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Rubicon Trail: Proving a point

The publicity of being on the Rubicon Trail

The publicity of being on the Rubicon Trail is just as important as actually making it all 22 miles, from one end to the other. Pretty photos like this show you that Jeep is tough, even if most buyers never set toe to a dirt road. Credit: Chrysler Group

Automakers test their vehicles in all sorts of climates and conditions to prove their worth and to get some publicity. When Dodge, Chevrolet or Nissan claim a quick lap at the Nurburgring race circuit in Germany, Youtube is buzzing with views of the videos. Of course, because it's an old and storied proving ground and the world's yardstick of speed.

But there's a proving ground that's older. Much older, actually. At 300 million years and counting, the Rubicon Trail quite literally rocks on.
Back then, various geological forces conspired to deform the land, eventually creating the mountainous landscape that has challenged anyone - or anything - foolish enough to cross it on foot, horseback, wagon or automobile. To borrow a line from a well-known song, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

The Rubicon Trail has been a challenge to humans for hundreds of years. In recent times it has also become an extreme test of endurance for machinery.

Rigorous testing is an important step that car companies take to ensure their products are able to perform as claimed. Virtually all manufacturers have extensive laboratories and facilities that allow their engineers and designers to see if their latest concepts will work as well as they appear on their computerized drawing boards. Carefully controlled and monitored tests allow for a thorough scrutiny of engines, suspension systems and brakes as well as other critical components before any approval for mass production.

But testing conducted out in the real world - the really rugged world, that is - is just as important to manufacturers as their own in-house experiments. That's why fleets of prototypes are wrung out in the brutally cold winters of Northern Ontario in Canada as well as in the pavement-melting summer heat of the American south-west. Vehicles that can survive both extremes usually provide the kind fail-safe performance that is expected of today's modern automobile.

For Chrysler's Jeep division, the final hurdle that extreme four-wheel-drive machines must cross is a stretch of rugged landscape known as the Rubicon Trail. The route begins a short distance north of Sacramento, Calif., and runs eastward through the Sierra Nevada mountain range until it reaches the western edge of Lake Tahoe near the California-Nevada border.

Although the Rubicon Trail winds for 22 miles through the protected areas of the Eldorado National Forest, it is most definitely not a walk - or drive - in the park. The mountainous region is considered to be the ultimate 4x4 challenge. Survive this excursion, and both you and your off-road motorized back-pack have accomplished an incredible feat.

Conquering the Rubicon was first accomplished by local Indian tribes hundreds of years before any settlers arrived. The area was first surveyed in 1844 and became a route frequented by fur traders and miners shortly after. But what put the Rubicon on the map was the discovery of a mineral springs in the area. This led not only to a thriving bottling and exporting business, but also brought in visitors looking to cure their various ailments. This eventually led to the construction of a hotel at Rubicon Springs. But by the 1920s, this once-flourishing attraction had lost its appeal and was eventually abandoned.

Then, as today, travellers heading into the Rubicon valley were forced to endure one of the harshest and most unpredictable trails around. Each spring and summer, the retreating ice and snow from the Sierra Nevadas significantly alters the man-made path, moving rocks and boulders, creating washouts from streams that become torrents due to the mountain run-off and generally creating a new sets of obstacles for the back-country set to overcome.

However, one generation's hardship is another's pleasure. Since 1953, the Jeep Jamboree, made of a collection of hardy, modern-day fun-seekers, has taken its four-wheel-drive vehicles along the Rubicon Trail on a once-a-year motorized camp-out and rite of passage. The advantage of travelling convoy-style is that someone is always around to help . . . or to help get more help.

Aside from this group, numerous motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle riders hit the trail, particularly on weekends during the summer months (the Rubicon is closed to vehicular traffic during the winter) when the area is swarming with prospective conquerors.

Part of the Rubicon's nature is that the trail is apt to rear up and bite at the first opportunity. Many an undercarriage has been damaged, bodywork smashed and kidneys bruised in the attempt to tame what passes for a trail. Nothing larger than the current-model Jeep Wrangler series is recommended for the Rubicon and anyone ignoring this advice usually winds up with some expensive and warranty-voiding damage by the time they make it to the end of the trail at Lake Tahoe (if they complete it at all).

Jeep-sponsored Jamborees take place throughout the United States and Canada each year. These events have been an excellent marketing tool for the company to demonstrate the strength of its products and to stay connected with what it hopes will be loyal base of customers.

With breathtaking mountain scenery and equally breathtaking moments attempting to traverse a variety of naturally-produced obstacles, the Rubicon Trail provides one of the greatest all-time off-roading thrills to be found anywhere. 

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