Bob Jones, owner of Tag-A-Long Expeditions, mans a jet engine on a J-rig in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. Jones has been working with the river and land tour company for 32 years. [Courtesy photo / Tag-A-Long Expeditions]

Tag-A-Long Expeditions is getting ready for a big celebration. Next year, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of unique backcountry expeditions and river trips.

Bob Jones has been part of Tag-A-Long for 32 of those years, having purchased the business in 1982 from the original owners, Mitch and Mary Williams.

Jones was already tourism savvy when he became owner of Tag-A-Long. He worked for a motorcoach company and incentive tour operator in Portland, Ore., as well as at Grand Canyon National Park.

It was Yellowstone National Park, however, that gave Jones the opportunity to soar in the hospitality industry and finally into Moab. He was hired to run the reservations operation at Mammoth Hotel at Yellowstone, but his enthusiasm and work ethic soon launched him into the position of travel director with the responsibility for all tours, reservations and travel arrangements within the park. Before leaving Yellowstone, a very young but very skilled Bob Jones had become general manager of all guest services for the Yellowstone Park Company.

It is this kind of hard work and passion that has made Tag-A-Long Expeditions one of the premiere outfitters for people visiting the Canyonlands region.

“Mitch contacted my business partner, Paul Niskanen, in Portland when he and Mary were thinking about retiring. Paul called me and I thought, what the heck? Candidly, I thought I’d be in Moab for five years and then move on, but I like the area, I like the town and here I am,” Jones said.

Tag-A-Long Expeditions has always been a pioneer in the outfitting business.

“It wasn’t until about 1981, after the uranium industry failed, that people started coming to Moab in big numbers. Tag-A-Long was one of only two outfitters to offer trips of any kind,” Jones said.

Jones took his pioneer approach to tours to a whole new level when he started offering opera in a grotto on the Colorado River.

“Paul knew the director of the Portland Opera and he came out here for a river trip,” Jones said. “We took him up to the grotto and he sang a note or two and said, ‘wow, this would be a great place to perform!’”

And so the Portland Opera and then the Utah Opera and finally, the New York Metropolitan Opera came to Moab, or more specifically, to a grotto on the Colorado River. These events grew into what Jones called the Classic Concert Series where he also featured the Utah Symphony and the University of Utah Ballet.

“When we had the ballet performance on the river, we hauled 8,000 pounds of stage downriver and set it up. They brought 15-16 dancers, stage managers, everything you need to put on a first-class performance,” Jones remembered.

When the Moab Music Festival began in 1992, Tag-A-Long Expeditions was well poised to assist in the logistics of getting a baby grand piano down the river.

“Basically it takes about eight really big guys to pick it up, load it on the front deck of the boat, float it down the river, and haul it from the water up the embankment and into the grotto,” said Jones, as if it’s an everyday occurrence.

Classical music and dance are not the only kind of specialty trips that Tag-A-Long offers.

“One of our most popular trips is to the Navajo Reservation. Visitors to this country want to see how Native Americans live and want to experience that life,” Jones said. “We tell them the only way to do it is to go camping, eat traditional foods, listen and learn from the Navajo people. If someone wants to stay in a motel, we tell them this isn’t the trip for them.”

Guests on this trip experience a sweat lodge, demonstrations of traditional Navajo arts and crafts, and even a visit from a Shaman. Tag-A-Long always donates part of the proceeds from these trips back to the Navajo people in the form of a scholarship or grant for reservation projects.

“I’d say we are pretty heavy into interpretative trips,” said Jones. “This past year we introduced a trip that made connections to ancient cultures and the resources that were available to them that are still around now. We serve pine nuts and squash and teas. We are trying to show how our environment has supported Native Americans from paleo-times to now.

Bob Jones points to his staff for keeping things running smoothly. Both his sales director, Sarah Sidwell, and his office manager, Jessica Irish, have been working at Tag-A-Long for 10 years.

Sidwell said the best part of the job is going on trips.

“There’s nothing like it and I love experiencing what our clients are experiencing,” she said.

Irish said she loves meeting people from all over the world.

“Being born and raised in Moab, it’s a real treat for me to interact with people from all over the globe,” she said.

Tag-A-Long played a strong role in getting Moab known as an international destination.

“They knew about the area because of John Wayne movies, but it wasn’t until Tag started attending POWOW and other international trade shows that the international market for Moab tourism was tapped into,” Jones said.

Whether it’s a culture-rich experience on the Navajo Reservation or a splashy day trip on the Colorado River, Tag-A-Long works hard to have guests leave the Moab area happy.

“We came right in the middle of summer. It was 106 degrees and the water was blood red from heavy rains. It looked like mud,” said Jackie Mickelson, a satisfied client from Kansas City. “My 11-year old son and I took a one-day raft trip and it couldn’t have been better if it had been five days. The Tag-A-Long guide was awesome. He took really good care of us and watched over my son as he swam in the river.”

The internet is loaded with great reviews, but locals have the opportunity to find out for themselves what’s so special about Tag-A-Long.

“Anyone who works in guest services can go on one of our trips free,” Sidwell said. “And they can bring a friend along and we will give them a 50 percent discount.”

Sidwell said they also offer super-discounted trips a couple time a year so local can take an affordable five-day trip on the Green River through Desolation Canyon.

Jones said that what sets Tag-A-Long apart from other tour companies is that it is a home-town outfitter.

“Our roots are here. We specialize in our hometown resources and parks,” Jones said. “We know this country like our own back yard because it is our back yard and we simply share the love we have for it.”