Point of No Return: The 2017 Jeepers Jamboree on the Rubicon Trail
Nestled deep in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas lies a portal to every off roaders dream. An untouched trail, 12 miles long, with no permanent structures, a population of zero and some of the most challenging obstacles of any trail in California. Synonymous with the phrase “the point of no return,” the Rubicon Trail has remained an item on most off-roaders bucket list. Being an avid off-roader myself, I was no exception to the attraction of the Rubicon Trail. And there’s no better time to go than during the event that started it all.
In 1953, the first organized group of Jeep owners pioneered the Rubicon from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe, stopping overnight at Rubicon Springs. The 55 Jeeps and 155 participants started a tradition, now called the Jeepers Jamboree, that would continue every year even to present day. This year marked the 65th Jeepers Jamboree from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe, and the event was quickly sold out with over 500 vehicles and over 1,500 people in attendance.
I met up with the Stobaugh family in Placerville, near where our journey would begin in Georgetown, to get a firsthand experience of the Jeepers Jamboree event. Ron, Tracy, their son Austin and his girlfriend Courtney are veterans of the Rubicon, having attended this event several times before. The Stobaughs are the owners of Off Road Brands, a parent company of several off-road parts supplier companies such as Carbon Off Road, Rubicon Tested and Desert Race School. The vision behind Off Road Brands is to provide products and services directly from the source, rather than through a large distributor. Austin and Ron work full-time at their shop in Foothill Ranch, California. Although they are platinum sponsors for the event, the Stobaughs consider Jeepers Jamboree a week-long family vacation that they look forward to attending each year.
The streets of Georgetown were closed off for the vendor show. As the title sponsor for Jeepers Jamboree, Nitto Tire's truck and trailer were set up with a booth right out front, featuring Loren Healy's Jeep JK and two Ultra4 race cars, alongside dozens of other sponsors and vendors that lined the main street.
I hopped in with Austin in his 2009 Jeep JK for the duration of the trail. We first hit dirt and began airing down the tires at Loon Lake. Austin’s JK, nicknamed Brick, led the group through the first obstacle, known as the gatekeeper. I quickly realized that rigs with bigger tires would prevail on the Rubicon, due to its numerous rock gardens laced with large boulders. Brick is rolling on set of 40-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers, which made the majority of this much easier to navigate.
This was the maiden voyage for Courtney’s newly finished TJ build, nicknamed Roger. Roger got a brand new set of 37-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers, which gave her all the traction she needed to get through the never-ending obstacles of the Rubicon. Roger would go on to complete the trail effortlessly, with an arsenal of new modifications. The stretched TJ now rides on a new set of full-width Currie RockJock 60 axles, Fox coilovers and a custom long arm suspension system, just to name a few. Needless to say, flex was not an issue.
Growing up in Placerville, Ron has completed the Rubicon Trail countless times in the past. His Jeep JK is on a set of 37-inch Nitto Ridge Grapplers — a tire Ron has never used on the Rubicon before. Being a daily driver, Ron runs the Ridge Grapplers because of their comfort and tame street manners, but counts on them to perform just as well off the pavement. The Ridge Grapplers had plenty of grip along the entirety of the Rubicon, through boulders, water crossings, granite slabs and even the occasional fallen log.
As we pushed on through the morning, the Rubicon trail led us to a series of granite slabs the size of the hills themselves. Faint black marks on the slabs line the trail where previous travelers trekked along the Rubicon. While the trail is challenging, it is also equally as scenic. As we climbed in elevation, we passed over notable obstacles such as “Little Sluice” and the “Soup Bowl,” eventually leading us to Buck Island Lake. One of the many benefits of the Jeepers Jamboree event is the assistance from the “Rock Rollers,” a group of experienced rock crawlers who assist with spotting through obstacles. The Rock Rollers even had onsite mechanics at Buck Island Lake, ready to assist with mechanical issues along the trail. Thankfully, we only waved as we passed by their station.
After climbing over our last ridge of the day, we made our way down the last obstacle before getting to camp. Rubicon Springs is the oasis of the forest where the main event takes place. Over the next 24 hours, hundreds of vehicles would make their way down to the springs to join the other participants in a few days of fun and relaxation along the river. After the final water crossing heading into our now completely dark campsite, we turned on the LED light bars and quickly set up camp near a few other groups of Jeepers.
Over the next day, Rubicon Springs grew into a small city. Over 1,500 attendees and hundreds of rigs lined the granite banks of the Rubicon River, each with its own campsite (and sometimes garage). The springs had come alive. Large speakers played classic rock while participants lounged by the river and floated on rafts to keep cool through the 90-degree days. After chatting with several people at the springs, it became clear that for many, this was the only week-long vacation they take each year. And who could blame them?
Although packing for a four-day camping/wheeling trip is always a logistical nightmare, Jeepers Jamboree makes it a little easier by providing three meals each day at the springs. The volunteers from the American Legion Post 119 did an outstanding job at preparing, cooking and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Mind you, this was no cafeteria food. Breakfast consisted of pancakes, eggs, sausage and bacon with pastrami sandwiches and burgers for lunch.
The dinner line was a hundred yards long, with amazing meals such as spaghetti, salads and even a huge, juicy steak — truly an amazing feat considering everything was brought into Rubicon Springs in the back of a Jeep or by a supplies dropped from a helicopter. After dinner entertainment consisted of a fully operational bar, live band and a huge fire pit where participants gathered and swapped trail stories from this year and years past.
A few notable celebrities in the off-road world were among the attendees. Among them were Nitto-sponsored Ultra4 drivers Shannon Campbell and Loren Healy who brought their Jeep JKs on the trip, as well as King of The Hammers founder Dave Cole in a Bomber Race Car.
On our last night at Rubicon Springs, participants patiently gathered around the main event grounds, waiting for the famous Jeepers Jamboree raffle. Each person on the trail was given a wristband in Georgetown with a unique number on it, corresponding with a raffle ticket. Prizes ranged from t-shirts to Jeep parts to gift certificates, but many had their eye on one prize that made the 65th Jeepers Jamboree special. The event organizers gave one lucky winner a Willys Flat Fender Jeep, built specifically to be given away at this event.
On our final day of the trip, our camp packed up at 7 a.m. and left the springs, headed back onto the Rubicon Trail to complete the final leg of the journey to Lake Tahoe. One main obstacle stood in our way, called Cadillac Hill. Named many years ago after a Cadillac that mysteriously was found at the bottom of this steep hill, this obstacle was not one to be taken lightly. With the help of the Rock Rollers spotting the drivers along the hill, one by one we made it up the off-camber, unsettling ascent to the top of the ridge. Near the top was an observation point, which happened to be the perfect spot for a group photo opportunity.
After conquering Cadillac Hill, we stopped at our last catered lunch at a designated spot with some shade to grab a bite before finishing the last stretch. Cadillac Hill took its toll on a TJ we found at our lunch stop. The lower control arm bracket on the front axle had sheared off the axle housing. Thanks to some bush-mechanic experience (don’t try this at home), the repair was made by some fellow Jeepers who connected two batteries together and arc-welded the bracket back onto the axle.
With just a few miles to go until we hit Lake Tahoe, I climbed into the passenger seat with Austin and belted up to complete the trail. A few more rock gardens stood in our way, but nothing these Jeeps couldn’t handle.
At last, we reached the staging area on the Lake Tahoe side of the trail. This spot gave everyone the opportunity to refill their tires, unload trash (pack it in, pack it out!) and use the restrooms before making the transition back to pavement. The Stobaugh's stable of Jeeps had made the whole trip without incident — a true testimony to how well the rigs are built for this type of terrain as well as daily driving. Before long, we had blacktop under the tires again and had successfully completed the Rubicon Trail.
As we crested one last hill, the deep, blue water of Lake Tahoe caught my eye, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the pioneers of the Rubicon felt the day they arrived at that very spot. This trail isn’t just an afternoon wheeling spot. Fully built rigs still faced challenges with some of the obstacles along the Rubicon, and it only made me think about the difficulties the first Jeepers Jamboree group had when crossing this epic trail back in 1955 in the old Willys Flat Fender Jeeps.
Off-road technology and innovation has come a long way since those days, but over all those years, but one thing has remained the same. The Jeep Wrangler has always been the favorite weapon of choice when tackling this challenging journey, and there is no better way to do it than alongside hundreds of other Jeeps and people who share a common passion for off-roading and the outdoors. The Jeepers Jamboree on the Rubicon is truly a once in a lifetime experience (that I’m happy to say is now crossed off my bucket list), and an event I hope to attend for many years to come.