Rovers on the 'Con

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Michele Dallorso came all the way from Italy to attend Rovicon. His 1970 109 is propelled by a Chevy 6.0-litre V8. The tyres are 37-inch Maxxis : credit: © Chris Collard
The legendary Rubicon Trail is one of the toughest off-road drives in the world. Chris Collard joins the Northern California Land Rover Club for its annual adventure

The Canning Stock Route, Pamir Highway and Road of Bones are some of the most highly acclaimed overland routes in the world, but while travelling in Botswana 20 years ago I met two gents in a Defender 110 who asked, “Do you know of the Rubicon?” When I replied ‘The Con’ was just two hours from my home they nearly fell over. Having grown up nearby, the Rubicon was a natural venue for learning how to navigate technical terrain. Little did we know our humble backyard trail would land on the bucket list of nearly every four-wheel drive enthusiast on the planet.

When I received an invitation from friend and Land Rover nut, Jesse Coombs, to run the Rubicon in his D90, I jumped at the chance. What I didn’t know was that we would be joined by several dozen members of the Northern California Land Rover Club (NCLR). The rendezvous was their fifth annual Rovicon Adventure.

Vee Rock, a granite wedge between Spider Lake and Granite Slabs, is the quintessential photo spot on The Con

While most only know the Rubicon for the now-legendary trail that passes through it, American Indians traversed its glaciated landscapes for a thousand years before the first white man arrived in the 1840s. Within 20 years of arriving, the Hunsucker brothers had set up shop, constructed guest rooms, stocked the river with trout, and began bottling the spring’s mineral water. When demand outpaced their ability to transport it by mule to Lake Tahoe, they convinced El Dorado County to construct an official wagon road. The brothers’ efforts ensured the Rubicon would remain open to the general public for generations.

In 1888, female entrepreneur Sierra Nevada Philips Clark purchased some land, built a hotel, started a stagecoach service, and established the area as a luxury tourist destination. When the automobile swept the nation in the early 20th century, journalist Marion Walcott piloted the first car into the Springs, a 1908 Mitchell Touring car. The hotel passed through several hands before landing with an investor in 1928 and was permanently closed.

A bypass around Little Sluice is available for those who don’t feel like dragging their belly pan over its gauntlet of boulders

In 1985, a few founding fathers of the famous annual Jeepers Jamboree pooled their money and acquired the land. It was a substantial investment with little chance to ever make a penny, but they knew their profit could only be quantified on the balance sheet of life. Their charter ensured the place they loved would remain open for all to enjoy, and millions of people from around the world have come to experience its splendour.

The descent to Buck Island Reservoir was breathtaking

As the sun crests the Sierra Nevada we depart in three groups, making our way through Gatekeeper (an easy section known as a ‘rookie filter’ in the first 300 metres) and across Granite Bowl to The Ledges. If you look at a map of the trail, you will notice every obstacle has a name. There is Arnold’s Rock, Morris Rock, and numerous others. These monikers honour early Jamboree ‘rock rollers’ that staffed sections along the route. Other spots were christened after a specific incident. Cadillac Hill, for example, is where an old Cadillac slid off a steep section of trail.

Don Happel was the first to challenge Little Sluice. Equipped with a 4.6-litre V8, ARB lockers, Dutchman chromoly axle shafts, a 5in RTE lift and Fox remote reservoir shocks, his 1996 Discovery ‘RokRover’ set the bar for how to navigate this difficult obstacle

With today’s technological advancements in suspensions, gears, and tyres, the Rubicon is no longer rated at a 10 in difficulty (think King of the Hammers trails). But as one participant stated after he sheared a rear axle shaft on The Ledges, “the Rubicon is no joke.” Crossing the million-dollar bridge at Ellis Creek, we turn east up Walker Hill, passing Soup Bowl and settle in for the night at Winter Camp. Most groups trundle in before dark, affording time for a swim in Spider Lake, setting up barbecues, and drinking copious amounts of fine spirits.

Livvy attempts the squeeze past Arnold’s Rock in his NAS Defender 90, and leaves a wee bit of paint behind to mark the occasion

The morning finds several Rovers tackling Little Sluice, a 100-metre gauntlet of boulders wedged between granite walls. Contrary to popular belief, successfully navigating the Rubicon does not require monster tyres and ultra-strong, one-ton axles. While these modifications allow you to set autopilot and turn off your brain, a skilled driver can do it in a modestly built vehicle. An excellent example of this was Greg Forbyn driving his 1955 Series I. Sporting 32-inch tyres he did drag the underbelly a bit, but witnessing him thread the old girl through some formidable obstacles was like watching a well-choreographed ballet.

This section of ledges near Buck Island Reservoir is one of dozens that have earned the Rubicon an international reputation as one of the toughest trails on the planet

From the Sluice, we clear Arnold’s Rock and descend the Granite Slabs to Buck Island. Buck isn’t actually an island, but a reservoir, and the ideal place to take a mid-day plunge. Big Sluice is the last major hurdle before crossing the Rubicon River bridge and finding main camp. Prior to the installation of the current steel I-beam bridge in 1982, vehicles drove across a wobbly old plank affair without railings – we’re happy to be without this peril now.

Sasha Sher’s Disco 2 is fitted with Terrafirma suspension, Ashcroft heavy-duty axle components, and 37-inch ProComp Extreme MT tyres

Pulling into the Springs, we envision what it looked like when Ms Clark built her hotel. Taking in the grassy meadow, tall pines and inviting river is like stepping through a time portal. We set up camp, take a swim and settle in for a night in paradise.

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The first night was spent in Winter Camp near Spider Lake

Since 1953 the Springs has served as the Jeepers Jamboree base camp, and features a dance floor, large kitchen, saloon and stage. Camp is quiet, but we imagine Jamboree folk tipping coldies and cutting a rug on the dance floor. The NCLR boys have their own entertainment plan, which includes the annual Rovicon Awards and an impromptu competition swapping out two broken halfshafts on a Discovery.

Greg Forbyn’s 1955 vintage, Chevy V8-powered Series I uses stock suspension and wheels, but 32in tyres

Before ascending Cadillac Hill the following morning, we stop at the cemetery to pay our respects to the departed. While most markers are memorials to people who loved the area, some are said to be the final resting place for the Rubicon’s early pioneers.

Obligatory group shot at Observation Point, near the end of the trail

Observation Point overlooks the Rubicon River and is the perfect spot for lunch and a group photo. After I stow my cameras, I manage to talk Jesse out of the driver’s seat, and enjoy the last few miles to Lake Tahoe behind the wheel of his Defender 90. A wonderful experience and great drive.

Although I’ve driven the Rubicon dozens of times, each fresh visit brings a new experience, new friends and a renewed appreciation for this Jewel of the Sierra. The Northern California Land Rover crew was more fun than a dozen monkeys to hang out with, and I finally met long-time ‘virtual’ friend Michele Dallorso, who flew in from Italy for Rovicon.

As for the two gentlemen from Botswana mentioned at the beginning, I hope they eventually shipped their Land Rovers to the US and checked ‘The Con’ off their bucket list.

 

A bright future

Land Rovers and the Rubicon: both share a long-lasting heritage and future

In the early 2000s, the Rubicon’s future was questionable. Bands of renegade off-roaders claimed it as their personal mosh-pit party spot, leaving trash and human waste everywhere, driving away responsible enthusiasts and creating an environmental hazard. In 2001, concerned user groups reached out to El Dorado County and the California OHV Division for help. These same groups created Friends of the Rubicon (FoR) and the non-profit Rubicon Trail Foundation (RTF). In the past 20 years, FoR and RTF have donated thousands of hours of volunteer time, secured millions of dollars in funding, and worked with government agencies on maintenance projects, installing toilets and ensuring law enforcement is present throughout the summer months. Today, the renegades are gone and the Rubicon Trail’s outlook is bright. For more info visit rubicontrailfoundation.org/.

 

NCLR Club

Established in 2007, the Northern California Land Rover Club has more than 150 members from around the globe. In addition to hosting monthly trail rides, annual spring barbeques, and the Rovicon run, they volunteer on trail clean-up and maintenance projects with the Rubicon Trail Foundation and California 4Wheel Drive Association. Learn more at: norcalrovers.org/index.html

 

Must read

Rick Morris, an archeologist, who began visiting the area as a young boy with his family, authored one of the most detailed chronicles on the region, Rubicon Springs and The Rubicon Trail:
a History.

 

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