“The Rubicon Trail is canceled.”
This is not the email you want to receive when a lineup of 2020 Jeep Gladiator vehicles await you along the famed 22-mile off-road route that meanders through towering old-growth forests of the Sierra Nevada range. Particularly when the Gladiators in question sport the “Rubicon” badge, a trim once limited to the smaller Jeep Wrangler.
But the email arrived anyway. It wasn’t the Jeep’s fault, though.
The helicopters meant to shuttle us from the end of the trail couldn’t fly in the windy conditions that we were expecting, so rather than soldiering on and camping, we had to abandon the Jeeps – so to speak – because the overnight temperatures would be around freezing. While the Rubicon Trail varies in elevation, those heights are between 6,000 and 7,200 feet. Weather happens, and as a group of pampered auto writers, we lack the skills to survive such conditions.
Nevertheless, high winds grounded us for day two. The day’s fog and rain would’ve surely made for a sluggish slog but also an epic, muddy one. Alas, these playtime conditions would remain an elusive off-road fantasy.
By contrast, our one and only day on the trail was so picture perfect it could’ve come with your store-bought frame. The air was crisp, the sky clear, the sun shining, and the Jeep Gladiators were clean. For about 15 minutes.
Our group of Jeeps started the day at the Loon Lake Dam, which is the terminus of Ice House Road. Scenic and serene, the trailhead provided little indication to what we had gotten ourselves into. We were too busy looking up rather than scanning the sloping hillside into what hid beneath the shadows of various firs and pines of the Eldorado National Forest. After a logistics and safety briefing courtesy of the expert trail team from Jeep Jamboree USA (JJUSA), we buckled in and rolled out.
Slowly. Very, very slowly. A literal crawl.
And how did the Gladiator handle? As expected: flawlessly.
To quote JJUSA President & CEO Pearse Umlauf, “You can walk [the Rubicon] faster than you can drive it.” This is not an exaggeration. Nothing happens fast when off-roading, especially on a trail as technical and treacherous as the Rubicon. And with a dozen car critics commanding the wheel, the snail-like pace means you die another day. Particularly me, a complete off-road novice. So I creep, yeah.
Some folks just like buying shiny new things because, well, they’re shiny and new. But with an as-tested price just shy of $60,000, it makes sense to christen the latest Jeep on its off-road-ready trim’s namesake trail. And how did it handle? As expected: flawlessly. Albeit noisily.
Body creaks, sheet metal screeches, and the crushing of moderately-sized rocks on the underside of the Gladiator were our soundtrack for the better part of six hours. That and SiriusXM’s Yacht Rock Radio, a concession I made to appease my co-driver (I may need to stop respecting my elders so much and just force the station to something less dentist office-savvy, like SiriusXM Fly). We had zero cell service but satellite radio came through as loud and clear as soft rock can manage.
In any case, the Rubicon Trail is awe-inspiring not only in its views but in how the trail simultaneously separates you from the grid while keeping you connected to everything else – particularly your own physical and mental limits.
Speed-Dating For Trail Traversing
The first big hint of things to come was the Granite Bowl. Not a far trek from our starting point, this sweeping valley of rock slabs provided a view of the vastness of the surrounding forest. If only it’s view of the trail itself was as clear. There are no obvious lane markings. Only small Rubicon Trail signs affixed high up in a smattering of trees and the occasional reflector Gorilla-glued to a rock.
I gave complete trust to the JJUSA team, who, if this were an app-inspired date, I’d blame such blind faith on the alcohol. But this was not the setting, there were no moments of romance, and, OMG, I can’t see the trail. But I can see the spotters.
My care and courtesy to the mountain corner workers equalled the respect I gave to the Rubicon (both trail and vehicle). Operator error, rather than the Jeep’s lack of ability, was almost always to blame for stuck Gladiators. The lot of use were driving straight-from-the-factory vehicles equipped with optional equipment that prioritized passenger comfort (leather seats, heated steering wheel, etc.) instead of accessories to help off-road. That said, some kit proved useful off-road. Particularly the front-facing camera.
Does he mean steer a lot, a little, or is there simply a bug on his face?
Or so I’m told. Unfortunately one Gladiator lacked this feature, and I was the chicken-dinner winner on the sans-camera rock crawler. But it didn’t matter, because success on the Rubicon isn’t about staring at a camera feed in the center screen but locking eyes with the trail guide and following their instructions. With directions like “passenger” (meaning turn the wheel to the right) and “driver” (meaning turn the wheel to the left), the language was simple to grasp. It was up to me, though, to determine how much steering lock and accelerator pedal pressure to give.
With maybe a dozen JJUSA guides walking the trail alongside our trucks, I found learning each person’s individual hand signals was much like speed-dating for trail traversing. Does he mean steer a lot, a little, or is there simply a bug on his face? Only a handful were dedicated signal callers but like any new relationship, we had to go through the awkward getting-to-know-you phase. Still moseying along at an unhurried pace, I was in a new found comfort zone with the trail and truck.
Going through the stacked ledges of the Soup Bowl and into the literal river of large rocks that make up the Little Sluice, the Gladiator instilled a sort of (possibly deceiving) confidence. Because how sure of my abilities did I feel? Sure enough to drive with one hand on the steering wheel as the other held a fried chicken cutlet.
At Least I Have Chicken
You see, hanger is a real thing for me and I needed to eat. Besides, at maybe a max speed of 10 miles per hour on the less craggy portions of the trail, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing other than me running out of chicken.
Anyone could’ve driven like the seasoned snacker that I am as our vehicles were pretty much set up the same way. Jeep dropped the air pressure of the stock 33-inch all-terrain tires’ from the OEM-recommended 37 psi to a Rubicon-friendly 29 psi, instructed us to set the transfer case to Low, disconnect the sway bars, and lock and unlock the front and rear differentials as needed. Same with the Off-Road Plus feature, which I regularly tapped at to adjust the Jeep’s throttle response and transmission shift points.
One thing the Jeep Gladiator had a tendency to lunge forward with just a small tap of the right pedal.
One thing the Jeep Gladiator had a tendency to lunge forward with just a small tap of the right pedal. Of course when this happened, I looked like an overeager dolt to everyone standing outside of the vehicle. Sigh. Switching to Off-Road Plus helped ease that factory-installed excitement on the more complicated parts of the trail. But once back on the more manageable dirt roads of pulverized pebbles, the setting’s high-RPM shift points proved annoying.
With more than two hours of on-road driving followed by six hours of off-road scrambling, we still only managed as far as Arnold’s Rock and not our intended destination of Buck Island Lake. Despite having only one day on the trail with the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, exhaustion was setting in. I think the Jeep fared better with visible blemishes consisting only of soft scratches to its once-shiny paint from low-lying tree branches. And unlike some of my cohorts, I kept all the fenders on.
Addicted To The Trail
But at 5 p.m. when I finally relinquished the keys, all I could think about was getting back to the hotel and cuddling up with a few cold beers while catching up on the litany of text messages I was hoping I was important enough to receive. To be honest, the last thing I wanted to do was get back in the truck and climb more rocks.
The next morning, though, I wanted nothing more than to give my Gladiator Rubicon a solid, deep-into-the-pores mud bath. Maybe add a few more battle scars to the Firecracker Red Gladiator or this time join the lose-a-fender gang. But the weather said no. I pouted until midday when FCA sent out the confirmation email of disappointment, sadness, and FOMO.
The Rubicon Trail is by no means easy, but with the right ride (and rations), the views, experience, and challenge makes whatever happens worth it. Just don’t make any plans that require a helicopter.