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San Juan is brimming with natural treasures

Tucked away, deep in the southeastern corner of the state, are some of Utah's most extraordinary historic markers, some dating back millions of years and some linked to Utah's more recent past.

And all are located within the boundaries of one county — San Juan.

This calendar of time can start with Canyonlands National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument and can race forward to more recent recordings such as Hovenweep National Monument and the early American writings on Newspaper Rock.

What you know:

While there are many wonders in San Juan County, none is more recognized than one Utah shares with Arizona — Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Its past goes back to the Anasazis, who left the area in the 1300s. It would later become the most famous area within the Navajo Tribal Lands.

The valley, which covers about 30,000 acres, is at the northern edge of the Navajo lands.

There, erosion has created fantastic rock structures of red and orange sandstone mesas, buttes, cliffs, canyons and gullies that have served as the setting for numerous movies, including "Stagecoach," directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, along with "My Darling Clementine," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Fort Apache," "The Searchers" and many others that would follow.

It is recommended that those visiting the monument take a tour. Not only does the tour go into areas off limits to other visitors, but guides can explain local customs, legends and history.

Canyonlands is yet another of the known landmarks within the county. Incredibly rugged, immensely beautiful, Canyonlands is a favorite these days, especially with those looking for a back-country experience.

Actually, Canyonlands is cut into three pieces by the Y-shaped meeting of the Colorado and Green rivers. In the center is the Island in the Sky district, a broad plateau rising above surrounding canyons. To the right is the Needles district, an area filled with standing rock figures. To the left is the Maze district, the wildest of the areas filled with carved canyons and detached rock figures.

It is a park with some highway views and paved turnouts for visitors, but most of its features can be reached only by hiking trails and back-country roads. Four-wheeling is the most popular means of travel within the park. These days, too, there is a sharp increase in biking interests, especially so in the spring and fall.

The area was made a park in 1964, by a law signed by President Lyndon Johnson. It covers an area that is 337,000 square acres, or about the size of the state of Maine.

The park holds some of the more remembered features among the state and national parks, such as Devil's Pocket, Angle Arch and the meeting of the two rivers at the Confluence. Also, there is Cataract Canyon, made famous by early explorer John Wesley Powell; Standing Rock, a lone figure in a flat desert land; The Maze, a vast area of carved canyons and valleys; Elephant Hill, a rugged hill and a favorite of four-wheelers looking for a challenge; Upheaval Dome, a strand sandstone "blister" cut into a huge natural amphitheater with walls 1,200 feet high; and the White Rim Trail, frequently written up in major publications as one of the most spectacular view trails in the country.

A little to the south is Natural Bridges, not a particularly large area but filled with natural wonders.

Even today, the area looks and feels much the same as it did when Anasazi Indians walked the lands and built cliff dwellings in the canyons. The bridges were discovered in modern times by a gold miner who happened onto them in 1883.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the area as a monument.

The bridges would later be named Owachomo (106 feet high, spanning 180 feet), Sipapu (220 feet high, spanning 268 feet) and Kachina (210 feet high, spanning 204 feet). Next to Rainbow Bridge on Lake Powell, they are the largest structures of their kind.

By way of definition, arches are wind- or rain-blown holes in the sandstone, while bridges are holes cut by stream action.

The western boundary of the county is somewhere near the middle of the Green River to the Confluence, then the Colorado River to Lake Powell and from there down the main channel to the Utah/Arizona border near Page.

Which, of course, makes the rivers and lake a major recreational stop within the county. The lake has become a recreational paradise for roughly 2 million visitors a year. Among other scenic wonders, visitors can access Rainbow Bridge National Monument.

Stretching across the Utah/Colorado border is Hovenweep National Monument, which was officially placed on the federal registers in 1923.

Pre-Columbian Indians built six well-preserved villages of towers, pueblos and cliff dwellings dating back some 700 years.

There are two state parks in the county — Edge of the Cedars and Gooseneck.

At Edge of the Cedars there is an excellent overview of early Puebloan culture, including a reconstructed ruin, along with more recent exhibits of Ute and Navajo life.

Gooseneck is so named because it overlooks, some 1,000 feet below, the famed gooseneck bend in the San Juan River as it winds down to Lake Powell. The bend in the river takes it a distance of five miles while progressing only one mile. The views from the plateau overlook are spectacular.

Tying much of this together is the Trail of the Ancients, which is a tour that takes visitors to ancient sites, including parks, ruins, monuments and overlooks. These include such stops as Edge of the Cedars; Cave Towers, a ruin more than 900 years old; Mule Canyon Ruin, which is a block of rooms, kiva and tower; Muley Point Overlook; Sand Island, where the well-recognized kokopelli, the humpback flute player is depicted on several panels of rock art; and the historic towns of Bluff and Mexican Hat.

There are, within the country, three Scenic Byways and five Scenic Backways. The byways are the Indian Creek Corridor north of Monticello, the Bicentennial-Trail of the Ancients and the Monument Valley to Bluff drive. The backways include the Abajo Mountain Loop, Elk Ridge Road and Needles/Antieline Overlook Road.

What you don't know:

Moab has its Jeep Safari, well, now San Juan County has its ATV Safari — Sept. 22-24. There are, on the list of various rides, 18 trails that riders from novice to expert can take, each guided by a resident pathfinder, each different and each no less spectacular than any of the others. The rides, said Doug Harkey, traverse mountain trails, deep canyons, sandstone washes and follow meandering rivers and streams.

Riders tour by day, eat and rest each night, and then select the trail of their choice the following day. "We even have a special permit to go into John's Canyon, which is in the Glen Canyon Recreation Area," he noted. This will be the third year the event has been held. For information call 435-587-3346.

While Monument Valley gets its just recognition, not far away is the Valley of the Gods, a 12-mile section of dirt road down in the southeastern most corner of Utah, that is no less spectacular but far less known.

The area is an erosional feature found along the San Juan River. Standing up like a few remaining figures in a well-played chess game are solid-rock buttes rising up from the valley floor.

The first standing rock, which is visible from the road, is Flag Butte. Near the entrance is Seven Sailors.

Two buttes down the road are the Setting Hen and Rooster. The hen is easy to visualize, and with a little squinting and the right angle, there is definitely an outline of a rooster.

A little northeast is Pyramid Peak and west of that is Franklin Butte. Every rock garden needs a castle, and a nearby is Castle Butte. Then there's Bell Butte and, as all good rock gardens must have, Balancing Rock.

The Moki Dugway is a few miles from the valley on highway 261. It is a three-mile section of gravel road that was carved in the face of a sheer rock cliff. This is probably the only unpaved section of major highway in Utah. But the slippery gravel surface, the steep climb and the view from the road makes this probably the most exciting three-mile stretch of highway in Utah.

Within the town of Bluff is a launching point for the popular San Juan river trips, which end up in the San Juan-arm of Lake Powell. Gaining popularity are the day-trips between Bluff and Mexican Hat. The river offers access to a number of runs and early rock-art panels.

There are two mountain ranges within the country — the Abajo or Blue and the LaSals. Both offer the high-country experience of pines, aspens and meadows, which hold seas of wildflowers in the spring and are somewhat out of place in the arid surroundings.

Early residents called the mountains west of Monticello the Abajo, which means low, even though they aren't. The base starts at 7,000 feet and the mountains rise from there. They are, today, called Blue because at times they give off a blue cast on particularly sunny days.

One of the state's newest golf courses is located on the outskirts of Monticello. The Hideout Golf Club is tucked in among the oak trees and a beautiful landscape. It is also Utah's highest course, with an elevation of 7,000 feet. The nicest part is that the course is never crowded; therefore, tee times are not necessary.

San Juan County

Well known: Monument Valley, Canyonlands, Lake Powell

Unknown: Golf, off-highways trails, Valley of the Gods

Contact: 1-800-574-4386

Next week: Uintah County