The Jeeps started rolling onto Bolivar Peninsula on Monday, driving along state Highway 87 and parking in front of rental houses in Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar.
They kept coming Tuesday and Wednesday, quickly forming a line along the peninsula’s 25 miles of beach.
Local officials expected the number of Jeeps, and Jeep fans, to be in the tens of thousands by the end of Friday.
One of the biggest beach parties of the year is back this weekend, and Bolivar residents are bracing, and in some cases, hunkering down, as it begins in earnest.
Jeep Weekend, also known as Go Topless Weekend, has become so big in recent years that the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office treats it like the Fourth of July, Sheriff Henry Trochesset said.
As many as 40,000 people would be on the peninsula this weekend, he said.
“We’ll have extra people on the beach 24 hours a day,” Trochesset said. “There will be extra patrols on the peninsula. The ferry landing will be covered on both Bolivar and the island.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety also will have extra patrols in the area, Trochesset said.
Jeep Weekend isn’t exactly organized. There’s no central promoter organizing visitors or events. It’s mostly a gathering of Jeep clubs and Jeep owners organized through social media and word of mouth.
The event originated in 2008 as a promotional meet-up advertised by Jeep. “Go Topless Day” is meant to celebrate the end of winter and the start of the season when Jeep owners can take the tops off their beloved vehicles and cruise in the sunshine.
The event’s online footprint hints at its effect on local beaches.
ExtremeTerrain.com, a Jeep-affiliated website that advertises Go Topless Day and sells merchandise for it, lists more than 200 events across the country, 20 in Texas, including four on the peninsula.
More than 7,000 people noted their interest on a Facebook page advertising “Jeep Weekend Crystal Beach.”
The crowds might keep peninsula residents close to home, but are a boon for those catering to tourists, said Katie Newberry, co-owner of Kites Unlimited in Crystal Beach.
Newberry and her husband have owned the store for seven years, and have seen an increase in business on Jeep weekends, she said.
“The last four years it has just been the best event for my business,” Newberry said. “I like seeing all the Jeeps, and seeing all the people that it brings.”
The Newberrys now plan their entire business season around the event, she said. In anticipation of the Jeeps, the store stocks extra flags and flagpoles, as well as brackets for attaching the poles to vehicles, she said.
Newberry has an advantage over some Bolivar residents, however, she said. The store is right next to her home and she doesn’t try to travel during the event. She did her grocery shopping early this week, so she wouldn’t have to brave the crowds, she said.
Some residents think the event is a pain and might be getting out of control, said Kyle Brannan, of Port Bolivar, who works at a lumber yard on the peninsula.
The arrival of so many people disrupts cell phone service and jams state Highway 87, Brannan said. It can be frustrating, especially because the event occurs before the traditional tourism season, Brannan said.
“Our infrastructure just doesn’t hold up,” Brannan said. “We’re not meant to have over 3,000 people the way our infrastructure is.”
The event was much smaller before Hurricane Ike in 2008, Brannan said. Back then it was “six or seven Jeeps,” he recalled.
“It was cool because they had the rock-crawler Jeeps that you didn’t see normally,” he said. “After Ike, it just started getting bigger and bigger.”
At its peak during last year’s Jeep Weekend, the wait at the Galveston Ferry Landing was as long as two hours, even with all five ferry boats running, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
The longest waits occurred Friday and Saturday afternoon.