“It’s the largest four-wheel-drive event in the U.S.,” said Doug McElhaney, vice president of the sponsoring Red Rock 4-Wheelers.
Participants will choose from 30 official trail runs each of nine days through Saturday, March 30, which is called Big Saturday because of a mass start on Main Street at 9 a.m.
Trails are rated on a 10-point scale, with the highest numbers being the most challenging and technical. Experienced off-road veterans will lead each run, with 30 to 40 drivers taking part on most outings and as many as 60 on some runs, McElhaney said.
The safari began modestly in 1967 as a one-day event sponsored by the Moab Chamber of Commerce. Only 80 people signed up the first year, he noted.
“When we first started it, Moab was dead,” McElhaney said.
Those who haven’t tried the sport don’t understand how secure it can be driving on slickrock, he added.
“The traction you have on slickrock doesn’t exist anywhere else,” McElhaney said. “It seems to defy gravity.”
Glenn Baxter of Green River, another longtime club member, said there are a couple of reasons people like it so much.
“It’s a combination of accessing wonderful scenery and, for those of us who are mechanically inclined, it’s seeing whether our vehicles can surmount the obstacles,” he said.
The economic benefit to local businesses is difficult to calculate, McElhaney said, but it’s clearly one of the year’s most lucrative events.
“This is going to be one of the biggest commercial Jeep Safaris ever,” said club treasurer Rex Holman.
Officials from the Jeep Brand, Chrysler Group will hold a three-day showcase event in the Walker Drug parking lot, according to media spokeswoman Arrie Ledley. The event will include interactive displays, a chance to ask questions about various Jeep models, and even the opportunity to drive vehicles.
The showcase will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day from Wednesday, March 27, through Friday, March 29. A free barbecue picnic will be offered from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday.
“Jeep has done this before, but this year we’re really ramping it up,” Ledley said.
Not all the commerce will be focused downtown. An automotive product expo March 28-29 at the Old Spanish Trail Arena will feature more than 150 vendors.
Because of the event’s size, the week’s trail activities always draw close scrutiny from city, county and state law enforcement officials. Representatives of the Moab Police Department, Grand County Sheriff’s Office and Utah Highway Patrol will meet before the week begins to plan their patrol strategy.
Moab Police Chief Mike Navarre said his department’s personnel will be out to make sure there aren’t problems resulting from a lot of people in a small space. After 28 years of working the Easter Jeep Safari, Navarre has fine-tuned patrol coverage.
“I think we’ve got it down to a science,” he said. “Being visible helps people mind their manners. We stay in the main parts [of town] to be visible.”
He said he does not expect a lot of trouble, and emphasized that police are available to do more than write tickets. Officers also assist by answering visitors’ questions, helping locate lost wallets or other items, and providing help when cars break down, he said.
“We are here to accommodate, but I want people to respect our community,” Navarre said.
Grand County Sheriff Steve White said his office will have increased patrols during the week, and will have personnel out patrolling on trails. A state Department of Public Safety helicopter will be available, he added.
He said Grand and San Juan counties will help each other out if additional officers are needed for an emergency. White said there have been fatalities during the more than four decades the event has been held, but he could not recall when the last death occurred.
Utah Highway Patrol spokesman Brian Evans said how busy officers will be depends partly on the weather.
“If the weather is really good we’ll probably see an increase in DUI arrests and accidents,” he said, adding the agency will do a lot of patrolling for speeders.
“We’re not out there to destroy people’s fun,” Evans said. “We won’t be writing tickets for mud flap violations.”
However, he said state patrol officers will write tickets for serious safety problems.