By Jon Crowley, UTVGuide.net
I have been riding on the Rubicon since the early 1990s. First in a Jeep CJ7 that was never complete. I was always looking for something new to make the trail easier or more comfortable. Then in 1998 I bought a Jeep TJ. The new Jeep with a lift kit and 33 inch tires was more capable than my 1977 CJ7 that had thousands invested to make it more trail worthy. But I still added a long list of goodies to the new TJ. Something about the trail has always captured my intrigue and made me want to build vehicles capable of taking on the trail without lots of damage.
It is perhaps the best known off-roading trail in the world. The Rubicon Trail located in Northern California is world famous among 4×4 fans. The trail was established in the late 1800’s as a stage coach route between Georgetown and Lake Tahoe mainly to serve two resort hotels at Wentworth Springs and Rubicon Springs. After the hotels went out of business and the road deteriorated it was picked as home for the first Jeepers Jamboree in 1953. Since then it has gained international recognition and is considered the “Granddaddy” of all four-wheel trails – a 10 on most scales. The Rubicon Trail is actually an unmaintained county right of way – the Rubicon/McKinney Road.
I sold my Jeep TJ somewhere around 2004 and got into UTVs around 2006. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a UTV would be capable of taking on the Rubicon. But after a trip to Moab with my Yamaha Rhino in 2007, that is exactly what we did. Well, not actually the whole trail, but enough of it to know that even with 26 inch tires and some rock crawling knowledge, it could be done. Since then, I have hit the Rubicon trail more than a dozen times in many different UTVs including my Yamaha Rhino, Polaris RZR, Kawasaki Teryx and Kawasaki Teryx4.
In the last few years, power has increased enough that I started playing around with larger tires including 30 inch BFGs and even 31″ Pit Bull Growlers. These light truck tires were mounted on 15 inch wheels and were quite heavy. Although they really take a toll of power, the increase in ground clearance made these UTVs so much more capable and comfortable in the rocks. After a trip during the summer of 2010 where we made it quite a ways into the trail and back in a day, I started cooking up an idea to push the limits and the Rubicon Trail UTV Challenge was born. It wasn’t anything official, just something in my twisted mind and posted on the internet.
The concept was simple. Start at one end of the trail in the morning and drive all the way to the other end and back in a day. The number of miles on the odometer isn’t that far each way, somewhere about 15 miles. But the trail has almost no areas where you can drive faster than 15 MPH. And in many places you can walk faster than you can drive.
For the last two years, it has always been in the back of my mind when I am on the trail. On one trip last summer we made it from Loon Lake to the start of Cadillac Hill when we hit traffic coming down the hill. The group of more than a dozen 4x4s was having a hard time coming down the hill. We would have had to wait for them to pass us, then drive another 6 miles to the trailhead and back to get to this point. Plus this group of Jeeps would probably be climbing up Big Sluice when we caught back up to them. Passing on Big Sluice would be almost impossible. It wasn’t to be.
The Challenge escaped me the rest of that summer and this year. At the Sand Sports Super Show this year, I saw several tire manufacturers with 30×14 tires designed for UTVs. Even though it was getting late in the season, these new tires pushed me into making an attempt before cold weather arrived for good and shut out the possibility until next summer.
I had recently received a new demo unit from Polaris. It was a brand new 2013 Polaris RZR XP 900 EPS Orange Madness/Blue LE. Although I had competed in King of the Hammers earlier in the year in my 2011 RZR XP, I really hadn’t spent much time rock crawling with an XP and had never been on the Rubicon with one. I figured this would be a great opportunity to see how the new RZR XP would do. First thing to do was recruit a friend to come along with me. Not a good idea to off-road with just one vehicle, and on the Rubicon is is downright stupid. Jeff had recently bought my 2011 RZR XP and was interested in my twisted plan. We both had Factory UTV UHMW skid plates and a-arm guards which are critical for protecting the underside. Jeff had PURE Polaris trailing arm skids and I had installed a set from Pro Armor. In addition, I had added a Warn ProVantage winch. High clearance radius arms are a big plus and Jeff had installed a set from Long Travel Industries. I had a set on order from High Lifter, but they arrived late on the day before our trip and I did not have time to get them installed. The one crucial thing we were missing was large tires. Although you can do the trail with 26 inch tires, it is much harder on the vehicle. The constant pounding takes its toll on the vehicle and occupants. I talked to several of the tire manufacturers and soon had a set of 30x10R14 STI Rocktane XD tires mounted on STI HD beadlocks and a set of 30x10R14 Maxxis Bighorns mounted on STI wheels headed our way.
To fit a 30″ tire on a RZR XP, a little fender trimming is necessary up front. It was hard for me to put the knife to a new UTV with only 30 miles on it, but I knew that the larger tires would save me from more damage on the trail. The stock front fender flare is still used, but the rear part needs to be moved back and the plastic underneath needs to be trimmed.
So the critical upgrades needed for a successful trip on the Rubicon are skid plates with rock sliders, a-arm guards, trailing arm guards, larger tires, high clearance radius arms, a willing friend with another UTV and a winch for good measure.
Even late in the season, weekend traffic on the trail would slow you down enough to make a successful round trip unlikely. So, with vehicles ready, we headed in on a Thursday in the middle of October. Days are much shorter in October so I knew we could be racing against darkness if we encountered any issues, but I wanted to put this challenge to bed this year.
Loon Lake Trailhead
We arrived at the trailhead at Loon Lake about 8AM. We quickly unloaded, took a few pictures and hit the road at 8:20. This wasn’t going to be a relaxing trip where you stop every half an hour to talk about the last few obstacles, grab a snack and a drink. In order to complete the entire trail and back before dark would require us to make fewer stops and keep them short. We hit the trail with a goal of making it to Ellis Creek for our first stop, but right away my tires were rubbing on the fender. I had the set of 30-inch STI Rocktane XD tires on my RZR and they measured out taller than the Maxxis Bighorns. My co-dog Paul and I talked about adding a little more pre-load to the shocks up front, or doing a little more trimming, but I just wanted to keep going. But after we crossed the granite slab, I decided to stop and take a look. The tires were rubbing, but just part way up the fender where the nubs for the mud flap attach. That is an easy fix. Paul busted out a knife and cut them right off. We quickly made our way up to Ellis Creek from there and did not notice any more tire interference. Our next stop would be Little Sluice.
The Rubicon Trail is a county right-of-way and has been in the middle of environmental challenges and power struggles for the last decade. Little Sluice is on the defined trail, but had become too difficult for all but extreme 4x4s to tackle. Although there are bypass routes, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors made the decision to try and return this section to a more historical state by adding a layer of base rock and also split some of the larger, car-sized rocks into smaller pieces. The trail work occurred in late September and I had yet to see the outcome.
We arrived at the bottom of Little Sluice and walked up to check it out. With the changes, Little Sluice looked doable in a UTV with 30″ tires, but by no means would it be easy. My first instinct was to pass on it, take the bypass and maybe see about trying it out on the way back if all was going well. I should have listened to myself. The other guys thought we could make it and I convinced myself that I was being too cautious.
I let Paul drive so I could get behind the lens and off we went. Paul is an experienced rock crawler and said he had the line laid out in his head so I went to work snapping shots figuring I didn’t need to spot him. All was going well and Paul was making quick work of the obstacles. The toughest section was just ahead so I moved to position myself for a better camera angle. Behind the lens, it is hard to see everything that is happening and Paul got himself into a position which was worse than either of us realized.
The passenger front wheel was off the ground, the driver’s rear tire had a 1 1/2 foot rock wall to climb and the steering wheel was cranked hard right. Paul gave it a little gas and it didn’t move. Now if you haven’t rock crawled before, the key to avoiding breakage is don’t get yourself in a bind. More throttle makes for a entertaining YouTube video, but in a UTV it can lead to a blown CVT belt, broken axle, CV or several other bad things. Just then, I heard it. The “ping” sound that can’t be good. All at once I new we wouldn’t be going any further and our day was done. I was mostly pissed at myself for not listening to my first instinct.
Our “Trail Plug” in the front differential
We all gathered around to survey the damage. The outer CV on the driver’s front had broken. The combination of 30″ tires, hard turn to the right and trying to climb a tough obstacle was too much for it. In my mind this was a day-ender so I had Paul back it off the rocks to a flat spot at the beginning of Little Sluice. We pulled the axle out of the front differential so that it would not interfere as we limped back to the trailhead. Next up was to find something to plug the hole in the differential. Paul and John found an appropriately sized stick and wrapped some electrical tap around it. Then Paul tapped it into the diff with a rock. I watched on in disbelief of what had become of my new RZR XP and my dreams of once and for all conquering the Rubicon Challenge.
As we cleaned everything up, thoughts started to work through my mind about whether we could continue on. We were about 1/3 of our way through the trail in one direction so we had a ton of ground to cover, and I didn’t know how well a RZR XP could do in three wheel drive. The RZR XP has an on-demand all-wheel-drive (AWD) setup but I wasn’t sure how it transferred power from one wheel to the other in event of slippage.
We decided to take the traditional bypass around Little Sluice and see how it did before making the decision to head back to the truck. I took the first few obstacles as if it still had four wheels pulling! I knew that continuing on would mean some tougher spots up Cadillac Hill, then on the way back up Big Sluice but it seemed to work well enough to give it a go. If necessary, I’d bust out my Warn winch to get over anything too tough.
We had wasted an hour with the Little Sluice debacle, so our time would be even more tight. We checked in with each other without getting out of our RZRs and tried to make up a little time by heading straight past Buck Island to the top of Big Sluice. With the exception of just a few minor spots, the RZR XP was doing really well and it was easy to forget that I did not have all the tires working. After a quick snack, we headed down Big Sluice. We got behind three 4x4s that were struggling to get down the hill. One had a broken axle and it looked like it was getting beat up. We asked if we could pass and they waved us along. We hit and into Rubicon Springs and I took a quick picture while the rest of the crew stayed in the vehicles. Then we made our way to Cadillac Hill. Heading to Lake Tahoe this is an uphill slog with a few decent obstacles.
Observation Point – Top of Cadillac HIll
We made it up to the Observation Point at the top of Cadillac Hill at about 12:15. After a quick lunch, I did some quick math. We had another 6 miles to the trailhead on the Lake Tahoe side. Most of the big obstacles were behind us so we should be able to get to the trailhead in quick order. But at that point it would be after 1 PM and we would have the full trail ahead of us in the opposite direction. Assuming we did not have any issues, it was doable so off we went.
Rubicon Trailhead – Lake Tahoe side
We hit the trailhead on the Tahoe side at 1:15 PM. With no fan fare, a quick picture and a gulp of water we hit the road again in the opposite direction. This challenge was turning into a lot of work!
Paul and I followed Jeff and John back to the Observation Point. After checking in we headed down Cadillac Hill. I started to think about the vehicles that we passed going down Big Sluice. We hadn’t run into them yet, so chances were that we would see them soon. Sure enough, we bumped into them right after then passed the hairpin turn. A Toyota pickup was in the lead and was stuck. These guys had no winch and they were trying to use a come-along and two tow straps to move the truck forward. They quickly figured out they could not reach a solid anchor point and looked like they were at their wits end. I offered up my winch, but we didn’t know how well it would work with me on the uphill side trying to tow a heavier vehicle up a hill. We opted instead to get all of us behind and give him a big push. This luckily worked like a charm and we were able to get past all of them about 15 minutes later.
Coming back up Big Sluice
We made our way to the bottom of Cadillac Hill and through Rubicon Springs in quick order. Next up was Big Sluice and going back up was much harder than coming down. In particular, there are a few spots early on that can be pretty tricky. I got through the first section without issues and was getting pretty good at positioning the RZR where I had good traction with the front/right tire. Then I hit the next spot and the best line got me in a spot where that tire was coming off the ground. I back up and tried another option, but it pushed me right back over to where I was before. One more try and then I was figuring on using the winch. No use in pushing it too far and possibly breaking something else at this point in the trail. But fortunately, I got positioned a little better on the last attempt and popped right up and over. Woo hoo! The rest of Big Sluice was uneventful other than one spot were the driver front tire was way in the air and it felt like you were teetering on the edge of tipping over. Luckily the front wheel that was on the ground was our good side!
Once back to Buck Island, I turned the keys back over to Paul so he could drive us back to Loon Lake. The rest of the trip back out to the trailhead was uneventful and once we made it close enough to the trailhead to know that we were going to make it I relaxed a bit. It was 5 PM by the time we made it to the truck. The shadows were getting long and we had about an hour of daylight left. I was beat from 9 hours of banging around in the rocks. The stress of the axle break and the quick pace of our trip had worn me out as well. We loaded up and headed home.
Sun was getting low in the horizon when we finished up
After reflecting on the trip I am thrilled with what we accomplished. I would guess that someone has tackled what we just did in a rock buggy before, but doubt anyone has done it in a UTV. Thirty miles in a day is a long ways in the rocks, especially on the Rubicon Trail. Not so sure I would jump back in to do it again any time soon, but I think it was quite a feat to do it in a nearly stock vehicle. Realistically we could have trimmed the front fenders, cranked down on the shock pre-load to gain ride height and added bigger tires and been successful. The skid plates and arm guards just protect the vehicle, but they don’t make the trail any easier. This is a true testament to the abilities of the stock Polaris RZR XP. And although I kicked myself for falling into taking Little Sluice on the way in, it really illustrated to me that a RZR XP with three tires was a very capable rock crawler. With four working for you it is almost unstoppable!
Current Products on our 2013 RZR XP:
- STI Rocktane XD tires mounted on STI HD Beadlocks
- TMW Off-Road roll cage
- Axia Alloys panoramic mirror and fire extinguisher mount
- SSV Works side view mirrors
- Factory UTV UHMW skid plate, Rock sliders, front a-arm guards
- Pro Armor doors, seats, harnesses and trailing arm guards
- ProLine Wraps door graphics
- Rugged Radios – intercom and radio
- Warn ProVantage 3500 winch
- Yoshimura carbon fiber intake scoops
Upcoming additions to our 2013 RZR XP:
- High Lifter high clearance radius arms
- Lonestar Racing high clearance radius arms
- Cognito Motorsports front A-arms
- UTV Inc. front a-arm gusset kit
- Muzzys dual exhaust
- Benchmark Performance ECU reflash
- Quick release steering wheel – Rhino Parts & Performance
- EPI Severe Duty belt and clutch kit
- FOX 2.5″ Podium X shocks
- Pro Armor front bumper
- K&N air filter
Past Rubicon UTV Trips:
- Rubicon Day Trip – September 2012
- Teryx4 Camping Trip on the Rubicon – June 2012
- Rubicon Run – July 2011 – Initial proof of concept
- Day Trip to the Rubicon Trail – July 2011
- Rubicon Snow Run – January 2010
- Rubicon with Kawasaki – September 2009
- Rubicon Trail Day Trip – August 2009
- UTV Run on the Rubicon Trail– July 2007
- Crystal Basin – June 2009
Rubicon Trail – GPS Coordinates (Google Maps):
- Loon Lake Trail Head
- Ellis Creek
- Little Sluice
- Buck Island Lake
- Bridge into Rubicon Springs
- Start of Cadillac Hill
- Observation Point at the top of Cadillac Hill
- Trailhead on Lake Tahoe side