over the nasty spots we had just come down. Now the trail was approaching the valley bottom and the Rubicon river itself. It was becoming easier, and noticeably so. We had to get through a nice water-trap, which cleaned some of the dust off the undercarriage, and then made our way a little more quickly now. Then, there it was: the bridge over the Rubicon! We were about to cross the Rubicon! The symbolic crossing that signified completion of the difficult task. And I was down to only one camera, with no lens choice. Frustration: having 1 of 3 cameras working… We parked the 3 trucks on the bridge and took a few pictures, relishing the feeling of accomplishment, recognizing the milestone, and enjoying the brief pause. Felt good to have gotten this far, with all 3 trucks still under their own power.

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Crossing the Rubicon Another beautiful camp Lake Tahoe-bound!

After paying the toll to the property owner, we breezed into a campsite further down the river and set up camp on yet another super scenic location that just begged to be photographed. Steve and I obliged. Repeatedly. Here the Rubicon was a small creek, flowing through and over the granite slabs, forming pools and small water falls along the way. A very relaxing camp spot, again worthy of a several day stay! Fortunately my remaining camera was working, and I could still click away and enjoy the location in the setting sunlight. Then after an instant cappuccino, with brandy (thanks Wit!), we shut down for the night. But later we were awoken by a clatter in the campsite, which turned out to be a bear trying to take away one of the food coolers. It had already eaten well from the other coolers which had been left out, and must have been trying to take home a packed lunch! Shoulda charged the property owner for the unauthorized bear food!

Day 5

On Tuesday morning, I removed a liter of oil from the engine to try to get the idle to stabilize, but that didn't seem to help. It turned out that the truck hadn't burnt any oil at all yet, and that the liter I had added a few days back only served to raise my oil level too high, and now it was foaming. So now I had a gummed carb, or fouled plugs, or something. Since the engine still ran well enough to use, I decided to leave it alone, and see if it would clear up on its own. Then after a few more photo moments to capture the rising sun on the trees and rock and water, it was on to Lake Tahoe! The end of the trail was near, and we could sense it. The easy riding along the valley bottom made it feel like we were nearly done, though Cadillac hill quickly shattered that illusion. Once more with Lloyd way out in front, we approached the hill and slowed down quickly. The old Caddy at the base of the hill was nowhere to be seen, and the hill required a lot of attention! Made up of smaller, irregularly spaced boulders in dirt (and 2" of dust, I'd hate to try this hill in the rain), with sharp turns and awkward steps, this last real challenge slowed us down more than we expected. Needing to keep the engine at 2000 rpm, and braking uphill, soon gave me another frustration: the transmission overheat light came on. Oh well, I wanted to stop here for a while to let it cool down anyway... It seems the stacking rocks here were rounded too much from previous abuse, and we often just spun those rocks with our tires, rather than climbing up them! The last attack on my rocker panels here was especially painful, as now the lower door edges were beginning to be nibbled at by the rocks. This was going to stop being a cosmetic problem soon, and start becoming a structural one. And it was one I particularly did not want. Does ouch even mean anything anymore? The word's simply inadequate now. As we climbed out of Cadillac hill with its closed-in pine trees, we reached a wide clear landing at the top of a granite face, and paused for a brief camera break, and some congratulatory toasting with ...soda pop. This wasn't Lookout hill yet, but it was more open and scenic, and it really, really, really gave me the feeling that the worst was over, and the rest should be a walk in the park. The feeling of relief became stronger as we proceeded further, meeting tourists coming in on guided ATV tours, and noticing the steadily improving road conditions. It was still a long bumpy ride, but now 4x4 was optional, and as usual by now, Lloyd was way out in front again, out of CB range. Steve and I bounced along the road steadily as it gradually became a smooth gravel road. Second and 3rd gear again! No more crawling!

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Cadillac Hill The "roof" of Caddy Hill. Civilization!

Signs of civilization (and non-4x4 traffic), began to appear more regularly. Wow, did I ever feel like an alien now, driving in an "experienced" trail buggy, seeing all those totally unfit vehicles that wouldn't survive even 20 feet on the "real" trail! We eventually caught up with Lloyd, who had stopped to call ahead for a replacement front shaft, and then we continued together to the staging area. There we found a good map board, which also had some historical background on the trail, and an excellent commentary on the coming four-wheel experience for those about to begin the trail from the east end. Somewhere in the text was the phrase, which still lingers in my mind:
"Expect vehicle damage, and an incredible sense of accomplishment",

Ouches #1,2,3...
ahhhh... forget it!

And that summed it up perfectly. There was an overwhelming sense of completion, and a feeling that after this trail you could handle anything! And vehicle damage. Plenty…

Go back and do it again? Yes, hopefully in the next year or two. But next time slowing down to enjoy the fantastic scenery and waste lots more film. And not until the truck is better armored, and those sagging springs are corrected! And guys, thanks for all the help, the friendship, and the memories.

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