Jeep Safari: Where did all the trails come from?

Uranium exploration set the course for variety of routes

Charlie A. Steen’s discovery of uranium in 1952 prompted the development of some of Moab’s toughest backcountry roads. Photo by Andrew K. Steen

On Thursday, March 30, 1967, The Times Independent reported “A new tradition was started in Moab last week…” On the previous Saturday, the day before Easter, the Chamber of Commerce hosted a small trail ride called Jeep Safari.

The event was similar to the well-known Jeepers Jamboree on California’s RubiconTrail, a family off-road excursion with picnic lunches and hikes in the local area.

As the sun crested the La Sal Mountains, casting warm hues across the Spanish Valley, Willys flat fenders, Jeep CJ5s, and Gladiator pickups lined up along several blocks of Main Street. When given the green light, they headed south to the Behind the Rocks Trail. Little did they know it at the time, but they were driving into the opening chapter of a decades-long chronicle of what would become known the world over as a cultural icon.

Back in the day, there was no need to register or pay a fee; people could show up and find a place in line. But as word of the Safari spread, the Chamber realized the need for a second route.

Working with the Bureau of Land Management, the following year they added the Moab Rim Trail, which featured a lunch-hour airdrop of ice cream. The Boy Scouts were soon involved, hosting the Friday night barbecue and fundraiser. As the event grew in popularity and the roster of routes expanded, many Moab first-timers queried why there were so many trails leading to ends-of-the-earth locales, lonely canyons, up sandstone ledges, and atop distant mesas?

The Jeep Safari brings a group of the lastest Jeep variants to explore routes along the Lone Mesa Trail that were carved out of the rough Moab landscape during uranium mining exploration of the 1950s. Photo by Chris Collard

The abridged answer is Mi Vida and a down-on-his-luck geologist named Charlie Steen. After being excommunicated from the oil industry, Steen meandered his way from Texas across the Colorado Plateau in pursuit of uranium. It was the beginning of the Atomic Age and Steen began prospecting and staking claims in the Moab region.

Nearly flat broke and with a wife and three children at home, a proper assay of ore samples was not in the budget. But a friend had a Geiger counter, and he would stop by occasionally while getting fuel for his Willys Jeep (now on display at the Sunset Grill) and borrow it. One day in 1952, they waved it over one of Charlie’s core samples and the needle jumped off the scale.

As was the case with John Marshall’s discovery launching California’s Gold Rush a century earlier, Charlie Steen’s Mi Vida Mine became the mother lode of Utah’s uranium rush. Steen was an overnight millionaire, and the region was soon teeming with independent and government-funded mining operations.

In search of the precious mineral, they created the roads leading to iconic places like Lockhart Basin, Mineral Bottom and Sand Flats Recreation Area.

Flash forward a few decades and those same tracks were providing access to mountain bikers, climbers, hikers and adventure seekers.

Things changed since the early days, but many elements remained the same. While the Easter Jeep Safari continued to be a family event, it expanded to encompass a full week and become the annual spring gathering of four-wheel drive aficionados from across the fruited plain and around the globe. The dozens of mining tracks, which were all but abandoned after the Cold War, now hosted thousands of passionate jeepers.

In 1995, the tradeshow featured but 20 vendors. BFGoodrich Tires showed up that year with their tractor trailer and off-road racing legend Ivan “Ironman” Stewart.

This was big news, and they continue to support the event to this day with the “BFG Garage” on North Main Street (free repair service for anyone that needs it).

Around 20 years ago, Moab caught the eye of Jeep’s engineering team. They began secret validation testing of new models, and one might occasionally see one of their canvas-wrapped vehicles traversing Hell’s Revenge and other trails of the area. In time, they decided that Moab, and the Safari, were the ideal venue to showcase whatever crazy “concept” Jeeps their underground team dreamed up. They began with a few in the mid-2000s, but in 2008 they arrived with an entire fleet of wild and exotic dream machines.

The Easter Jeep Safari has not only become a tradition for Jeep as a brand, but their display in front of Walker Drug has been a must-see for thousands of returning participants.

To get an idea of what the Safari means to the brand that inspired it all, we caught up with Jeep’s Brand Director, Scott Tallon. He enthusiastically stated, “The Moab Jeep Safari could not be more important to the Jeep brand. It provides the perfect opportunity to interact with the most loyal customers on the planet, sharing ideas, interests, passion and enthusiasm on some of most scenic trails found anywhere in the world.”

Behind the scenes, Jeep brought in 70 staff members, dozens of vehicles, and journalists from all compass points of the globe — hard evidence that Tallon’s words are more than corporate jargon. If you looked around town last week with a keen eye, you glimpsed many pages from the Safari’s 53-year narrative. There are a lot of kudos to be granted for making Easter Jeep Safari the cultural icon it is today. From the Boy Scouts and host club the Red Rock 4-Wheelers, to the Chamber of Commerce and hundreds of companies that now support the event, each has made a unique contribution to its success.