Moab's annual Easter Jeep Safari begins Saturday, April 8. Organizers are expecting continued momentum after celebrating the event's 50th running last year. [File photo]

The annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari, when 4-wheel drive vehicles flock to town to tackle the area’s numerous trails, will begin Saturday, April 8. Now in its 51st year, the event will last nine days, culminating with “Big Saturday,” April 15, when all participants line up their vehicles downtown before heading for the trails, and concluding on Easter Sunday, April 16.

Members of the Red Rock 4-Wheelers, the non-profit organization that hosts the Jeep Safari, said that this year’s event won’t be quite the extravaganza that the 50th year celebration was in 2016. But even without giving away a new Jeep, they’re expecting a big turnout.

“We increased our inventory of trails last year, knowing it would be a big event,” 4-Wheelers Vice President Mike Kelso said. “We came into this year feeling that we would have the same momentum. We did not reduce any trails.”

The decision seems to be correct: 98 percent of available trail slots are booked, Kelso said.

Business Manager Rex Holman confirmed that figure: “98, 99 percent, and holding,” he said. Any openings created by late cancellations are being snapped up quickly, he added.

“It seems as fast as we release a trail position, somebody buys it,” Holman said.

Anyone who did not yet register but is interested in participating can check at the registration desk in the Old Spanish Trail Arena for last-minute openings.

Kelso said he can’t estimate how many people would be attending in total — “We don’t even try to put numbers to it until it’s all done … It’s just too doggoned hard,” he said — but that the club has made some changes to their trail scheduling to accommodate the event’s swelling attendance.

“In the old days, we could have 60-70 Jeeps on ‘Fins and Things,'” Kelso said, referring to a short, popular trail in the Sand Flats area. “It was horrible … If you’re on a train that’s got 66 cars and you’re the caboose, it’s a long time before anything moves.”

Comment cards filled out by participants confirmed that overcrowding on some trails was an issue. So the 4-Wheelers decided to implement an “A-B trail” system, Kelso said: Instead of a single train of vehicles leaving at 9 a.m., two smaller groups will depart at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

“We’re splitting it up so the trail has good momentum and everybody has a better experience,” he said.

Otherwise, the event remains mostly unchanged.

“We pretty much kept it the same,” Kelso said.

The vendors’ expo, from April 13-14 at the Old Spanish Trail Arena south of town, returns this year with more companies than ever.

“We have over 200 individual companies represented this year,” expo coordinator Doug McElhaney said. “There are some companies that just sponsor and run ads in the newspaper and stuff that won’t be here, but there will be 200 companies physically here.”

Local Boy Scouts of America troops will offer a barbecue dinner at the expo’s first night, with proceeds funding Boy Scouts summer camp programs.

For the organizers, the Safari entails long days, and not much actual time on the trails. Still, they’re excited.

“I look forward to all the friends that I have that come into town for this event, that I only get to see once or twice a year,” Kelso said.

Holman won’t be leading any drives this year. Once the drivers leave town on Big Saturday, he said, “I’m gonna come home and take a big long nap.”

“This is the first year in 25 years that I will not be leading a trail,” he said.

Holman said he’s excited to see younger members of the 4-Wheelers stepping up to fill his shoes – some of them third-generation trail leaders.

“It is definitely a family thing,” Holman said. “The tradition continues. Hopefully there’s enough of that going on that it’ll last for another 50 years.”

Organizers expect continued momentum after major anniversary last year

“I look forward to all the friends that I have that come into town for this event, that I only get to see once or twice a year.”