Salesperson Ian Jewell looks over fresh stock at Gearheads as the sporting goods store prepares for Jeep Safari and Easter week. Gearheads, like other retail shops in town, increases its inventory and staff for that week, one of the busiest weeks of the year. [Photo by Pippa Thomas / Moab Sun News]

Events have been “kicking-off” the season in Moab since mid-February this year, but Jeep Safari, now in its 48th year, is still the biggest event of spring and, behind the scenes, locals are busy preparing for an even greater influx of people.

The event, which runs Saturday, April 12 through Sunday, April 20 this year, always coincides with Easter week and Utah public schools’ spring break, adding to the spring-break visitors and vehicles already in town.

Last year’s event had 2,265 registrants, Moab BLM recreation planner Katie Stevens said.

Doug McElhaney, vice president of Red Rock 4-Wheelers, the organization coordinating Jeep Safari, said said he expects a few more people than last year, but that the exact number isn’t tracked because permits are based on trail days.

“If one person came and did three trails, we’d pay the state three times,” he said.

This year’s Safari features 38 trails, which is eight more than last year. The additions aren’t brand new trails, but rather variations of existing trails.

“We changed a couple of them up to give people something different to do – or different versions of the same thing to do,” he said.

McElhaney said the implementation of exclusive-use trails increases safety and reduces conflicts during the week. He said this is about the seventh year of exclusive-use trails.

“The reason for exclusive-use and one-way use trails is that if we’re all going the same direction, we don’t have to pass each other, so everyone stays on the trail … It was getting so bad; you’d come with a group and have to pass people. It’s helped a lot to cut down conflicts.”

McElhaney said every trail is purposely left open part of the week “so if people all-of-the-sudden want to come in the middle of the week, they can (drive) a trail themselves.” The yearly Jeep Safari Magazine, available at various locations throughout town, shows which trails are open on which days.

The Red Rock 4-Wheelers have a safety meeting with the BLM, the Moab City Police Department, the Utah Highway Patrol and the sheriff’s departments of Grand and San Juan county on Monday night of Jeep Safari week to exchange leaders’ and helpers’ phone numbers. The sheriff’s department also rents a helicopter for the week, which can be sent on a moment’s notice to attend to emergencies, McElhaney said.

“With GPS and cell phones, it’s so much easier,” McElhaney said. “You think you’re far away, but we give your coordinates and they’re right there with a helicopter. The last five or six years have been much better than before.”

Grand County Sheriff Steve White said that the sheriff’s department runs under an incident command system (ICS) that week.”

Running an ICS standardizes the organizational structure for managing an incident. Local residents also brace themselves for the week.

“As locals we kind of look at it as, it’s a mess, then (it’s over)!” Charme McCandless said. “You don’t cross without a light, you don’t turn left on main. But I look at it as there’s room for everybody, you just have to be courteous.

“You have to plan around it,” Terry Fearing said. “Don’t go grocery shopping at certain times, forget about getting gas at certain times. It’s just the nature of living in a tourist town, too.”

“There are people in town who love it and there are people who leave town when Jeep Safari happens, just to avoid the chaos and the hassles,” Denise Oblak said.

Love it or leave it, it has been part of Moab for 48 years and the people responding to it have developed expertise in handling it.

“You systemize the preparation for the events and your response and the more practice you have the better off you are,” Moab Regional Hospital chief clinical officer Vicki Gigliotti said.

The hospital definitely pays special attention to “Jeep week”, Gigliotti said.

“It particularly impacts the emergency room, sometimes our inpatient unit, frequently our operating room,” she said. “And then also the clinics here at the hospital, it affects them as well.”

Besides having both an orthopedic and general surgeon on call, hospital preparations include ensuring it has enough staff and supplies, that its communication methods are known and practiced, and that there is extra food on hand.

“People just don’t have time to eat,” Gigliotti said. “You don’t want your healthcare workers to not get to eat for 8 or 10 hours.”

Like other emergency responders, the hospital is also prepared to work under an incident command system, if needed. Gigliotti said the hospital hasn’t had to during a Jeep Safari, that she can recall, but it’s something they practice throughout the year in case any of their internal systems are ever overwhelmed.

“Certainly the big events through the year with potential are the Half-marathon and Jeep Safari,” she said.

Different businesses in town are going through their own incident command process preparing for what for many is their busiest time of the year.

“The things I order in the fall are geared to come in so that we can be prepared based on Jeep Safari,” said Vivian Klocko, manager at Walker Drug, whose staff is busy stocking shelves. “We have such a dead winter, that to pay the bills our Black Friday is Good Friday, because that’s the start of our busiest time.”

Carol Hilgenfeld, manager of Desert Dreams and Rain Dance which sell souvenirs and curios on Main Street, echoed that sentiment.

“We have extra staff and people working long hours just trying to keep up because it’s definitely our busiest week of the year.” she said. “It really helps this store—that’s when we pay our bills.”

Marybeth Losteter, manager of Crystals Cakes and Cones, is whipping up batter as she schedules employees for that week.

“We usually have full crews on both day and night shift and we bake a lot of cupcakes.”

The ice cream and cupcake shop will sell out of 600-to-800 cupcakes on any given day of that week.

However, not all businesses see an increase in customers.

“It is somewhat counter-intuitive but we actually see a slight drop in business during Jeep Safari week,” Back of Beyond Books owner Andy Nettell said. “After observing it for many years, I attribute it to, it’s spring break for the schools, so a lot of locals are fleeing. And It’s so congested downtown that any locals that might be left are afraid to come downtown; they know there’s no parking.”

Despite the dip in sales, Nettell said he always prepares for the week by making sure they stock Charles Wells’ “Guide to Moab, UT Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails 2nd edition” and the children’s book “Sheep in a Jeep.”

Other businesses that don’t typically cater to the four-wheel drive market find themselves working around it.

“Basically I tell people on the phone that if they want to avoid crushing crowds, it’s not the time to come,” said McCandless, who is also the assistant manager at Rim Cyclery.

Oblak, who with her husband owns Canyon Voyages, said the parking situation on Main street during Jeep Safari becomes an issue that impacts their business.

“Because when Jeepers come, they almost always have trailers that they’re having to park,” Oblak said. “So when we do have river trips and our customers need to park on the side street, they can’t always find a place. We tell our customers to stay at a hotel that is close and walk to us, or we’ll come pick them up, too. We do a lot of pick-ups.”

Moab Cliffs and Canyons owner Brett Sutteer said his biggest challenge is “ how to get up to the Sand Flats area to get our trip out on time when there are 80 vehicles in front of us.” Their biggest-selling canyoneering trip launches in the Sand Flats recreation area, also home to two popular Safari trails, Hell’s Revenge and Fins ‘n’ Things.

“So we do thing like adjust our start times,” Sutteer said. “And on their parade day, we park our vehicles on one side of the street or the other in the direction they’ll be traveling, because you can’t cross Main then.”

The parade of Jeeps happens on what the event calls “Big Saturday” where up to 30 different groups of off-roaders culminate in downtown Moab, departing for different trails.

“We will have probably 1,400-to-1,500 vehicles on Main street and then the side streets,” Moab Police Chief Mike Navarre said. “They all meet about 8 a.m. and line up for each trail specifically. It’s orderly, in a line. There are 18 of us who work that and we get them off main street. Our record is 19 minutes.”

There is also a Vendor Expo at the Old Spanish Trail Arena on Thursday, April 17 and Friday, April 18, McElhaney said.

“The product displays have been limited to items of interest to “our crowd,” but some spaces have been donated to worthy causes that are directly related to Easter Jeep Safari activities,” according to the Red Rock 4-Wheelers Web site. “As in recent years, there will be indoor and outdoor displays of four-wheel-drive products.”

There is a product giveaway drawing at the expo on Friday evening, following the traditional Boy Scout barbecue dinner at 5:30 p.m., according to the Web site. Every registered Jeep Safari participant receives a ticket to the giveaway in his or her registration packet. The drawing requires ticket holders to be in attendance in order to win.

48th Easter Jeep Safari rolls into Moab