The Lion’s Last Roar

Few regions have captured the world’s attention as have the lonely expanses of Southeast Utah. If we pare that down to the region’s nucleus, we find ourselves in the red rock country of Moab. The area’s labyrinth of sandstone, sculpted by millions of years of wind, rain, and plate tectonics is a playground for recreationalists of all genres. During the last half century it has become a mecca for four-wheel drive aficionados from the world over—largely accredited to the Red Rock 4-Wheelers and the Easter Jeep Safari. They 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 a “last drive” on one of the area’s most notable trails.

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Unless you’ve been living under a slab of slickrock, you are aware that 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 recreate.  A quarter century later a group of Jeep enthusiasts, members of the Moab Chamber of Commerce, organized 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.

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The 75th anniversary Jeep Lion’s Back team of Mark Allen, Jim Repp, and Tyler Ruby. (left to right)

Though the greater Moab area offers hundreds of miles of dirt two-tracks and Class 5 white-knuckle trails, 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.

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It is said that 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 center stage when Tina Hastie experienced a brake failure on her Chevy Blazer and took a wild and frightening ride to the bottom, 350 feet below. Although the Internet had not been created yet, 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. Although it has never been an official trail of the Safari, it was always a favorite side trip for participants.

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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 Allen, 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 Lion’s Back for Ruby (return trips for Allen and Repp), and spirits were high. Allen picked a line up the center, slipped the 75th Anniversary Wrangler 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.

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Many have asked about the future of vehicle access to Lion’s Back. What we do know is that the area surrounding this iconic trail will host a beautiful resort and conference center, and that Badger is Jeeping enthusiast. Jeep extended a special thanks to Badger for helping craft a unique and memorable day for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Jeep Safari and 75th anniversary of the seven-slot grill. Click this link to take a ride up one of the world’s iconic routes.

Lion’s Back Specifications

Elevation gain: 350 feet

Length: .25 miles

Steepest grade: 45-plus degrees

Last driven: 2006

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Chris spent his formative years riding dirt bikes with his dad in the deserts of Southern California and Baja, Mexico, which led to a lifelong quest for adventure. He is handy behind a viewfinder and at the keyboard, and brings four decades of international travel experience to Overland Journal as Editor-in-Chief. His career, which includes work for National Geographic Adventure, Four Wheeler, Hot Rod, and Autoweek, has taken him through 50-plus countries and to every continent. He has also served as correspondent to magazines in a dozen countries and in as many languages. In 2013 he was part of the Expeditions7 team that crossed Antarctica and he has recently been inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame as a pioneering journalist. When not behind the camera Chris can be found on The Office (his sailboat), or undertaking meticulous “research” for upcoming articles in locales such as Tequila, Mexico.