Long before there were mountain bikes, dude ranches offering Old West experiences and 18-hole golf courses set among the red-rock cliffs, there were Jeeps.

And there was a group of old timers who felt the country around Moab was made for these four-wheel-drive vehicles. These rough-and-tumble rigs were perfect for exploring the red rock, and these folks began asking others with Jeeps to follow them into this spectacular backcountry. Ever since, four-wheeled vehicles have taken to the land of cliffs, boulders and narrow ravines.

On almost any day, any season, the spiderweb of dirt roads outside Moab is used by four-wheeled vehicles, most commonly Jeeps. People come from all over the world to test the terrain by locking up the wheels, feathering the throttle and trying to pick the best and least hazardous line to follow over boulders, onto ledges and through tight canyons.

The attraction to four-wheeling is simple, says Ron Brewer of the Moab-based group Red Rock 4-Wheelers. “The country is spectacular, [and] it’s fun, challenging and gets in your blood.”

Each year, Jeepers come looking for more and more challenging terrain. First, maybe, a steep climb, then a large boulder field, then a ravine only slightly wider than the vehicle. “We see people come here for the first time in stock vehicles,” says Brewer, “and when they see what some of the modified four-wheelers are capable of, the next year they’re back with modifications and the year after with even more modifications.” 

Each spring, Red Rock members organize and run a nine-day Easter Jeep Safari. The safari in 2012 will be the 46th such event. Last year, more than 2,000 four-wheeled vehicles of every make, design and configuration—from modified Jeeps to family SUVs—participated. Drivers have the option of testing some 30 different trails of varying difficulties, and each guided ride is limited to a fixed number of vehicles. In most cases, the going is very, very slow, but challenging. The first rides to fill each year are the most challenging and likely to cause damage, which could be anything from a dent to a disabled transmission.

The less challenging trails typically follow backcountry roads, many cut by early miners back in the 1950s and ’60s. These rides are the more relaxing “windshield” tours, where drivers and passengers can spend more time viewing the country than trying to pick the right line.

On most days in Moab, there is a constant parade of four-wheel-drive vehicles moving through town. Some drivers know the direction they are heading, others don’t. A number of businesses in Moab rent Jeeps or offer off-highway tours, like Adrift Adventures owned by Myke Hughes. Once only for the more rugged adventurers, Jeeping has become a bit more luxurious since he stepped into the biz 15 years ago. “We have gone to vehicles that are enclosed and have all the comforts of air conditioning and protection from the elements,” he says.

Very popular with Moab visitors are Hummer or Humvee rides over slickrock trails. Introduced in 1985, the Hummer features incredible climbing abilities. It can, for example, despite its 7,000-pound weight, climb up 70-degree slopes without dropping a single RPM or cruise comfortably down a paved road at freeway speeds. It is, of course, the vehicle’s climbing ability on very steep slopes and its stability over tricky terrain that thrills customers.

Each business offering guided tours has permits on designated trails issued through the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Tours often include an introductory course in the geography and history of the Moab area, with an occasional stop to see dinosaur tracks left in the sandstone. The Southern Utah terrain has taken more than 500 million years to design and was created by wind and rain working on layers of sandstone. The stronger surfaces survived and the weaker layers were worn away leaving the steep cliffs and narrow ravines.

Though two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands, and one state park, Dead Horse Point, are within minutes of Moab’s town center, it cetainly isn’t the only four-wheeling option in Southern Utah.

The Paiute Trail offers a completely different experience with a 265-mile loop over mountain tops and rugged desert country in south-central Utah. Though listed as an ATV trail, many of the routes are easily accessible by vehicles. One of the unique features of this trail is its connection to a number of small towns—Marysvale, Beaver, Fillmore and Salina—which makes it possible for drivers to fuel, dine and sleep between legs.

A little further south is Cathedral Valley, the little sister to Monument Valley with a 58-mile loop that includes a stretch through Capitol Reef National Park.

There are also a number of off-highway roads on the Boulder Mountains near Escalante and the Book Cliffs, a rugged area home to Utah’s newest herd of bison and a region once used by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.

Roughly 12 miles off of scenic Highway 12 is one of Utah’s most picturesque parks, Kodachrome Basin. Heading south from the park is a smooth, dirt road leading to Page, Ariz. There are many miles of dirt roads in Utah’s newest national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante. At 1.9 million acres, it is the country’s largest national monument and is slightly larger than Delaware.

Pretty much anywhere a driver travels in Southern Utah there are dirt roads and rugged country to drive, yet the Moab area—with its mix of arches, slot canyons, spires, fins and red-rock formations—remains the hub.

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