Sweet Home Alabama: Mobile

Don’t be fooled by the beautiful skyline reflecting off the bay; Mobile is more than just incredibly good-looking

Mobile is more than 300 years old and that fact alone says there must be a lot of history associated with a city of that age. The many museums and historical homes help tell Mobile’s story.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the oldest city in Alabama, Mobile has a rich past spanning centuries. French, Spanish, British, Creole, Catholic, Greek, and African legacies have influenced everything from architecture to cuisine, creating a miniature melting pot in the Port City.

Fort Conde © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1711, the French erected a brick fort to protect their New World inter­ests and named it Conde. The site, now a 4/5-scale reconstruction of the original early 18th century French Fort Conde, func­tions as a welcome center. The original fort sat on 11 acres of land, therefore a full-size reconstruction was not possible because of the area it would cover in downtown Mobile.

Fort Conde © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the Museum of Mobile, a short walk from the fort, you can view a 14th-century dugout canoe and other artifacts from native peoples, relive the voyages of slaves who arrived in Mobile, and hear tales of Civil War soldiers. The museum occupies the old city hall/Southern Market building (circa 1867), a National Historic Landmark. Permanent exhibits span 300 years of regional history, and changing exhibits focus on various individuals and events that shaped the area.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The museum’s permanent collection contains more than 85,000 artifacts, which range in size from a button to a fire truck. The collection includes items gathered by 19th-century citizens in their travels around the world.

Eight National Register Historic Districts make up what is known as downtown and midtown Mobile.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Street has served as the core of Mobile’s business district since the earliest days of the city. As one of the oldest streets, the name dates to Mobile’s French colonial past: the heir to the French throne is called the “Dauphin.” The street remained largely undeveloped during the colonial times, however, its importance increased once Mobile became an American city in 1813.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile emerged as the third busiest port in America during the boom of “King Cotton.” The late 1830s brought devastation to Mobile’s downtown as a series of fires destroyed many of the early frame buildings. Beginning in 1839, all structures along Dauphin and in the commercial districts were required to be built of brick.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, many of these brick buildings remain, although the storefronts have been periodically updated. Shopping trends of the 1950s and ’60s redirected retail activity to outlying areas of the city creating vacancies in the district; many of the buildings have once again been placed in service.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A stroll along historic Dauphin Street isn’t complete without a stop at A&M Peanut Shop (209 Dauphin St.), where peanuts in the shell are roasted hourly in a 90-year-old roaster.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known simply as the Garden District or Oakleigh, the lovely Oakleigh Garden Historic Garden retains the feel of an old neighborhood. Sidewalks and massive oaks line the streets graced by some of the most charming houses in the City.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Developed primarily after the Civil War, the district’s building stock clearly mirrors the City’s economic prosperity during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The district’s name comes from the antebellum mansion, Oakleigh, constructed in the 1830s by James Roper.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (circa 1834) is the oldest Christian church in Alabama. The historic cathedral sits across the street overlooking Cathedral Square, a tree-shaded park whose design reflects the basilica’s floor plan.

USS Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the mighty WWII battleship USS Alabama, winner of nine battle stars, and the submarine USS Drum. Both are National Historic Landmarks. An aircraft pavilion is filled with over 25 historic planes and military vehicles including the Mach 3 A-12 Blackbird super-secret spy plane.

Hank Aaron Childhood Home © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum located at Hank Aaron Stadium. Hammerin’ Hank was born in a section of Mobile referred to as “Down the Bay,” but he spent most of his youth in Toulminville, an historic neighborhood of Mobile. He went on to become one of Major League Baseball’s greatest baseball players ever and held the MLB record for career home runs for 33 years. He still holds several MLB offensive records.

Worth Pondering…

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord, I’m coming home to you

Guide to 4 of Arizona’s Greenest Places

Four of the greenest spaces in Arizona

Sure, Arizona is home to more than 60 desert cactus species. But it also boasts six national forests, dozens of tranquil lakes, and 4.5 million acres of unspoiled wilderness areas. Here’s your guide to Arizona’s most verdant regions.

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best way to explore: hike and picnic

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a north-facing valley in the Santa Rita Mountains with riparian woodland along an intermittent stream, bordered by mesquite, juniper-oak woodlands, and pine forests. With lofty mountain peaks, forested slopes, seasonal streams, and an amazing variety of plants and wildlife, Madera Canyon has become a popular recreational destination.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is known for exceptional and varied hiking trails that vary from paved, handicap-accessible trails and gentle walking paths in the lower canyon, to steep, expert trails leading to the top of 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson. The creekside trail that begins at Whitehouse Picnic Area is fantastic for spotting birds—more than 250 species have been documented in the canyon.

Prescott National Forest

Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best way to explore: hike and canoe

Lynx Lake Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you drive picturesque State Route 89 through Prescott National Forest, any preconceived notions of Arizona as a vast desert will vanish. As the elevation increases, stands of desert chaparral give way to dense pine forests sprawling in every direction.

Lynx Lake, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Prescott National Forest is filled with special places including Lynx Lake and Thumb Butte.

On the edge of the forest sits Lynx Lake Recreation Area, a peaceful body of water ringed by trees. Located in the cool pines just outside of Prescott, Lynx Lake offers a wide variety of recreational opportunities including hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, camping, fishing, and picnicking.

Watson Lake and Granite Dells, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most distinguishing landmark in Prescott, Thumb Butte is famous for its towering ponderosa pines, picnic facilities, and access to world-class hiking trails. Interpretive signs orient visitors to the area’s flora and fauna, historical and cultural resources.

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best way to explore: ride the tram and hike

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the northeast edge of Tucson, Sabino Canyon offers a variety of terrain including soaring mountains and deep canyons. Tram routes provide access to Sabino and Bear canyons. Along the Sabino route riders are free to get off at any of the nine shuttle stops, do a little birding, have a picnic, or spend time along one of the many pools and cascades that grace Sabino Creek.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If riding the tram does not stir your sense of adventure, there are miles of hiking trails that wander throughout the area and lead deeper into the Santa Catalina backcountry. The wonders of the desert foothills and rocky gorges of the Santa Catalina Mountains are marvelous and accessible.

Verde River Greenway

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best way to explore: hike and bird watch

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Verde River Greenway State Natural Area sparkles and sings—sparkles with one of Arizona’s last free-flowing rivers and sings with its large population of nesting and migrating birds. More than 100 species of nesting and migrating song birds, raptors, and waterfowl have been sighted along the greenway, with additional sightings in adjoining Dead Horse Ranch State Park.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to birds, the thick stands of cottonwoods and shrubs along the banks of the winding Verde River also support numerous animals with sightings of coyotes, raccoons, mule deer, and beavers.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

7 National Parks You Should Have on Your Radar This Winter

The best national parks to visit this winter

There are 62 national parks across America. That’s not counting the hundreds of national monuments, historical sites, battlefields, memorials, trails, and more. When you count all of them together, the number of protected sites that fall under the US National Park Service is well over 400.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So it should not surprise anyone when I say that there are scores of incredible sites worth exploring in America—from sea to shining sea.

Whether you’re looking to explore waterfalls or rivers, volcanoes or deserts, canyons or mountaintops, there’s a national park to discover this winter.

Saguaro National Park in Arizona

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located just outside of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is divided into two units separated by 30 miles: Rincon Mountain District (East Unit) and Tucson Mountain District (West Unit).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The busiest time of the year is from November to March. During the winter months, temperatures are cooler and range from the high 50s to the high-70s. Starting in late February and March, the park begins to get a variety of cactus and wildflower blooms. In late April, the iconic Saguaro begins to bloom. Come June, the fruits are beginning to ripen.

There are many activities to partake in at Saguaro, no matter the season.

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon‘s residents are a hardy bunch—visit in winter and you’ll spot Abert’s squirrels on nut-foraging expeditions, bald eagles soaring above snow-dusted ridges, and mule deer making their way through the ponderosa pines.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many animals develop additional finery during these colder months. One example is Abert’s squirrels, which grow extra tufts of fur on their ears to keep out the cold. Furry-eared rodents aside, there are lots of other reasons to visit in winter, including hikes along the park’s beautiful low-elevation trails (which have less snow and ice) such as the South Rim’s Hermit Trail.

Big Bend National Park in Texas

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.

Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is a diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. The park is home to two deserts: the Colorado which offers low desert formations and plant life, such as ocotillo and teddy bear cholla cactus; and the Mojave. This higher, cooler, wetter region is the natural habitat of the Joshua tree.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The different elevation throughout the park cause flowers to bloom at different times, with the low elevation flowers blooming earlier than higher elevation flowers.

Zion National Park in Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion is a park that you have to see to believe. It is a true desert oasis and an American icon. The surrounding area looks desolate, dry, and barren, but when you drive into Zion Canyon, a massive formation, miles wide, with sheer rock walls that rise thousands of feet, await you. There is something so incredible about seeing the oranges and yellows of sandstone mixed with the greens of the Virgin River and the vegetation that grows so easily there.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ. There are 28 different species of cacti in the park, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion.

Congaree National Park in South Carolina

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve. Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on hiking trails and the Boardwalk Loop Trail.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is also one of the most diverse in the country—with dense forests giving way to massive expanses of swamplands. The forests are some of the biggest and oldest old-growth in America and offer great opportunities for recreation of all kinds.

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson

Hiking Arizona

Your boots were made for walking through some of Arizona’s most awe-inspiring scenery

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.” Follow the thoughtful bear’s sage advice and pack your biggest, comfiest boots for a real adventure in the Grand Canyon State.

The Arizona landscape is so diverse from the desert and mountain hiking trails in the Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson areas to the cool high country of Northern Arizona, Arizona Lakes, Rivers, Grand Canyon, Superstition Mountains, White Mountains, Slot Canyons, and wilderness backcountry.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking Arizona trails is a magical experience whether you choose short, easy hikes or long strenuous hikes. There are beginner trails, day urban hikes, and trails that only the experienced should attempt.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With year-round sunshine and breathtaking scenery, Arizona is widely considered one of the best places for hiking adventures. From the epic chasm of the Grand Canyon and the giant Saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert to the magnificent monoliths that make up Monument Valley, Arizona is the red-hued epicenter of America’s adventure scene.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, one of the biggest draws is the Grand Canyon. One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it welcomes more than six million visitors each year. However, only one per cent of these walk further than the South Rim viewing platforms and miss the real wonders of the Canyon.

Mother Nature has blessed Arizona with more than just the Grand Canyon. A hundred miles north, on the Colorado plateau, is the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument—striped waves of colored sandstone rippling through an arid landscape. The best way to experience it is to grab a hiking permit from the visitors’ centre and explore the towering stone cliffs and deep, ruddy canyons on foot as condors glide overhead.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona is famous for its fossilized logs, which date back more than 225 million years. Explore the Rainbow Forest or hike through the badlands to Red Basin and Martha’s Butte. Don’t miss the Blue Mesa trail for outstanding vistas.

Red Rock Country near Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hundred miles south of the Grand Canyon is Sedona, a charming, artsy enclave famous for its huge sandstone formations which blaze brilliant reds and fiery oranges. It makes a great base for an adventure trip with everything from mountain biking through Red Rock State Park and wild swimming in Oak Creek to hikes around Cathedral Rock. Oh yeah, did we mention that the area is home to more than 100 hiking trails? Don’t forget to bring your boots!

Cathedral Rock near Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Further south still is Phoenix and its sister cities which also draws numerous hikers and mountain bikers. It offers moderate to advanced trails through this rugged corner of the Sonoran Desert across White Tank, Usery Mountain, and McDowell Mountain regional parks.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Down in the southernmost flanks of Arizona, Tucson is a desert city sheltered by the Santa Catalina Mountains. Explore both units of Saguaro National Park, home of the giant Saguaro cacti. An iconic emblem of the Southwest, these spiky beasts can grow to more than 50 feet tall. The park offers 165 miles of hiking trails including the Signal Hill trail which leads to rock art of the ancient Hohokam people.

Mount Lemmon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a hike up to the 9,000-foot summit of Mount Lemmon and spend the evening at the Mount Lemmon Observatory, a prime spot for stargazing. Alternatively, head 25 miles south to Madera Canyon and hike the extensive trail system of the Santa Rita Mountains easily accessible from the canyon campground.

Old Baldy Trail, Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finally, 100 miles southeast of Tucson is the Chiricahua National Monument, an ethereal landscape scattered with ancient rock spires. There are 17 miles of hiking trails each winding through the giant and amazingly balanced boulders, where you’ll follow in the dusty footsteps of the early pioneers of American adventure.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

4 Stunning Natural Features That Define Arizona

It’s not a secret that Arizona has an abundance of diverse natural features that are bursting with beauty

Few places in America offer such startling variety of natural features as Arizona. Deep canyons give way to rugged snow-capped mountains. The world’s largest contiguous forest of Ponderosa pines merges into the arid Sonoran Desert.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s head right to the state’s crown jewel, the Grand Canyon—an iconic attraction that’s on every RVer’s bucket list. It’s hard to imagine a trip to Arizona that doesn’t involve at least a peek at the Grand Canyon. This massive gorge isn’t just a geological marvel, it’s a symbol of Western adventure and American spirit. Visible from space, the canyon is close to 300 miles long and at points over a mile deep.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For decades poets and artists have tried to capture the beauty of this place. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1,900-square-mile canyon took nearly 2 billion years to make, and it was worth the wait. For starters, it’s huge—11 miles wide and one mile deep at one point.

Sonoran Desert

Sonoran Desert southeast of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you think of desert heat, cacti, and cowboys, you’re thinking of the Sonoran Desert. Washed over by silence and muted gray-green forms, southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is mesmerizing like no other landscape. But it is anything but empty. The thousands of saguaros here have stood sentinel for centuries. They don’t even start growing their iconic arms until they are about 70, and they can live more than 200 years.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no better place to get lost among the saguaros and their desert buddies—fuzzy cholla and spindly ocotillo plants, fluorescent green palo verde, and mesquite trees—than in Saguaro National Park.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the Sonoran Desert, raw and unspoiled, big and bursting with color. The southwestern Arizona monument is one of the state’s most beautiful places. The 21-mile, mostly gravel Ajo Mountain Drive is wildly scenic and suitable for cars. The Estes Canyon and Bull Pasture trails form a loop along which you can see a profusion of wildflowers in spring.

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum features all the prickly giants and creatures surviving in the Sonoran Desert. Among them: pumas, coyotes, roadrunners, desert tortoises, and javelinas.

Spring Wildflowers

Spring wildflowers at Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona in the spring is the right place at the right time. It’s when the Mexican poppies, brittle bush, globe mellows, fairydusters, chuparosas, desert marigolds, lupines, desert pincushions, and numerous other wildflowers bloom.

Spring wildflowers along Penal Parkway south of Florence © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Remember to bring your camera.


Mexican poppies © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the explosion of color that takes over the desert for a few weeks, part of the allure of wildflower season is how little we know about it. It’s impossible to predict when it’ll come, and it requires a “triggering rainstorm” months in advance.

Sedona’s Vortexes

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its red-rock mountains and cold creeks alone make Sedona a special place, but there’s something else at work. Sewn into the fabric of the town is the New Age vibe that brings the health-food-eating, yoga-practicing aficionados in droves. But where does that vibe come from? It’s the vortexes, duh.

Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nailing down exactly what a vortex is in this context can be pretty difficult. It’s an abstract concept you might tell yourself you ‘get’ before you do, much in the same way you might tell yourself you ‘feel’ it before you do. A vortex is simply a place where natural Earth energies are strong. Many believe Sedona’s vortexes have healing or spiritually activating powers that help with everything from health to general problem-solving abilities and clear-mindedness.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even if you find this idea a little too hippy-dippy, think of Sedona as a place so inspirationally beautiful you can’t help but contemplate the scientific fact that your body is made of the exact same atoms as the dirt and mountains around you.

Worth Pondering…

A saguaro can fall for a snowman but where would they set up house?

—Jodi Picoult

Temecula Valley Wine Country

Wine Enthusiast has named Temecula Valley one of the 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations

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.

Robert Renzoni Vineyard & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first modern commercial vineyard was planted in 1968 by the late Vincenzo Cilurzo and his wife Audrey. Cilurzo worked as a television lighting director in Los Angeles for many years and, like many later Temecula Valley pioneers, he fostered an interest in winemaking as a hobby before he decided to pursue his dream full time.

Robert Renzoni Vineyard & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Later in 1968, Guasti-based Brookside Winery also planted a vineyard in Temecula Valley. In 1971, Brookside Winery produced the first commercial wines made from Temecula grapes.

Fazeli Cellars © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Callaway Vineyard and Winery began farming grapes in 1969, and opened the first Temecula Winery in 1974. Its founder, Ely Callaway went on to gain fame and fortune in the world of golf with his namesake company, Callaway Golf.

John Poole’s Mount Palomar Winery opened in 1975, and in 1978 the Cilurzos opened the third Temecula winery at a new site. Their original vineyard, Temecula’s oldest, is now owned by Maurice Car’rie Winery.

Temecula Valley received formal recognition as an American Viticultural Area in 1984, first as Temecula AVA with a subsequent name change to Temecula Valley AVA in 2004.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Temecula Valley now boasts over 40 licensed wineries, producing over 500,000 cases annually.

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

Robert Renzoni Vineyard & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the west end of the De Portola Wine Trail is family owned Robert Renzoni Vineyards. 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.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We tasted a portfolio of five wines in the 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.

Fazeli Cellars © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We previously visited the Temecula Valley Wine Country in November 2001 while staying at Thousand Trails Wilderness Lakes Preserve. We took in the 10th annual Harvest Wine Celebration held the third weekend in November. At that time 14 wineries produced premium wines made possible by a unique micro-climate and well-drained decomposed granite soils.

Robert Renzoni Vineyard & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling east on Rancho California Road, we started with the last winery, Wilson Creek. Founded and operated by the Wilson family, Wilson Creek carried a broad selection of premium wines and offered a unique tasting experience including the very popular Almond Champagne. Next to the winery and tasting room was an elegant wedding gazebo, landscaped gardens, a large event tent, and a natural creek and pond.

Robert Renzoni Vineyard & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Wilson Creek Winery and Vineyards features a welcoming tasting room, full-service restaurant with vineyard view dining and expansive patio, creek side picnic area, indoor and outdoor conference and event spaces, romantic wedding venue, and exclusive retreat accommodations.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The following day we returned to the Temecula Valley Wine Country stopping for tastings at Filsinger, Keyways, Van Roekel, and Callaway Wineries. And that was 17 years ago when wine tasting was $3 to $5 a person and often with a complimentary wine glass.

A family-owned winery since 1978, Filsinger currently produces about 7,000 cases including seven different varietal wines and four types of champagnes.

Robert Renzoni Vineyard & Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Founded in 1989, Keyways Vineyard and Winery was one of the original wineries along Temecula Valley’s winding De Portola Wine Trail. Keyways’ beautiful building and grounds are reminiscent of an early California mission, complete with vineyards and horses grazing in a nearby coral.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maurice Car’rie Winery produces wines under the Maurice Car’rie and Van Roekel labels.

Callaway Vineyard & Winery wines are only available at the winery and are offered for tasting and purchase in their gift shop and tasting room.

Pechanga Casino RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Pechanga Casino RV Resort, Temecula

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

A Lovely Name for a Lovely River: Guadalupe River State Park

Guadalupe River carves a winding, four-mile path through the state park

We’d become so absorbed in history during our visit to Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park that we truly welcomed the natural serenity of Guadalupe River State Park.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has four miles of river frontage and is located in the middle of a nine-mile stretch of the Guadalupe River. Flanked by two steep pastel limestone bluffs and towering bald cypress trees, the setting couldn’t be more inviting for swimming, wading, or just relaxing.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park owes its name and existence to one of the most scenic and popular recreational rivers in Texas. When Spanish explorer Alonso de Leon encountered the clear-flowing stream in 1689, he named it Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico). The Guadalupe: a lovely name for a lovely river.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Countless springs and tributaries feed the free-flowing Upper Guadalupe, and by the time the river carves a winding path through the state park, it carries ample water for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, tubing, swimming, and angling. The four sets of gentle rapids are especially popular with tubers.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River might be just another typical Hill Country state park were it not for the exceptional public access it provides to a river whose banks are mostly private property. The park is also unique in the state park system in that it shares a boundary with a state natural area. Together, the 1,938-acre state park and adjoining 2,294-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area comprise more than 4,200 contiguous acres of Hill Country habitat. Access to the state natural area is by guided naturalist tour only.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More than 98 percent of the park guests go straight to the river and never step foot on the trails. The river is what attracts people, and that’s why the park was established.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If some 98 percent of Guadalupe River State Park’s visitors flock to the swimming hole on the Guadalupe, we’re happy to be a “two-percenter” and explore the rest of the park.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s so much more to Guadalupe River State Park than just a good swimming hole. The state park abounds with hiking trails that traverse the park’s upland forests, grassland savannahs, and riparian zones. Hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrian riders have access to more than five miles of multiuse trails that crisscross the uplands in a looping, figure-8 pattern.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nationally recognized for birding, the state park harbors some 160 bird species. Depending on the season, expect to see—or hear—bluebirds, cardinals, canyon and Carolina wrens, white-eyed vireos, yellow-crested woodpeckers, kingfishers, wood ducks, wild turkeys, and red-shouldered hawks.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a combination of good birdwatching and gorgeous scenery, try hiking along the river through riparian galleries of bald cypress, sycamore, elm, and pecan.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I love the lofty bald cypress trees that line the Guadalupe. Their gnarly roots clutch the riverbanks, and they tower above all else. Some of these arboreal monarchs are several centuries old and have weathered countless flash floods. The bald cypress is aptly named because it’s a deciduous conifer (most are evergreen), turning rust brown, dropping its feathery leaves, and “going bald” each fall.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For RVers wishing to stay overnight or longer, the park provides great camping facilities. Overnight stays are very reasonable with campsites rates ranging from $20-$24 plus the $7 per person park entrance fee. In the Cedar Sage Camping Area, 37 campsites offer 30-amp electric service and water for $20 nightly; in the Turkey Sink multiuse area 48 campsites offer 50-amp electric service and water for $24. Weekly rates are also available.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Texas State Park Pass will allow you and your guests to enjoy unlimited visits for 1-year to more than 90 State Parks, without paying the daily entrance fee, in addition to other benefits. A Texas State Parks Pass is valid for one year and costs $70.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park is located 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. From US 281, travel 8 miles west on Texas 46 and then 3 miles north on Park Road 31.

The parkland along the Guadalupe River is indeed good country.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See it, believe it, for yourself.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

Wonderful Winter Day Hikes in Arizona

Natural areas for wintertime hiking

With more mountains than Switzerland—we swear!—and millions of acres of protected land, the number of hiking trails in Arizona is mind-boggling.

The only thing more impressive than the sheer amount of hiking opportunities is the variety of scenery hikers can enjoy including desert, alpine, urban, remote, rocky, sandy, and grassy.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because we couldn’t possibly cover all of this in one article, here are a collection of hikes perfect for Arizona’s balmy winter months. From Tucson’s Sabino Canyon to Thumb Butte in Prescott, explore these six natural areas for a perfect wintertime trek.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 3.2-mile (round trip) Wind Cave Trail makes a great family hike in the Pass Mountain. Although the “cave” is more of a shallow arch than a gaping, mysterious, bat-infested hole, the sweeping views to the north and west and the interesting array of plants growing from the “ceiling” make it worth a visit.

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to pack a picnic lunch. The shade at the mouth of the cave creates a nice spot for an alfresco meal.

Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, Tucson

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northeast of Tucson, at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the lush Sabino Canyon Recreation Area offers visitors open-air shuttle rides.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can hike the area without the use of the trams (which cost $8 for adults and $4 for kids), but they do help you see more—and save some sweating—on your Sabino Canyon hike. (As of November 2018, tram service is temporarily suspended while a new provider is determined.)

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Bear Canyon Tram goes directly to the trailhead for this 2.5-mile walk to picturesque Seven Falls, which includes several stream crossings.

The Sabino Canyon Tram makes numerous stops along its 45-minute route. Several hikes of varying difficulty start along the bus path.

Thumb Butte, Prescott

Thumb Butte Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Easy to spot from nearly everywhere in Prescott, Thumb Butte offers a nearly two-mile hiking loop, part of which is paved, that goes almost to its summit.

Upon reaching the loop’s high point several hundred feet below the summit, look for a spur trail that takes you to an interpretative sign and bird’s-eye views.

Thumb Butte Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sign gives you the names of each of the mountains in the Bradshaw Range you’ll see before you. On a clear day, you can even see north all the way to the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, although there’s no interpretative sign naming those mountains.

Thumb Butte Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A winter warning: The steeper side of the loop, which is partially paved, doesn’t see too much sun this part of the year and can sometimes be a little icy.

East Wetlands, Yuma

Yuma East Wetlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just steps from downtown, you can explore the Yuma East Wetlands, where nearly 500 acres of what was a trash-strewn jungle of non-native vegetation has been transformed into a beautiful wetlands area. Just past the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge, take an unpaved trail about ½-mile to a raised overlook, or circle the East Wetlands on a three-mile loop. Or for a bird’s-eye wetlands view, walk the paved path along the levee.

Yuma East Wetlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a more extended hike, follow the paved path heading west from Gateway Park. This route stays close to the Colorado River and is dotted with city parks.

Catalina State Park, Oro Valley

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, bird watching, and hiking.

Catalina State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 2.3-mile Canyon Loop Trail is an easy hike through the foothills that begins and ends at the Trailhead parking lot. The loop is created by a link connecting the Romero Canyon Trail and the Sutherland Trail. The trail is relatively flat, but about halfway around there is a slope with approximately 90 stairs. The Canyon Loop Trail crosses a wash several times, so seasonal stream flow may result in wet feet.

Worth Pondering…

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever.

Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area.

Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”.

There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

The Beating Heart of Yuma

Discovering the beating heart of Yuma

I did not like Yuma in the least.

We first showed up here in the late 1990s and found nothing to hold our interest. We had a hard time finding our way to the banks of the Colorado River—even though it was the river that put Yuma on the map.

Colorado River in Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here was a desert town blessed with a river and you couldn’t even find the river, just a dumpsite. I revisited Yuma a few years later and nothing changed. The town felt rundown and having a trashy core seemed to impact everything.

Fair or not, I was done with Yuma.

Yuma East Wetlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or so I thought. Eventually I thought I’d give Yuma another try.

OMG! What a difference. The transformation amazed me. Where there had been piles of garbage, there was a park. Where there had been a tangle of overgrowth, there were lighted pathways, picnic tables, sandy beaches, and groves of cottonwood trees.

Gateway Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The river existed. And it flowed right through the heart of town. And I realized what had been missing. The Colorado River is more than a waterway. It is the beating heart of Yuma!

West Wetlands Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Yuma has about 150 acres of public parkland along the river, connected by miles of paved biking and walking paths, plus hundreds of acres of easily accessible wildlife habitat just steps from downtown. Two historic state parks—Colorado River and Yuma Territorial Prison—anchor the historic North End while public and private investment has helped to spark downtown development.

Yuma Territorial Prison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Native American tribes to Spanish explorers to gold-seekers, travelers found their way to Yuma for hundreds of years because this was the safest place to cross the mighty Colorado before dams tamed it.

Yuma East Wetlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But as Yuma exploded in the mid-20th century, it turned its back to the river. With 90 percent of the water diverted further upstream and its banks overgrown with invasive vegetation, the Colorado River was a shadow of its former self as was Yuma’s historic downtown. The closing of the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge in 1988 could have been the death knell for both.

Yuma Historic Downtown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But a dedicated group of Yumans was determined to reconnect the community to its literal lifeline. Despite fits and starts they had a vision for this desert town to “rediscover the river” —and through it, Yuma’s historic roots.

Pivot Point Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The catalyst for change was the creation of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, an independent nonprofit corporation authorized as a federal heritage area by Congress in 2000. The result has been an investment of nearly $100 million in Yuma’s riverfront over the last 18 years. That includes about $40 million from the feds, state, city, and foundations plus $30 million in private investment for construction of the Hilton Garden Inn and Pivot Point Conference Center.

Yuma Gateway Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic significance aside, all that investment and hard work has also yielded numerous ways to discover the Colorado River and the Yuma Crossing. Here are a few suggestions to add to your Yuma bucket list:

  • Pedal away – Explore paved trails along the river and East Main Canal
  • Take a dip – Make a splash at three beaches (one at Gateway, two at West Wetlands)
  • Go fish – Drop a line at the West Wetlands pond, along the river, or in the back channel through the East Wetlands
  • Linger and learn – Get a capsule lesson in local history at Pivot Point Plaza
  • Bird’s eye view – Wildlife watching opportunities abound along the river
  • Tip your hat – Leaders of Yuma’s riverfront revival are recognized at Founders’ Plaza at Yuma Quartermaster Depot
  • Get the big picture – Enjoy a panoramic view atop the guard tower at the Territorial Prison
Yuma Gateway Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It seems like we never run out of things to see and do in Yuma. So let me state for the record. I was wrong. Yuma is truly a remarkable and interesting town for snowbirds to explore. And I’m glad to be back in Yuma.

Yuma Gateway Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

—Anita Desai

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