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Rubicon Trail Tahoe: Off-Road Guide

Part road and part 4×4 trail, the Rubicon Trail at Lake Tahoe, California, is a legendary Jeep trail and a must-do destination for all off-roading fans. It is easy to get to and near Sacramento, so it can be a great stop on a California mountain visit or a destination in itself.

The Rubicon Trail also has a great history. Native Americans initially used the trail to pass between Lake Tahoe and Sacramento Valley. The trail has been through various travel adventures and seen tourist promotion for over 100 years. Moreover, today it is one of the best off-roading trails in the world.

Where is the Rubicon Trail, and how to drive it? The Rubicon Trail is west of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, 80 miles west of Sacramento, California. It is an exciting off-road trail with multiple entry points and challenging terrain. 4×4 vehicles, mainly Jeeps, are mostly used to complete it.

In this article, we’ll cover the Rubicon Trail history and its difficulty. We will also go over essential things you need to know before heading there, and any other frequently asked questions.

Sierra Nevada Mountains Landscape

Rubicon Trail History

Originally, Native Americans used the Rubicon Trail to pass from Lake Tahoe into the Sacramento Valley. When Europeans arrived in California in the 1840s, it was “re-discovered” and started to be used for essential west-bound travel.

By the 1890s, it was a standard road for the time to reach the Rubicon Mineral Springs Resort and Hotel. Famously, it was a woman from Lake Tahoe who first drove along the trail, arriving into Rubicon Springs in 1908.

The 1920s saw a lot of tourism on the Rubicon Trail. It was the way to get to Rubicon Springs from Georgetown and the best way to arrive at Lake Tahoe. There were even newspaper-covered promotional road trips.

However, the Rubicon Spring Hotel closed in the late 1920s, and with it, the popularity of the trail died off. It wasn’t until the 1950s when off-road drivers discovered the trail again. Its fame as an off-roading destination was acquired. Today, it is a “premier destination” for Jeep driving worldwide.

How did the Rubicon Trail get its name? The road is named after the Rubicon river, which crosses nearby the shores of Lake Tahoe. Of course, when there was a Rubicon Resort, it made sense that the road leading there would bear that name too.

How Long is the Rubicon Trail?

The Rubicon Trail is 22 miles long, and one of the greatest 4×4 driving stretches in the world.

  • The western maintained section of the trail is called the Wentworth Springs Road, starting in Georgetown, CA. It carries on towards Wentworth Springs, where the trailhead for the unmaintained portion can be found near Loon Lake.
  • You are then facing 12 miles of rough, unmaintained trail between Loon Lake and the McKinney Rubicon Springs Road. This part goes through the Eldorado National Forest. You’ll enjoy the wilderness and the challenging terrain under your wheels.
  • The eastern maintained section of the trail is the McKinney Rubicon Springs Road, leading to Lake Tahoe.

You can find a good Rubicon Trail California map online, such as this one.

Rubicon Trail Difficulty

The Rubicon Trail is essentially a rock-crawling trail, so you should know what you’re doing if you ride it alone. There are many granite boulders, and progress is slow due to the way the weather has impacted erosion. Parts of the trail can change significantly from one year to the next, making it exciting but also challenging!

As you’re going to be moving slowly, you should prepare for long days and lots of time in and out of your Jeep, as damage to your vehicle may occur.

How Long Does It Take to Drive the Rubicon Trail?

Although it’s only 12 miles of unmaintained trail, it will take 3-4 days of driving to get across the full distance.

You can ride the Rubicon Trail primarily in the summertime when it’s clear, and there’s not much rain. However, there might be an occasional thunderstorm or afternoon shower. You’re likely to have a light dusting of snow in the early fall. Make sure to consider all temperatures when you pack for the trail.

Riding the Rubicon Trail Tahoe

So, what does riding the Rubicon Trail look like, and can anyone do it?

The Rubicon Trail is challenging and shouldn’t be attempted without an appropriate kit and a reliable vehicle. It’s a great idea to ride it in a group or pairs, too.

Here is how the trail unfolds when you ride it the traditional way, west to east:

  • Start in Georgetown at the ceremonial trailhead to tick off your last-minute Rubicon Trail requirements before setting off.
  • You can drive the trail from Wentworth Springs campground – the more difficult start – or from Loon Lake – the more popular start. The two converge at Ellis Creek (only one mile away)
  • Going via Wentworth Springs, you immediately face a climb and a challenging drive down. If you start at Loon Lake, that will give you an easier approach and the opportunity to see the Granite Bowl – a large open rock valley.
  • After driving through a milder section from Ellis Creek, you reach the Walker Hill obstacle, including a rocky climb followed by a notch that you can choose to straddle or side-hill.
  • Next up is the Soup Bowl – a short climb, but with tricky ledges where you’ll need high clearance and a long wheelbase.
  • You will then make your way to Little Sluice, also known as the Sluice Box: a massive obstacle with lots of rocks reduced by the El Dorado County in 2012 to discourage the “spectator atmosphere” in this area! Little Sluice is perhaps the most challenging part of the trail despite only being 100 ft long.
    • For a more leisurely ride, you can bypass this obstacle either by the “long bypass” or up Toyota Rock (to the right of Spider Lake)
  • To continue on an accessible route for the Rubicon Trail, you can choose to go via the Granite Slab, which is more scenic and less time-consuming. This will take you to the right and down the mountainside’s granite face, rejoining the Old Sluice fork before the Buck Island Reservoir.
  • Alternatively, the Old Sluice road follows the historic Rubicon Trail and will challenge you with some steep descents.
  • Once you get to the dam at Buck Island Reservoir, you follow the trail to another climb, a low mountain pass, and the descent into the Big Sluice.
  • The Big Sluice is the last significant obstacle on the trail, a long downhill section with lots of rocks to crawl over.
  • After that, you’ll cross the Rubicon River, down into the valley, and passing through Rubicon Springs before entering Placer County.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Rubicon Trail

Can a stock Rubicon do the Rubicon Trail? You don’t need a particularly “monster” vehicle to run the trail, but taking appropriate precautions beforehand and outfitting your 4×4 correctly will make a difference.

Can I ride the Rubicon alone? Riding the trail on your own is not ideal. You may need a second pair of hands often when you’re making any repairs to your Jeep. You can join the Rubicon Trail Jeep Jamboree every July – the largest group ride event on the Rubicon Trail. Learn more about the Jamboree here.

What is the Rubicon Trail Foundation? This non-profit organization maintains the Rubicon Trail. They support any work projects on the trail and liaise with local government for maintenance and repairs. They also put on fun events and are an excellent resource for history and information.

Do I need lockers for the Rubicon Trail? This depends on who you’re going out there with. You can run a stock Jeep without lockers as long as you have someone to help you out in the more challenging sections.

When is the best time to go on the Rubicon Trail? You will need to plan to ride in the summer to have the weather on your side. Some OHV drivers ride the trail in winter, but their Jeeps need to be heavily modified to handle driving in the snow out there.

Conclusion – Riding the Rubicon Trail 

The Californian Rubicon Trail is one of the best, most challenging, and most scenic OHV routes out there and a great adventure you can undertake over a few days. Many companies offer guided tours and more leisurely one-day trips; however, for the full experience of the Rubicon Trail history and challenges, prepare for four days of slow rock-crawling and discover historic American spots unrivaled natural beauty.