Driving The Rubicon Trail In A Jeep Wrangler

Driving America’s Toughest Trail In Its Toughest Truck
By Imthishan Giado

Jeep Rubicon Trail

Contrary to common belief, there are two Rubicons.

The first is in North Eastern Italy, a shallow river running from the Apienne Mountains to the Adriatic Sea and responsible for that famous phrase “Crossing the Rubicon.” Because well, Caesar crossed it on his way to Rome, making clear for armchair philosophers for hundreds of years to come that there would be no return.

For the second Rubicon, we travel to the rocky Sierra Nevada Mountains, home of the world’s most famous offroad trail. Or to give its more correct name – the Rubicon-McKinney Road. Yes, the famed Rubicon Trail is an actual, maintained county road that runs 22 miles in length and was first established all the way back in 1908, well before the birth of the Jeep that now bears its name. It’s the most famous, challenging 4×4 trail in the world. And it’s up to me to make it through in a stock 2014 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

We started a very early morning with a drive to the trail entrance in Grand Cherokee, via a winding road that caressed the brilliant turquoise shores of stunning Lake Tahoe. You know what the Grand Cherokee is like, so I won’t bore you with the details. But remember Lake Tahoe. You’ll understand later.

At the starting point, a fleet of brand new, soon-to-be-roughed-up Wrangler Rubicons awaited our sweaty paws, in both four-door Unlimited and regular SWB guise. Common wisdom opines that the best way to go rock crawling is in an automatic car, freeing up your hands to position the vehicle and your legs to manage the throttle. I don’t have much time for common wisdom, and I’ve also driven plenty of automatics so I hunted until I found the lone six-speed manual Unlimited in the pack.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

After the euphoria of finding a manual one subsided, reality brought a cold stinging wave of doubt. That long, long four door body would surely get hung over rocks constantly. How would I handle holding the clutch for hours at a time? What if I stalled on top of a rock? More and more, this seemed a poor decision, made by a cocky journalist.

But it was too late. All the other automatic cars were snapped up, so it was me and the manual. A car I’ve never driven before in stick. In rock-snagging long wheelbase form. On the toughest trail on Earth. Gulp.

No time for regrets – we’re off! The initial climb up the hill tests my mettle immediately with a generous helping of slippery shale and chest-sized boulders. I try to climb gently up using just a tiny of bit of throttle and second gear. No dice – it stalls embarrassingly. Again, but with more throttle. Stall. OK, first gear – this must do it! Stall again!

Behind me, horns are starting to tweet in protest. Try as I might, I can’t seem to get the clutch balanced to take off uphill. Surrendering, I reach down and yank on the low range box. With a hefty metal-on-metal clunk, the black beast engages 4Low. First gear and…whoa nelly! The Rubicon hops over the rock like it’s trying to be the Man Of Steel and crashes back down to earth like Jimmy Olsen. With an ultra-low 4.1 axle ratio, first gear in low is way too much torque. After churning up the earth in a few more attempts and nearly kissing the Wrangler in front, I finally calm down the Rubicon by picking third. The long climb up the hill begins.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

That first hour was a brutal test of acclimatisation for my city-boy skin, as we hopped over rocks constantly, the Wrangler never travelling for more than second without a violent vertical movement. With all the cars being topless, there was no respite from the bright sun, or the swarms of mosquitoes rising from the lake below. You can remedy these two terrors with the combination sunblock/bug repellent that I was generously slopping onto my skin – which also acted as a handy adhesive for the clouds of dust erupting from a line of 20 Wranglers. After 45 minutes of choking fumes, I looked like an extra from True Grit. Thank goodness they hadn’t decided to fold the windshield down.

When the convoy finally ground to a halt, I felt quite pleased with myself. The weather was noticeably cooler higher up, I had adjusted to the ceaselessly uneven terrain and had even mastered the Wrangler’s clutch, driving uphill effortlessly now in fourth gear. Rubicon? Not so tough. But it took only one quip from one of the Jeep team to disabuse me of any progress I had made.

“We haven’t even started the trail yet,” he said with a smile. “That’s why we stopped – to open the gate.” Back down to Earth, then.

Snack stop complete, it was time to go through the gate – and into a world of hurt. They weren’t kidding. Within a mile, the road simply ceases to exist, replaced by ever-larger rocks that were starting to resemble boulders. It was still possible to drive over them but only with the constant help of the Rubicon marshalls who ran alongside us. Yes, they could run and keep up – that’s how fast we (weren’t) going.

Raised on a diet of sand which requires speed and conservation of momentum, I have to learn rock climbing fast ­and it’s not intuitive at all! Many of the obstacles were too narrow for even a Wrangler to squeeze through, so to get past, you actually have to aim for one side of the rock and ride up it as high as you dare so that the frame gets enough height to go over the obstacle. Fail and you’ll know instantly by the sound of rock rails being scraped painfully over the unforgiving rock.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

Except that it didn’t happen. Thanks to old fashioned solid axles and great articulation, the Wrangler crawled over those beastly boulders like a rock spider. You can easily enable even more articulation by disconnecting the front sway bar which doesn’t involve spanners but simply pressing a button on the dash. Why is articulation so important? A wheel in the air spinning uselessly may look cool but it isn’t giving you any traction, and traction and slow, precise movement is what gets you over the tough stuff.

It also turns out that I had picked the right transmission. In 4Low there’s a ton of torque on tap and the automatic guys were constantly on the brakes – essentially braking their way uphill. But over in manual town, first gear is so low that it’s basically walking pace; you don’t need to press any pedals at all, just point and shoot. Ah, but what if you stall on the rock, some of you will point out wickedly? No problem –the Rubicon can start without a clutch pedal pressed in 4Low making recoveries an absolute cinch.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

Eventually we broke free of the tree line and arrived at the magnificently named, Observation Point (you can see the view in the picture above), overlooking our destination valley and our campsite, Rubicon Springs. What was initially hard work had now become hugely fun; after a while you develop a rhythm and start to see the best routes over the step-like rocks, and understand just how agile standard production Wranglers are. On the way we had passed many privately-owned modified vehicles, all sporting sky-high suspension lifts and massive 35+ inch plus tyres. You may think that makes it too easy, but one of them was parked on Observation Point on its side! A sobering reminder that with increased height comes increased rollover risk, to paraphrase The Amazing Spider-Man.

After so many hours of rough riding and dust, I was ready for a big steak and a refreshing cold beverage. Little did I know though, that the most testing part of the Trail is the last – Cadillac Hill.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

Don’t be fooled by the cushy monicker. This dizzyingly steep series of switchbacks is the only way down to Rubicon Springs. How hard can it be to go downhill? Brother, you have no idea.

“Put your lockers on,” our guides warned. Diff locks suitably engaged, we began our descent of Cadillac Hill. They gave it the wrong name. They should have called it Mordor.

Without doubt, this is the hardest offroading I’ve ever done. Where before we cleanly mounted the boulders, now we had no option but to find the path of least resistance – no matter which way you went, either an axle or a part of the frame would be bashing some prehistoric part of the earth. The rock rails proved their worth, but it was still painful to listen to yet another smack on the exhaust or the steel bumpers squeal down another jagged edge.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

We were utterly dependent on our spotters now – and not just because we were trying to make it through on one piece. The last part of the descent has a sheer drop on one side, a narrow path wet with a gentle mountain stream and rocks the size of Alfa Romeos in your way. Plenty of places, I put my hands up and said, this is not possible. It had to be some sort of joke, because there was no way I could fit a giant four door lorry into this narrow slot. Sometimes the forward angle was so steep that I was literally being kept in place by the seatbelts, otherwise I would have tumbled out over the windshield, so crazy were the angles. I was certain we would roll. None of it seemed remotely doable.

But time and time again with the aid of expert spotting the trucks were threaded through, clawing for traction on every inch of slippery rock and moss we could find, banging and chipping away in inches down the treacherous descent. I lost count of the number of times I stalled. It was impossible to keep smooth progress – the tyres were caked in mud, and the brakes were just about holding us in place and preventing the world’s most expensive game of Dominos.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

To give you an idea how difficult it was; it took us about three hours to get to Observation Point; it took us nearly four hours to make it down that hill of the damned. Eventually though we made it down, clambered our last boulder, forded our last stream and turned our engines off in the bucolic scenery of Rubicon Springs.

Even with all the action of the descent and all the noise, all the cars were pretty much intact, with the exception of the odd dented muffler. A pretty impressive showing for stock cars, and proof that those Toledo boys know how to put together one hell of a Jeep.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

Verdict
It may not rank up there with climbing Everest and jumping out of a plane but for me, nothing I’ve ever done has come close to the satisfaction of conquering the Rubicon Trail. It’s the real deal – tough, unforgiving, a confounding mixture of technical driving and blind luck that will test every one of your senses. But it’s also the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on.

What’s more, I picked the right car! With its stretch wheelbase the four door had a great ride, the clutch was light and the gearshift easy, and with the super low 4.1 ratio, it was a doddle to drive on the trail, leaving me free to concentrate on actually pointing it, with plenty of room for my gear. On the return leg the next day, I drove the regular two door which had even more gymnastic ability, if a slightly choppier ride.

Jeep Rubicon Trail

So two brilliant days of adventure in the Sierra mountains. And yet even the wonders of the Rubicon Trail might not compare to the trip back to the hotel in Squaw Creek. Driving a Wrangler caked in mud and dirt on the winding roads bordering azure blue shores of Tahoe with half doors, no roof, the sweep of Heaven as your ceiling on a day of perfect sunshine, the wind in my hair, the scent of lakeside BBQ wafting into the open cabin – I’ll remember those perfect final miles to the end of my days.

With all those warm memories, I don’t think I’m going to be happy driving little Japanese sportscars any more…

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Specs

Price: AED115,300 (2 door) AED126,300 (four door Unlimited)
Engine: 3.6-litre V6, 285bhp @ 6400rpm, 260lb ft @ 4800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, part-time four-wheel drive
Weight: 1874kg

NB: The trucks you see in the pictures are 10th Anniversary Editions with steel bumpers with removable endcaps, red tow hooks, a red leather interior and an special ‘Anvil Blue’ colour. Sadly, these vehicles will be not coming to the GCC but the regular Rubicon is now on sale and still has those low gears, electronic locking diffs, electronic sway bar disconnect and super-strong Dana 44 axles. 

 

 

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