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Emery recreation is 'best-kept secret'

GREEN RIVER — Too often, these days, Emery County goes unnoticed. Travelers pass by, maybe stopping in town for a tank of gas, a quick bite and, in season, a succulent melon bought from a roadside stand.

Then it's on up north for skiing or south for golf or, headed east, to Moab or Colorado.

All of which, said Joni Pace, marketing director for the Chamber of Commerce, with a knowing smile, has kept the county one of Utah's "best kept secrets . . . A recreational paradise as yet undiscovered" — even by native Utahns.

What you know:

They talk about the melons of Emery County and some even take the time to hit town during the growing season to imbibe. Many more simply make it a point to stop by on their travels through town to pick up ripened watermelons, cantaloupes and/or honeydews.

They stop for good reason. The blend of available heat and water and soil make the county's melons sweeter, tastier and preferred over all other melons.

Once a year, Green River focuses all its attention on the melons its grows during the annual Melon Days Celebration.

Always the third week in September, it will be celebrated this year Sept. 16 and 17 with a full schedule of activities, including a small-town parade, with marching bands and homespun floats; the largest square dance gathering in the state, with more than "20 squares" promenading about the floor; a host of games just for kids; the selection of a queen, which is held at the high school and always before a sold-out audience; and a picnic in the park where local melon growers — the Dunhams, Thayns and Veteres — present their very best in generous slices to visitors for free.

Melon Days started as a family picnic 99 years ago and has grown into a festival holiday drawing thousands from around the country.

Steadily flowing past the town is the Green River itself, the first leg on the historic journey of John Wesley Powell and the host water of one of the longest-running river cruises in the country — the Friendship Cruise.

The Friendship Cruise started back in 1958 as a river race from the town of Green River, down the Green River to the confluence with the Colorado, the upriver to Moab, explained Christine Monroe, director of the town's community center.

Shortly after it became a pleasure cruise, where families and friends traced the same route over a two-day period covering roughly 184 miles on flowing water. Cars and trailers were shuttled between towns, fuel was made available at Mineral Bottom and a special dinner was held on the shores of the river for boaters. At one point, more than 700 boats participated. Because of the drought the cruise was stopped for a time, but it was revived this year on Memorial Day.

At other times of the year the route from town to Mineral Bottom has been popular with canoers, kayakers and rafters.

The San Rafael Swell, a geological wonder, runs through the western section of the county and offers unlimited recreational opportunities. There are 13 different recognized areas, which include Goblin Valley State Park and Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, and such little-known areas as Devils Canyon, Mussentuchit Badlands and Buckhorn Wash. The Swell features spectacular beauty carved in the famous red rock of southern Utah, and yet only about 10,000 people a year actually make trips into the area.

The San Rafael Swell area is also popular with off-highway vehicle users. There are about 677 miles of trails available within the Swells area and another 1,300 miles of connecting county, state and federal dirt roads.

The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, on the edge of the San Rafael Swell, has the remains of more of the prehistoric meat-eaters than any other known location in the country. The museum stores about 10,000 bones that date back to the late Jurassic era, roughly 150 million years ago.

The Swell is also popular with horseman. One ride leaves from a sandy clearing dotted with ponderosa pines about 30 miles east of Ferron. It passes several watering holes, including Moonshine Tank, and ends in an area called Box Flats, a point where riders are able to dismount and walk to an overlook of Mexican Mountains and down on the San Rafael River. This is country that was ridden by the legendary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

On the southern tip of the county is Goblin Valley, one of the more unusual state parks with its collection of sculpture figures called "hoodoos," which take on a variety of shapes and forms — as many, in fact, as the imagination allows.

Across the road (U-24) from Goblin Valley is the western entrance to Canyonlands National Park.

One of Utah's celebrated sections of whitewater is Desolation Canyon on the Green.

Inside the town boundaries is the Green River State Park, which offers camping, picnicking, showers and a nine-hole golf course.

What you don't know:

While there are those who know about the state park within city limits, and the golf course, few people realize it is considered one of the state's more scenic courses. It helps that the nine-hole layout is accented by the meandering Green River, which helps keep the fairways lush and green and playable.

"What people don't realize is that the golf course is playable year-round. Our temperatures are relatively mild in the winter," said Pace. "And what golfers like even more is the fact that the golf course is never crowded."

Fifteen minutes from the heart of town is Crystal Geyser, located on the eastern banks of the Green River, pointed out Norma Dean Hawkinson, executive secretary for the Emery County Travel Bureau.

The geyser came to life in 1935 when a petroleum test well was dug there. Instead of oil, what gushed from the ground was cold water. Carbon dioxide-powered, cold-water geysers are rare. Over the years, minerals from the geyser have created beautifully colored cascading steps down to the water's edge. When it erupts, which is about every 14 hours, give or take a few hours, it rises upwards of 90 feet. The geyser is accessible both by water and roadway.

There are a number of very impressive walls of early American rock art within the county, most notably Black Dragon Canyon, located near the junction of I-70 and the Hanksville turnoff at milepost 147. A dirt road, which is not a traditional freeway exit, heads north towards the canyon.

Also accessible from the town of Green River, but in another county, are Tusher and Coal canyons, both of which hold excellent panels of rock art.

Another popular area among the locals is Fossil Point, which is 12.6 miles south of town. The first 11.4 miles can easily be negotiated by passenger car. The last 1.2 miles can, at times, be difficult, especially after a storm. At the end of the road, there is a flat area and the point at which the search for dinosaur bones begins. There are vertebrae and other bones near the parking area. Roughly 116 feet above, on Fossil Point, there are casts and fossil bones belonging to a Sauropod, a class of giant dinosaurs. It should be remembered that all of the vertebrae and bones are protected under federal law, so leave them where they rest.

Complementing popular river trips is the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, which opened in the early 1990s.

Among the displays are artifacts, stories of early river runners and life-size models of boats used by early river explorers, including the first boat used by Powell, as well as a "Hall of Fame" of river runners and their tales.

Inside the museum is an auditorium, which is currently showing the movie "Journey into the Great Unknown," by filmmaker Gray Wirrinen. It is a modern-day recreation of Powell's early trip down the Green and Colorado rivers. The new presentation has received high acclaim from both river runners and film critics.

Other activities include an annual trail ride for horse and mule owners that is held in April within county boundaries.

Three times a year there is a spin-off of a rodeo for kids and adults called a "gymkhana." It is an opportunity for kids to display rodeo talents at the entry level, and for adults to enjoy and, in some case, participate.

Among the newer events are a Renaissance Ball, with dance and Shakespearean performances, and a car show, which is held in October and features cars of all makes, models and years.

On Oct. 29, the county will hold the 50-kilometer Ultra-Marathon at Goblin Valley State Park. This is the first race of its type here in Utah, but is a type of race that is gaining attention around the world. The course will take running through the park and into Little Wild Horse Canyon, and then back. The race will be limited to 100 entries. For information call 801-870-7080.

A lesser-known event, but no less tasty than Melon Days, is Peach Days, held in Ferron on Sept. 10.

With some 600 hotel rooms and more than 300 campsites in Green River (the town population is only 973), there's plenty of room for people to stop, spend a little time and enjoy what the county has to offer.

Emery County

Well-known: Melons, Green River, Goblin Valley

Unknown: Golf, San Rafael Swell, Crystal Geyser

Contact: 435-564-3490 or 435-564-3600

Next week: San Juan County