Curve ball on the Rubicon Trail

I had a lot of time to reflect during my time on the Rubicon Trail as I ended up wheeling a good portion of the trail alone. One thing that was profoundly clear to me is that life doesn’t happen in the way you plan it. You can either fight it or roll with it. Cheesy lemonade analogies aside the trip was a prime example of making the best of a shitty situation. To say it was a whirlwind of emotions is an understatement. Excitement, panic, determination, exhaustion, more panic, accomplishment and dread all in the span of 48 hours.

Historic Rubicon Trail Sign

Off to a rough start

It all started when our oldest beagle Barley had a back episode about 30 min before we were supposed to depart for the Rubicon trailhead. We’re no stranger to back episodes, as he’s had many before, but this was a bad one. Wobbly legs, Yelping, all the things that’ll bring a dog owner to tears. Luckily we’d done a bit of prep before the trip and knew there was a vet ER with a neurology Dept near(ish). So after handing over some supplies and maps we set off for Sacramento.

Thankfully the 2 hr drive calmed him down some. Since he still had some function in his rear legs, he wasn’t a neurological emergency. We decided to admit him for pain management and observation. This left me in the surprising situation of deciding if I would try and catch the rest of the group. I was running about 5 hours behind. Lindsay and I talked it over and decided to go for it. Unfortunately, we had removed all the camping gear from the Jeep when it was transformed into beagle ambulance. That meant I couldn’t kidnap Lindsay and Ranger for the trip. We had to return to the campground to pack up. This cost me about 2 hours, but in retrospect was the correct decision.

Back on track

Right as I was ready to leave, about 12:30, I received a message that the Rubicon Trail was closing early and I’d better run backwards to meet the rest of the group. We were running the Rubicon Trail a couple days before the Jeepers Jamboree and there were people at the start of the trail trying to ensure it was clear for the event. This had already crossed my mind, because if something did happen to me help was surely to cross my path at least once to rescue me. So at 1:30, I set off to do the one thing you’re not supposed to do (wheel alone) on one of the most grueling trails around.

TJ and LJ navigating large rocks on the Rubicon Trail

The original plan was to camp at Buck Island Lake, which was about halfway through the trail and a beautiful place to camp. I was determined to beat the rest of the group there, even though they had a couple hours head start. The first 6 miles (well technically last but I was going backwards) are pretty tame. I found the new EVO Lever rear suspension was handling my heavy tool and camping equipment loads well. I was pushing 20 mph and making great time.

Just when things were going “smoothly”

About 40 minutes in I’d noticed my brakes seemed a little squishy and my brake light came on. I decided to stop and take a quick look near the top of Cadillac hill. Sure enough using the old long rear sway bar links had been a mistake, they had worn through a braided stainless brake line. I tore into my spare parts to change it out quickly, only to find that with all the crap I carry this one crucial item had gotten missed.

“Well, shit”

The leak wasn’t that bad. I could build pressure with a couple pumps of the pedal. I decided to top off the fluid and press on hoping somebody in the group had a spare line. At this point the seriousness of being alone out in the middle of nowhere started to set in, and it made me a little nervous. This only seemed to motivate me more to hurry up and find the rest of the group.

large rocks on Rubicon Trail

Another hour (and a couple of detours getting lost, including an unintended tour of Rubicon springs) and I was at the bottom of Big Sluice where apparently there were 13 jeeps headed my way. I was pretty tired, so I found a good spot to pull off to the side where the other group could get by. Had a beer and a snack and felt a millions times better.

2 jeeps by.

Decided to remove my sway bar as it was starting to chew into my other brake line.

2 more jeeps by.

Decided to mount my trasharoo that I’d hastily thrown in the back seat for now.

1 more Jeep by.

I went up and helped spot the remaining 6 jeeps down which finally resulted in a total delay of an hour… there goes making good time.

I hopped in my Jeep and headed up, not sure what to expect after seeing all that trouble. Aside from a bit of re-positioning and liberal locker use I made it up Big Sluice without issue.

Even more impressed with the Jeep at this point.

Between Big Sluice and Buck Island Lake the obstacles got much more challenging. I ran into a couple of groups to chit chat with and told my story. Most were surprised I was alone. A few of them had seen my group so it was reassuring to know I was headed in the right direction. Several of them mentioned how the trail has increased in difficulty over the past couple years. The Jeep continued to perform flawlessly. I was starting to enjoy myself but moving too fast to really take it all in. I hit Buck Island Lake about 5:30 and was happy that I had successfully done it.

No group to be seen, I made it.

Now to see how much more of the trail I could cover, since I was going to turn around and miss the rest once I found them.

Not out of the woods yet

I started to wonder how it was getting so late and I still hadn’t found them. I told myself at 6:30 I’d stop and just turn around and go back to the lake in case I had missed them somehow. Either that or I could just continue and finish the trail as fast as I was going. As it turned out I ran into everyone at 6:20 and was super relieved to have made it. Ended up catching them 3 mi into the trail in what amounted to 5 hours including an hour delay. I sent Lindsay a message saying I found them and we were off.

It wasn’t an obstacle or two later when a buggy that was with us, who was also suffering brake problems, rolled back. In the perfect sequence of events he hit his passenger rear wheel on a rock just right to split the rim down the middle. We all looked on in awe as we were without a spare, at the end of the day, with only one day to get off the trail before they starting writing tickets. We agreed the best option was to just try and make it to camp and see how the tire held up. Not to mention get some rest. Amazingly the remaining half of the beadlock had a grip on the tire and the buggy was more than capable of making its way across the obstacles on 3.5 wheels.

Finally! Time to take a break

We rolled into buck island across the dam but all the good sites were taken at this point. A couple more obstacles and we found one that would fit us all and was still on the lake. At 9 pm the dark set in and we began setting up camp. While everybody set their tents up, I was just absolutely exhausted, so I drank a couple beers had ate something.


At that point I decided to wing it with the hammock and save the hassle of the tent for such a short stay. That proved to be one of my most enjoyable and memorable choices. I had no idea the amazing view I would awake up to.

After awaking to an amazing sunrise on the lake, taking a dip in the lake to wash up, and making some coffee, I felt like a million bucks. We decided to split into two groups so as not to rush everyone but try and make best time with the buggy to get it as far as we could before the tire/wheel gave out. We had until 6 am the next day before the trail would be closed for the jamboree and that was going to be cutting it close if we were going have to run back to his RV to get the spare.

Time to do it all over again

Running at about half the speed of the day before I was finally able to sit back and enjoy the trail while still making good time. The second group was on our heels for most of the morning until about Rubicon Springs.

Amazingly the tire held out all the way through, up Cadillac hill and finally gave up the ghost about 5 mi from the staging lot. We tried to remount the tire on the half of beadlock with the other side since it had worked so well but it came off about 100 ft later. He drove the rest of the way to the staging on just half a beadlock wheel. Really a testament to Spyderlock Wheels and Maxxis Tires.

That was some serious abuse.

I went ahead and changed my brake line with a borrowed spare stock line, as that was the best we could come up with. Not nearly long enough for the trail but would allow me to drive safely on the road.

We were a bit worried the second group hadn’t caught us yet, but decided to go grab the truck and trailer and give them a couple hours more before going back out to look for them. What a huge relief It was to pass them on the way back to the trail head.

At the end of it all I ran almost 30 miles of the Rubicon trail in under 24 hours.

Absolutely exhausting.

Next time I’m taking 3 days to enjoy it. But I don’t regret a thing. Staring down the barrel of possibly missing the Rubicon Trail after having driven 2,200 miles to get there, I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to get out there and experience as much as I did. I’ll have to leave the first 3 mi of the trail to be experienced another time, but I’ll be back. I’m sure of that …

Big thanks to Angela for letting me use some pictures. In all of the rush I definitely didn’t take enough of my own.

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