The first thing that surprises you about the Rubicon Trail is the fact that, during the weekend it is like a main highway, with a simply staggering amount of traffic going in both directions.
These are without exception highly modified beasts and they range from beaten, rusting hulks on massively hiked suspension through to completely custom-built space-frame creations, to gleaming, fully-chromed, custom-paint job, show-ready beauties with every conceivable off-road accessory and then some.
And the people are even more diverse.
The full spectrum of social demographics is pretty much accounted for here, but with a distinct skew towards people who favour mullets, trucker caps and sporadic facial hair.
One thing is clear though; the phrase “redneck” has distinct roots in reality, as the sun has not been kind to some of the people on the Rubicon; sometimes the only easy way to tell whether it is Cletus’ ol’ lady or simply another dog is to check if there is a cigarette dangling from its mouth. Other times it is not that easy.
While the first day is punctuated with encounters with other people, the trail itself gets progressively more intimidating and, yes, fun.
The rocks get constantly larger and progress noticeably slower as the morning turns to afternoon and the obstacles get consistently more challenging. Fortunately, we do have guides to show us the best way through the most difficult stuff, but there is a surprising amount of freedom (and a remarkable, but no doubt justified, amount of faith from Jeep people in their product’s ability to do it) and it is really only the truly gnarly stuff, like Cadillac Hill, that the guides are there for.
Although the name sounds somewhat unassuming, Cadillac Hill will haunt us all morning. “Have you done Cadillac Hill before?”, “You’ll enjoy Cadillac Hill!”, “Have fun going down Cadillac!” are all yelled with the kind of bellicose joy of people who have survived, seen it all and revel in the terror of those who haven’t yet.
I am a passenger as we head in and things don’t seem so bad to start off with. The scenery is stunning and the trail is all small to medium rocks, with the first few serious obstacles being easily dispatched by the Wrangler’s prodigious off-road capabilities.
The Rubicon edition Wrangler’s “Rock Trac” transfer case gets a 4.0:1 low ratio, compared to the standard Wrangler’s “Command Trac” low ratio of 2.72:1, making it all-but unstoppable. The automatic requires a surprisingly large amount of pedal pressure on the brake to hold it at a standstill, while on the move it is simply relentless as it crawls over the ever-increasingly large rocks of the Rubicon Trail.
The standard rock sliders and underbody protection are used frequently, although the impressive 35 degree approach, 18 degree break over and 28 degree departure angles of the four-door LWB Unlimited, not to mention its 220mm minimum ground clearance (plus and extra 10mm thanks to the 10th Anniversary editions chunky BFGoodrich mud tyres) make this not anywhere near as frequent as you might imagine.
The increasing confidence with which the Wrangler Rubicon inspires us with as we progress is quite remarkable. This is despite having driven Wranglers many times before in New Zealand and consistently being impressed by their off road ability.
But this is another level altogether. Not only is the terrain totally unlike anything we get in New Zealand, it is also the Wrangler’s spiritual home. The place it has been honed to perfection in. The place it has, quite literally, been built to conquer.
You see, to wear the little “Trail Rated” badge that adorns the most capable of Jeeps, it has to have been proven capable of getting through the Rubicon Trail. That is no mean feat for a standard production vehicle.
The rocks get constantly larger and progress noticeably slower as the morning turns to afternoon and the obstacles get consistently more challenging. I am starting to get excited again as lunch approaches and it will then be my turn to take over the driving.
Lunch, as it turns out, just happens to be at one of the most remarkable and breath-taking places on the planet. Called, rather unimaginatively, ‘Observation Point’, it is at the top of Cadillac Hill and offers gob-smacking views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and El Dorado National Forest.
At roughly 6,500 feet above sea level, it is roughly the same as being more than half way up Mount Cook, meaning that walking any distance is as equally breath-taking as the spectacular views and, possibly for the first time ever, I am grateful I have given up smoking.
Following lunch we finally get to tackle the descent of the infamous Cadillac Hill. Or, at least, I do. My passenger has decided to walk down to “take photographs”.
It turns out Cadillac Hill is every bit as utterly terrifying as our imaginations had led us to believe. An impossibly steep descent barely centimetres wider than the Jeep, strewn with car-sized boulders and hairpin switchbacks.
But as terrifying as it is, it also proves to be possibly the most fun I have ever had in a motor vehicle. The expertise of the guides and the utterly blatant competence of the Wrangler make it a truly remarkable experience: gut-wrenchingly terrifying, utterly satisfying and massively fun, all at the same time.
Reaching the bottom is almost an anti-climax, except for the fact that the scenery becomes even more stunning as we approach Rubicon Springs, the site of our overnight stop, complete with a bar and, yes, even a piano. It is a night spent revelling in the awesomeness of the day, reliving once-in-a-lifetime experiences, knowing that we get to do it all over again the next day.
While the sensible retire to their tents when the on-site bar closes at 10.30, those of us with less sense – well, me – continue into the small hours of the morning sitting around the campfire with the guides and the hot blonde bar girl. I am not driving in the morning, so will spend it “taking photos”. Apart from the actual driving, this is the high point of the trip.
The wonderful down-to-earth attitudes and laid back approach to life of these people is so far removed from the awful plastic cliches we get force-fed through television that it is a joy to experience “real” Americans. They are people who love their country, and I don’t mean in a patriotic sense – they love the Trail, the mountains, the lakes, the remarkably fresh air; everything. They love being out here and wouldn’t want to do anything else. And after being out here for a day, I can completely understand that.