Amador Wine Country

Take a drive through the rustic vistas and rolling scenic vineyards of Amador Gold Country

What do miners do when they don’t find gold? They settle down to plant zinfandel, or at least that’s what they did in the Shenandoah Valley, the heart of Amador Wine Country.

Amador County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The California Gold Country first rose to prominence during the 1849 gold rush, but now, people come to experience the region’s natural beauty, the balmy weather, and the wine.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, where gold once reigned, some forty wineries produce a new treasure: superb wines which have earned Amador County international acclaim.

The valley offers unique tasting rooms and outdoor event venues, bed and breakfast inns, and relaxing environments for locals and visitors alike to enjoy all year long.

Borjon Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When we first pulled into Plymouth, we asked ourselves where the “there” is—this tiny burg is the epitome of the one-horse town. But Plymouth is the real working heart of Amador wine country.

Cooper Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turning off Highway 16 (an extension of California Highway 49) onto Shenandoah Road, we find ourselves amid rolling, oak-studded hills where cows or sheep graze on one side of the road and tidy rows of grapevines climb the other.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wineries within five or 10 minutes of Plymouth include Bella Piazza Winery, Terra d’Oro, Borjón Winery, Helwig Winery, and Cooper Vineyards.

Amador’s first wineries arose in 1849 when European immigrants discovered that wine grapes thrived in the Sierra Foothills. By 1880, Amador had more than 3,000 acres of grapevines that thrived until Prohibition closed all but one of its wineries. By the 1970s, Amador had declined as a source for low-quality jug wine.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador wines were revived due to the rediscovery of zinfandel. Zinfandel arrived in Amador in 1852, thrived in the Sierra Foothills, and became the wine of choice in the Gold Rush and one of the most widely planted grapes in California.

Cooper Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During Prohibition, many zinfandel vineyards were destroyed. Fortunately, Amador maintained several old zinfandel vineyards dating to 1890 or earlier. Amador’s abundance of zinfandel grapes, combined with its complex raspberry and spice flavors, enticed a new generation of winemakers in the 1960s who ultimately made zinfandel California’s signature grape varietal.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late 1960s, a new generation of pioneers began migrating to the Gold Country’s Amador County, this time drawn by the region’s rolling, sun-drenched hillsides, warm daytime temperatures, and volcanic, decomposed granite soils—ideal conditions for producing top-quality wine grapes. When their robustly flavored wines, especially zinfandel, began attracting the attention of wine lovers, the historic Sierra Foothills wine region was reborn.

Borjon Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cooper Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It began when Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley tasted Amador Zinfandel for the first time in 1968. He was hooked and decided to produce wine from Sierra Foothills grapes. A few years later, Sutter Home developed White Zinfandel, a major success that put Amador on the map.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1970, Montevina Winery became the first post-Prohibition winery in Amador County. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, new wineries sprang up and Amador shed its status as a backwater wine region.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador may have developed its reputation around Zinfandel, but Amador winemakers have branched out over the past 20 years and now produce wines from grape varietals originating in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, offering red, white, and rosé wines as well as excellent ports and dessert wines.

Cooper Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the past 20 years, Amador vintners have begun producing a diverse array of varieties, especially those of Italian and southern French origin. While zinfandel, with over 2,000 acres, remains Amador’s signature variety, the region’s wineries also vinify superb examples of barbera, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and syrah; limited bottlings of pinot grigio, verdelho, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, grenache, mourvedre, petite sirah, aglianico, and tempranillo; rosés made from a wide variety of grapes; dessert wines made from muscat grapes; and port-style wines made from zinfandel and traditional Portuguese varieties.

Amador Flower Farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

―Benjamin Franklin

10 RV Driving Tips

Whether you are new to RVing or not, these tips can help ensure that your trip will be problem-free

Most RVs are not particularly difficult to drive but there are a few things to keep in mind that will make your travels safer and more enjoyable.

The majority of drivers can adapt quite well to the increased size, height, and weight of an RV, but keeping alert, planning ahead, and driving cautiously remain top priority in the safe handling of your vehicle.

Driving Newfound Gap Road through Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check Lights before Traveling

  • Prior to starting your day’s travel check the functioning of all signal lights, 4-way flashers, brake lights, and head lights
Driving Highway 12 Scenic Byway in Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mirror Adjustments

  • Adjust the side-view mirrors to barely see the side of your RV
  • Adjust the convex mirrors to include blind spots, keeping in mind that distances may be distorted
  • Check your mirrors every 30 seconds
  • Ensure that you’re driving within the painted lines
  • Be aware of the traffic behind you and whether they are keeping up with you, preparing to pass, or falling back
Driving near Glen Canyon Recreation Area in northern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look Well Ahead

  • DO NOT overdrive your visibility
  • 90% of all driving decisions are visual based
Driving Organ Pipe National Monument in southern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leave Yourself an Out

  • Determine the lane of least resistance and safety
  • Maintain safe following distances
  • Leave room to change lanes when stopping behind another vehicle
  • Is there a way out of here?
  • DO NOT drive your RV into any place that you can’t see a way out of—especially if that RV is a large motorhome towing a car
Driving Highway 12 Scenic Byway between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Navigating Large Cities

  • Plan your trip in advance so that you can avoid going through large cities during morning or late afternoon rush hour
  • The best time to drive through major cities is early Sunday morning—during the workweek, you’re best to travel between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Driving Newfound Gap Road through Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follow the Rule of 20 Percent

  • Fully loaded RVs have slower acceleration and take longer to come to a full stop than autos
  • To compensate, add 20 percent to everything you do, from increasing your following distance and judging if you have enough clearance to safely merging into traffic.
Know your height1 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Know & Post Your Height, Width & Length

  • A major insurance claim is RVs hitting gas station overhangs, underpasses, and bridges

Solution: Post your exterior height, width, and total length in the motorhome or tow vehicle where it can easily be seen while driving

Height: Measure to the highest point such as air conditioner or satellite dish

Width: Measure to the outermost points such as mirrors, awnings, or handles

Length: Measure from the front of the vehicle to the end of the towed vehicle or trailer

Know your height, width, and length! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One Hour Rest Stop Walk-Around

Visually inspect your tow hitch connections and check for overheated and low tires every time you stop at a rest stop or refueling location. Pranksters have been known to remove pins from the hitch. Perform a walk-around that covers these visual points:

  • Check to ensure that tires have not overheated
  • Check tow bar or hitch and safety cables
  • Ensure that hitch pins or bolts are still in place
  • Check to ensure that the wiring harness is connected securely
  • Look under the chassis for signs of oil or coolant leaks
  • Check storage bay doors
Driving Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turn Signals

  • Turn signals are valuable for communicating your intentions to other drivers; if you don’t signal, other drivers have no way of knowing what you plan to do
  • In an emergency pull completely off the road and use emergency flashers, flares, or some other emergency signaling device to warn oncoming traffic
And we arrived safely again… © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember, Safety Is No Accident

Worth Pondering…

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

An Overlooked, Affordable & Scenic Wine Region

Forget Napa and head to Canada for your next wine tasting trip

It doesn’t take much effort to drop $500 when touring Napa. In a day! Not on insanely rare wines or dinner at an exclusive restaurant, either. 

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s not to disparage Napa Valley. Lovely place, that Napa, full of wonderful vineyards and terrific wines. Five hundred dollars-a-day good times just don’t fit within the typical RVers budget.

Trouble with Napa is, for a huge number of Americans, it’s just a short day trip away.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So how does an RVer drink great wines amid breathtaking natural beauty without blowing out a couple of credit cards? Easy: go to Canada.

And, no, you won’t have to bundle up like the kids from South Park.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead, consider an autumn jaunt to the Southern Okanagan wine region in British Columbia. Obscure? Compared to Napa, sure. But it’s also possibly the most scenic wine region in North America, and a place where RVers and other normal people can afford to taste wine.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two towns are standouts for their concentration of vineyards and wineries: Oliver (named for long-ago British Columbia Premier John Oliver) and Osoyoos (which shares a name with one of seven Okanagan tribes (called “bands” in Canada); pronounce it “oo-SUE-yooze”). Together the towns boast 39 wineries that extend from the lush valley into the semi-arid mountains that surround the area.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wine tasting here is as much about the surroundings as the wine itself. Wedged between the Cascades and the Columbia Mountains, the Okanagan Valley enjoys hot summers and mild winters unique to Canada—it constitutes the country’s only temperate desert region.

Tinhorn Creek Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wineries sit on the eastern benches and western foothills of the gentle mountains, allowing you to enjoy the morning sun on the patio at Tinhorn Creek as you look east. To end the day, there’s a sunset tasting across the valley on the eastern bench at Burrowing Owl as you take in the westerly view. All of it overlooking the 12-mile-long Osoyoos Lake, which stretches south across the Washington State border.

So what will you be tasting?

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forget the ice wine—it is actually more prevalent in southern Ontario, where temperatures drop below freezing during baseball season.

The South Okanagan makes wine like the Pacific Northwest (think Washington, Oregon, and Northern California) with pinot noir, cabernet franc, merlot, and syrah dominating the reds; chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris, and gewürztraminer the whites.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As with any wine region, some wines you’ll like, and others you won’t. But if you’re not a connoisseur—as the vast majority of RVers are not—the wine here serves the purpose of your RV trip: trying small-production wines you’ll likely never find again, then taking home some fantastic juice.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wineries have character that hasn’t been compromised amid platoons of tourists.

But the best thing about the wineries here? They’re inexpensive. You’ll rarely see a tasting over $5 while some are complimentary. Tasting fee, when applied, is normally waved when purchasing a bottle.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The valley’s abundance of you-pick farms and fruit stands (think cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, and pears) along Highway 97 gives a visitor the first inclination of the food ahead. The larger wineries all have restaurants, where chefs have relationships with the local farms, and menus take advantage of the local produce.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And the restaurants all come with a view. The Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl Estate feels like eating in an old hunting lodge over a lush desert valley. And the corner table on the patio at Tinhorn Creek’s Mirodoro might be the best table in the region.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So yes, Canada might not be the first place you think of when considering a wine-tasting vacation. But if you’re more into the quality of your experience than name recognition, it’s a tough destination to beat. The wines are good, the food is fresh, the scenery is unbeatable, the locals are friendly, and it won’t cost you a fortune.

Okanagan Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, I’m finding enjoyment in things that stop time. Just the simple act of tasting a glass of wine is its own event.

―David Hyde Pierce

Grand Canyon RV Park: Road Trip Heaven

Perfectly placed adjacent to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and within walking distance of the Route 66 historic district

Some of the happiest travelers are the ones who never leave home. Why? Because they take their home with them in the form of an RV!

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year hundreds of thousands of these dedicated RV travelers map out their personalized Great American Road Trip and push a pin into one of the world’s great destinations, the Grand Canyon. As they wrap up their driving day, they find a great place to spend the night at the 5-star Grand Canyon Railway RV Park. But it’s not just the park’s many amenities that attract RV travelers. It’s the location, location … and history.

Historic Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Route 66 once stretched uninterrupted from Chicago to Los Angeles. Over time, however, it lost ground to the interstate system until, on October 13, 1984, I-40 bypassed the final, stubborn section of Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. Having outlasted every other mile of America’s Mother Road, Williams retained a retro-hip 1950s vibe highlighted by kitsch signage, neon lights, and cool diners—an absolute must-do for road trippers.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perfectly placed adjacent to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and within walking distance of the Route 66 historic district, the highest rated and only all-paved RV park in the Williams area offers three levels of options, from pull-through sites to buddy spaces to back-ins. Each full-service site is equipped with 50-amp utility services and is large enough to accommodate big rigs.

Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And while the Tin Can Tourists who once traveled Route 66 would have been astounded to receive a Western Union telegram at their campsite, today’s guests can stay as connected (or as disconnected) as they wish, with free Wi-Fi as well as high definition digital TV. Other amenities include coin-operated laundry machines, updated shower facilities, a community picnic area with gas grills and fire pit, and access to the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and hot tub.

Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guests of the RV Park and Railway Hotel enjoy an extra perk for their traveling pets, namely the animal equivalent of a luxury vacation. The Grand Canyon Railway’s Pet Resort is one of the area’s most comfortable and modern facilities where dogs and cats, both small and large, enjoy abundant indoor space for lazing about. This is especially useful since they must be leashed at all times at the Grand Canyon South Rim and are not permitted on trails below the rim, on park buses, or in park lodging (service animals are exempt).

Aboard the Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But from their base in 28 clean, cool kennels at the pet resort, dogs will enjoy individual playtime in the outdoor exercise yard and dog run. Kitties, too, can enjoy a dog’s life in 16 sun-filled cat condos overlooking the basketball and volleyball courts. From atop their private sitting ledge, felines savor the setting as they take a catnap.

En route to the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For both people and pets, the location and amenities of the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park is about as good as it gets — a welcome adjunct to the railway itself.

Arriving at the Grand Canyon Train Depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon Railway takes passengers on one of America’s most picturesque train journeys. Departing each morning from the station beside the RV Park, the train chugs north out of Williams for a ride up and over the massive Colorado Plateau. At just over two hours, the journey gives RV travelers the chance to take a 65-mile shortcut and leave the driving to the engineer. It’s a perfect way to arrive at Grand Canyon National Park rested and relaxed without worrying about navigating an RV through the twists, turns, and often dense traffic that concentrates at the park’s south entrance.

Departing the train at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And it’s all made easier by a quiet night, modern conveniences, and the perfect location of Grand Canyon RV Park.

Worth Pondering…

The Grand Canyon…

Do nothing to mar its grandeur…

Keep it for our children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Temecula Valley Named Best Wine Destination for 2019

The Southern California wine region was named one of the best destinations for 2019

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 has 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.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The esteemed annual list is a product of extensive travel and tastings that Wine Enthusiast editors and contributors undertake throughout the year.

Robert Renzoni Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“We seek locales that offer world-class wines as well as unforgettable restaurants, hotels, and cultural activities suited for the intrepid wine lover,” says the publication’s executive editor, Susan Kostrzewa. “The list balances classic, famed regions with emerging, insider gems that have yet to be discovered.”

This marks the first time that Temecula Valley was selected.

Fazeli Cellars © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The wines have never been better,” says Wine Enthusiast contributing editor Matt Kettmann, “and I’ve sensed an increased focus on grape growing and quality winemaking in just the past five years that I’ve been covering the region. Plus, there’s a lot more excitement surrounding their hospitality offerings now than ever before.”

Temecula Valley has been producing notable wines since the late 1960s, when early adopters discovered that a wide range of varietals could flourish here. Now, winemakers have had time to take their craft to the next level. In addition, some have opened hotels and gourmet restaurants to round out the experience.

Robert Renzoni Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Not long ago, Temecula Valley was just beginning to create tourism experiences with only a handful of wineries and offerings,” says Kimberly Adams, CEO of Visit Temecula Valley. “The pioneers had a dream and persevered; it was their passion—and that of those who followed—that continue to make this a destination people fall in love with.”

Fazeli Cellars © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Relative newcomers are making an impact, too—like Robert Renzoni and his vineyard, which he opened in 2008 on the west end of the De Portola Wine Trail. The tasting room is located on 12 acres of rolling hills featuring nine acres dedicated to classic Italian and Bordeaux grape varieties, uniquely planted in six segmented micro climate blocks.

The Renzoni family began creating wines over 100 years ago along Italy’s northern coast. Today, Robert Renzoni Vineyards continues the tradition begun by their ancestors.

“Back in the day, people used to laugh at Napa and Paso Robles,” he says. “It took determination and experimentation for those regions to get to where they are now.”

Robert Renzoni Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

He says Temecula is following the same trajectory: Dedicated winegrowers are settling here, doing their homework, and continually experimenting. Now they’ve had time to figure out what grows best; with a terroir and elevation similar to Tuscany, that’s been mainly the Mediterranean varietals.

Robert Renzoni Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Syrah and Sangiovese will make this region famous,” he says, but Petit Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Montepulciano, and Vermentino are flourishing as well.”

Robert Renzoni Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a recent visit we tasted a portfolio of five wines in their Tuscan Villa tasting room that included Barile Chardonnay, Barbara, Old Vine Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, and Montepulciano. Tasting fee is $15 ($20 on weekends). We purchased two bottles of Zinfandel.

Renzoni also jumped on the flourishing hospitality trend by opening an on-site trattoria, Mama Rosa’s, a few years ago. And he’s happy to see the area begin to receive national attention for all of its offerings. “Eventually, we’ll get to the point where people will say, ‘Remember when people laughed at Temecula?’”

Pechanga RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Pechanga Casino RV Resort, Temecula

Worth Pondering…

Products from the soil are still the greatest industry in the world.

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Head For the Hills: Texas Hill Country

A road trip in the Hill Country is an adventure into beautiful parks with natural wonders and tiny towns that preserve remnants of Americana and the Wild West

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.

Guadalupe River in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Blanco State Park in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hill Country rises out of south-central Texas like an island out of a vast ocean. A large area of rolling hills and valleys with limestone canyons, clear-water rivers, and a few scattered small towns, the Hill Country is quite densely wooded. Prepare to be amazed.

McKenney Falls State Park in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ideally situated off I-10 near Kerrville, Buckhorn Lake RV Resort is a perfect base from which to explore this wonderland of scenic vistas, oak-covered hills, rocky outcroppings, and streams.

Located in the heart of Texas Hill Country, Buckhorn Lake Resort is just an hour drive from San Antonio. Each pad site is designed with large coaches in mind—they include widely paved pull-through sites and roads.

Buckhorn Lake Resort in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The resort also features an 8,000-square-foot red barn. The facility that not only hosts year-round activities sponsored by Buckhorn but also can be rented for other events. Other amenities include trash pick-up, a dog park, pools, and a fitness center.

Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trading the customary Howdy! for Willkommen!, we headed to Fredericksburg, just 30 minutes northeast of Buckhorn Lake, a community that celebrates it German heritage. Settled in the 1850s by immigrants from the Old Country, the town retains much of its Germanic influence through shop and restaurant themes, seasonal festivals including the annual Oktoberfest with its oom-pahs, polkas, and bratwurst.

Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Marktplatz in the center of town commemorates the peace treaty between the German settler and Comanche Nation. The treaty is thought to be the only one with Native Americans never broken.

National Museum of the Pacific War © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t leave Fredericksburg without a visit to the emotionally powerful Admiral Nimitz State Historic Site and National Museum of the Pacific War. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific during WWII, grew up in Fredericksburg. The museum covers eight acres and includes a Garden of Peace—a gift from the people of Japan.

The Pioneer Museum Complex is also located in Fredericksburg, telling the story of the mid-1800s German settlers. Open year-round, a four-acre museum community complex includes a home, a store, a smokehouse, a log cabin, and a bathhouse.

Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the southwest edge of Fredericksburg, 340-acre Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park offers scenic paths, outdoor recreation, and 98 RV campsites with 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and WiFi. The park’s Live Oak Wilderness Trail, a mile-long stretch on 10 creek-side acres, features a bird-watching station and a butterfly area.

Windseed Farms © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg is also at the center of the Hill Country wildflower scene, best witnessed during the spring months of April and May, but there’s a nearly year-round floral bonanza to be found at Wildseed Farms, seven miles east of town. This the largest working wildflower farm in the world, where flowers are grown in endless rows for seed.

Fredericksburg bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sure, we love Fredericksburg, with its quaint Main Street and antique shops, biergartens, and bakeries. But after we’ve gorged on apfelstrudel to our heart’s content, it’s time to brush off the crumbs and open up our trail map.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our enchantment with the area continued when we drove onto Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 20 miles north of Fredericksburg. This 1,643-acre park is dominated by a 70-acre dome of pink granite that rises 425 feet above the bed of Sandy Creek, 1825 feet above sea level. One of the largest batholiths (an underground rock formation uncovered by erosion) in the US, Enchanted Rock is surrounded by oak woodlands as far as the eye can see.

With two main trails from which to choose, this is a great place to stretch your legs. The view from the top is worth the climb.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park in the Texas Hill Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hill Country offers many other getaway options. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The towns of Boerne and Comfort, New Braunfels and Gruene, Dripping Springs and Marble Falls, and Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World”.

Oh yes, and Luckenbach.

And these, my friends, are the subject of another post.

Worth Pondering…

I am humbled by the forces of nature that continuously -mold our great state of Texas into a beautiful landscape complete with geological diversity, flora and fauna. It is my goal as a photographer to capture that natural beauty and share it with others.

—Chase A. Fountain

Discovering the Joys of Kentucky Bourbon

Each distillery along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail has a unique story to tell

Bourbon is big.

Along with Willie Nelson and his country music classic, “On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again…” we headed southeast to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stretching from Louisville to Lexington, then southwest along the Bluegrass Parkway, the trail is a trademarked destination made up of nine member distilleries. Over several days, we toured four of the chosen nine and then veered off to a new craft distillery. Like the four that are featured here, each had a unique story to tell, interlaced with a rich history and distinctive style.

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bourbon “distinctive,” you say? Heck yes. While once considered the drink of the common man, bourbon’s status has swelled in recent years, as sales have surged. Production has exceeded 1 million barrels annually for the past five years, driven by the demand of younger customers and an appreciation of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, the premium equivalents of a single-malt scotch.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the uninitiated, a primer: All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. There are stringent regulations, set by Congress in 1964, that make bourbon exclusive within the spirits world. To be labeled a bourbon, it must be made in the United States using a grain mixture that’s at least 51 percent corn; it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol); and it must be bottled at 80 proof or more.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rolling through verdant hills, Kentucky is a blend of genteel traditions—Churchill Downs, mint juleps, the stately white fences that frame the horse farms—and pure Americana: Louisville Slugger, Muhammad Ali Center, and Bill Monroe.

Barton 1792, Bardstown

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a sleepy valley in Bardstown lies the sprawling Barton 1792, an old school distillery with an old school charm. The tour is informal, the buildings unadorned.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The distillery’s flagship brand pays tribute to the year Kentucky gained statehood. Rye recipe bourbon, 1792 is handcrafted in small batches, aged 8 years, and bottled at 93.7 proof. It is very high in rye, so it’s going to give you a lot of spicy flavor upfront. Buttery on your tongue and so smooth as it goes down the back of your throat. It has a long finish. Our glasses seemed to empty themselves.

Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Bardstown, we headed down the winding roads to the home of Maker’s Mark Distillery a National Historic Landmark nestled in the rolling hills of Marion County. Any bourbon tour would be incomplete without a stop at Maker’s Mark who has been producing its bourbon whiskey (they spell it “whisky” in honor of the company’s Scottish roots) since 1840.

Maker’s Mark Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are plenty of signs along the way to get you there in time to dip your own souvenir bottle in their signature red wax.

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buildings from 1881 still stand, used in the production of brands such as Blanton, Stagg Jr. and Van Winkle, whose rare 23-year-old bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle, fetches more than $1,000 a bottle.

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in the late 1700s, Buffalo Trace claims to be the oldest U.S. distillery that has continuously produced bourbon. The reason being, during Prohibition (1920 to 1933), it was one of six distilleries licensed by the federal government to sell whiskey for “medicinal purposes.”

Buffalo Trace Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“A person could get a prescription from his doctor and receive 2 quarts per month,” says our tour guide.” And when Prohibition was canceled, Kentucky was the healthiest state in the Union.

Wild Turkey Distillery, Lawrenceburg

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Wild Turkey Distillery tour reveals an intriguing combination of tradition and modern mass production. In the fermentation room, for example, 70-year-old cypress tanks stand next to modern stainless steel ones.

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our visit began and ended in the new visitor center with a gift shop and tasting room. Inspired by the silhouette of Kentucky tobacco barns , the two-year-old visitor center has an unbeatable view of the Kentucky River and its bridge and unique railroad trestle (the turnaround point for the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad).

Wild Turkey Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ll be back. Our well-practiced taste buds will demand it.

Worth Pondering…

I take with me Kentucky

embedded in my brain and heart,

in my flesh and bone and blood

Since I am Kentucky

and Kentucky is part of me.

—Jesse Stuart

Unplug & Recharge

Take a walk in the woods for better health

To “unplug” used to mean take a step away from your daily routine and forget about life’s worries. It also means something more literal—to pull the cord on the electronics in your life, turn off your dang phone, stop checking texts and email, and get off the ’gram.

Pinnacles National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This all is increasingly difficult to do, but it’s critical. Our digital life connects us in ways never before seen, but it also has health ramifications, from psychological addiction to disrupted sleep.

In Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, Wild, her mom tells her that the cure for much of what ails her is to “put [herself] in the way of beauty.”

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turns out she was right, at least according to the latest science. Time in nature is an antidote to the ill effects of stress, prevents, and in some cases even helps cure anxiety and depression and enhances creativity. Though the exact causal mechanisms are not yet known, researchers speculate there is something unique about nature—perhaps related to the fact that we evolved to be in it—that puts both our bodies and minds at ease, promoting physical and psychological restoration and subsequent functioning.

Cherohola Skyway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long before smartphones and self-driving cars, Japan deemed “forest bathing” an essential part of its national health program. With forest bathing, the soaking isn’t literal. Bathing takes on a new meaning—immersing oneself in the natural environment.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The concept stems from Japanese Shinrin-Yoku Forest Therapy and goes back to 1982. Over three decades later, the goal of forest bathing is still to reintroduce people to the healing power of nature. Much study and research has confirmed what the Japanese have long believed—nature benefits wellbeing in many ways.

Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote about the problems of modern society, the importance of nature, and restorative benefits of spending time outdoors. “We need the tonic of wildness,” he wrote in Walden, after spending two years in the woods.

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here in the 21st century, an increasing number of health experts agree with Thoreau. The varied physical and mental health benefits that seem to come with spending time in the woods or other wild and green settings is the subject of an increasing body of study and some scientific research.

Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good old walk in the woods has been credited with reducing blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety, while improving mental health, cognitive abilities, and sleep patterns. Yet the average American spends just 7 percent of their lives outdoors. Looking for some new and exciting ways to reconnect with nature alongside friends and family?

Hiking to Clingman Dome, Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a hike. There are a lot of places where you can hike—parks, trails, nature preserves. You’ll be out in nature, so it’s a great way to enjoy different types of plants and animals. Hiking usually requires that you move uphill, so it’s good exercise, too.

Hiking Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As Winnie-the-Pooh once wisely said, “When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an adventure is going to happen.” Whether it’s hiking in the Smoky Mountains, the Sierras, or the Rocky Mountains, follow the thoughtful bear’s sage advice and pack your biggest, comfiest boots for a real adventure.

Photography at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take photos. Taking photos outside requires that you focus in on the nature around you. Look for unusual colors, patterns, or birds to photograph. A botanical garden is a great place to visit to take photos, because the displays are usually arranged in eye-catching ways. You can also visit a nature preserve or wildlife refuge and look for photo opportunities with animals or plant life.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Up a New Outdoor Hobby. Hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, fishing, and photography are all great hobbies that will get you outdoors and moving. But if you’re looking for something a little more exciting try mountain biking.

Camping in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain biking in Utah is an endless-crazy-fun adventure. Head to the mountains or red rock desert trails. Singletracks, dirt roads, steep climbs, and rolling hills dominate the state’s beautiful landscape. Mountain biking is an invigorating and intimate way to experience the west. Located just north of Moab, Slickrock is perhaps the most popular mountain bike trail in the world boasting over 100,000 visitors per year.

Get Healthy, Get Outdoors

Rockport, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Find time today to venture outside and take advantage of the health benefits of the outdoors. Replace time spent inside on electronic devices with a bike ride or a walk to a local park. Take up forest bathing or gardening as a new hobby. And remember outdoor recreation can be enjoyed alone or as a family.

Reconnecting with nature in Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s no wrong way to get outside and so much to be gained by exploring the natural world. You know why being outside is important. It’s time to reconnect with nature. Your body and mind will thank you for it later.

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

Lodi’s Legendary Vines

With a grape-growing history that dates back more than 100 years, Lodi is home to more than 85 wineries and 113,000 acres of premium wine grapes

Lying at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, the Lodi wine region enjoys a classic Mediterranean climate of warm days and cool evenings, ideal for growing wine grapes.

Downtown Lodi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For decades, Lodi has been a quiet, but far from a sleeping giant, producing an astounding amount of wine grapes for countless wineries throughout California. Today, Lodi boasts 113,000 vineyard acres—more than Napa Valley and Sonoma County combined. Some of these acres date back to the region’s earliest days, when Lodi’s first farmers planted Zinfandel, Cinsault, Carignane, and other hearty cuttings in its promising soils.

Abundance Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 50 varieties currently being cultivated, Lodi offers a diverse portfolio of wines. While long renowned for its high-quality Zinfandel production, including an estimated 2,000 acres of pre-Prohibition vines, the area also produces award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Chardonnay. More recently, Lodi has begun gaining consumer traction for its other exciting varietals such as Albariño, Tempranillo, Graciano, and Vermentino.

Lucas Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a grape-growing history that dates back to the 1850s, the Lodi Appellation boasts over 750 growers and is home to more than 85 wineries (65 of which boast boutique tasting rooms) specializing in small-lot, handmade wines. Over the past century, the number of family farms has spiraled downward nationwide. But in Lodi, family agriculture remains a viable enterprise with many farming families that have prospered for generations.

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although farming practices have changed drastically over the past century, multi-generational farmers look to past generations for their foundation. Many Lodi farming families have recently expanded their enterprise from grape growers for neighboring wine regions to winemakers themselves.

Michael David Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Named for brothers Michael and David Phillips who represent the fifth generation of the Lodi grape growing Phillips family, Michael David Winery has a knack for producing premium quality wines with eye-catching labels. With more than 800 vineyard acres and more than 30 years experience making wine, the winery is considered one of the nation’s fastest growing wineries.

Michael David Seven Deadly Zins © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Offering an exciting portfolio of wines, perhaps the most quickly recognizable in the lineup is the iconic 7 Deadly Zins, a sinful blend of Zinfandel from seven of Lodi’s best Old Vine Zinfandel vineyards. Other wines, like Petite Petit, a non-traditional blend of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot, and Sixth Sense Syrah, produced from one of California’s oldest Syrah vineyards, have also developed quite a following.

Michael David Freakshow © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even the winery building itself pays homage to the Phillips legacy. It was built in 1972 around the family’s original roadside fruit stand. Today, it also features a café serving farm-style breakfasts and lunch, a bakery with famous pies and gourmet cookies, and a tasting room where Michael David wines are proudly poured.

Van Ruiten Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Van Ruiten Family Winery was founded 15 years ago, but its wine-growing history dates back more than 65 years. The winery was founded on John Van Ruiten Sr.’s philosophy that “exceptional grape growing should focus on the quality of grapes that come out of the vineyard, not the quantity.”

Van Ruiten Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Van Ruiten family harvests its fruit from 1,000 acres of vineyards farmed by Jim and John Van Ruiten. Currently, three Van Ruiten generations are involved in the operations ranging from vineyard management to production and sales.

Van Ruiten Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Van Ruiten Family Winery tasting room was voted Best Winery and Tasting Room by The Record’s Best of San Joaquin in 2011, 2012, and 2013. It’s a wonderful place to sample from the winery’s superb portfolio of 12 varietals, including Carignane from 107-year-old vines and Zinfandel from the first vineyard John Sr. planted in the 1950s.

Jessie’s Grove Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it’s true that wine reigns in Lodi, it’s not all that the region has to offer. In fact, Lodi is a place where both wine aficionados and those simply seeking a different kind of escape are equally comfortable.

Lodi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors of all ages, there are museums and galleries to explore, local wildlife to admire at Lodi Lake and the Cosumnes River Preserve, and the Mokelumne River to idly paddle down. You can also casually stroll through the charming historic shopping district, making stops at antique stores, designer clothing and jewelry boutiques, artisan shops specializing in local olive oils and cheeses from around the world, and more than a dozen tasting rooms.

Worth Pondering…

Products from the soil are still the greatest industry in the world.

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Stretching for 469 miles of pure, breathtaking beauty, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds its way through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains

A meandering road snaking for 469 miles along the crest of Blue Ridge Mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 100 trailheads and over 300 miles of trails. It passes through a range of habitats that support more plant species than any other park in the country: over 4,000 species of plants, 2,000 kinds of fungi, 500 types of mosses and lichens, and the most varieties of salamanders anywhere in the world.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nation’s first and longest rural parkway began as a 1930s depression-era public works project. Taking over 52 years complete, it was designed to simulate a park-like environment, blending natural surroundings and panoramic views with farms, streams, forests, and local culture.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Parkway follows the Appalachian Mountain chain, twisting and turning through the beautiful mountains. From Shenandoah National Park, the scenic drive travels along the Blue Ridge Mountains for 355 miles. Then, for the remaining 114 miles, it skirts the southern end of the Black Mountains, weaves through the Craggies, the Pisgahs, and the Balsams before finally ending in the Great Smokies.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enticing nature lovers, the Blue Ridge Parkway spans more than 70,000 acres of forest and includes 14 vegetation types, 1,600 vascular plant species, and 130 species of trees.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taking a break along the way, visitors can stop at a visitor center and learn more about the area from the many exhibit and restored historical structures. The drive is long, but there are more than 100 trails along the Parkway for travelers to stretch their legs. In addition to hiking, the parkway also offers bird-watching opportunities, horseback riding, ranger guided walks, and nine campgrounds, on top of ample opportunity to photograph America’s Favorite Drive.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The magnificent views and historic attractions are too numerous to enjoy in just one trip which may be why the region attracts so many repeat visitors. It doesn’t matter whether you start from the north or south or anywhere in between—just don’t be surprised if you wander in and out of the parkway during your explorations.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll need over a week on the Blue Ridge to adequately absorb all that surrounds you. With more than 260 overlooks, each stop provides one dramatic scene after another.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road is narrow winding in some sections and tunnels have height restrictions, RVs of all sizes have been traveling the parkway for years. Of course, your everyday explorations will be best enjoyed using your dinghy; we based our coach in RV parks along the way, moving several times as we traveled south. The many entrances to the parkway allow you to enter or exit easily.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap (milepost 0), our first stop was the visitor center at Humpback Rocks (milepost 5.8) where we gathered information and talked with the ranger on duty.

You’ll find a visitor center and campground with 24  RV sites at Otter Creek (milepost 60.8).

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the Peaks of Otter (milepost 85.6), another visitor center provides more park information. There, we also explored the Johnson Farm, restored to 1920s appearance.

Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill (milepost 176.1) is one of the parkway’s best-loved attractions. Surrounded by outdoor interpretive displays, a millpond smooth as glass reflects the old mill. The slowly turning waterwheel spills a small cascade of water into the pond while, inside the mill, park interpreters give demonstration on the workings of the gristmill.

Moses H, Cone Memorial Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Carolina section of the parkway starts at Milepost 216.9, outside of Cumberland Knob.

Moses H. Cone Memorial Park (milepost 294), preserves the country estate of Moses H. Cone, textile magnate, conservationist, and philanthropist of the Gilded Age. Its centerpiece is Flat Top Manor, a gleaming white 20-room, 13,000 square foot mansion built in 1901 in the grand Colonial Revival style. The Manor is now the home of the Parkway Craft Center.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Linn Cove Viaduct (milepost 304) hugs the face of Grandfather Mountain and is recognized internationally as an engineering marvel. This was the last section of the Parkway to be completed and a model of the construction technique highlights a visit to the Linn Cove Visitor Center.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slight detour at milepost 355.4, via State Route 128, led us to the highest point east of the Mississippi River. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell offers incredible views of color-washed lower elevations.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Parkway has six exits in the Asheville area. So there’s no excuse not to stop off in that charming city on your summer vacation and tour Biltmore Estate, the country’s largest private home.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parkway south of Asheville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its range of elevation. From about 2,500 feet, it gradually rises to 6,047 feet at the parkway’s highest point, Richland Balsam Gap, milepost 431, and then descends to just over 2,000 feet, all through the undeveloped beauty of national forest.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Excuse me…but is this Heaven?