Jeep’s Rubicon Trail adventure turned 70 in 2023
The famed Rubicon Trail in the USA is the pinnacle off-road travel experience in the Jeep Jamboree calendar and the event had its 70th anniversary in 2023. Outback Travel Australia scored a drive across the Rubicon back in 1998, making this our 25th anniversary year.
OTA at the 1998 Rubicon Trail Jeep Jamboree event
At OTA we don’t normally feature overseas destinations, but we’ve made an exception in the case of the Rubicon Trail, because many avid Aussie 4WD enthusiasts would love to drive it.
“For 70 years, the Rubicon Trail has been heralded as one of the toughest off-road trails in the world, which, combined with its scenic beauty, has put the Rubicon Trail on every Jeep customer’s bucket list,” said Jim Morrison, senior vice president of Jeep North America.
Jeep Jamboree operates more than 40 events annually and continues to expand. Jeep Jamborees are guided off-road adventure weekends around the USA that bring together the outdoors, owners and their Jeep 4WDs. In 2023 it added two trips to Iceland.
These off-road treks have a long tradition, dating back to 1953, when 4WD pioneer Mark A Smith organised the first-ever Jeep Jamboree, tracking across the Sierra Nevada Mountains by way of the old Rubicon Trail.
The following year, Willys Motors — then manufacturer of Jeep vehicles – became involved with the adventure and Jeep Jamborees have been an off-road tradition ever since.
The Rubicon Trail is located in Northern California, near Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This world-renowned 4xWD odyssey is only 22 miles (35 kilometres) long, but traverses some of the toughest off-road terrain on the planet.
Elevations on the trail range from approximately 1650 metres to nearly 2150 metres. The ‘Rubicon’ is widely recognised as the premier off-road vehicle route in the United States, because the bald statistics about distance and elevation don’t really prepare drivers for what they’re about to encounter.
The terrain is unfamiliar to Aussies, because the geology is much younger than most Australian rocky areas. It’s very steep and dotted with massive boulders, where most of Australia’s rocks have been ground down by millennia of erosion.
Just how rocky can be appreciated by the fact that it takes all day to get from Georgetown to the overnight camp at Rubicon Springs and most of that day is spent in low-low ratio.
At many critical points on the Trail, guides alight from leading vehicles, to make hand signals to drivers, so their tyres are steered into optimum positions. Some of the rocks you drive over are the size of small cars!
Average speed is less than walking pace, exemplified when we did the Trail by a crew of hikers easily beating us to the camp site.
Experience gained on Jeep Jamborees and particularly on the Rubicon Trail, lead to the development of the appropriately named ‘Rubicon’ derivative. The Wrangler Rubicon was launched in 2002, with options unheard of at the time: Dana 44 axles, front and rear lockers, disconnecting sway bar, rock rails, oversized 31-inch mud-terrain tires and wheel flares.
In summer 2023, 450 Jeep enthusiasts and their families and friends, driving a total of 125 Jeep Wranglers and Gladiators, celebrated the Rubicon Trail’s seven-decade anniversary.
Although Jeep’s involvement with the Rubicon Trail began after World War II, the mountainous route between Georgetown and Lake Tahoe was a Native American walking track that was then used by early settlers in the area.
George and John Hunsucker built a log cabin and set up a farming business on the Rubicon meadows in the 1840s and discovered mineral springs that became a popular product to transport to Lake Tahoe.
In the late 1860s the Hunsucker brothers built a log bridge over the Rubicon River, but frequent winter-thaw water flows continually swept the woodwork away.
In the early years of the 20th century it was used by horse-drawn vehicles, but was acknowledged to be a very difficult short cut. In the 1920s, only brave car and light truck drivers tackled the Rubicon Trail. Gradually, the Trail became no longer a short-cut, but a tourist road and visitors had to bridge-build to cross the river.
A proper bridge was thrown across the river in 1939, with the intention of restoring the road to car-navigable status, but that never happened. A post-war steel bridge also succumbed to the elements by 1980 and was rebuilt by Jeep clubs.