and historic context
Prior to European settlement,
the Sierra Nevada Mountains were home to several Native American
groups, including the Nisenan (Southern Maidu), Washoe, and the
Sierra Miwok. The Eldorado National Forest lies near the
intersection of their spheres of influence.
The Rubicon Valley lies on
the dividing line between the Maidu-Nisenan Tribe to the west and
the Washoe Tribe of western Nevada. The Washoe occupied an area
south of Lake Tahoe, ranging from the High Sierra to the Great
Basin. The tribe followed an annual migration route fishing,
hunting, and gathering nuts, berries,
seeds in season, venturing almost as far west as Sacramento on
occasion. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Washoe may have
occupied most of the project area before giving way to later
incursions by the Maidu-Nisenan. Both tribes visited the Rubicon
Valley on a regular basis, using it as a meeting place for trading
with each other and as a summer camp from which they could hunt and
The Maidu-Nisenan Tribe
considered Rubicon Springs its territory, which included the
drainages of the American River from the Sierra Crest to the
Sacramento River. The Maidu-Nisenan also occupied the American River
drainage of the Sierra Foothills. This tribe lived below the
4,000-foot elevation in dome-shaped houses, usually located on
ridges or larger flat areas near water. The Maidu-Nisenan territory
was crossed with trails, allowing for easy access and trade with
other areas and groups. Many of these historic trails are still used
On January 24, 1848, gold was
discovered at Sutter’s Mill along the South Fork of the American
significantly changed the culture of the area. Seemingly overnight,
mass immigration occurred, and communities such as Coloma,
Growlersburg (Georgetown), and Old Dry Diggins (Placerville) were
born in the foothills. Some of these early trappers, explorers, and
survey parties traveling the Georgetown-Lake Bigler Indian trail
discovered Rubicon Springs in the 1850s, and the first log bridge
was constructed over the Rubicon River in 1859.
In 1860, General William
Phipps staked out a 160-acre homestead on Sugar Pine Point. He was
one of the first known permanent residents of Lake Tahoe. While a
logging camp at Sugar Pine Point explains the lack of sugar pines in
the area, Phipps protected his homestead from the saw.
In 1861, John McKinney and
John Wren, both Georgetown pioneers, established a hay ranch on the
summit of Burton’s Pass (on the El Dorado – Placer County line.) In
1863, McKinney established McKinney’s Retreat, which consisted of a
log cabin, tents, a sapling pier, and three fishing boats.
1864, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was built and became a favorite stopping
point for people traveling what would become the Rubicon Trail.
Today, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular place for 4-wheelers and other
Rubicon Trail visitors to stop and rest.
In 1867, John and George
Hunsucker (miners from Kelsey, El Dorado County) felled pine trees
and built a cabin south of Rubicon Springs, bordering the Rubicon
River. Their cabin was at the foot of Rubicon’s frowning Granite
Gorge. Within the next decade, the Hunsuckers added outlying shacks
and a pine corral for their stock at Rubicon Springs. The area was
renowned for excellent hunting. By 1869, McKinney’s Retreat
comprised 160 acres (13 on Tahoe’s lakefront), catering to Nevada’s
mining personnel and their families.
In 1880, the Hunsuckers began
bottling spring water and selling it at Georgetown and Hunters’
Retreat. The spring water became so popular, the brothers had a
difficult time meeting the demand. Health seekers were beginning to
arrive at Rubicon Springs, and “Rubicon Water” was sold as a
health-enhancing supplement.” The 1880s marked the beginning of the
Rubicon region’s resort era.
1886, Mrs. Sierra Phillips Clark, locally known as “Vade,” purchased
the Rubicon Springs from the Hunsuckers and added it to Potter’s
Springs a mile away, founding the Rubicon Soda Springs Resort. She
convinced El Dorado County to make the trail from Hunters’ Retreat
(over Burton’s Pass) to Rubicon Springs into a one-way road. The new
road let Vade build a 2.5-story hotel at the Springs, complete with
16 small rooms, and a parlor with horsehair furniture and a
foot-pedal organ. She used white linens and polished silverware to
serve three meals a day. On busy weekends, visitors outnumbered the
rooms available and slept in tents, cabins, or under the stars. Vade
also put into service a four-horse, six-passenger coach to convey
visitors to McKinney’s Retreat. It took coach travelers 2.5 hours to
cover the nine miles between Rubicon Springs and McKinney’s Retreat.
In 1888, General William
Phipps sold his Sugar Pine Point homestead to W.W. "Billy" Lapham,
who opened the Bellevue Resort. Rooms cost $2.50 per night. Five
years after opening the resort, a fire destroyed the Bellevue. In
1897, Isaias W. Hellman, a San Francisco financier, purchased the
Bellevue property and, in 1901, built a large mansion for use as a
In 1901, Vade Clark sold
Rubicon Springs to Daniel Abbott, who replaced the welcoming signs
with “Enter At Your Own Peril.” For the next four years, Vade
continued to operate the Springs under a lease from Abbot.
In October 1908, flash floods
caused the Rubicon River to rise eight feet overnight, with mud and
water rushing through
Rubicon Springs barn and nearly ripping the hotel and outbuildings
off their foundations. It was also in 1908 that the first car was
driven into Rubicon Springs. The car, driven from the Tahoe side by
a woman, was apparently a promotional event being used to publicize
the Mitchell automobile. The owner of the Rubicon Springs Hotel at
that time was a Mitchell automobile dealer.
In 1909, Ralph Colwell
purchased the Rubicon Springs Resort, adding this health resort to
his Moana Villa resort facilities. The Moana Villa was built in 1894
on Lake Tahoe, adjacent to McKinney’s Retreat. The Moana resort
comprised a 2 .5 story lodge, cottages, tents, a clubhouse over the
water, a 500-foot pier for steamer landings, and a bathing house.
Colwell and his three sons ran both the Rubicon Springs and Moana
The 1920s saw the beginnings
of development on the western shores of Lake Tahoe. The Rubicon
Springs road was being promoted as the best route from Georgetown to
Lake Tahoe. To encourage travel along the route, a promotional
automobile trip was organized, compete with photographs in the local
papers. The write-up included mention of a survey party that would
make plans for improving the road.
Between 1922 and 1926,
Rubicon Springs began losing its appeal as a resort and was closed
in the latter part of the 1920s. Although the Rubicon Springs Hotel
stopped operation in the late 1920s, the structure and several
outbuildings were still standing into the 1950s. The Wentworth
Springs lodge/hotel, located on the original road and near the start
of the off-road section, operated until the early 1960s.
History of the Rubicon Trail
In 1887, the El Dorado County
Board of Supervisors declared the trail (or highway) from Wentworth
Springs through Hunsucker Springs (Rubicon Springs) a public
highway. To ensure that the trail remained open for public use, in
1991, the Board of Supervisors reconfirmed the Rubicon Trail’s
status as an unmaintained County right-of-way.
From the 1880s into 1940s,
the Rubicon Trail was used to move cattle, sheep, and turkeys from
the western slopes of the Sierras to the Meeks Bay area for summer
grazing. It was also used to provide access to the resorts located
at Wentworth Springs, Rubicon Springs, and the west shores of Lake
Tahoe. Later residents of California used the area for hunting and
fishing, just as the Maidu had hundreds of years before. Shortly
after the Eldorado National Forest was established, the U.S. Forest
Service prepared a map showing areas where various game and fish
species could be found.
In the 1920s, cars (Dodges
and Stars) could travel the route from Georgetown to Rubicon Springs
if they used “ropes and planks” to cross some of the rougher spots.
Car skeletons found along the trail in the early days were said to
be proof of the trail’s difficulty.
El Dorado County officials
eventually decided to develop the Rubicon Trail as an improved route
from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe. They rebuilt the wooden bridge across
the Rubicon River in 1939. In 1947, the County ordered the
construction of a steel bridge over the River to replace the log
bridge. The steel bridge was constructed in Placerville and
transported to the site. To ensure that the various pieces of the
bridge would not shift on the trip to the bridge site, they were
welded to the frame of the truck. The bridge components were moved
into the area via Lake Tahoe and Rubicon Springs.
1952, several residents of Georgetown met to discuss the possibility
of hosting an organized Jeep tour from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe via
the Rubicon Trail. On August 29, 1953, 55 Jeeps with 155
participants left Georgetown on a two-day trip that is now known as
"Jeepers Jamboree 1." Every year during the last weekend of July,
4-wheelers follow the tradition of these “pioneers.”