The Rubicon Trail Gatekeeper: How Hard Could it Be?
Written by Taylor Kempkes with photos by Athan Raptis, Zach Pihl and Sam Marano
My nerves were running high, partly due to the excitement of finally making it to the gatekeeper of the famed Rubicon Trail and partly due to all the unknown that lay ahead. Rolling up to the first obstacle, the challenge appeared to be minor. My friend Sam was the first of our group, piloting his TJ Rubicon on 33s. He almost made it through, but after multiple attempts, the slick, mud-covered boulders did him in. A rig in the group ahead of us turned around and gave him a winch.
Then it was my turn. We put my ‘95 Wrangler on 31-inch tires and no lift in the middle of the group for increased recovery options. I had a line chosen that looked doable but only a few rocks in; I was already having trouble sticking to it. An inch too far to the right, and I was slipping off. I readjusted and tried again but soon found myself hung out to dry with all four wheels spinning. Coming into the trip, I knew I’d be using my winch, but 10 minutes into the trail on the first real obstacle? Yikes.
After Sam dragged my sorry butt over a few more rocks, I was through the gatekeeper, and it was time for my brother-in-law Zach to come through. We spotted him the best we could, but the final few muddy rocks were enough to stop him in his tracks. When the fully-locked TJ on 35-inch mud terrains and a 4.5-inch lift also needed a tug, it made me feel better about myself. What it didn’t do was make the rest of the trail ahead seem any less daunting. At this point, the second-guessing was in full swing. Why did we think I could do this again?
Actually, that’s a great question. Let’s take it back a few months and get an idea of why I even considered attempting the Rubicon Trail on 31-inch tires and no lift in the first place.
Rubicon Trail on 31s: Who’s Idea was This?
Until the weekend before we left for Lake Tahoe, I’d never done anything nearly as challenging as the Rubicon. None of us had. My sweet spot was always hitting trails with a Trails Offroad™ Technical Rating of 4 to 5. Rocky Gap, Sandstone Canyon (before the closure), and The Squeeze were some of my favorites. I was convinced my little YJ could be pushed a bit further; I just needed more protection underneath the Wrangler and the support of good friends to get me there.
Our crew consisted of Zach Pihl, Sam Marano, and Athan Raptis. Zach had just finished the build on his 2000 Jeep TJ and, after a few years of wheeling it in stock form, was ready to see what it was capable of. Sam, always up for a good time, hadn’t pushed the limits of his TJ Rubicon, so what better place to do it than the Rubicon Trail itself? Finally, Athan, a longtime wheeling and camping friend, decided to ride along and offer support since his V8 4Runner was more of a desert rig than a crawler.
As we started discussing whether we could make this adventure a reality, I was just a couple of months away from becoming a dad. My time was running out to even attempt a trip as bold as this–at least for a few years. After some convincing from Sam and Zach that I could successfully tackle the trail in my YJ, or at least they were willing to help drag me across it, we decided to go for it. The only date that worked for everyone was Memorial Day weekend, just a few short weeks away.
Before making the 1000-plus mile journey, we decided to squeeze in a shakedown run on John Bull the weekend before. You know, to make sure we weren’t totally crazy (i.e. I wasn’t totally crazy) for trying this. It would also give us a chance to shake down our two-door Jeeps and fix glaring issues.
The Practice Run: Tackling John Bull for the First Time
It was 6:30 AM on a sunny Saturday morning, just six days from our departure date. Instead of laying low and resting up, we hit the road from Orange, CA to run John Bull up in the San Bernardino Mountains. After an uneventful two-hour drive to Big Bear, we parked at the John Bull Gate Keeper. It was time to prove to myself and the guys that I was worthy of even attempting The Rubicon Trail.
We were the first ones to the trail that morning. Zach, in his well-equipped TJ, made it through the rock garden and up the first hill climb without much drama. Then I started picking my way through the rocks just as a dozen Jeeps pulled in behind us. By the time I was on the most challenging section of the gatekeeper, my anxiety was through the roof. I couldn’t keep my left foot from shaking while trying to feather the clutch and keep the RPMs up. My nerves and subsequent lack of lower gearing–or pedal finesse–made quick work of getting the little YJ high-centered. My winch did its job at least, and I was soon moving forward again.
With the proverbial ice broken, my adrenaline subsided, but was far from depleted. With the big group of well-built Wranglers following behind, the pressure remained to keep up the pace. Did I mention the white-haired gentleman leading the group forgot to take his patience pill that morning? He was clearly on a schedule, and we were ruining it.
The rest of the way up John Bull was a blur. At one point, I carelessly stuffed my front passenger side fender into a stump. At another point, we realized my newly installed front lunchbox locker was not engaging. I think I needed two more quick winch pulls during the uphill section, but I don’t remember. All I remember is sitting at the top, finally taking a breath while watching a dozen rigs idle by. This was far from the confidence boost I was hoping for. The rest of the trail continued to test my homemade skid plates and rock sliders but was otherwise less eventful.
It might not have gone as smoothly as I’d hoped, but at the end of the day, we all did make it through John Bull. At least we had an idea now of what we were in for on the Rubicon Trail the following weekend. Or did we? We would find out after a 500-mile road trip up I-395 in a few days.
Keep your eyes out for PART 2 coming soon!