The Rubicon offers adventure into Tahoe’s wilderness
The oldest road connecting the Tahoe Basin to the west slope of the Sierra Nevada is still in use on Tahoe’s West Shore, but foot power, bicycle power, a horse or a highly modified four-wheel-drive vehicle is needed to make the entire trip.
The rugged dirt, rock-strewn route with narrow passages and steep rocky climbs is the Rubicon Trail – also known as Miller Jeep Road, McKinney/Rubicon off-highway vehicle trail, McKinney Rubicon Road or Forest Service Road 14N34. The relatively short, 22-mile trek across the Sierra to Georgetown takes most well-equipped, experienced travelers a full day to complete and many take two or three days to enjoy the back country.
“This is a wonderful, rustic primitive route,” said Don Lane, recreation forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
“It’s kind of a hidden secret, millions of people drive within a half mile of the trailhead … it’s innocuous looking. Who would think that little trail goes for miles and miles and miles to Georgetown,” he said.
This road was originally used by an offshoot of the Fremont Party of 1844, led by Elisha Stevens. While Fremont just looked at Lake Tahoe and turned around, this group blazed the trail through after splitting off at Truckee, using pack horses. The rest of Fremont’s group went over Donner Pass taking the wagons, about one to two years before the Donner Party, he explained.
This was the first group of non-native travelers to enter the basin, Lane said. They followed this natural drainage, creating one of Tahoe’s earliest east-west corridors. The route received moderate use, and in the 1870s and 1880s the McKinney Springs Resort and a way station in the “Springs” area along the road about a mile from the lake was operated by Vave Phillips began operation. Phillips’ resort catered to rich adventurers, featuring mineral springs and dance hall with a piano. She would bring buckboard wagons full of visitors to her resort competing against McKinney, who also operated a hotel on the west shore.
Areas off the main road are home to Chinese artifacts, remnants of the mineral water resorts and old logging camps, all being reclaimed by nature and difficult to locate, Lane said.
Other major routes through the Sierra, such as what is now Highway 50, took use away from the Rubicon trail and modern day use has been limited to recreation. “There are some organized groups who use the Rubicon Trail but that is the exception, most are individuals with a potpourri of uses,” Lane said, which include off-road driving, mountain biking, hiking, fishing and camping.
Traveling on the Rubicon
The Rubicon Trail offers views of open meadows full of wildflowers in the spring and back country vistas overlooking the spine of the Sierra. There are creeks and lakes for fishing and nearby peaks for hiking and biking. The trail connects trails to the south and predominantly Forest Service roads to the north towards Barker Pass and Blackwood Canyon. Ellis Peak and Ellis Lake are to the north, accessible by the Buck Lake route and connected by a narrow trail to Barker Pass along a scenic trail that gives views of Lake Tahoe, Hell Hole Reservoir and the Sierra Crest. Hiking or mountain biking some of the smaller, lesser used trails are nice day trips, such as to Sourdough Hill, Lost Corner Mountain or Ellis Peak.
The Rubicon road runs past McKinney Lake, Lily Lake and Miller Lake before passing the crest of the Sierra and dropping out of the Tahoe Basin to Rubicon Springs, nine miles from Lake Tahoe. The trail to nearby Richardson Lake, Lost Lake and Duck Lake is at the Rubicon Trail’s 7,100-foot summit. The many lakes, or the McKinney Creek that roughly parallels the road, are popular with anglers.
According to local fishing expert Bruce Ajari, at Lost Lake and Richardson Lake “the fishing is still good and anglers are getting some nice fish. Brook and Rainbow trout have been planted in those lakes over the years.”
The other lakes aren’t quite as good, with “trash” fish dominating the waters, Ajari said. The “trash” non-trout species fish are introduced by people dumping unused minnows into the lakes after a day of fishing, he said. Buck Lake, to the north off the main road, is on a road that’s a little bit narrower and rougher, about 2.5 miles from the trailhead. The Forest Service rates the road as moderate-to-technical difficulty, requiring added off-road driving skills.
The Sierra Club maintains the Ludlow Hut, a back country hut used mostly in the winter by cross country skiers, near Richardson Lake to the south of the Rubicon Road. The Granite Chief Wilderness is to the northwest of the area and the Desolation Wilderness is to the south. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road, providing hikers a way to get off the beaten path just a little bit more.
Just past Miller Lake the road forks. The Rubicon road heads to the left (or southwest) where the rough section starts at the Potato Patch and is rated “most difficult” by the Forest Service. The right hand fork winds onto a comparatively smoother road through the back country past the tiny Bear Lake and eventually to the top of Barker Pass and Blackwood Canyon.
Motor vehicles and the Rubicon
The Rubicon Trail is admittedly most commonly used by motor vehicles. The Rubicon also sees fairly steady use by small groups of off-roaders (both four wheelers and motorcycles) as well as mountain bikers and some hikers at each end of the road, mostly on weekends.
Several weekends of heavy use by the organized Jeepers Jamboree, now entering its 48th year, occur in late July and early August. The Jeepers Jamboree attracts hundreds of off-road vehicles for the annual event that begins in Georgetown. It’s considered the oldest, toughest, largest organized off-road event of its type in the world.
Local four wheel drive clubs have adopted sections of the trail, and other roads in the McKinney Rubicon area, maintaining them for the public’s use. The North Tahoe Trail Dusters maintain the Old Barker Pass Trail at the end of Blackwood Canyon and the trail that runs up to Buck Lake off the Rubicon Trail.
The Lake Tahoe Hi-Lo’s 4WD Club of South Lake Tahoe has adopted the Rubicon Trail from the staging area in the Tahoe Basin to Rubicon Springs, a popular spot for camping.
“We do trail restoration and police the trail for litter. We do fill-in work keeping puddles and mud holes filled with rocks to keep people on the trail instead of driving off the trail onto fragile areas,” Pete Cocores of the Hi-Lo’s said.
The four-wheel-drive club works with El Dorado County and the Forest Service to maintain the county-owned road, dropping dead trees to block fragile meadow areas, moving rocks around to keep the trail passable and building and repairing water bars.
Clubs from throughout California and the west utilize the trail for outings.
The preferred and customary direction of travel for this historic trip is west to east, starting at one of two trailheads, the traditional Wentworth Springs or Loon Lake (15 miles from Lake Tahoe).
If traveling the opposite direction, keep in mind the heaviest use is Sunday afternoons. Vehicles head into the basin on the narrow route after a weekend spent along the trail and “it won’t be much fun,” Cocores said.
Most recreational day users forego the most rugged middle section of the trail, preferring not to abuse their vehicles on the narrow road that in many places is more of a pile of huge rock rubble than a road. The terrain, especially in the middle section, dictates the use of short-wheelbase high clearance vehicles, meaning higher than a stock off-the-showroom-floor sport utility vehicle.
Moderately and highly modified vehicles equipped with large tires, locking differentials, extra-low gears, off-road suspensions, winch, roll-cage, skid plates and a complete repair and spare parts kit are the standard for this section of road. The Jeepers Jamboree organizers also point out that travelers should expect to sustain some body damage to their vehicles as they go through rough sections of the trail named Sluice Box, Old Sluice, Cadillac Hill or Walker Hill and the soup bowl.
For those without a four-wheel-drive vehicle, organized trips along the Rubicon Trail are available through Ride the Rubicon with their All-Terrain Vehicles or Off-Road Tours USA with its 1- to 4-day trips in Jeeps. The Ride the Rubicon guided tours go in groups of six people, each on their own four wheeled ATV.
The trips leave every hour on the hour. One-, two-, four- or six-hour trips are offered, veteran guide Harry Shutt said. Overnight trips to Loon Lake or other points along the route are also available. Ride the Rubicon provides meals, tents and most other camping equipment. The company also gives two-hour tours in Jeeps and Hummers.The company is based in Meeks Bay, with the trips leaving from the trailhead several miles away.
To get to the Tahoe end of the Rubicon Trail, turn off of Highway 89 just south of Homewood, onto McKinney/Rubicon Road and go west. Drive slowly (it’s a residential neighborhood) and take the first left onto Bellevue and the second right on McKinney Road (follow signs to Miller Lake). Bear left on McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road. At the stop sign go straight onto the dirt road. There is a staging area with rest rooms less than a mile in from the pavement.
Patches of snow are covering the trail, but the route is passable now, according to Cocores of the Hi-Lo’s Club. The Forest Service office in South Lake Tahoe has camping, back country regulation and permit information and maps for areas along the Rubicon Trail.
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