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Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

What is it like to traverse and tent camp the famed Rubicon Trail in a UTV? We explore the Rocky Path Less Traveled. Here’s the Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV.

Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

Words: Cody Hooper // Photos: Cody Hooper & Dave Schelske

This iconic quote highlighting Julius Caesar’s triumph over Pontus in 46 B.C. was written on a placard worn by the man himself. It means “I came, I saw, I conquered”, and has long been thought to signify his swift victories in battle. Just a few short years earlier, Julius Caesar marched his army across a famed river in northeastern Italy, kick-starting the Roman Civil War. That Italian River is called the Rubicon.

Fast forward to 2021, some 2,060+ years later, and we found ourselves crossing a Rubicon of our own. While not nearly as deadly as the circumstances Julius Caesar faced, the Rubicon Trail still commands respect, being widely regarded as one of the most difficult off-road trails in the United States. This “river”, mostly dry and made up of 22 miles of snaking rock and boulder-strewn trail, signifies a gauntlet to both man and machine. Trip-ending traps and ledges hover every few feet on the Rubicon Trail, meaning that if you do not bring your A-game, there is a good chance you may leave the trail behind a very expensive tow rig. 

Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

The lead cars get the excitement of picking lines first without the advantage of seeing other drivers’ mistakes ahead of them. The only winching that had to be done the entire trip was to pull the lead car out of a couple of attempted lines to reposition. Photo by Dave Schelske.

Getting to the Rubicon Trailhead is an adventure all of its own. Situated about 2 hours east of Sacramento, California, the Rubicon has three main entry points. Loon Lake and Wentworth Springs allow access on the west end of the trail, and Homewood on the east side. If you enter from the Loon Lake trailhead, you will get to enjoy a 30 mile jaunt up a winding ribbon of mountain highway named Ice House Road. Some of the big rock-crawling rigs looked more stressed by the canyon drive than they did by the Rubicon itself, 40-inch tires squealing as lockers chirp and bounce around the tight mountain corners.

The Loon Lake entrance is by far the prettiest of the three, as you get to drive along the top of a dam built to keep the lake from spilling down into the valley behind it. Once you reach the water’s edge, a long, downhill left hand turn brings you to the entrance of the famed Rubicon Trail. Once your tires touch dirt here, there is no easing up until you get off the trail.

The very first single mile of the Rubicon was all I had ever driven or ridden on prior to showing up and sliding behind the wheel of this metallic-blue Yamaha Wolverine RMax 1000 LE. It was also almost ten years ago, so my memory was distant, other than looking forward to exploring the famed “Granite Bowl” again. Lined up at the edge of Loon Lake were twelve brand-new RMax units, all outfitted with UHMW skid plates, rock sliders, and front bash plates. Otherwise, they were completely stock, even down to the tires. We ran 12 PSI in the tires on factory, non-beadlock wheels. For this trip, I packed all of my clothing, camera gear, and riding gear in a giant rolling hard case. It fit perfectly in the bed of the RMax with a 25-quart Engel cooler behind it and had plenty of room to spare. 

Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

In certain areas of the trail, a spotter is necessary to keep you lined up as you crest obstacles you cannot see over. Simple hand gestures go a long way from the driver’s seat. Here, a member of the Yamaha crew signals to aim the wheel toward the driver’s side. Photo by Dave Schelske.

 

The four-seat RMax 4 models tend to look more exaggerated during climbs thanks to a slightly longer wheelbase, but they feel just as stable from the driver’s seat. Here, a Yamaha engineer shows off the RMax’s incredible climbing skills.

“There are going to be big rocks right off the bat,” we overheard from a Yamaha engineer speaking to another driver behind us. He was not kidding, as we stopped at the beginning of the trailhead, threw the RMax in low range, and never looked back. Yamaha was quick to tell us that even if you leave the transmission in high range and attempt some of these obstacles, it will not burn the belt. Yamaha has designed the RMax with an internal wet clutch in addition to its CVT clutches that takes the slip and abuse away from the belt. Yamaha is so confident in this technology that they give every new RMax (and some other Yamaha units) a 10-year belt warranty, claiming that the belt your car is purchased with should last you a whole decade. When asked if this was marketing hype or not, one engineer responded by telling us that they felt totally comfortable putting twelve showroom-stock cars on the Rubicon without bringing any spare belts. We hope that was hyperbole, but spoiler alert- not a single belt was damaged during the trip.

The first half-mile or so of trail took us a solid twenty-five minutes. We would all bunch up in a line, with each car taking off in intervals. Trail speeds on the Rubicon are slow by nature of the terrain, and this was no exception. These RMax units have great ground clearance, with 13.8 inches available under most of the car. However, they are still only running a 30-inch tire, meaning you have to choose your line carefully to keep the belly from smacking rocks all day. Luckily, it was designed and outfitted with Yamaha’s accessory sacrificial rockers, or rock sliders, which are made of plate steel and keep rocks between the front and rear wheels from killing the underside of the vehicle. The first few times you hear one smack a rock as you roll down an obstacle will have you monitoring your throttle and brake inputs very carefully. Driving smoothly and putting your tires in the correct places are what matter most on the Rubicon Trail, not speed. 

Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

Buck Island provides a great resting spot with incredible scenery. Photo by Dave Schelske.

Believe it or not, the Rubicon is an incredibly well-kept trail system. There exists a small ecosystem of part-time and full-time volunteers that help keep the trails clean, intact, and most importantly, open. There are maintained bathrooms along the trail in certain areas for public use, but the only camping facilities along the whole trail exist at Rubicon Springs. There is a heavy emphasis on trail etiquette and respect that lives here, and it is refreshing to see. Other areas of our riding land here in the US are being roped off for abuse and littering, usually caused by a small percentage of the people who actually visit them. The feeling here is pack in and pack out, or another trail-goer may force you to!

It only takes a couple of minutes to get the hang of crawling around in the RMax. Its super-intuitive controls and huge suspension travel makes traversing nasty terrain simple. Coming out of the “Gatekeeper” section of small and medium-sized boulders, you end up on a giant sand dune made of solid granite. Massive pine trees grow out of cracks in the rock floor, seemingly unfazed by the lack of soil thanks to fungi that help break down the rocks into compounds the trees can digest. It is an awe-inspiring sight, much akin to the first time you see Coos Bay or Winchester Bay Dunes in Oregon, or Silver Lake Dunes in Michigan.

Crossing the granite bowl, we find a few square ledges and drop-offs that offer a little two-footed driving practice. Often on this trail, proper two-foot driving (in a rig that is capable of it) will help keep the car steady while you progress over obstacles, and the RMax does so brilliantly. Certain areas require immediate throttle delivery when the vehicle touches down, others require slow, brake-dragging descents that often have you holding the vehicle in place with a single tire. Always exciting, but never nerve-wracking, this trail has thus far provided us with several hours of intense obstacles that the RMax units are crawling over with complete ease. We pass a man-made sign that checks us a bit, letting us know we have only traversed three miles of trail so far. Our speed average? 4.6 miles per hour.

Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

Big boulders and steep inclines make for a darn good time on the Rubicon. Here, an RMax navigates a narrow rock chute on the climb back out of the Rubicon Springs valley. Photo by Cody Hooper.

Near lunch time, we stop at the edge of Buck Island, having just climbed a concrete dam poured into rock to arrive there. A flat spot offers an incredible view, a bathroom, and a sandwich from our Engel cooler. So far, everyone is having an absolute blast. We have had zero issues, and the Blu Cru are all smiles because of it. Led by Yamaha’s Pat Biolsi, we prepare for some tougher obstacles during the next few miles of our journey. The first is a near-vertical climb out of the Buck Island clearing, followed by a meandering rock garden climbing in elevation, eventually reaching more wide-open granite rock faces. This time, we traverse them on a sideways incline. The RMax does not mind a bit, so sure-footed that at times, it makes you feel like it would drive upside-down (it won’t). It is stable enough to have completely reset my brain’s onboard lean indicator after two days on the trail. The RMax never once felt as if it was going to tip, even with one wheel four feet off the ground. 

The reason why the RMax feels so stable is the exact reason why it is so good on the Rubicon: suspension and chassis design. While most recreational or sport-ute UTVs typically have around 10 inches of suspension travel, some stand out. For instance, the Polaris General XP 1000 has 14 inches of suspension travel front and rear from a dual A-arm setup at all four corners. The RMax is in similar territory with 14.2 inches of front suspension travel, but out back, it packs a whopping 16.9 inches of travel. That is enough for the RMax to easily torch other recreational UTVs in articulation tests, which are a measure of how far a car can flex while still putting power down to the earth below it. The Rubicon demands that you think about traction opportunities as much as you think about not running your rig aground upon a rock. The RMax takes most of the hard work out of finding traction. 

By the time we got to the middle of the trail around Indian Hill and Big Sluice, the RMax had me feeling like a rock-crawling pro. One of the greatest parts about having a rig this small on the Rubicon is that your line options are almost endless. You can repeat the same sections multiple times, using different approaches, obstacles, and techniques to get you along the trail. Its replay value is huge, especially when you consider the scenery it is draped in. As we get to Big Sluice, we find some large obstacles and big drops. The trail meanders back into the thick woods, and we start aiming downhill at a steep grade. Here, you can start to smell the river, signaling you are getting close to the famed Rubicon Springs. 

The number and severity of the water crossings on the Rubicon are directly related to snowpack and melt, so this year, they were a bit dry. In the winter months, sometimes the entire trail is covered in heavy snow. Photo by Dave Schelske.

We pressed on down the Big Sluice, over a bridge and some very uniform river rock. We later learned that river rock is helicoptered in to be spread across areas of the trail that are badly eroded in order to repair certain sections. One Rubicon Trail guru that we met on the trip, Chipper, later showed us a video on his phone around the campfire of these rock-drop operations taking place. It is amazing how much hard work and love the Rubicon Trail users put into keeping this place viable for off-roaders. As we come upon Rubicon Springs, which is a campground and commons built alongside the Rubicon River, we wave hello at our camp hosts for the night and continue on the trail to the famed Cadillac Hill. 

Cadillac Hill was aptly named after a car (jury is still out on whether it is actually a Cadillac) plummeted off of the trail, ending up in the gully below. Traversing it the way we did, it almost seemed like a greatest hits/uphill remix of obstacles we had crossed on the trail earlier in the day. Tight, rocky uphills covered in slippery tree roots block your forward path, and Cadillac Hill offers many option lines to get around slower rigs in certain spots. This part of the trail climbs a thousand feet in elevation from Rubicon Springs to Observation point, which capped off our drive for the day. Here, at over 7,000 feet above sea level, we were on the same plane as where we started, now having traversed over 2,000 feet of total elevation change. After some high-fiving and photo ops at Observation Point, we turned back down Cadillac Hill towards Rubicon Springs to meet our camp hosts for the night.

In the rocks, proper wheel placement matters big-time. Notice how the passenger’s side front tire is perched on the rock purposely to keep the belly up long enough to pass that momentum-stopping boulder under the center of the car. Photo by Dave Schelske

Pulling into Rubicon Springs, it is immediately noticeable that this place is set up to house a lot of tent campers. Massive BBQ pits, huge fire rings, and a ton of open real estate to pitch your tent make up most of the grounds here. There is a large, covered outdoor kitchen, in which the Rubicon Springs staff, Rubicon Trail Adventures, and Yamaha staff came together to provide an awesome tri-tip dinner in the middle of the woods. We were lucky enough to be sleeping along the river in Klymit Maxfield 2 tents, something I have become very accustomed to sleeping in lately. I picked out a tent, dropped off my gear, and grabbed a plate full of grub. As night fell, we all stayed around the campfire for a bit, but most of us retired early as we had a 6 AM call time to get back on the trail the next day. 

UTVs are fantastic camping companions, allowing you to pack your gear in and out of extremely remote places with relative ease and low cost. Klymit’s camping gear represents the high-end of the spectrum, built for serious camping enthusiasts that value durability and ease of setup. Photo by Cody Hooper.

The next morning flew by. Somewhere between packing up my tent and brushing my teeth I was treated to a great breakfast burrito by the Rubicon Springs staff. As we loaded the RMax units back up, the anticipation started to build, as absolutely everyone was pumped up to get back on the trail and complete yesterday’s drive in reverse. The climb back out of the river basin promised to be a tough one, as we had all mentally picked out a few spots we thought would be tough going against gravity the next day. 

Going up Big Sluice, we got our first tastes of traction loss and getting ejected off of our intended line before 7 AM, which was a better jump-start to the day than a cup of coffee. Surprisingly, the trip back was not nearly as difficult as we had expected it to be. Now well-practiced, our longest delay all day stemmed from having to shuffle 12 RMax UTVs around two Jeeps on a section of trail that was not wide enough for either to pass. After ten minutes or so of careful maneuvering and a ton of laughs, the parties were able to move on past each other and continue. Many sections of the trail allow you to choose your level of difficulty by selecting harder or easier lines, although some sections have only one way up. Big Sluice is one of those – huge rock faces on an already incredibly-steep incline makes for a couple of pucker moments as you keep the throttle on through wheelspin, wiggling the wheel slightly to find traction. This is a game of patience and finesse, something that comes easy to the RMax driver thanks to the tools they are presented with. 

Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

Obstacles abound, with trees, rocks, and silt often positioned on precarious inclines. These things combine to make one of the most satisfying trail riding experiences available. Photo by Dave Schelske.

The trip back goes more quickly than expected by the entire group, mainly because everyone is having so much fun that they refuse to stop driving. When every foot of trail presents something to scan, maneuver around, and climb over, it makes for some of the most densely packed fun I have ever had behind the wheel of a UTV. Endless streams of obstacles are tackled with the mindset of maintaining the smoothest line and never getting stuck, fueled by a side bet that a few of us had made day one to bring the cars back as close to unscratched as humanly possible. More on that later. 

After just a few hours of seat time, we were all feeling like adeptly trained rock pilots behind the wheel of these cheater machines. The RMax comes incredibly well-equipped for this fight, packaging incredible suspension performance with a bulletproof drivetrain, big horsepower and an extremely intelligent throttle controller, dubbed Yamaha D-Mode. Originally grafted from sport bike DNA, D-Mode is an intelligent throttle control system built into the RMax’s ECU that offers three distinct modes. These modes change the entire personality of the machine, changing the engine’s behavior, response, power delivery, engine braking, and more. The three settings, Crawl, Trail, and Sport, all offer a different experience behind the wheel. We stayed in crawl for most of the trip, enjoying the longer pedal feel and almost infinite RPM manipulation it provided. In situations where maintaining traction while applying power is especially important, the D-Mode controller makes dialing it in incredibly easy.

No camera trickery here- this RMax 4 is leaned heavily to the passenger’s side, but still firmly planted. You can see the confidence in the driver’s body position. Photo by Cody Hooper.

We rounded out our second day on the trail with another visit to the Granite Bowl, stopping here for lunch this time to reflect on the amazing journey we had just been through. The group was lit up, everyone on a high after successfully navigating the trail with zero breakdowns, flats, injuries, or tip-overs. The Yamaha crew have not only built a UTV capable of conquering the Rubicon trail, they have built one that could survive doing it many times without having to modify it past skid plates and rock sliders. The Rubicon Trail is an amazing place, full of breathtaking views, incredible obstacles, and some of the most fun and challenging trail riding I have personally ever done. Getting outside of your comfort zone is often good for growth, and on this trip, I learned that there is more fun available under 5 miles per hour than I ever imagined possible. Hats off to Yamaha for recognizing they had a machine capable of achieving a flawless victory over the Rubicon, and also for being bold enough to invite all of us along to prove it. 

Rubicon Trail in an RMAX UTV

In certain areas, the RMax’s small footprint (compared to a Jeep or truck) is a major advantage. More line options present themselves the more maneuverability you have behind the wheel. Photo by Dave Schelske.

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