Running the Rubicon Trail
The Jeepers Jamboree rules the roost
If we look deep into the annals of Jeeping, to the beginning, we’ll find ourselves on
New Year’s Day 1941, with a group of engineers in a chilly, smoke-filled corner office of the Willys-Overland plant in Toledo, Ohio. In July of the previous year, the U.S. military, gearing up to enter the conflict in Europe, called out to the American auto industry for the development of a light reconnaissance vehicle, and in November of that year the Willys Quad made its debut. The Willys-Overland team had been granted the government contract, and they pored over thin financials, short production deadlines, and the daunting task of refining the Quad into a platform that could win a war. Flash-forward 13 years, after World War II, and a handful of MBs, predecessors of the mighty Quad, were meandering their way over an old rocky two-track in California’s Sierra Nevada. It was a scouting trip for an event that would change the way the world viewed the Jeep, and it would become known as the “granddaddy” of four-wheel-drive events—the Jeepers Jamboree. This
July, we joined Jamboree President Bob Sweeney for their 66th annual crossing of the Rubicon Trail to learn more about the region and the event’s rich history.
Long before forty-niners crossed the Sierras en route to the gold fields of California, Native Americans traversed the granite path from Lake Tahoe to the western foothills. By 1861, the Central Pacific Railroad had acquired Rubicon Springs as booty for their efforts in building the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad. It wasn’t until 1867, when mining brothers George and John Hunsucker “settled” in the valley, that word of the Rubicon slipped into the mainstream of Western lexicon. Although they would not technically own the land for another 20 years, the Hunsuckers built accommodations to attract tourists, bottled and marketed the spring’s mineral water as having healing properties, and harvested the meadow’s thick grass as livestock feed. It was during their tenure that Bob Sweeney’s second great-grandfather entered the picture. With the threat of the route being closed, brought on by timber interests in the area, Sweeney lobbied the State of California and El Dorado County to designate the wagon track to Tahoe as an official county road. The appeal was granted in 1887 and remains in effect to this day, though it is an “unmaintained” road.
We find the Sweeney name back in the Rubicon’s limelight in 1952. Bob’s grandfather, Jim, along with Mark A. Smith and a handful of Georgetown Rotarians, turned the wheels of their
MBs toward the Hunsuckers’ homestead with an idea in mind: create a fundraising event for the town’s waning economy. The following year, 55 Jeeps and 155
people set off for Rubicon Springs. The rest, we’ll say, has become history.
We’ve witnessed the 40th, 50th, and 60th Jamborees come and go, each bringing a new crop of Jeeping enthusiasts who depart with memories that may be forged into the chronicles of future generations. The Rubicon Trail has become known throughout the world, and driving it is a Top 10 “bucket list” item for millions of people. As for the Jeepers Jamboree, it is without question the original “granddaddy” of four-wheel-drive venues.
Tradition runs deep here, and the event continues to support the local community. The Georgetown Rotary club runs the ice cream parlor and volunteers from American Legion Post 119 operate the kitchen and the bar, both of which raise considerable funds for various charitable causes. Each year we look forward to our annual pilgrimage to the Jamboree, not only to support the American Legion (aka, the bar), but also to take in one of the best social Jeep gatherings on the planet (aka, the river party). Hope to see you there next year! See jeepersjamboree.com for more info.
Although the original trail began near Wentworth Springs, in past decades the Granite Bowl and an obstacle known asGatekeeper, accessed via Loon Lake, have become the official starting point.
Jeeps line up for Gatekeeper as the sunrises over the Sierra Nevada. In recent years, the anti-access crowd has had their crosshairs on the Rubicon. To keep the trail open to the public, various groups—Rubicon Trail Foundation, Friends of the Rubicon, Jeepers Jamboree, and Jeep Jamboree USA— utilized grant funding and donations to construct this million-dollar bridge over Ellis Creek.
Back in the day, the trail was marked with “borrowed” street signs. Today it is well marked, and permanent bathrooms have been placed along the 10-mile route to Rubicon Springs.
Jeepers Jamboree attracts people from across the country and around the world. Christopher Davisson brought his 1979 CJ-7 all the way from Illinois to join the fun.
A Wrangler Rubicon traverses the top of Walker Hill en route to Spider Lake.