The Rubicon Trail Gatekeeper: How Hard Could it Be?
Written by Taylor Kempkes with photos by Athan Raptis, Zach Pihl and Sam Marano
Rubicon Day 01: Will We Actually Make It?
After barely completing John Bull the weekend prior and now winching through the gatekeeper obstacle of The Rubicon Trail, my confidence was dwindling. The only thing I’d really proved to myself thus far was my ability to drive most of the way through a tough section and pull cable the rest of the way. Come to think of it, that was always the assumed fall-back plan, so maybe I wasn’t in that bad of shape after all. But, after camping outside Bridgeport, CA the night before, we’d burned more than half of the day just making the 150-mile drive to the start of The Rubicon Trail. Now the question wasn’t only, “will we make it?” but also, “will we make it in just two and a half days?”
Missed Part 1 of the story? Read it here!
With the gatekeeper behind us we kept moving. I’d read and re-read the full Trails Offroad Trail Guide for The Rubicon Trail multiple times and made sure to download it offline for reference (back then, this entailed saving the trail guide from a desktop computer as a PDF and downloading to a separate cloud storage on my mobile phone). With that information, I at least knew where we were headed and what major obstacles or points of interest were to come.
Shortly after the Gatekeeper was The Granite Bowl where we got our first taste of the natural beauty the Rubicon is famous for. A huge valley of pure granite lay before us–we’d never seen anything like it. We’d also never driven across anything like it. As it turned out, The Granite Bowl was more spectacle than it was obstacle.
Nearing the other side, we passed another trio of Wranglers parked next to the trail having lunch. “What are you running, 32s?” one of the drivers inquired. “Nope, just 31s,” I replied. After a chuckle, they gave me a verbal pat on the back saying that I’ll be just fine and, “Have fun passing $100,000 rigs with 40s and broken axles,” or something to that effect. I took the comment with a grain of salt, knowing the struggle I’d gone through already. It was still a nice confidence boost to keep me going forward.
The Proverbial Calm Before the Literal Storm
The rest of the afternoon and evening went as well as we could have hoped as far as the wheeling goes. None of us had to pull cable and only a bit of rock stacking was needed to get my earth-hugging YJ through a few spots. The sun was shining and we were finally starting to make good time.
While the rocks didn’t fight us too much, the weather sure did. A dark stormfront was following close behind us as we headed east toward Walker Hill. Even with rays of sun coming through the trees, raindrops began to fall. Before long it was a constant downpour. We pulled off the trail as soon as we could and frantically dug through our gear to find the ground tarps we’d brought for our tents.
With the forecast of good mountain weather and the hot deserts between Lake Tahoe and Southern California, we’d all decided to really punctuate the adventure by leaving our doors and full tops at home. Zach and Sam’s mesh shade tops and my canvas bikini top wouldn’t be doing us much good. Sam couldn’t find anything to cover his Jeep, so he abandoned his TJ Rubicon and hopped in Zach’s to wait out the weather. Just to make things even more interesting, Mother Nature turned the downpour of rain into a battering of hail.
After 20 or 30 minutes, the storm finally passed. Sam hopped back into his soggy driver's seat and we all kept moving. Just before sundown, we made it to Walker Hill and decided to make camp near the outhouse.
Other than having a group of heavily-built buggies with heavily intoxicated drivers hang out by the restroom while blasting Britney Spears’ “Toxic” on repeat from their cage-mounted boat speakers at 3am, we had a restful night’s sleep. The next morning we packed up our small camp, fired up the Wranglers with transfer cases still in 4Low from the night before, and continued up Walker Hill.
Day Two: 12 Hours of Winching and Rock Stacking
Day two was the big one. I was feeling pretty confident as I guided the YJ up the rocky accent, not having needed another winch the rest of the day yesterday. Today would be different.
With the goal being to actually complete the trail in a timely manner, we were quick to pass by Soup Bowl and take the bypass for The Little Sluice. Then there was the water crossing. Only 31-inch tall tires, sagging original leaf springs and no doors? This should be fun. Luckily I was able to keep my feet dry by staying left in the shallower waters.
After V-Notch came Arnold’s Rock. The steep and unavoidable waterfall climb didn’t look promising. The rocks were as tall as my Jeep (not much of an accomplishment) and the face was nearly vertical. Avoiding my front leaf spring hangers, I was able to put tires on the obstacle, but the breakover angle was too severe. Time for another tug!
Just a few hundred yards later, we passed by a group of Toyota-based buggies. One of the guys was laying underneath with a stick welder. I might have to use my winch more often than a fully-caged Toyota on 38s, but at least I can drive to and from the trail. I also don’t have a bunch of custom-fabricated suspension components that might break at any moment.
Before making it to Buck Island that afternoon, I found at least one more obstacle to get high-centered on. It was just a pair of unassuming rocks I had to drive between. I tried the old rock slider bump and slide but the slide part didnt work and I ended up with tires in the air again.
Lakefront Views (And More Rocks!)
Buck Island lake is an absolute rock crawler’s paradise. It’s a beautiful lake surrounded by picturesque campsites and plenty of challenging rock obstacles to keep you busy. They even had a zipline! Actually it was a temporary zipline set up by a couple creative Jeepers using a winch line of one Wrangler ran overtop of the other Jeep’s roll cage. Probably not OSHA approved but definitely looked like a good time.
It was getting late in the afternoon and we were pressed for time. We still didn’t know how my YJ would do on the coming obstacles. We stopped for a few minutes near the shore to hop in the lake while we waited for another group of rigs ahead. Then it was back on the trail.
Lucky for me, most of the waterfalls and rock obstacles near Buck Island Lake offered a plethora of different lines. Even so, I kept fighting with my front leaf spring hangers. Finding an angle to get my 31-inch tall tires up on the rocks without just stuffing my hangars into said rocks was tough. This is where good friends come in handy because rock stacking became a constant necessity. While I was burning mental calories, continuously analyzing the rocks ahead, Athan, Sam and Zach were burning physical calories stacking rocks and spooling out my steel winch cable all weekend. Did I mention I couldn’t have done it without them?
The sun was starting to dip below the ridgeline as we made our way to The Big Sluice. We’d been playing catchup with a larger group of five or six Jeeps ahead of us since leaving the lake (as in, we kept catching up). They were moving even slower than we were. The four door Jeeps in their group seemed to be struggling. Then one of the two door Wranglers with an under-sized spare tire got a flat and had to borrow a wheel and tire from another vehicle.
The small Jeep advantage became even more apparent once we came to Tree and Rock Squeeze, aka Sawtooth. We parked our Jeeps up the hill a few hundred feet back and hiked down to see the posse ahead go through the obstacle. As we watched a white JL Wrangler Rubicon on 40s and tons struggled to find a way through, I started thinking it actually didn’t look that tough. His wide stance and long wheelbase was making it way harder than it needed to be. Sure enough, once I got my YJ on 31s down to the obstacle, I snuck right between the boulders and downed tree without any drama. It was a much needed mental win as we were starting to feel drained after 10 hours of wheeling.
Just before the Rubicon Springs Bridge, I managed to hang the YJ up on some rocks again (shocker). I think 500 road miles, two nights of camping and 30 hours out on The Rubicon Trail was starting to catch up to me.
The Final Hours
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. We were all getting pretty exhausted and had yet to find a place to camp. We were nearing Rubicon Springs and knew the whole area was private land. We were under the assumption it would be crowded and we’d need a reservation to camp there anyway, so we began looking elsewhere for a suitable campsite. Nothing was flat, there were mosquitos everywhere and we were running out of energy. We decided to just keep driving and see if we’d get lucky at Rubicon Springs. And boy did we!
As we rolled into camp, we were greeted by none other than the other trio of Wranglers we’d passed way back at Granite Bowl the day before. They welcomed us to camp and were excited to see that my little YJ on 31s actually made it this far. There was an open campsite just across the road and we were told the camp hosts even had firewood so we could light a relaxing campfire before crashing that night. After everything we’d been through the past couple days, this felt like paradise.
The next morning we woke up rested and filled with optimism, realizing how close we were to completing the trail. We packed up and idle out of camp, admiring the green pastures and surprisingly well equipped facilities. Cadillac Hill was the final challenge we had to tackle. It wasn’t easy by any definition, but it offered unusually few hangups.
By 10:00am we were at the lookout point at the top of Cadillac Hill. I’d made it. We’d all made it!
It felt surreal. After a couple short months of planning and three long days on the highway and trail, we’d actually done it. Granted, we still had six more miles of dirt (including a couple surprisingly difficult rock gardens) and another 500 mile drive through 105-degree heat before we were truly done. Lucky for us, that was a problem for our future selves. Sitting at the top of Cadillac Hill, we simply enjoyed the moment.