10 Things You Need To See and Do At Least Once In Texas

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse. It’s not so exaggerated to think of Texas as a whole country—800 miles wide and nearly that far from north to south.

With the state’s 10-gallon hats, acres of cattle ranches, and expansive skies, it’s easy to understand why Texans love to exclaim, “Everything is bigger in Texas!” And indeed, Texas is the largest state in the contiguous United States—only Alaska is larger in terms of square mileage—so they’re not wrong!

The Lone Star State possesses a rich history and varied landscapes. Over the course of its history, Texas has been ruled by six different countries. It’s known as the Lone Star State because it was once an independent republic. No other state can make such a claim.

Fully exploring the state will expose you to 10 different climatic regions that range from dry, dusty deserts and sandy beaches to rolling hills.

With so much to see and do, you could easily spend a lifetime in Texas and not experience it all, so be sure to put these 10 things to see and do at least once in Texas at the top of your travel bucket list.

The Alamo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Remember the Alamo

Perhaps because of its significance in Texas’s struggle for independence from Mexico, the Alamo is one of Texas’s most-visited attractions. Located in the heart of San Antonio this mission-turned-battlefield shouldn’t be missed.

Today the 300-year-old limestone structure is predominantly a shrine to the lives lost on the site during the famous Battle of the Alamo. You can learn more by watching a brief film and by reading the signs placed throughout the grounds.

Mission San Jose © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the Alamo is the best known of San Antonio’s Spanish missions, there are four others. You could easily spend an afternoon exploring them all when you’re in San Antonio. For just a few dollars, you can purchase a day pass for the metro bus that will shuttle you between the missions. Otherwise, you could rent a bicycle from a local bike-sharing station and explore the Mission Trail by bike.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Stroll along the San Antonio River Walk

Hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and historic sites surround the San Antonio River as it flows through downtown San Antonio below street level. This area, known as the San Antonio River Walk is just a short walk from the Alamo, and exploring the River Walk is a quintessential Texas experience.

If you opt to take the 35-minute narrated cruise down the river, your guide will discuss the city’s history and point out interesting sights along the way. Afterward, enjoy a drink at the Esquire Tavern, the oldest bar on the San Antonio River Walk; it opened the day Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933. Otherwise, enjoy fresh guacamole paired with a prickly pear margarita at Boudro’s.

Black’s BBQ © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Dig into Texas Barbecue

With 13 million head of cattle, Texas has nearly double the number of any other state so it should be no surprise that the Lone Star State cooks up the delicious barbecue. Whether you prefer thick slices of brisket or a rack of ribs, barbecue is one of those foods you can’t leave Texas without trying.

As you travel through Texas, you’ll likely notice different styles of barbecue from sauce-covered meat in the southern and eastern portions of the state to well-seasoned meat with sauce on the side in the central and western portions. Needless to say, it’s all fantastic.

Lockhart is the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Out-of-towners and locals flock to four smoked-meat emporiums—Black’s Barbecue, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s Market.

Bishop’s Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. I Still Dream of Galveston

With a year-round warm climate, a trip to the beach is almost a guaranteed fun time. Many beachgoers head to Galveston virtually any time of the year but the summer months are the most enjoyable bringing more visitors than any other time.

Galveston Island is home to some of the best attractions Texas has to offer including Moody Gardens as well as Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark and the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier amusement park. Galveston also offers numerous unique museums including The Bryan Museum, Texas Seaport Museum, Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum, and Galveston Railroad Museum.

Having one of the largest and well-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the country, Galveston allows visitors to explore the island’s interesting history by touring one of its popular historic mansions.

Blue Bell ice cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Order up a Scoop of Ice Cream at the Blue Bell Parlor

Founded in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Company, Blue Bell began operation making butter. In 1911, ice cream for local consumption began production. Ice cream distribution was limited to the small town of Brenham in the Brazos River country of south-central Texas about 70 miles west of Houston. As transportation improved, distribution expanded. The company name was changed to Blue Bell Creameries in honor of a Texas wildflower in 1930. A reproduction of one of the first route trucks, a 1932 Ford, sits outside company headquarters.

Blue Bell offers a wide variety of ice creams, sherbets, and frozen snacks. Ice cream flavors include 25 classic year-round options like cookie two-step, mint chocolate chip, and pistachio almond. As well as rotational limited-time flavors like fudge brownie decadence, spiced pumpkin pecan, and confetti cake. And yes, I’ve tried them all! Honestly, all Blue Bell ice cream is so good. Any other brand could never compare.

A trip to Blue Bell isn’t complete without exploring the beautiful surrounding communities.

Lady Johnson Park near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Tour the Texas Hill Country

Imagine hills, soft and scrubby, green valleys, and limestone cliffs. Conjure up ranches and communities of German heritage, wineries, fields of wildflowers, and sparkling rivers lined with cypress and oak. Ah, the Texas Hill Country. To some, it is the state’s greatest natural resource.

No big cities, no hustle and bustle—just cafes with country cooking, water for fishing and inner tubing, and old places with timeworn comfort. Yes, it’s easy to feel at home in the Texas Hill Country.

Wildseed Farms near Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hill Country offers many getaway options. Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The towns of Boerne and Comfort, New Braunfels and Gruene, Dripping Springs and Marble Falls, Kerrville and Blanco, and Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World”.

Oh yes, and Luckenbach. When Waylon Jennings first sang about Luckenbach, the town in the Hill Country where folks “ain’t feelin’ no pain,” it instantly put this otherwise non-place on the map. The population is about 10, and all that’s here is the old General Store, a town hall, and a dance hall.

Shiner beer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. A Toast to Texas History

In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town. Not surprisingly, the best way to learn the history of Shiner is to learn the history of Shiner Beer as the two have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. So, head to Spoetzl Brewery and join a tour. The tour provides a firsthand look into the brewing process and, of course, a firsthand sampling of the final product, from flagstaff Shiner Bock to the Extra Pale Ale, Haymaker. A day trip to Shiner goes down as smooth as the namesake beverage. As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!” That’s what ought to come out of your mouth before the refreshing goodness that is a free beer goes into it. It’s a toast that means “good health.”

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Best Little Day Trip in Texas

This might just be the “Best Little Day Trip in Texas.” I’m sure Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton would agree as it was the events of La Grange’s famous “Chicken Ranch” that inspired the classic musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” While the brothel is no longer around there’s still plenty to do in this town.

For starters, “Czech” out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. This museum gives visitors a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area. Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery.

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Charm of the Texas Coast

The quaint fishing village of Rockport-Fulton has been a favorite coastal hideaway and Winter Texan roost for years. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, historical sites, and great fishing. The town’s recovery since Hurricane Harvey three years ago counts among the great feel-good stories in Texas history. Rebounding in stunning ways, this little art colony beloved by visitors since the 1950s for its fishing, bay setting, and festivals feels fresh again.

Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Envision the life of an affluent Victorian family while exploring Fulton Mansion, built-in 1877 with comforts not easily found: gas lights, central heat, and running water. At Goose Island State Park you’ll find the wintering grounds for whooping cranes and other migratory birds. It’s also home to the 1,000-year-old Big Tree, one of Texas’ largest live oak.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.

Big Bend is among the largest national parks in the United States. With numerous trails, mountains, canyons, and nearby villages to explore; each point of interest could easily yield itself to days of exploration. For the best experience resist making a set plan—allow yourself plenty of time to explore and discover each desert sanctuary at your own pace.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the paved roads make it possible to explore much of the park’s natural beauty, many of the more obscure sights are hidden deep within the park’s interior on rough, dirt roads. To explore this rugged area bring a vehicle with four-wheel drive, plenty of ground clearance, and good tires.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

There are plenty of lovely avian contenders for my top 10 list

As we travel around the country in our motorhome, I have ample opportunity for bird watching—birding, as many prefer to call it. Regardless of the state, we drive through, there are birding trails and wildlife preserves specifically set aside for looking for our feathered friends.

Of course, there are lots of lovely avian contenders for the most beautiful list. The “beauty” of it is that every time I go afield, I see things differently and have new favorites. After all, Mother Nature has provided us with many stunning treats just waiting to be observed and enjoyed.

Here are the 10 most beautiful birds I’ve observed and photographed during our RV travels.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill first. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird, having a pink body with red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or saltwater, or flying in small groups overhead.

Vermilion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vermilion flycatcher

Most flycatchers are drab, but the male vermilion flycatcher is a brilliant exception. It is usually seen perched fairly low in open areas near water, making periodic flights to nab insect prey. As if the male’s bright colors were not advertisement enough, he also displays by puffing up his feathers and fluttering high in the air while singing repeatedly. Fairly common in parts of the southwest and Texas, the vermilion flycatcher is also widespread in Central and South America.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-bellied whistling duck

Black-bellied whistling duck is the unofficial official duck of the Rio Grande Valley. The black-bellied whistling duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican tree duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas, and of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.

Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black skimmer

The remarkable bill of the black skimmer sets it apart from all other American birds. The large orange and black bill is knife-thin and the lower mandible is longer than the upper. The strange, uneven bill of the skimmer has a purpose: the bird flies low, with the long lower mandible plowing the water, snapping the bill shut when it contacts a fish. Strictly coastal, Black skimmers are often seen resting on sandbars and beaches. 

White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White ibis

One of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, and common elsewhere in the southeast, the white ibis forages by walking slowly in shallow water, the sweeping bill from side to side and probing at the bottom. Foraging sites include marshes, mudflats, flooded pastures, lake edges, mangrove lagoons, grassy fields. Ibis are highly sociable at all seasons, roosting and feeding in flocks, nesting in large colonies.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tricolored heron

The tricolored heron is a medium-sized wading bird named for its three main colors: bluish-gray, purple, and white. Its head, back, and wings are a dark bluish-gray. The back of the neck is purple. The belly is white. The tri-color also has a narrow white streak with delicate rust-colored markings down the front of its neck. The tri-colored is more active than the larger herons. This bird does not patiently stand and wait when feeding. It walks through shallow water in a jerky fashion, crouching and darting as it moves along. It lunges then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect. 

Long-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long-billed thrasher

A resident of dense brushy habitats, the long-billed thrasher is found only in southern Texas and eastern Mexico. There it is a common permanent resident of native woodland and thickets, foraging on the ground under dense cover, often singing from a hidden position within the brush. Uses its long bill to flip dead leaves aside as it rummages in the leaf litter for insects; also will use its bill to dig in soil within an inch of the surface. And it’s often seen perching in shrubs and trees to eat berries.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Royal tern

A large, orange-billed tern, the royal tern is found only along ocean beaches. Common along tropical and subtropical shores, the royal tern is a characteristic sight along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast. It forages mostly by hovering over the water and plunging to catch prey just below the surface. Sometimes flies low, skimming the water with the bill; occasionally catches flying fish in the air, or dips to water’s surface to pick up floating refuse.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great horned owl

With its long, earlike tufts, intimidating yellow-eyed stare, and deep hooting voice, the great horned owl is the quintessential owl of storybooks. This powerful predator can take down birds and mammals even larger than itself, but it also dines on daintier fares such as tiny scorpions, mice, and frogs. It’s one of the most common owls in North America, equally at home in deserts, wetlands, forests, grasslands, backyards, cities, and almost any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-necked stilt

“Long” and “thin” are the best adjectives for describing this elegant black and white shorebird: long neck; thin, needle-like black bill; and long, pink legs. Black-necked stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to the bodies of any bird—only flamingoes are longer. The Black-necked stilt wades in shallow water as it feeds, probing with its long, thin bill for insects and crustaceans on or near the surface of the water. It finds most of its food visually, picking insects, small crustaceans, and tiny fish from the surface of the water or mud.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Fall is Fabulous in Georgia: 7 Perfect Ways to Celebrate the Season

Hike, drive, and bask in the beauty of the changing season

Fall is just around the corner! Explore the BEST of the season in Georgia with this bucket list created just for you.

Georgia apples © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Pick apples                                                                                                                             

John W. Clayton is credited with introducing the first apples to Gilmer County in 1903. Over a hundred years later, this north Georgia area produces more than 250,000 bushels of apples annually in over 30 varieties. The North Georgia Mountains abound with apple orchards, including you-pick, hayrides, petting zoos, and so much more. Fall is the apple picking season in Ellijay, the state’s capital of apple orchards. Visitors can fill up containers with varieties of apples as well as eat apple-accented dishes like apple fritters, apple cider doughnuts, and candy apples. Many orchards also have other things to do like hayrides, petting zoos, corn mazes, and other activities for kids.

Wondering when is the best time to go apple picking? Georgia’s season runs late August through October, however, not all varieties are available at the same time.

Field of sunflowers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Stroll through a sunflower field

A family-owned farm since 1858, Fausett Farms Sunflowers is located just south of Burt’s Pumpkin Farm and Amicalola Falls in the Northeast Georgia Mountains. For 60 years, the farm’s main business was poultry farming which ended in 2011. Now, the farm offers more than 13 acres of beautiful sunflowers for everyone to experience. The farm also offers horse trail riders the opportunity to bring their own horse and enjoy a day of riding on miles and miles of trails.

Autumn in northern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Watch the leaves change

Rich reds, vibrant oranges, and golden yellows make autumn color in Georgia beautiful.

Georgia State Parks are fantastic family escapes for watching the leaves change color. Wondering which parks have the best showing? Try Tallulah Gorge, Amicalola, Cloudland Canyon, Fort Mountain, or Black Rock Mountain!

One of Georgia’s oldest and most beloved state parks, Vogel is located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Driving from the south, visitors pass through Neel Gap, a beautiful mountain pass near Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. Vogel is particularly popular during the fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains transform into a rolling blanket of red, yellow, and gold leaves. Hikers can choose from a variety of trails including the popular 4-mile Bear Hair Gap loop, an easy lake loop that leads to Trahlyta Falls, and the challenging 13-mile Coosa Backcountry Trail. 

Waterfalls © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Chase waterfalls

There is something magical about fallen red and gold leaves on the rocks of a tumbling waterfall. The beauty of Georgia’s waterfalls can lure even the not-so-outdoorsy types off the beaten path and into picture-perfect wilds. Waterfalls dot the landscape throughout North Georgia from Cloudland Canyon in the northwest to Tallulah Gorge in the northeast. Some are easily accessible by following paved paths and others require more advanced navigation skills.

Amicalola which is Cherokee for “tumbling waters” boasts seven cascades at Amicalola Falls State Park. At 729 feet, it is the tallest waterfall in the state. If you’re visiting Vogel State Park, stop at Helton Creek Falls in Blairsville to see these family-friendly falls. The Helton Creek Falls Trail is an easy 0.2-mile hike. Anna Ruby Falls, formed by Curtis and York creeks, are local favorites in Helen. It is one of the most visited waterfalls in North Georgia. Hike the easy-to-moderate half-mile trail from the parking lot to the foot of the falls, and you just might agree!

Camping at Laura S. Walker State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Camp or glamp at a state park

Fall is made for camping under the bright stars, and Georgia’s state park system allows you to enjoy comfort and consistency across the state. 

Nestled at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest, popular Vogel State Park offers primitive and backcountry campers a variety of organized activities and events such as fishing rodeos, and festivals. Hiking nature lovers can choose from easy or challenging trails around the park. Rent pedal boats or kayaks to explore and fish the park’s lake. You can also entertain yourself on the seasonal beach, bike rentals, playing a round of mini-golf, or visiting the playground.

A scenic drive through the mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Road trip through the mountains

Slow your pace and travel Georgia’s back roads to fully immerse yourself in the colors and character of the season. North Georgia is literally rolling with peaks and valleys, so finding a good road trip isn’t hard to do. Just get in your car and start driving and likely you’ll stumble into some of the prettiest views in the state.

Follow the Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway from Helen through the mountains or travel the Cohutta-Chattahoochee Scenic Byway from Cohutta to Ellijay. In west Georgia, follow the Meriwether-Pike Scenic Byway and pull off the road in Woodbury for a photo op at the Red Oak Covered Bridge.

Corn maze © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Corn Mazes for Family Fun

Fall is a favorite time of year with cooler weather, the changing leaves, and all the fun fall activities—like corn mazes. Generally, you should plan between 1.5 and 2 hours to complete the maze. Most places have other farm activities too! You’ll find corn mazes, hayrides, bonfires, activities for the kids, and pumpkins.

A haunted house? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What could be better than combining two of the most popular fall activities, the Corn Maze and the Haunted House? If you like to be scared out in the middle of a cornfield, then consider visiting a haunted corn maze. Georgia has several that will chill your blood, as well as a few that rely more on simple darkness for a gentler spook. Whether you’re looking for a haunted house, spook walk, or other Halloween attractions, there are corn mazes that have it all.

Worth Pondering…

Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize.

—George Eliot

These National Parks are ALWAYS FREE

Click through for a look at national parks you can enter for free—everyday

Why wait for a National Park Fee Free Day when you can visit these 10 natural beauties for free all year round? The U. S. is filled with free parks just waiting to be explored. Finding a list can be tough so we pulled together a few of our favorites to get you and your family out the door exploring America’s best idea.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories. Today, Navajo families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons.

Montezuma Well National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Montezuma Well National Monument

Visit the spot where life began, according to Yavapai legend, at Montezuma Well National Monument. Although access to the nearby Montezuma Castle National Monument costs $10, the Montezuma Well is free to access. There, you’ll see Native American ruins alongside the well and follow a nature trail as it winds below trees beside Beaver Creek—all part of what makes it one of Arizona’s hidden gems.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado and Utah: Hovenweep National Monument

Discover six prehistoric villages that once housed more than 2,500 people between A.D. 500 and 1300, and you can still see multistory towers clinging to the edge of rocky cliffs. The park is a designated International Dark Sky Park, making it one of the best places to go stargazing.

Boston National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Massachusetts: Boston National Historic Park

There are no fees at the federally or municipally owned historic sites within Boston National Historical Park. This includes Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument, Bunker Hill Museum, USS Constitution, and Dorchester Heights Monument.

New Mexico: Aztec Ruins National Monument

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. Come discover the land of fire and ice!

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: El Morro National Monument

Discover an oasis in the desert at El Morro National Monument. The natural watering hole is tucked at the base of colorful sandstone cliffs. Walk the Inscription Trail to see thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions that bear witness to the visitors who sought refreshment there throughout the centuries.

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico: Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New York: Saratoga National Historic Park

Here in the autumn of 1777 American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender. This crucial American victory renewed patriots’ hopes for independence, secured essential foreign recognition and support, and forever changed the face of the world.

North Carolina and Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway

A Blue Ridge Parkway experience is unlike any other: a slow-paced and relaxing drive revealing stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. The Parkway meanders for 469 miles protecting a diversity of plants and animals.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

The Okanagan Valley: A Special Place

The Okanagan Valley is an amazingly diverse land that attracts visitors from around the world. With parks, lakes, orchards, and wineries around every corner, this area of BC is a very special place.

From the moment you first see the Okanagan Valley, it is obviously a special place. Whether you descend the steep switchbacks of the Crowsnest Highway into Osoyoos or drive from Penticton past the rugged Skaha Bluffs, the valley appears completely different from its surroundings, almost un-Canadian.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its reputation often precedes it of course—Canada’s “pocket desert“, a place of great geological and biological diversity. Birders know this diversity and come from all over the continent to see the 200 species that breed in the Okanagan. There are few places of similar size in North America that could match that total.

Canadian naturalists are attracted by the long list of plants and animals found nowhere else in the country. The diversity is a product of both location—sandwiched between the coast and the prairies, between cold northern forests and Great Basin deserts—and elevation.

Wild Goose Vineyards in the Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okanagan is British Columbia’s deepest interior valley, extending from the hot valley floor at 900 feet to alpine peaks at 7,300 feet elevation.

The valley was born millions of years ago in the collisions of continents that built the entire west coast of North America. Two hundred million years ago the west coast was somewhere between the Okanagan and Calgary; then a large piece of land known as Quesnellia slid into North America, creating much of the British Columbia interior. A second collision formed the coastal regions of the province.

Vaseux Lake in the Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then, about 55 million years ago, the collisions subsided and the monumental pressure that had been pushing eastward throughout British Columbia eased. This relaxation created deep cracks throughout the province, among them the newborn Okanagan Valley. The ancient rocks that had once been the continental shelf of North America, long-buried by Quesnellia, rose to the surface. They now form the cliffs along the east side of the Okanagan, as well as the massive McIntyre Bluff that forms the west wall of the valley at the south end of Vaseux Lake.

Lake Osoyoos Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Volcanic activity was common during the birth of the Okanagan, creating mountains throughout the central Okanagan including Knox Mountain in Kelowna, Giant’s Head in Summerland, and most of the hills around the White Lake Basin northwest of Oliver.

The final geological touch in the shaping of the valley came 2 million years ago when the valley was covered by a series of ice sheets. The Pleistocene glaciers rounded off the local mountains and brought massive amounts of sand and gravel to the valley bottom.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the last glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago, the meltwaters created the silt benches between Penticton and Naramata that are now renowned for their fine vineyards, as well as the sandy benches of Oliver and Osoyoos that are so ideal for the noble grape varieties.

The Okanagan lies in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. Pacific storms, pushed by westerly winds, are wrung dry as they ascend the cold coastal slopes of these high peaks. As the air descends into the Okanagan, it is relatively warm and dry, and often the only local sign of a storm that brought torrential rain to Vancouver and Seattle are grey skies and a brisk southerly wind on Osoyoos Lake.

Penticton, a city between two lakes in the Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a result, the south Okanagan receives only 12 inches of precipitation each year—about the same as Tucson, Arizona. The cold Canadian winters are strongly moderated by the large lakes in the valley, and vintners needing to harvest icewine grapes at 16 degrees F (-8 °C) are often forced to wait for the coldest night in January.

This warm, dry climate produces Canada’s “pocket desert”, a small area of bunchgrass, prickly pear cacti, and rattlesnakes that clings to undeveloped sites in the valley bottom between Oliver and Osoyoos. The dominant shrub in this area is the antelope brush, a gangly plant that is covered with fragrant yellow blossoms in spring.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildflowers abound in spring and early summer when the soil still carries moisture left by the meager winter snowpack.

Visitors can experience this natural diversity in several short drives. Meadowlark Road climbs east of Black Sage Road in Oliver at the south end of Burrowing Owl Vineyards; at the end of the road is a small parking area and trails through native desert grasslands with a great view of Osoyoos Lake and the Okanagan River.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Desert Gem RV Resort, Oliver; NK’mip RV Park and Campground, Osoyoos; Walton’s Lakefront RV Resort, Osoyoos

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

5 Best Places to Watch Wildlife Today

The U.S. and Canada are home to some incredible and unique wildlife

The United States and Canada have incredible diversity in both landscapes and natural life. From glaciers, geysers, marine ecosystems, and rich plant life that sustains incredible flora and fauna, there are so many ways to explore both nature and wildlife. Most travelers tend to gravitate toward the most popular and known areas. But there are many lesser-known areas that are a wildlife lover’s delight like epic bird migrations to viewing endangered species like manatees in the wild. And the best part is that many of these places are on public lands, accessible to all.

Rocky Mountain Goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1 of 5: Rocky Mountain Goats

WHERE: Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta; Glacier National Park, Montana; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The Mountain goat is a hoofed mammal native to North America. A subalpine to alpine species, it is a sure-footed climber commonly seen on cliffs and ice. Both male and female Mountain goats have beards, short tails, and long black horns that contain yearly growth rings. They are protected from the elements by their woolly white double coats. The fine, dense wool of their undercoats is covered by an outer layer of longer, hollow hairs. Their coats help Mountain goats to withstand winter temperatures as low as -51 degrees F and winds of up to 99 mph.

Rocky Mountain Goats © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain goats live in the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range and other mountain regions of Western North America from Washington, Idaho, and Montana through British Columbia and Alberta into the southern Yukon and southeastern Alaska.

INSIDER TIP: Mountain goats are not in the same genus as goats. In the Bovidae family, mountain goats are associated with antelopes, gazelles, and cattle.

Sonoran Pronghorns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 of 5: Sonoran Pronghorn

WHERE: Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona

A geographically and genetically distinct subspecies of pronghorn, the Sonoran pronghorn is smaller and lighter in color and is adapted for survival in desert conditions. The males weigh up to 130 pounds and females up to 110 pounds. Pronghorn are slightly smaller than a white-tailed deer with a shoulder height of about three feet. Pronghorn can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour on short distances and can maintain a speed of 35 mph for long distances.

Sonoran Pronghorns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While both sexes have horns, the females’ are short and look more like a bump. The males’ are black and about 10-12 inches long. Their horns extend up and point backward with a small tine (prong) that points forward. The unique design of their horn is what earned the species their name—pronghorn.

Pronghorn were once as widely distributed as buffalo. The Sonoran pronghorn ranged widely within the Sonoran desert in Arizona and California down into Sonora, Mexico—a broad, open desert landscape with limited vegetation. Today they are reduced to an estimated 160 free-ranging animals within the United States and an additional 240 free-ranging within Sonora Mexico.

INSIDER TIP: The core of what is left of the rare mammal is centered on Cabeza Prieta and Kofa national wildlife refuges. But the animal with a habit to move around in small caravans ranges widely onto other federal public lands: the Barry M. Goldwater Range, Organ Pipe National Monument, and Yuma Proving Grounds.

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 of 5: Elk or Wapiti

WHERE: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta; Olympic National Park, Washington

Elk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The elk also known as the wapiti is one of the largest species within the deer family. Native American tribes had hundreds of names for elk including wapiti. It originates from the Shawnee and Cree word waapiti, meaning “white rump”. Elk range in forest and forest-edge habitat feeding on grasses, plants, leaves, and bark. Male elk have large antlers which they shed each year. Elk have thick, brown fur with a reddish hue. This animal’s rump patch, a circular area around its tail, is buff or cream in color. The average male stands nearly 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weighs over 700 pounds but they can grow much larger. The largest subspecies can surpass 1,300 pounds or more.

INSIDER TIP: The Wapiti is the second largest (after the moose) most highly evolved Old World deer. It is also known as the American elk.

Bighorn Sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4 of 5: Bighorn Sheep

WHERE: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; Banff and Jasper National Parks, Alberta; Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California; Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Bighorn Sheep © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bighorn sheep get their name from the large, curved horns on the males (rams) with female sheep sporting shorter, less curved horns. Bighorn sheep live in North America’s western mountainous areas from southern Canada to Mexico. There are three different subspecies of bighorn sheep, the Rocky Mountain subspecies, the Sierra Nevada subspecies, and the desert subspecies. Their habitat consists of grassy mountain slopes, alpine meadows, and foothill country near rocky, rugged cliffs, and bluffs.

INSIDER TIP: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are the largest wild sheep in North America. Muscular males can weigh over 300 pounds and stand over three feet tall at the shoulder. Females are roughly half this size.

Javelina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 of 5: Javelina or Collared Peccary

WHERE: Big Bend National Park, Texas; Catalina State Park, Arizona

Javelina also known as collared peccary are medium-sized animals that look similar to a wild boar. Javelina stands about 2 feet tall and can weigh between 35 and 55 pounds. They are 3 to 4 feet long. They have mainly short coarse salt and pepper colored hair, short legs, and a pig-like nose. The hair around the neck/shoulder area is lighter in color giving it the look of a collar.

Javelina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Javelinas have long, sharp canine teeth which protrude from the jaws about an inch. They live in desert washes, saguaro and palo verde forests, oak woodlands, and grasslands with mixed shrubs and cacti. Javelinas can be found in the deserts of southwest Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southward through Mexico.

INSIDER TIP: Javelinas are not pigs. They look similar but pigs are from the “Old World” and peccary is “New World” animals.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

8 of the Best Leaf-Peeping Destinations! But is it the Season of Fall or Autumn?

Autumn leaves, autumn sneeze, fall breeze, and fall trees. Is it most accurate to say September 22 is the start of fall or autumn?

Both autumn and fall originated from Britain, according to Merriam-Webster. Autumn, however, was the first of the pumpkin spice season names to be invented back in the 1300s originating from the Latin word autumnus. It would take 300 years for fall to come into the picture. 

Applegate River Valley in southern Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After many poets began using the phrase “the fall of the leaves,” the word itself became associated with the season during the 1600s. As the English empire grew during this time period, so did its language. Eventually, the word fall made its way to the New World. 

“To put it more pretentiously, there was always something transient, unstable, mysterious, emotionally undefined about autumn and fall, unlike the other seasons which are so well defined,” said Tony Thorne, a lexicographer at King’s College London. “Maybe that’s why people could not easily decide on one permanent name throughout our history.”

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The word autumn emigrated to America and simply changed to fall, like many other words that got mixed during the travel and independence of the U.S. Jumper in Britain, for example, is what sweater means in America.

Which term is used largely depends on whether the person is speaking British English or American English. While both used throughout the United States and Canada, fall has become the more popular term. From 1800 to the present, autumn has been more popular in Britain and the opposite can be said for America, according to Writing Explained. 

Northern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Some think that it sounds more simple and honest and rustic, unlike the more formal autumn, some think that independent Americans wanted to consciously distance themselves from Colonial British ways of speaking,” Thorne said.

There is no real answer to why fall became so popular with Americans, but the main difference is that it is the less proper way of saying the autumn season has arrived. You may get a weird look or two if you say autumn over fall in the U.S. but both accurately describe the popular season.

Farewell flip-flops, hello pumpkin spice.

Regardless of what you call the season, watching lush greenery morph into a sea of warm hues that rival the sunset itself simply never gets old. And when it comes to fall foliage, New England is hard to beat—but there are plenty of lovely leaf-peeping locales in other regions of the U.S., too. Here are eight of my favorite spots from coast to coast.

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Willamette Valley of Oregon

Fall colors in the Southern Willamette Valley are a special kind of show when the leaves of maples, magnolias, and oaks turn vivid shades of yellow and red, contrasting against Oregon’s signature evergreens. Use Eugene or Medford as a home base—both are home to quirky shops, restaurants, and stays. Enjoy the foliage with a climb up Spencer Butte, just a quick trip from downtown Eugene, or on a drive to explore the 20 covered bridges in Lane County. Better yet, pay a visit to one of the valley’s wineries—the vines also turn when the weather cools.

Southern Willamette Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Experience Jacksonville, dubbed “One of America’s Top 10 Coolest Small Towns” by Frommers. A short drive from Medford, life slows a pace or two in quaint, historic Jville. Steeped in history, the entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark. Explore the roots of the area from the days of the 1850’s gold rush to now through a variety of historical tour options including a self-guided walking tour as well as trolley, haunted history tours, walking tours, and more! A quintessential western town, you’ll find yourself enthralled in how things used to be!

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greater Zion

Autumn in Utah’s Greater Zion region is an unforgettable sight when the leaves on quaking aspens and Frémont cottonwoods at higher elevations change to striking golds and yellows. In Zion National Park, the leaves typically turn from September through October. Visitors can take the park shuttle service from Springdale during that time making it easy to pop into the park and hike routes like Canyon Overlook Trail, a fairly leisurely journey with rewarding views. To get farther from the crowds, visit nearby state parks instead including Quail Creek, Snow Canyon, Gunlock, and Sand Hollow

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches from the northern part of Virginia near Shenandoah National Park, south to Cherokee, North Carolina, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is truly one of the most stunning fall drives in the country.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a spectacular drive any time of year, but it’s exceptional during the fall. This U.S. National Parkway often called “America’s favorite drive” meanders 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. The drive connects Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s famous for being a slow-paced drive with views of long-range vistas, pastoral landscapes, and up-close glimpses of the local mountains.

Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is home to a transforming mountain landscape with crisp yet comfortable fall temperatures that range from the high-50s to mid-70s. The hillside between Hyde Memorial State Park and Ski Santa Fe is also covered in aspens whose leaves burst into fiery gold and crimson in late September. Ski Santa Fe opens its main ski lift exclusively on weekends and holidays from September through mid-October for aerial leaf-peeping and the Santa Fe National Forest is open for outdoor exploration like hiking and biking. 

Northern Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern Georgia

North Georgia and its state parks and scenic byways are best visited in the fall when cool temps and beautiful colors take over. Can’t-miss foliage destinations include Tallulah Gorge State Park which is home to the Tallulah Gorge—two miles long and nearly 1,000 feet in depth—and a suspension bridge that sways 80 feet above the Tallulah River. Next, explore Black Rock Mountain State Park which is Georgia’s highest state park at an altitude of 3,640 feet for scenic panoramas. Those who would rather just sit back and enjoy the ride can take a train trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway which departs from Blue Ridge, Georgia, and takes riders on a four-hour journey through the nearby forests and Appalachian foothills as they burst with brilliant colors.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saratoga, New York

Fall foliage in Saratoga County is a spectacular sight to see as the trees come alive with vibrant shades of red, orange, and yellow. This season is the ideal time of year to take a relaxing drive down country roads and to impressive overlooks and colorful forests.

Saratoga National Historical Park has public hiking trails and a Driving Tour Road that will take you to unique historic sites and scenic overlooks with wide-sweeping views of the fall foliage.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can finish the Driving Tour Road in about 30 minutes with no stops. If you visit each of the 10 wayside interpretive stops, the trip will last about 1.5-2 hours.

After you’ve passed the 10th and final stop, drive east to US-4 and then heading north to Schuylerville. When you arrive in the village, celebrate this leaf-peeping adventure with a craft beer at Bound by Fate Brewing or grab a bite to eat at a restaurant. The Basin Grill offers both outdoor and indoor dining and it’s right on the Hudson River shoreline. While you’re in Schuylerville this season, swing by Saratoga Apple for apples, cider, baked goods, and more farm products.

Fishlake National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishlake National Forest

Fall doesn’t get as much love in Utah as other times of year but the changing colors make it spectacular. The deep oranges of canyon maples light up the Wasatch Front and quaking aspens in southern Utah turn bright yellow to contrast the deep red landscape. It’s the perfect opportunity to get out on weekends without the summer crowds and discover the hidden treasures that make Utah great. Not sure where to go? Here is one of my favorite fall getaways in the Beehive State.

Fish Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A perfect fall detour while visiting Capitol Reef National Park, this 13-mile road takes you along the northern edge of Fish Lake where you can stop at a picnic area for lunch with a view. The aspens in the Fishlake National Forest turn early thanks to the 9,000-foot elevation so you can get your foliage fix before heading to Capitol Reef. Enjoy uncrowded autumn hikes, incredible vistas, and arches carved into the landscape.

The Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef offers 71 sites with easy access to the many trails and scenic drives in and around the park. It’s open year-round and features flush-toilet restrooms.

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill 

One of the most photographed places in Virginia, this water-powered mill in the Blue Ridge Mountains was built by Edwin Boston Mabry. It catches the attention of thousands of visitors each year and has now become a community gathering place. Mabry Mill is somewhat close to Roanoke (and near small Galax) and is just great for taking some epic pictures full of the fall colors in Virginia. The area also features displays where you can explore and grasp an idea of what life was like here some 100 years ago. 

Mabry Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill is particularly known for its restaurant. It serves a country-style menu, tasty pancakes, pot toasts, and many other meals in a very iconic and traditional environment. For amazing Mabry Mill and Blue Ridge Parkway-inspired souvenirs, clothing, as well as for some Virginia crafts and foods get to the gift shop nearby. 

Worth Pondering…

Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.

—William Cullen Bryant

A Year Later and the Land Border Remains Closed to Canadian Snowbirds

Canadians eagerly awaiting the green flag to start their exodus across the U.S./Canadian border still don’t know when they will be allowed to travel south

As with Robert Frost’s two paths diverging in the woods, the COVID pandemic has hit a fork in the road for Canadian snowbirds.

All the leaves are changing, the temperature is falling, and the sky is gray… well, not yet. I’m just mentally preparing for fall. I love the crispness in the air perhaps because it triggers a snowbird response that tells me it’s time to start packing the RV for travel to warmer climes. Georgia O’Keefe said, “I have done nothing all summer but wait for myself to be myself again,” and while that’s not really the whole story of what I did this summer (I’m guessing Georgia O’Keefe wasn’t dealing with back-to-back years of a pandemic), it’s pretty close!

Many Canadian snowbirds winter in Arizona. Pictured above is Canyon Vista RV Resort in Gold Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The world has changed tremendously since our last winter in the U.S. Sunbelt which seems like so long ago. If you had told me that the land border to the United States would be closed for not just one winter but for two, I would have told you that was a bad joke. As it turns out…NOT!

Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens have been able to travel to Canada for non-essential purposes for more than a month now. But the American side of the border remains closed to Canadians wanting to enter the U.S.

Though the closure has been ongoing for 18 months—since March 2020—the ban doesn’t apply to air travel. Absolute frustration is what it is. The biggest problem for snowbirds is why are you allowed to fly with 300 other people in a plane but you can’t drive in your own vehicle?

Many Canadian snowbirds winter on the Arizona side of the Colorado River. Pictured above is Vista del Sol RV Resort in Bull Head City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

News of the land border restrictions for Canadians being extended came on the same day that the White House announced its plans to begin opening air travel for all vaccinated foreign nationals in early November. Since more than one million Canadians make the trek down south every year and 70 percent of snowbirds travel to the U.S. with their vehicles, the majority of Canadian Snowbirds are impacted. For some reason, Canadians with an RV are in a different situation; they usually spend about $20,000 when they winter in the U.S.

Many Canadian snowbirds winter in the Coachella Valley (California). Pictured above is Palm Springs/Joshua Tree KOA in Desert Hot Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it still isn’t clear if, or when, Canadian citizens will be allowed to travel across the border. The prohibition on non-essential travel from Canada has been extended until at least October 21. The bottom line is those who want to leave prior to this day are not going anywhere and they must wait for another 30 days and see what happens then. Snowbirds had held off booking winter reservations in Canada (mostly the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, the Okanagan, and Vancouver Island) in hopes that the U.S. would finally ease border restrictions that have been in place since the start of COVID-19 in March 2020. But with the White House announcing that restrictions at the land border on non-essential travel by Canadians will be extended another month, snowbirds are concerned that it will not open in time to drive south.

Many Canadian snowbirds winter along the Texas Coastal Bend. Pictured above is Sea Breeze RV Resort in Portland (near Corpus Christi) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Waiting another month or two to see whether the land border will open means dealing with winter driving conditions, or at worst, spending winter on the frigid prairies or snow-bound Ontario.

My confusion, and that of most other snowbirds, is trying to understand why I can fly, but not drive. And that is still my frustration! Driving seems to be much safer than going in and out of busy airports.

I’ll soon be basking in the sunshine (not likely) as we prep ourselves for a second winter in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. We’ll spend the winter in a campground at Fort Langley, less than 50 miles east of Vancouver.

Many Canadian snowbirds winter in the Rio Grande Valley. Pictured above is Bentsen Palm Village in Mission © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Camping has been running a winter program for a decade but last winter they had a bunch of new people come from the Prairies and as far east as Ontario and Quebec who would normally drive their RV to the U.S. Sunbelt.

The Lower Mainland of British Columbia may not be the best place for old people. For weeks on end, it was cloudy and rained incessantly. Decades ago research in Holland found a strong relationship between hours of sunlight in winter and the mortality rate among seniors: The more sunlight, the lower the death rate, and vice versa.

Fort Camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it has two meritorious features: The campground sits on an island in the Fraser River with numerous walking paths and hiking trails both inside the campground and on the outer reaches of the island on the Tavistock Trail. And the campground is within easy walking distance of the Village (Fort Langley) with its unique shops, boutiques, and sidewalk cafes. I welcome the variety of choices.

Fort Camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

As Anne Murray sings in the popular song, “Snowbird”:

“Spread your tiny wings and fly away

And take the snow back with you

Where it came from on that day

So, little snowbird, take me with you when you go

To that land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow…”

Forget Napa! It’s Always Wine O’clock in these 5 Underrated Wine Regions!

While I’m familiar with Napa, the throngs of tourists and the overpriced wines that accompany them have caused me to explore elsewhere

Napa Valley may be synonymous with wine country trips. The well-established region with 400 wineries consistently churns out award-winning labels. But there are many more wine trip destinations that shrug off the pretension and make damn good vino and also offer outdoor recreation to break up your wine tastings. While these regions have managed to quietly “sip” under the radar for years, they boast big flavor without touristy crowds or the tourist prices that typically go with them.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the remarkable pinot noirs in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to California’s Shenandoah Valley to Canada’s largely undiscovered wine region in the Okanagan Valley, these authentic spots are ripe for exploration.

Here are five alternatives to Napa for your next wine country escape. Get ready to indulge in these underrated wine regions because it’s always wine o’clock somewhere.

Willamette Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Willamette Valley, Oregon

The Willamette Valley, Oregon’s leading wine region has two-thirds of the state’s wineries and vineyards and is home to nearly 700 wineries. It is recognized as one of the premier Pinot noirs–producing areas in the world. The Willamette Valley is a huge and varied appellation that includes nine nested appellations: Chehalem Mountains, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Laurelwood District, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Tualatin Hills, Van Duzer Corridor, and Yamhill-Carlton.

The Willamette Valley is protected by the Coast Range to the west, the Cascades to the east, and a series of hill chains to the north. Its namesake, the Willamette River, runs through its heart. The largest concentration of vineyards are located to the west of this river on the leeward slopes of the Coast Range or among the valleys created by the river’s tributaries.

Willamette Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the flagship Pinot noir grape, wineries also produce Pinot gris, Pinot blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Melon, Gewürztraminer, sparkling wine, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, and Gamay among other lesser-known varieties.

While wineries are the centerpiece of a wine tourist’s itinerary, there are also other things to see and do like visiting an art gallery, biking, hiking, or floating above wine country in a hot air balloon.

Shenandoah Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Valley, California

The most concentrated Gold Country wine-touring area lies in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley east of Plymouth in Amador County. Zinfandel is the primary grape grown here but area vineyards produce many other varietals from Rhônes like Syrah and Mourvèdre to Italian Barberas and Sangioveses. Most wineries are open for tastings at least on Friday and weekends and many of the top ones are open daily and some welcome picnickers.

Shenandoah Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah Valley produces some of the most interesting wines due to its terroir, a unique combination of rocky soil and warm temperatures that gives the wines their distinctive flavor.

Home to some of the oldest vines in California, the wines produced from the vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley are renowned for their intense fruit and deep color. Stylistically, zinfandels from the Shenandoah Valley tend to be fuller, riper, and earthier with a characteristic dusty, dark berry fruit character, hints of cedar, anise, and clove spice, and scents of raisin and chocolate.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Canada’s stunning Okanagan Valley is emerging as a varied and exciting wine destination. The Okanagan has a rare combination of growing conditions; desert climate (hot days, cool nights), low humidity, tolerable winters from its moderating lakes, young soils lain over glacial till and all of this occurs at a high latitude (along the 49th parallel but vine growth is typically only possible in higher-temperature climates between the 30th and 50th parallels). These are the qualities that the entire global wine industry desires to define itself as being.

Okanagan Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Only 150 scenic miles stretch from the northern edge of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to its southern limit at the U.S. border but that short distance encompasses a world of wine. The north with its cool, forested hills and racy Rieslings evokes Alsace or the Mosel; the south comprises Canada’s only desert where intense summer heat produces powerful Bordeaux-style reds and lush Rhône-style whites. The fact that from north to south there are so many pockets with so much potential for certain grape varieties makes the valley unique as there are very few wine regions like it in the world.

So take our word when we say Canada is the next hot spot. Or don’t (…more wine for us).

Temecula Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Temecula Valley, California

For many visitors, the Temecula Valley Wine Country is a surprise. After all, a lot of people don’t expect to see gently rolling hills blanketed with rows of vineyards so close to the California desert. But the Temecula area has been producing top wines since the late 1960s.

For years, the Temecula Valley wine country—an unassuming area of rolling hills set close to the Southern California desert—has been somewhat of an under-the-radar destination. But it’s a secret no longer. Wine Enthusiast named Temecula Valley one of the “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations for 2019” shining a spotlight on the area’s winning combination of notable wines and top-notch hospitality. This Tuscan-like wine region now boasts over 40 licensed wineries producing over 500,000 cases annually.

Temecula Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The De Portola Wine Trail is quickly becoming the new “Wine Row” of Temecula and this has a balanced combination of the picturesque valley and the nine unique wineries that nestle amid the rolling hills.

No matter which varietal of wine you’re looking for, you can probably find it here. Known for its diversity, wineries in the Temecula Valley grow and produce over 50 different varietals of wine from Cabernet Sauvignon to Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot to Mourvedre, Viognier to Chardonnay, and Syrah to Grenache.

Verde Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Verde Valley, Arizona

Many of the old storefronts lining Cottonwood’s Historic Old Town have been repurposed into wine tasting rooms. Cottonwood, a quick drive from the red rocks of Sedona, is located in the 200-square-mile Verde Valley. More than 20 vineyards form the Verde Valley Wine Region grow grapes for commercial wine production.

Verde Valley Wine Country has a long history of winemaking. When the Spanish conquistadors came through the area in the late 1500s, a Conquistador named Antonio de Espejo called it the “Valley of the Grapes” because wild grapes were growing along the river beds. This small, bitter local variety termed Vitus Arizonica was used with not much success to make wine.

Verde Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Verde Valley is known for its Rhône-style blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Also, the region has over 100 different varietals growing in the area including Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Viognier, and Zinfandel. Arizona is known for its unique varietals such as Malvasia Bianca, Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, Tannat, Aglianico, Negroamaro, Tempranillo, and Seyval Blanc.

No visit would be complete without a stop at the Southwest Wine Center on the campus of Yavapai College in Clarkdale. Not only is it a place for students to learn winemaking and land jobs in the industry but visitors are welcome to visit the 13-acre vineyard and sample wines from the center’s own label.

Verde Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.

―Benjamin Franklin

The 8 Best Things to Do this Fall in Georgia

Explore the BEST of the fall season in Georgia

As the air cools and the leaves start to fall, Georgia offers countless experiences to seek out with your family and close friends. From hikes to scenic drives, day trips to weekend getaways, take time to get out and enjoy the season’s best.

Brasstown Bald © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Take a road trip

Georgia has numerous routes with varied landscapes to enjoy. It twists. It turns. It takes you up, over, and around the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The Dragon Eyes winds 77 miles, 715 curves, two loops, six gaps, and endless views that stretch over the mountains. There are several different points you can begin Dragon Eyes. Starting the journey at the center of the two loops in Blairsville, head north for a half-mile on 19/129 and turn right on 180, known as Jack’s Gap. As you start to climb, you will soon be at the base of Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia. Make a left to wind your way through the canopy-covered road up to the top. At the summit, there’s an observation deck that has a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and valleys. If you’re staying in the area, Brasstown Bald is the perfect place to catch a sunrise or sunset. 

Along Russell-Brasstown Bald Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you’re ready to head out, make your way down to the base and turn left on 180 to continue on the backside of Jack’s Gap. Once you get to the dead-end, make a right onto 75 toward the Bavarian village of Helen. The Dragon Eyes pass through Helen and onto state parks near trails and waterfalls.

The Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway also runs 40 miles from Blairsville to Brasstown Bald and access points along the Appalachian Trail. Don’t forget about the coastal drives like Coastal Highway 17 which runs along the East Coast including a stretch between Savannah and Brunswick. Along the way, there are small towns and quirky attractions like the Smallest Church in America.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Visit a state park

Rich reds, vibrant oranges, and golden yellows make autumn color in Georgia beautiful. Find a quiet spot to immerse yourself in the beauty of the season at a Georgia State Parks.

The 4-mile Bear Hair Gap Trail at Vogel State Park makes a nice day trip for experienced hikers offering great mountain color and a birds-eye view of the park’s lake. For an easier walk, follow the Lake Loop to a small waterfall. The twisting roads around Vogel in Blairsville, particularly Wolf Pen Gap Road, offer some of north Georgia’s prettiest fall scenery.

You might already know about some of the most popular Georgia State Parks for fall color but there are many more to explore that don’t disappoint with an array of stunning scenes, smaller crowds, and wide-open spaces.

Leaf peeping near Blairsville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Watch the leaves change

Admire the changing colors shifting from green to shades of orange. Blairsville is a good place to start, especially the viewpoint at Brasstown Bald. Similarly, the top of Yonah Mountain offers stunning vistas of the surrounding valley.

Georgia’s state parks are also ideal for “leaf peeping.” Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville has views from the state’s highest waterfall. Black Rock Mountain State Park near Clayton is also great as it’s Georgia’s highest elevation state park.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Visit a small town

Hit the back roads of the state, visiting the charming small towns with something different to offer. Families love the parks and zoo in Athens as well as the restaurants with outdoor dining. Nestled just below the foothills of the Smokies of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Athens is home to the University of Georgia, America’s first state-chartered university.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Greensboro is the gateway to Lake Oconee with a café known for its buttermilk pie—The Yesterday Café. Founded in 1786, Greensboro is steeped in Southern history and tradition and rich with elegant antebellum homes and churches.

Perhaps best known as the gateway city to pristine Cum­berland Island, the coastal town of St. Marys draws visitors with a host of natural attractions. Three rivers—St. Marys, the Crooked, and the North—and the Cumberland Sound come together here, making it a popu­lar destination for fishing and boating.

Apple picking season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pick apples

Fall is the apple picking season in Ellijay, the state’s capital of apple orchards. Visitors can fill up containers with varieties of apples as well as eat apple-accented dishes like apple fritters, apple cider doughnuts, and candy apples. Many orchards also have other things to do like hayrides, petting zoos, corn mazes, and other activities for kids.

Jekyll Island Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go camping

Experience the great outdoors with a fall camping trip. Georgia State Parks offer sites for both RVs and tents. But if you aren’t outdoorsy, you can take advantage of “glamping” like in a tiny cabin in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest in Suches, a yurt in Tugaloo State Park offering spectacular views of 55,590-acre Lake Hartwell, a geodesic dome in Ellijay with all the comforts of home, and a luxury canvas tent off on a private island (Little Raccoon Key) off Jekyll Island.

Pumpkin patch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Visit a pumpkin patch

There’s nothing that signals fall quite like a trip to the pumpkin patch. Sometimes you need just the right type of patch for your family. Is that an intimate u-pick or an adventure-packed occasion with pumpkins, rides, games, and more?

During the fall pumpkin harvest, choose from thousands of pumpkins, Indian corn, gourds, and fall decorations. Scenic hayrides, popcorn processing, gift shop, talking pumpkins, boiled peanuts. Shop for jams, jellies, relishes, fritters, freshly baked pumpkin bread, pumpkin pies, honey, and apple ciders.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go hiking

Explore Georgia among the miles of trails in every corner of the state.

The Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses 14 states on its journey up the East Coast but it begins (or ends, depending on your direction) in Georgia. Springer Mountain has served as the starting point for countless adventures and as a celebratory finale for those completing the 2,180-mile hike from Mount Katahdin in Maine. In Georgia alone, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail covers 76 miles and crosses seven counties.

Hiking the Georgia mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are shorter scenic trails for day hikers and backpackers to enjoy the best of fall colors along trails of varying lengths throughout Georgia. The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area lies within four counties, north and northeast of Atlanta. It consists of the Chattahoochee River and 15 land units along a 48-mile stretch of the river.

Unpack your hiking shoes for a trek around one of Georgia’s most beautiful and notable natural wonders! At Providence Canyon, known as Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon,” visitors can enjoy views of the canyons from the rim trail. Located near historic Savannah, Skidaway Island State Park in Savannah offers trails that wind through maritime forest and past salt marsh, leading to a boardwalk and an observation tower.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.

—William Cullen Bryant