The World Famous Rubicon Trail is located in the California High Sierra with Eastern end of the Trail located in Tahoma, California at beautiful Lake Tahoe in Placer County. This world-renowned 4-wheel drive route leads from Lake Tahoe to Georgetown, a total distance of approximately 22 miles. The Trail is a non-maintained County road located in Placer and El Dorado Counties. To reach the eastern trailhead, follow highway 89 south from Tahoe City for about nine miles. There will be a sign for McKinney-Rubicon Trail (also known as the Rubicon Trail). Turn in to the residential area and follow the signs. You’ll weave through the residential area for about a half mile before coming to the “entrance” to the McKinney-Rubicon Trail. There are signs at the entrance with various rules and recommendations for the trail.
Originally a Native American trail connecting the Sacramento Valley and Lake Tahoe, the Rubicon Trail was re-discovered by European immigrants in the 1840s. By the 1890s, the trail had become an actual road (by the standards of the day) and was used to reach the Rubicon Mineral Springs Resort and Hotel. The first car into Rubicon Springs arrived in 1908, driven by a woman from Lake Tahoe. This historic drive received quite a bit of publicity from the San Francisco newspapers. Throughout the 1920s, the Rubicon Springs road was being promoted as the best route from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe. To encourage travel along the route, a promotional automobile trip was organized, compete with photographs in the local papers. The write-up included mention of a survey party that would make plans for improving the road.
However, when the Rubicon Springs Hotel closed in the late 1920s, the road fell into disuse. The route has been used by 4-wheel drive vehicles since the early 1950s and has become one of the most famed, 4-wheel drive trails in the world.
The Current Trail
While the current trail travels the same route from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe that has been used since the 1860s, it changes a little each season, due to erosion and vehicle traffic. As vehicles bypass “bad spots” or avoid broken or abandoned vehicles, the trail deviates more significantly from the original route. Drivers looking for a more “fun” route cause additional damage making their way over the much smaller original wagon road. Damage to the trail has more to do with the driver than the vehicle, regardless of size. Sections of the original wagon road are still visible where it was cut from the solid granite. Many of the rock formations along the route are unique, allowing identification from historic photos of the original route, which is crisscrossed in some areas by the 4-wheel drive road. The 4-wheel drive road also crosses a spillway built by PG&E in the 1930s and 1940s. The Rubicon Trail is now widely recognized as the premier OHV route in the United States and has been called the “crown jewel of all off highway trails.” At one time, it was revered as the most difficult, rated 10 on a scale of one to 10, due to its narrow passages, rocky climbs, and occasional mud hole. Because of its difficulty, the trail is recommended for short wheelbase vehicles with all skid plates in place. The Rubicon Trail attracts both street legal and “green sticker” off-road motor vehicles. As a result, users travel the trail on and in wide range of all-terrain vehicles, including dirt bikes and a variety of 4-wheel drive vehicles, from street-legal SUVs to vehicles built for the sole purpose of driving the trail. Because the trail lies adjacent to the Desolation Wilderness, the Rubicon Trail is also used as an access route by hikers, backpackers, and fishers.
Beginning in Tahoma at the entrance to the McKinney-Rubicon Trail, the Trail starts with a mile and a half of pavement. It is a narrow winding single lane road through the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. This part of the trail sees a wide variety of users from Jeeps to bicycles to joggers. Please drive slow and keep an eye out for others recreating on the trail. About half way down the paved portion of the Trail you’ll see a trail on your right. This is the Noonchester Mine Road. This trail is a short, easy drive but still requires four wheel drive and dead-ends with a beautiful vista of Lake Tahoe. At the end of the pavement, there is a Forest Service staging area. There is plenty of room to air down your tires, fold down the windshield and to secure your cargo for the bumpy drive on the Rubicon. There are pit toilets, maps and other information about the Rubicon Trail and the local forests. There is also a spill kit depository. This provides a place to dispose of the rags, bags or soil that was used to pick up the fluid for anyone who might have had a fluid leak or spill while on the trail. It’s a big white box with a mail slot type opening on the side. Heading out of the staging area, you’ll soon come to a cobble strewn incline. This is the first hint that the trail requires four wheel drive. A little further up, there are some large rocks in the trail, this shows why a “high clearance” four wheel drive is recommended. This trail is not suited for “all-wheel drive” type vehicles.
On your left will be McKinney Lake, although it looks like it should be named Lilly Lake. Lilly Lake is actually the second lake you see while driving the Placer County side of the Rubicon Trail.
One half mile out of the staging area, there is a trail off to the right. This is the Buck Lake Trail. About one mile up this trail is Buck Lake which provides an area to camp and fish. The trail continues up to tie in to the Ellis Peak Trail. Continuing on the Rubicon, only about two miles from the staging area, you leave the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and enter the Tahoe National Forest. The trail levels out for the next two miles.
Soon you’ll come to a large open area right next to Miller Lake. There are camp sites on the north side of the trail with steel fire pits. There is a ramp to launch boats to explore or fish Miller Lake.
Just past Miller Lake is a trail to the left. This is the route to Sourdough Peak and Richardson Lake with the Sierra Club’s Ludlow Hut. Sourdough Peak offers spectacular views in all directions but is best enjoyed to watch the sun set. This is also a popular route for hikers doing the Tahoe Rim Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail in order to re-stock or for a start/stop point for those taking the hikes in sections.
Further up the trail, especially in the early spring, you find a large pool on the right side of the trail protected by a row of large boulders. The seasonal pond does not have a name but it’s worth planning a trip early in the season to see it.
The Ellis Creek Trail is just past the pond and provides access to Ellis Peak and Ellis Lake. You can only drive so close to Ellis Peak and have to hike the last 100 yards. It is well worth the hike as it provides 360 degree views of the area. You’ll have Blackwood Canyon to the north, Lake Tahoe to the east Desolation Wilderness to the south and the Crystal Basin area of the Eldorado National Forest to the west.
One half mile past the turn for Ellis Peak, the trail forks. The right trail turns in to Barker Pass Road and continues north to Blackwood Canyon. The Rubicon Trail is the left fork and it’s here the trail takes on a different personality. From this turn, the high point of the trail at 7700 feet, the trail becomes much more difficult.
Three quarters of a mile after the turn you come to one of the first obstacles on the Placer County end of the trail. This is known as the Potato Patch. At the top is a large open area that is wide enough to provide multiple routes. The Potato Patch then narrows as it descends down the trail for the next 50 yards with rocks the size of basketballs.
The trail soon opens up from the tree cover to a large granite area. At the west end of the granite is a ledge. It drops off about two feet but there are alternate routes of either side of the main trail offering easier routes.
Just around the corner from there is Observation Point. When traveling from the west to the east, this is the “we made it” moment. It sits atop Cadillac Hill and provides a great back drop for trail users to line up the rigs and take a group photo with the view looking west.
From Observation Point, it’s all down hill to Rubicon Springs. Cadillac Hill is a steep and extremely difficult section of trail. There are several named obstacles as you travel down. The first is Morris Rock. This is a short but very steep section of trail. It was named for Steve Morris who has parked his Jeep above the obstacle during the Jeepers Jamboree for the last 50+ years to assist travelers up the obstacle.
The next obstacle is “V-Rock”. This is a large boulder on the downhill side of the trail and a sloping granite slab on the uphill side that form a V. Just below V-Rock is the Notch (see photo). This obstacle appears to be carved out of the granite in the area and offers a turn and steep decline to navigate. The next obstacle is the “S-turn”. This is a couple of large granite boulders, a tree, the wall on the uphill side of the trail and the drop-off of the downhill side. And just when you make it through that you approach the “Hairpin Turn”. This is an off camber granite slab, large granite boulders and a sharp left turn.
Cadillac Hill ends with what some call the “Driveway”. It’s a huge granite slab that’s 30 yards long and feels like you're driving down a driveway. At the base of the hill there is a “graveyard”. This is a collection of memorials for long time users of the Rubicon Trail and some of the pets of those users.
Once down on the floor of the valley, you will see a trail off to the north. This is the Long Lake Trail. It dead-ends about a mile out but provides some of the most beautiful scenes in the area. The trail follows along the Rubicon River as it heads towards the Granite Chief Wilderness and then on to Hell Hole Reservoir. After passing the Long Lake Trail, you cross Miller Creek and enter the Eldorado National Forest. Just ahead is the property line for the privately held Rubicon Springs and border with El Dorado County. Rubicon Springs allows overnight camping for a small fee and is THE place to spend the night while traveling the Rubicon Trail. After Rubicon Springs the trail travels through El Dorado County and exits at Wentworth Springs or Loon Lake depending on which route you take.
There are plenty of named obstacles as you travel further on the El Dorado County side including: Big Sluice, Old Sluice, the Slabs, Little Sluice and the Granite Bowl.
Rubicon Trail Foundation