Moab, Utah, is a labyrinth of sandstone that has been sculpted by millions of years of wind, rain and plate tectonics, making it a playground for recreationalists of all genres.
During the last half century it has become a mecca for four-wheel drive aficionados the world over – largely accredited to the Red Rock 4-Wheelers and the Easter Jeep Safari.
These groups arrive by the thousands each year for an event that has become a showcase for the who’s who of the off-road world. We joined the Jeep crew in Moab for the 2016 Easter Jeep Safari to celebrate several significant anniversaries and to have a “last drive” on one of the most notable trails in the area.
Unless you’ve been living under a slab of slickrock, you’re aware 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of the seven-slot grill. Yes, the first Willys MB rolled off the assembly line on November 18, 1941. This little soldier’s entrance into World War II would not only help change the history of the world, but also how its inhabitants would re-create.
A quarter century later, a group of Jeep enthusiasts – members of the Moab Chamber of Commerce – organised a small, one-day event on the Saturday before Easter. It was the catalyst for a five-decade tradition. If one ties in the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, there was cause for real celebration this year.
The greater Moab area offers hundreds of kilometres of dirt two-tracks and white-knuckle tracks, but only a handful have gained Holy Grail status. While these are driven on a regular basis, the most famous of the elite rests on private land and has been closed to the public for more than a decade (for liability reasons). It is not the longest, nor is it the most difficult, but this long brown fin of sandstone that resembles a lion at rest is as renowned as California’s Rubicon Trail.
It is believed the first vehicle to drive the Lion’s Back did so in 1938 as part of a geological survey for the pending nuclear age. After the war, it became a Friday night party spot for Moab’s youth, and the post-war flood of surplus Willys MB provided the 4WD traction needed to traverse the precipitous sandstone with confidence.
In the 1980s, it landed centre stage when Tina Hastie experienced a brake failure on her Chevy Blazer and took a wild and frightening ride to the bottom, 105 metres below. The internet had not been created yet, but VHS tapes of Hastie’s plunge went viral.
With its newfound notoriety, the Lion’s Back became the subject of multiple television shows and documentaries. It has never been an official trail of the Safari, but it was always a favourite side-trip for participants.
With the aforementioned anniversaries at hand, a small group of Jeep executives got together with Michael Badger, the private landowner, and spun the idea of releasing the lion one last time. In the following morning’s pre-dawn light, a 75th Anniversary Edition Grand Cherokee and two-door Wrangler nosed up to its 45-plus degree sandstone tail – the third member of the fleet was a limited edition Wrangler Red Rock.
At the steering wheels were Jeep’s Tyler Ruby, Mark Allan and Jim Repp (it’s great when the guys that run the company love Jeeping as much as we do). It was the first time on the Lion’s Back for the trio and spirits were high. Ruby picked a line up the centre, slipped the Grand in gear, and led the procession on a last ascent to the summit.
The sun peeked over the La Sal Mountains as the team negotiated a multi-point turn at the top, casting brilliant hues over the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and greater Moab valley. It was a glorious moment to celebrate.
Many have asked about the future of vehicle access to Lion’s Back. What we know is that the area surrounding this iconic trail will host a beautiful resort and conference centre, and that Badger is a Jeeping enthusiast.
Jeep extended a special thanks to Badger for helping craft a unique and memorable day for both the 50th anniversary of the Easter Jeep Safari and the 75th anniversary of the seven-slot grill.