In 1952, geologist Charles Steen found the largest uranium deposit in the United States near Moab, Utah. During the heyday of the Cold War, Steen’s discovery triggered a new kind of gold rush, and the sleepy town on southern edge of Grand County suddenly became an integral part of the United States’ nuclear arsenal as mines sprouted up across the region.
Keen to define Moab under more tourist-friendly terms, in 1967 the Moab Chamber of Commerce created the Easter Jeep Safari. Originally a humble one-day excursion, the annual event has evolved into a nine-day celebration of all things off-road that brings together thousands of four-wheeling enthusiasts from across the globe.
53 years on, Easter Jeep Safari has become an institution not only for enthusiasts, but Jeep itself. For more than a decade, the organization has used the event not only to connect with enthusiasts face-to-face, but to show off their latest one-off creations. While some of the concepts that show up are pure eye candy, others allude to future models from the automaker as well as potential offerings from the Mopar Performance parts catalog.
“People ask what we get out of doing this,” says Mark Allen, Jeep’s design chief. “Well, what we’ve gotten from it is the JL Wrangler. The high fenders, the winch-ready metal bumpers, the way the top functions, the way the doors come off – all of the great things we’ve been able to bake into the JL are a result of the feedback we got from enthusiasts. Sometimes we have to defend these things – engineers approach us and say, ‘Hey we can hinge the doors a different way.’ Nope, not gonna do it. What we get out of this is understanding.”
To that end, Jeep invited us along for the ride at this year’s event, graciously providing us seat time in their concepts as well as the latest Wrangler and all-new Gladiator pickup out on the trails of Moab.
All of the great things we’ve been able to bake into the JL are a result of the feedback we got from enthusiasts. – Mark Allen, FCA
Wile E. Coyote Territory
We landed in Grand Junction, Colorado, just as evening was setting in. Our timing couldn’t have been better – a 90-minute drive lay between us and our hotel in Moab, allowing us to soak in the jaw-dropping scenery of Utah’s rock formations. “Odd to think that this was all underwater at one point,” our driver noted as we descended into Grand County. Staring off into the arid desert it was difficult to imagine, but it’s also why Moab looks the way it does. We arrived at Moab’s Sunset Grill just in time to catch the last hints of daylight fading behind Canyonlands National Park.
Staring off into the arid desert it was difficult to imagine, but it’s also why Moab looks the way it does. After eons of phased erosion, what was once a great lake has become a great valley, and the massive rock formations that surround it now serve as monument to geologic timescale. We arrived at Moab’s Sunset Grill just in time to catch the last hints of daylight fading behind Canyonlands National Park.
The next morning, we headed toward Courthouse Rock campgrounds about 20 miles north of town, where Jeep had set up their concept drives. The area is more well-known for its picturesque scenery than trail difficulty, but considering the fact that each of the six concepts was a one-off machine, the fairly tame nature of the terrain was understandable.
The fact that these concepts can even operate under their own power goes against conventional wisdom in the industry, and it stems from Allen’s frustration with the SEMA show.
“Back in the early 2000s, we were building vehicles to bring to SEMA,” he told us. “I was working in the Jeep studio at the time, and I built a vehicle that was fully emission-capable. It went to the show in 2003, where it was parked inside of a building. The following year, we brought the vehicle with us to Easter Jeep Safari, where it was sitting in a parking lot instead of sitting in a building. I was frustrated with that because I’d put so much effort into the project, so I just decided I was going to go drive it – not beat it up, but just use it. Scott Brown, who runs west coast communications, said, ‘Well, if you’re going to go drive it, I’m going to put someone in it with you.’ And at that point, we basically invented the idea of the drivable concept car.”
The first concept that really caught our attention was the Wayout. Intended as a showcase of the Gladiator’s overlanding potential, the Wayout came dressed in a new Gator Green paint (coming soon to production models).
The truck is outfitted with a lift kit, winch, and air intake snorkel from the Jeep Performance Parts catalog, while a custom roof-rack system is on hand for packing gear up top. The bed of the truck houses a bed-drawer system for added lockable dry storage on long treks. For those looking to get off the grid for a while, this truck is a purpose-built tool for the job.
The Wayout serves as a concept that’s firmly grounded in reality, its capability largely enhanced by parts that are (or will be) available to consumers. The M-715 “Five-Quarter”, on the other hand, is what happens when Jeep lets its designers go wild.
Based on Jeep’s M-715 light duty military truck from the 1960s and outfitted with a full carbon-fiber front end, a bobbed six-foot custom-fabricated aluminum bed, and a 3.5-inch chop, this Hellcat-powered beast is simply impossible to ignore. The concept looks like it would be as comfortable on the set of the next Mad Max movie as it would be parked in a fabrication master class. A host of custom touches, like the repurposed vintage 8-71 supercharger housing that encases the transmission and transfer case shifters, make it clear that concepts like these are a labor of love for Jeep’s design team.
Hitting The Trails
The following day we headed for more challenging territory in a convoy of Rubicon-spec Gladiators and JLs. Named after Jack Bickers, a Red Rock 4 Wheelers member during the early years of the club, Jax Trax is a series of trails that were once used for mineral exploration. In the early 1990s, Bickers rediscovered these old roads, which now provide off-road enthusiasts with some challenging pathways through the area.
Jax Trax is a recent addition to the Easter Jeep Safari roster, and it serves as a testament to the capability of the JL Wrangler and Gladiator Rubicon models. Sections that looked almost impassable were dispatched with ease. With the locking differentials engaged and the sway bars disconnected – both push-button features on these vehicles – the Jeeps handled the most demanding terrain on the trail without a hint of protest. The Jeeps were never lacking for power either, with FCA’s 285 horsepower 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and 8-speed Torqueflite transmissions sending the grunt to all four corners.
It was clear that even on this trail, which the Red Rock 4 Wheelers club advises newcomers to steer clear of, we still hadn’t come near exhausting the capability of these machines. We saw 23-degree descents in some spots, where it looks like you’re about to drive off a cliff as you approach the hill, and 27-degree inclines that initially looked like they could only be traversed by mountain goats. The fact that the JL Wrangler and Gladiator Rubicons handled it all with zero drama while coddling us in modernized comfort is quite literally by design.
“Our engineers spend a lot of time in Moab, not just during Easter Jeep Safari, but throughout the year,” said Scott Tallon, Jeep brand director for FCA North America. “Not only are they testing the existing models, they’re also looking to the future and figuring out how we can improve on that legendary Jeep capability.”
Normally, it would be easy to dismiss that as marketing speak, but the engineering speaks volumes after two days out on Moab’s trails. As the town faded in the rear view during the wee hours of the following morning, we took a moment to reflect on not only the four-wheeling splendor of Easter Jeep Safari and its breathtaking scenery, but also what “real-world testing” means. We concluded that if anyone can hold claim to the term, it’s probably Jeep.