4 Best Georgia State & National Parks

From the Chattahoochee National Forest to the still waters of steamy swamps and coastal seashore, there’s so much to explore in Georgia

Several of Georgia’s parks preserve attractions known as the state’s Seven Natural Wonders, including the picturesque Okefenokee Swamp. Excellent fishing opportunities abound throughout the mountain lakes and manmade reservoirs while hiking, cycling, and horseback riding trails provide unique vantage points to observe the scenery of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain regions.

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore is a spectacular National Park Service-managed national seashore located along Cumberland Island. The seashore is only accessible via boat from the park’s visitor center in the nearby mainland town of St. Mary’s. Stunning sand dune, salt marsh, and freshwater lake habitats are preserved throughout the seashore area which also includes the 9,886-acre Cumberland Island Wilderness and several historic sites related to the Carnegie family.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seashore visitors may bring their own bikes to the island or rent bikes from the Sea Camp Dock for daily exploration. Overnight camping is offered at the park’s public campsites, including a full camping area with restrooms and facilities. Back on the mainland, the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum showcases exhibits on the region’s indigenous history and Antebellum-era plantations.

Laura S. Walker State Park

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

Wander among the pines at Laura S. Walker, an oasis where you can enjoy the serene lake, play rounds on a championship golf course, and stroll along the trails and natural communities in this southeast Georgia haven. Located near the northern edge of the mysterious Okefenokee Swamp, this park is home to many fascinating creatures and plants including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants.

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

Walking or biking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, numerous oak varieties, saw palmettos, yellow shafted flickers, warblers, owls, and great blue herons. For years, the lake has remained popular with boaters, skiers and jet skiers, but recently the area has become a hit with bass and crappie anglers. 

Stephen C. Foster State Park

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park spans 80 acres anchored around the gorgeous Okefenokee Swamp. The park, which is located within the broader 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2016 to protect its unique and sensitive swamp ecosystem.

Stephen Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park visitors can canoe, kayak, and boat on the Spanish moss-lined swamp’s waters or embark on guided fishing and boating tours. Wildlife watchers can enjoy chances to catch glimpses of the park’s population of more than 12,000 American alligators along with black bears, deer, herons, wood storks, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Exhibits on the park’s wildlife are showcased at its Suwannee River Visitor Center which also offers interpretive programming.

Vogel State Park

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vogel State Park is a 233-acre state park that was one of Georgia’s first two state parks at its founding in 1931. The park which is located within the Chattahoochee National Forest at the base of the impressive Blood Mountain is also one of Georgia’s highest-altitude parks sitting at elevations of over 2,500 feet above sea level.

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four hiking trails of varying difficulty offer opportunities to observe spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains scenery year-round, most popular during the autumn months as leaf-watching routes. A public visitor center museum focuses on the park’s history and construction by the Civilian Conservation Corps with features detailing the park’s connection to the Great Depression. A 22-acre lake is also open for boaters along with a seasonal swimming beach available to visitors of all ages throughout the summer months.

Worth Pondering…

Georgia On My Mind

Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through

Just an old sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind.

Georgia, Georgia, a song of you

Comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines

—words by Stuart Gorrell and music by Hoagy Carmichael

Out and About In Southern California

Start your Southern California journey in the Coachella Valley

Southern California boasts a diverse geographical terrain—you can experience the desert, sandy beaches, and snow-capped mountains all within just a few hours drive.

Shields Date Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start your Southern California journey with something sweet by visiting Shields Date Garden in Indio and you’ll find yourself in a date oasis where the Shields have been growing their own since 1924. Enjoy a date milkshake, a variety of date-centric dishes in the garden café, or educate yourself by viewing a short documentary on the cultivation of this exotic fruit. Be sure to also take a stroll through the garden in the back.

Shields Date Garden © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established in 1970, The Living Desert started as a nature trail and preserve dedicated to preserving desert flora and fauna. Now a remarkable zoo and botanical garden representing desert environments around the world, The Living Desert contains lush botanical gardens representing 10 different desert ecosystems. Located in Palm Desert, the Living Desert showcases more than 430 desert animals from the deserts of four continents with appropriate dry climate landscape.

Coachella Valley Nature Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Indio, and their neighboring desert cities are in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. An escape from winter’s chill, it is also a destination filled with plenty of places to visit and things to see and do. Whether it’s golf, tennis, polo, taking the sun, hiking, biking, or a trip up the aerial tram, Palm Springs is a winter desert paradise.

Tahquitz Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are so many great trails from which to choose—but none can surpass Tahquitz Canyon. Nowhere else can you to see a spectacular 60-foot waterfall, rock art, an ancient irrigation system, numerous species of birds, and plants—all in the space of a few hours.

Palm Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tahquitz Canyon is at the northeast base of 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs. Located at the entrance to the canyon, the Tahquitz Canyon Visitor Center, at 500 West Mesquite, just west of Palm Canyon Drive, offers exhibits, an observation deck, and a theatre room for viewing a video that narrates the legend of Tahquitz Canyon.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

East of the desert cities, Joshua Tree National Park protects two unique desert climates. In the eastern part of the park, the low altitude Colorado Desert features natural gardens of creosote bush, cholla, and other cactus. The higher, moister, and cooler Mojave Desert is the home of the Joshua tree, a unique desert plant with beautiful white spring blossoms. A third type of environment can be seen at the six palm oases in the park, where water occurs naturally at the surface and creates a whole new ecosystem.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to desert flora and fauna, the western part of Joshua Tree National Park includes some of the most interesting geologic displays found in California’s deserts. Hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and owners of high-clearance vehicles can explore these craggy formations on a series of signed dirt roads that penetrate the park.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state parks in the contiguous United States. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and barren—yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and animal life.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface. A multitude of birds shelter beneath the long frond skirts hanging from the palms, and a few rare desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes. Coyotes fill the night with their laughing song and mountain lions prowl the high country. Situated northeast of San Diego and due south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessible from anywhere in Southern California.

Julian © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Born during the 1870s gold rush, Julian is a small town cradled in the mountains, surrounded by apple orchards. Julian is at its most charming―and busiest―during the fall, when leaves change color and local apples ripen. Stop by an apple orchard to sample local varieties not found elsewhere, pick up some of your favorites, or pick your own. Any time of year, Julian cafes serve apple pies and sell whole ones.

Julian Pie Company © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a recent visit to Julian, we bought four pies, one each at Julian Pie Company, Mom’s Pies, Julian Cafe, and Apple Alley Bakery.

Mom’s Pie House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer

Best Places for RV Travel this January

RV travel allows you to take the comforts of home on the road

The period after the holidays can be a bit of a letdown. The presents have all been opened, the Champagne corked, and the weather probably makes you want to just crawl back in bed and pull the covers over your head. After all you’ve spent—your wallet is probably quite a bit lighter too.

Native palm grove in Coachella Valley Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the good news is that January is a great time to travel and if you’re looking for someplace warm with ample sun there are some great destinations to consider especially for the RVing snowbird escaping the ravages of a Northern winter.

Fulton Mansion in Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But first, we say the names of months all of the time, but frankly, some of them are a little weird. There are a lot of month names that have similar endings, like -ary and -ber, and then there are the wild card month names that don’t have anything in common.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s not even get into how strange it is that some months have 30 days, some have 31, and then there’s February standing out from the crowd on the calendar with 28 or 29 days. Believe it or not, there is a rhyme and a reason to why the months are named what they are, and like many words that we use today, it all goes back to the Greeks and the Romans.

Green Jay in the Rio Grande Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

January is Roman in origin, and it begins the calendar year because the Roman god Janus is the god of beginnings and endings. This makes perfect sense for a month that people see as an ending of the previous year and the troubles it may have brought, plus the beginning as people look forward to a fresh start to a whole new year. Visually, Janus is a perfect representation of the past and the future, because he has two faces. One looks backwards into the past and what was while the other looks forward into the future and what it has to bring.

Also check out our recommendations from January 2019.

Palm Springs

Coachella Valley near Desert Hot Springs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs is a Southern California city set in the Sonoran Desert. The city is best known for its hot spring, posh hotels, spa resorts, and golf courses. Those interested in architecture will also find many interesting examples of mid-century modern homes here.

El Paseo shopping area in Palm Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The shopping district has plenty of shops to keep you browsing for hours with vintage items and interior design shops being especially noteworthy here. The valley surrounding Palm Springs offers a wealth of outdoors activities such as hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. January is a great time to visit the desert with perfect temperatures for enjoying outdoor activities.

Rockport-Fulton

Rockport-Fulton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The quaint fishing village of Rockport has been a favorite coastal hideaway and snowbird roost for years. Rockport’s recovery since Hurricane Harvey two 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, bucolic bay setting, and frequent festivals feels fresh again.

Rockport=Fulton © 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 2,000-year-old Big Tree, one of Texas’ largest live oak.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even though they’re the literal emblem of the American desert, saguaro cacti are only found in small parts of the country, and this 71,000-acre stretch of desert serves as their sanctuary. Saguaro National Park is divided into two sections: The Tucson Mountain District and Rincon Mountain District. Between the two districts, there are more than 165 miles of hiking trails, a large petroglyph site, a cactus garden, and epic desert sunsets.

Naples

Audubon Corkscrew Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naples is a city located along the southwestern Florida coast on the Gulf of Mexico. The city is known best for its high-end shops and world-class golfing. Naples Pier has become an icon of the city and is a popular spot for fishing and dolphin watching. On both sides of the pier you’ll find beautiful beaches with white sand and calm waves. At nearby Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary outdoor enthusiasts will find a gentle, pristine wilderness that dates back more than 500 years.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

Gilbert Riparian Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 110-acre oasis in Gilbert is a great place to watch wildlife (especially birds), catch and release fish, learn a few things and just kick back. The lake and seven ponds are for groundwater recharge and recreation. Horses are allowed on some trails, bikes are allowed on trails and sidewalks and leashed dogs can accompany walkers in all pedestrian areas.

Rio Grande Valley

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Rio Grande Valley, on the southernmost tip of Texas, is a semi-tropical paradise that borders Mexico and includes the Gulf Coast shores. Palm trees and orchards of citrus trees line the roads. Luscious, locally grown citrus fruit and vegetables are readily available.

Green Heron at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area’s year-round pleasant weather brings flocks of Winter Texans escaping the Northern cold. It also brings flocks of birds. The Valley is a flyway between North and South America creating some of the best birding and butterflying opportunities in the country. To keep these populations healthy and coming, National Wildlife Refuges and state parks have been established throughout the region.

Worth Pondering…

We will open the book. Its pages are blank.
We are going to put words on them ourselves.
The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.

—Edith Lovejoy Pierce

Bucket List RV Trips for 2020

Where to RV in 2020

The open road awaits but the time you have to travel it isn’t open-ended. Traveling the country in a recreational vehicle frees you from constraints, but it’s a bit of a bummer if you haven’t figured out where you want to go while you’re still healthy enough to get there.

We took a spin around the navigable portions of North America and found several spots worth adding to an RV bucket list. The destinations are worth the trip, but so are the paths you’ll take to get to them.

The Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearly 280 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, the Grand Canyon and its national park are a wonderland of rim hiking, donkey riding, and whitewater rafting. Though the North Rim of the canyon is closed until mid-May, the South Rim is open all year and features Trailer Village, where RV sites start around $55.

The Grand Canyon Bonus

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The opium dens, bordellos, and other landmarks of Williams’, rough-and-tumble past are long gone. But some kinder, gentler vestiges of this town’s Wild West era remain. And that’s fortunate for Grand Canyon-bound visitors seeking a fun, full-service spot as a base before and after a trip to the Canyon’s South Rim, 56 miles north.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town of 3,000 residents, considered the gateway to the Grand Canyon, is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway, an excursion train that traverses the scenic, high-desert plateau between a historic depot and the Canyon. Make the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park your home base where sites start around $36 and walk to the adjacent depot.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could simply drive Route 9 through this national park in Utah and get a tremendous view of the natural beauty around you. But if you want to trek the Zion and Kolob canyons, visit the Zion Human History Museum, hike Kolob Arch, or take in the mountains, stay a while. Granted, you could bounce around to Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument to the northeast or the Grand Canyon to the southeast, but there’s a lot to absorb here. Also, your RV would need a permit to get through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.

Zion National Park Bonus

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South and Watchman campgrounds in the park itself have RV access, but only Watchman has electric hookups. Neither has sewer, water, or Wi-Fi, so if those things are important, you may want to consider a place such as the Zion River Resort, the highest rated RV park near Zion. It offers full-service sites with cable TV and wireless internet service starting at $37 a day. You also get access to a spa, a fully air-conditioned social hall, and a concierge.

The Canadian Rockies

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We really don’t want to make you choose between Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. Instead, if you have limited time to take this trip, drive your RV from Banff to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway. Though named for the Columbia Icefields, its views of the Rockies, the valleys, the wildlife, waterfalls, glacial-silt lakes, and Icefields Skywalk are well worth the trip.

The Canadian Rockies Bonus

Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

RV parks such as the Hinton/Jasper KOA are an option for your stay, but the national parks themselves offer RV sites in Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper. They start taking reservations in mid-January for the peak summer season, so it helps to plan well in advance especially if you desire a site with utilities.

Albuquerque

Rio Grande River at Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a lot more to do here than look at filming locations for “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” Nob Hill, the ABQ BioPark, and the 2.7-mile Sandia Peak Tramway just scratch the surface of this place’s natural beauty, and the Petroglyph National Monument and Cibola National Forest are easy to explore. With nearly two dozen RV parks to choose from, it’s also an ideal destination for your home on wheels.

Albuquerque Bonus

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s the best reason to come to Albuquerque in an RV? The Balloon Fiesta that puts hundreds of hot air balloons over the city. Not only can you park your RV right near the Fiesta site, but you can stay overnight for $40 to $250 and watch the balloons from right outside your front door. Take in the sites, smell the roasting chiles, and enjoy the festivities from your own accommodations. Just be prepared to stay the minimum three-night reservation.

Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The journey not the arrival matters.

—T. S. Eliot

Stephen Foster State Park: Land of Trembling Earth

What better way to begin a winter southern adventure than a stop at Stephen C. Foster State Park in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

Stephen C. Foster State Park, named after the popular Southern songwriter, is one of the primary entrances to the famed Okefenokee Swamp, a peat-filled wetland in the southeast corner of Georgia.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters, while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface.  Here, paddlers and photographers enjoy breathtaking scenery and abundant wildlife. Inhabiting the lush vegetation of the Okefenokee are 223 species of birds, 41 of mammals, 54 of reptiles, and 60 of amphibians.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In an earlier post we explored the East (main) Entrance to Okefenokee, located 11 miles southwest of Folkston. Using Okefenokee RV Park in Folkston as our home base we continued our exploration of Okefenokee with a day trip to Suwannee River Visitor Center at Fargo and Stephen C. Foster State Park (West Entrance), a distance of 160 miles return. Both entrances to Okefenokee are located within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest national wildlife refuge in the eastern United States.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park is located on Jones Island, 18 miles northeast of Fargo on State Highway 177. The Suwannee River, which flows past this park, is the main outlet of Okefenokee Swamp. Stephen Foster, who wrote the song “Way Down Upon The Suwannee River,” is the namesake for this preserve.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is the only entry point to Okefenokee Swamp with overnight RV accommodations. The campground at Stephen Foster State Park offers 64 campsites with water, electrical, and cable TV hookups. Amenities include rest rooms with hot showers, laundry facilities, fire rings, picnic tables, and a small store. There are numerous sites suitable for large rigs; however, extreme care is required when navigating the interior roads. The park offers nine overnight cabins for your non-RVing friends as well as a marina with rental boats and a trading post that supplies fishing and picnic paraphernalia.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A half-mile wheelchair-accessible nature trail includes a boardwalk and a sampling of the trembling earth so characteristic of the Okenfenokee. A visitors center has interpretive exhibits. But the best way to see the swamp is by water. There are 25 miles of well-marked water trails within the swamp. A horsepower limit applies to water craft.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can take a guided tour of the swamp or rent a powered johnboat to see Billy’s Island, once the site of the Okefenokee’s largest settlement during the cypress-logging era. It is estimated that more than 431 million board feet of timber was taken from the area between 1909 and 1927. The only remnants of the logging today are rusted and ruined equipment. But the swamp is still alive.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also a popular fishing area, anglers try for jack fish, bream. and catfish.

A water trail also leads to Minnie’s Lake, another popular fishing area amid the towering cypress trees adorned with Spanish moss.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Make sure to stop by the Suwannee River Visitor Center, where you can learn about the area wildlife. Located in Fargo, southwest of Stephen Foster State Park and backed by Spanish-moss draped trees, the Suwannee River Visitor Center overlooks a bend in the black-water river where people can fish and launch boats.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside, visitors learn that tannic acid produced by decaying vegetation is what gives the river its tea color, and that unlike other reptiles, mother alligators actively care for their babies. Animal displays include a black bear, bobcat, fox squirrel, otter, snakes, fish, and numerous birds, including a wood stork.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short film takes visitors on a leisurely trip through the river and swamp, highlighting flowers, insects, misty morning fog, and the many creatures that call the waters home. The center also includes exhibits on the timber industry, local history, and energy efficiency.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Suwannee River Visitor Center is operated by Stephen C. Foster State Park.

Worth Pondering…

Way down upon the Swanee River,
Far, far away
That’s where my heart is turning ever
That’s where the old folks stay
All up and down the whole creation,
Sadly I roam
Still longing for the old plantation
And for the old folks at home

—Stephen Foster, 1851

The 10 Best National Parks and Monuments in Arizona

A guide to the best, the famous, and the lesser-known national parks and monuments in the Grand Canyon State

Arizona’s nickname may be the Grand Canyon State and that namesake national park may draw more than six million visitors a year and rank as the second most popular in the country. But the canyon is just one of many natural wonders in a state unusually rich in them. Here, a guide to 10 of the best, both the world-famous and those undiscovered by the masses.

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It took millions of years for the Colorado to wear down the surrounding landscape and create the Grand Canyon.

Why: It’s one of the natural wonders of the world

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At 277 miles long, the Grand Canyon lives up to its name; it’s the biggest canyon in the United States and one of the largest in the world. Numbers don’t do the place justice—its sheer size is awe-inspiring, but it’s also a stunning record of time. Over millions of years, the Colorado River sliced the landscape into sheer rock walls, revealing many layered colors, each marking a different geologic era.

Petrified Forest National Park

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The slow process of fossilization transformed ancient trees into solid quartz.

Why: There aren’t many places you can reach out and touch 225-million-year-old fossilized trees

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most visitors to Petrified Forest come to see the ancient tree trunks which are preserved by minerals they absorbed after being submerged in a riverbed nearly 200 million years ago. And they’re quite a sight: Over time, the huge logs turned to solid, sparkling quartz in a rainbow of colors. This mineral-tinted landscape also boasts painted deserts. Don’t neglect the pastel-hued badlands of Blue Mesa, where a paved hiking trail loops around the blue-white rock.

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The iconic, long-armed cacti at Saguaro National Park only grow in the Sonoran desert.

Why: See the tallest and oldest saguaro cacti in the country

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park is divided into two segments, one on either side of Tucson. On the west side, in the Tucson Mountain District, you’ll find the densest stands of saguaro and sweeping views from the Valley View Overlook Trail. The Rincon Mountain District, on the east side, features Cactus Forest Loop drive and dramatic mountain silhouettes.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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

This labyrinth of three narrow canyons has sheltered indigenous peoples for 5,000 years.

Why: It’s one of world’s most sacred places

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

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads, but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Would your house look this good 800 years from now?

Why: It’s one of the continent’s largest and best-preserved cliff dwellings

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert

Why: This is the only place in the U. S. where the organ pipe cactus grows wild

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Thirty-One species of cactus have mastered living in this place, including the park’s namesake.

Chiricahua National Monument

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Wonderland of Rocks” is waiting for you to explore.

Why: Explore a magical landscape of sculpted rock

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The monument preserves 60 prehistoric sites including a four-story earthen structure.

Why: For more than 650 years the Casa Grande has stood as a meeting place and landmark

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has starred in so many Hollywood movies that its silhouette is known all over the world.

Why: You’ve seen it in movies, and it’s much better in person

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no landscape in the United States as associated with the Wild West as Monument Valley. It’s both supremely foreign and eerily familiar. John Wayne rode out from between the park’s famous red rock buttes, The Mittens, in Stagecoach and The Searchers.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crowning a desert hilltop is an ancient pueblo built by the Sinagua people.

Why: Witness the legacy of a people who lived in the Verde Valley 1,000 years ago

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by a culture known as the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.

Worth Pondering…

Beauty is before me, beauty is behind me, beauty is below me, beauty is above me. I walk in beauty.

—ancient Navajo poem

Laura S. Walker State Park: A Place to Reconnect With Nature

Wander among the pines at Laura S. Walker, the first state park named for a woman

Situated deep in South Georgia just outside of Waycross and a short drive from the Okefenokee Swamp, this grass-filled blackwater lake sprawls for roughly 120 acres inside of the beautiful Laura S. Walker State Park.

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

Laura S. Walker State Park is home to many fascinating creatures and plants including alligators and carnivorous pitcher plants. The park is an oasis that shares many features with the unique Okefenokee Swamp where you can enjoy the serene lake, play rounds on a championship golf course, and stroll along the trails and natural communities in this southeast Georgia haven.

Walking or biking along the lake’s edge and nature trail, visitors may spot the shy gopher tortoise, numerous oak varieties, saw palmettos, yellow shafted flickers, warblers, owls, and great blue herons. The park’s lake offers opportunities for fishing, swimming, and boating.

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

The Lakes, a championship 18-hole golf course, features a clubhouse, golf pro, and junior/senior rates. Greens are undulating rather than tiered. Each fairway and landing area is defined with gentle, links-style mounds that accent the course’s three large lakes.

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

The park’s namesake was a Georgia writer, teacher, civic leader, and naturalist who loved trees and worked for their preservation. Laura Singleton Walker was born in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1861. She was both an author and a conservationist. Her friends included military and community leaders as well as presidents and governors. Her civic works and commitment to helping the environment led her to outline a forestry activity program that made many local conservation and beautification projects possible.

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

She worked to educate the public about the importance of protecting the environment and maintaining forestry programs. She also had the distinction of being the only living person with a state park named in her honor. Ms. Walker worked tirelessly throughout Ware County and the surrounding areas until her death in 1955 at the age of 94.

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

The park is designed to allow visitors to get the most out of the time they spend in nature. For those who want to see wildlife, they won’t be disappointed. The park is home to owls, great blue herons, gopher tortoises, alligators, and many other animals. It also hosts a variety of activities each year with the Friends of Laura S. Walker State Park volunteering their time to maintain the area and perform fundraisers.

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

For years, the lake has remained popular with boaters, skiers, and jet skiers, but during the last couple of years the area has become popular with bass and crappie anglers. 

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

The 44-site campground offers numerous sites suitable for big rigs. All sites include electric service. Site-specific information is available on the park’s website. Other facilities available for rent include six Sportsman’s Cabins (sleeps 6), seven picnic shelters, four group shelters (seats 75-165), one group camp (sleeps 142), and one gazebo. Other related amenities include a playground, a dog park, boat ramp, kayak and bike rentals, four miles of hiking trails, wildlife observation platform, and Wi-Fi.

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

Ranger Dave Jordan has been with the Department of Natural Resources for 25 years. He was appointed as the Ranger of Laura S. Walker State Park several years ago. He says, “One of the greatest opportunities we have at this park is to continue our public outreach to the folks in the community.”

Ranger Jordan relies on the Friends of the Laura S. Walker State Park to volunteer their time and help raise money that is needed to cover the extras. They meet on the first Monday night of the month. The Friends group raises money, purchases needed items, and donates them to the park.

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

In 2017, the park received the Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor and is well-known throughout the area for its amenities and friendly staff.

The park is located at 5653 Laura Walker Road in Waycross, Georgia.

Worth Pondering…

If the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.

—Eleonora Duse

Wacky and Fun Roadside Attractions across America

Roadside attractions exist between major destinations as detours on the way to someplace else

All manner of strange and interesting pit stops are found across the country. Road trips wouldn’t be nearly as exciting without these alluring, alarming, and sometimes disappointing landmarks. Truth be told, America plays host to some of the weirdest roadside attractions found anywhere. Here are six of the strangest roadside attractions you need to check out on your next road trip across the country.

Better stock up on boudin and pork cracklins, kolache and doughnuts, and other snack foods—there are going to be many, many detours in your future.

Paisano Pete

Paisano Pete © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a really big roadrunner in Texas. His name is Paisano Pete and he wants to welcome you to the town of Fort Stockton (he is their mascot, after all). An off-beat roadside attraction, Paisano Pete has been a fixture in this West Texas town since 1979.

Paisano Pete © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paisano Pete was for many years the World’s Largest Roadrunner. In 1993, Pete lost his world’s largest title to an enormous statue in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but this hasn’t dimmed his appeal nor stopped him from becoming Fort Stockton’s most photographed resident. And at 22 feet long and 11 feet tall, he’s still pretty big.

Peachoid

Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As thousands of drivers motor down Interstate 85 each day, their attention is caught by the Gaffney (South Carolina) Peachoid, the water tower’s sphere which is sculpted and painted to look like a gigantic peach. The multi-story Gaffney Peachoid, the world’s largest peach, has grown to become the region’s most famous roadside stop.

Town Too Tough To Die

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Live out all of your Wild West dreams in Tombstone, Arizona, the location of the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Cowboys, cowgirls, and wannabes fill up the town’s saloons and the O.K. Corral museum puts on reenactments of Wyatt Earp’s 1881 shootout. The buildings are so well maintained and the townsfolk so authentic that at times it’s easy to think you’ve landed on a John Wayne movie set.

Fantastical Creatures Roam the Desert

Galleta Meadows © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While some creatures are ambitious fantasies such as a 350-foot-long serpent arcing across the playa, many of the sculptures represent real-life creatures that once roamed this land. In 2008, Ricardo Breceda was commissioned by local philanthropist Dennis Avery to make sculptures for his extensive desert property known as Galleta Meadows, but the creatures seem to have multiplied around town.

Galleta Meadows © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To find Breceda’s 130 or so rust-red, scrap-metal sculptures, pick up a detailed map at the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association bookstore in Borrego Springs (also a great place for nature-themed gifts).

Mother of All Tourist Traps

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of (if not the) the most prominent tourist traps has to be Wall Drug. But what the heck is it? It’s like a gigantic greatest-hits collection of roadside kitsch with an entire town built around the sprawling drugstore. Once there, you’ll experience dinosaurs both statuesque and animatronic.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll see giant jackalopes, singing cowboys, Western art, a shooting gallery, and the requisite tacky Western tropes. As advertised, the ice water is still free, the donuts are delicious, and the open-face turkey sandwich is a gut buster. You will leave with a bumper sticker that says “Where the heck is Wall Drug.” In a state that also boasts the Mitchell Corn Palace, it manages to be the kind of roadside America.

World’s Largest Killer Bee

Killer Bee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Killer Bees have been around since the 1950s when some African queens escaped a Brazil lab and began flirting with the local gentry. Their volatile spawn migrated north, growing nastier with each succeeding generation. In October of 1990, they illegally crossed the U.S. border at Hidalgo, Texas.

Killer Bee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most towns would view this occasion with horror, something best left unmentioned in the hope that it would be forgotten. Happily, Hidalgo was blessed with a mayor who knew that killer bees bring honey as well as a sting. John Franz gave the media the buzz: Hidalgo was “Killer Bee Capital of the World” and proud of it.

Worth Pondering…

Because the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.

—Emma Chase

Tropical Paradise: Palmetto State Park

Palmetto State Park offers a nature-filled getaway in Central Texas

If you were to blindfold a person and drive him into the lush undergrowth of the 270-acre park, it’s likely he’d be clueless as to his whereabouts. Studded with dense clusters of dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake plant species, shaded by a moss-draped canopy of ancient live oak trees, Palmetto State Park is Texas’ own version of a subtropical jungle. At the end of the park’s entrance road the landscape vividly plummets into the water-carved vista of the San Marcos River.

Along the entrance road to Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back in the mid-30s, a small piece of that swamp 13 miles northwest of Gonzales—and nine miles southeast of Luling—became Palmetto State Park. The park abuts the San Marcos River and also has a four-acre oxbow lake. 

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful stone buildings in the park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the 1930s.

A tropical paradise, Palmetto is an unusual botanical area that resembles the tropics more than Central Texas. The ranges of eastern and western species merge, resulting in an astounding diversity of plant and animal life. Most notably, a stand of dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) plants is found around the park’s ephemeral swamp.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These ground-hugging, trunkless palms normally are found in the moist forests of East Texas and Louisiana, as well as much of the southeastern US. The extensive stand in Palmetto State Park was isolated thousands of years ago, considerably west of its natural range.

Wildlife frequently seen in the park includes white-tailed deer, armadillos, squirrels, raccoons, and over 200 species of birds including wild turkeys and several species of warblers.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s what you wouldn’t expect to see that makes this park special: a swampy wetlands. And it’s not just any old wetlands. The Ottine Swamp, named for the small town just outside the park’s gates, is a primeval wonderland of towering trees, peaty bogs, and warm springs.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crouch at the edge of a lagoon, as the spring-fed ponds are called locally, and the sweet scent of wild onion wafts skyward. Spanish moss drips from elm, hackberry, and cottonwood trees. Trumpet vines and wild grape twist around gnarled trunks and climb toward the canopy. Everywhere, palmetto palm fronds rustle in the breeze. These dwarf palmettos give the swamp an otherworldly atmosphere.

Activities include camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, birding, nature study, pedal boat and canoe rentals, swimming, tubing, and canoeing.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the first thing we look for at a state park is a trail to hike, and the winding, well-manicured trails at Palmetto offer plenty to see. The Ottine Swamp Trail and Palmetto Interpretive trails have boardwalks and bridges so you can wind through swamps filled with the park’s namesake dwarf palmettos. You’ll feel as if you’re in a tropical paradise.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We hiked the Palmetto Trail loop, careful—as a large sign warns—to watch for snakes. We marveled at the sheer greenness of the place, and the profusion of fan-shaped palm leaves.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Marcos River Trail leads you along the high banks of the San Marcos River, where towering cottonwoods and sycamore trees stand guard. The Mesquite Flats Trail offers a look at the drier, savannah-like parts of the park, where prickly pear cactus finds a home.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you’re finished exploring the park on land, enjoy the water. The always-fun Oxbow Lake offers calm water to cast a fishing line in search of catfish or sunfish. Try out a paddleboat, kayak, or canoe, or take a swim in the cool water. The San Marcos River low-water crossing is a great place to either splash around in the water or take a tube for a 20- to 30-minute float around the park.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boaters can put in the river at Luling City Park and travel 14 miles to Palmetto, portaging around one dam along the way. Put-in and take-out points are limited, as the river is mostly bordered by private land. There are no rapids, but almost always a steady current. Check river conditions at the park. For this trip, bring your own canoe and prearrange your shuttles.

Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities. The campground is clean and quiet, and the stars at night are … well, you know the song.

Overnight stays are very reasonable with campsites rates ranging from $18-$20 plus the $3 per person park entrance fee. One campsite offering 30/50-amp electric service, water, and sewer is available for $20 nightly; 17 sites offering 30/50-amp electric service and water are available for $18. Weekly rates are available.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

As we explore America by RV, surprises await at every turn of the road. Natural beauty abounds when least expected.

Apartment House of the Ancients: Montezuma Castle National Monument

Would your house look this good 800 years from now?

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We owe the name to early pioneers who thought this five story pueblo was of Aztec origin. In fact, the superb masons who constructed this cliff dwelling were likely ancestors of the present day Hopi and Zuni. Spanish explorers called them Sinagua (“without water”) because they were dry farmers, coaxing their crops of corn, beans, and squash from the arid desert soil.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The little oasis below the pueblo is an exception, a pleasant place to stop and have a picnic by the creek under the shade of white-barked Arizona sycamores. Listen for the descending trills of the canyon wrens while you gaze through time at the “castle”.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On December 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Montezuma Castle one of the country’s first national monuments, maintaining and protecting the cultural resource.

Our visit to the castle began in the cool modern visitors center which stands adjacent to the ruins, welcoming more than 2,000 visitors a day. The center offered us displays of Indian artifacts, a chronicle of the early discovery and preservation of the ruins, and information on desert wildlife. Southwest Parks and Monuments Association also runs a small bookstore in the Visitor Center.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We learned that Montezuma Castle was not an isolated structure where people lived generation after generation, having little contact with neighbors. The Castle instead was a small, but very dramatic, part of a larger community of people spread up and down the waterways of the Verde Valley. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 people may have lived in the valley in small villages no more than several miles apart.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail led us from the visitor center past the cliff dwelling, through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and along spring-fed Beaver Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona. Benches along the path offered the perfect spot to view the massive structure.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Soaring 100 feet above the desert floor, the empty dwelling fills a huge recess in the cliff wall. There is little evidence of conflict or warfare but perhaps people felt more secure living in the Castle. The series of long pole ladders used to climb from the base of the cliff to the small windows and doorways high above could be pulled in for the night. A small ruin above the Castle, on the top of the cliff, provides views of the entire countryside—a sentry would have advance warning of anyone entering the area.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking at the castle we theorized that the previous mode of entry provided protection from enemies but must have provided a challenge for both the youngest and oldest tenants of the ancient apartment building.

A few yards farther along the path stood a neighbor: Castle A. This lesser known ruin once loomed much larger than Montezuma Castle. However, the structure is badly deteriorated, and little remains except a few low walls.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We moved down the path to a large 3-D diagram depicting how the castle may have looked when occupied. An audio presentation told us how smaller functioned as individual family living quarters while the larger spaces served the entire community.

The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some amazing adaptations help the Arizona Sycamore survive from seedling to old age—at least 200 years. Each fruit pod contains an average of 667 seeds with a protective coating designed to withstand seasonal flooding.

No one knows for sure why the Sinagua left the two castles. Possible explanations for the exodus include farmland exhaustion, overcrowding, and conflict between families or neighboring tribes

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with people of other centuries.