Beautiful Experiences Extraordinary Places

My ever-growing list of Extraordinary Places will help take your road trip planning to the next level. Hand-picked, I promise each one is worth the detour.

While it’s entirely possible that one person’s travel treasure can be another’s trash, sharing insider tips with others is one of the best parts of returning from any road trip. For me, the lure of the road is constant and my travel bucket lists are infinite. Picking favorites is almost impossible but I’ve tried curating a list of Extraordinary Places to enhance your next road trip.

Painted Churches of Fayette County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is an Extraordinary Place?

Extraordinary Places are the places that stay with you long after visiting. They are the places that fill you with wonder. They are epic natural wonders, weird roadside attractions, and deeply meaningful locations. Simply put, Extraordinary Places turn a great road trip into an unforgettable adventure.   

Here are just some of the places that I love the most—that is, until I hit the road again and discover new favorites. Explore my list and start planning your next road trip today.

The Breakers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers is a Vanderbilt mansion located on Ochre Point Avenue in Newport along the Atlantic Ocean. It is a National Historic Landmark, a contributing property to the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, and is owned and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County. The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America.  Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century.

The Breakers is the most famous of the Gilded Age Newport Mansions for good reason. It’s breathtaking in scope and scale. The design of this grand home was inspired by European palaces and every room is more lavish than the last.

Blue Bell ice cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brenham, Texas

The main attraction in Brenham is the Blue Bell Ice Cream factory which opened in 1907. Visitors can stop by the creamery’s Ice Cream Parlor for a generous scoop, learn about the history from the visitor’s center, shop at the Country Store, and watch the production from the observation deck. Be sure to take a photo with the statue of the brand’s iconic logo, a little girl leading a cow on a rope.

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Blue Bell ice cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the ice cream alone is worth the trip, the town is also the main hub of Washington County with a plethora of attractions within in a 12-mile radius. Highlights include the Texas Cotton Gin Museum and Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed on March 2, 1836, liberating the state from Mexico. Located on the scenic Brazos River, the park includes The Star of the Republic Museum, which details the Texas Republic period, and Barrington Plantation, the home of the last President of the Texas Republic.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory that ended General Robert E. Lee’s second and most ambitious invasion of the North. Often referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Rebellion”, Gettysburg was the Civil War’s bloodiest battle and was also the inspiration for President Abraham Lincoln’s immortal “Gettysburg Address”.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg is the kind of place you could make a quick stop or spend a full day exploring. The battlefield has roads so it’s easy to drive from one monument or site to the next. There’s an audio tour and there is even an app you can download to help add dimension to what you’re seeing and to find the highlights at the park.

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It’s especially haunting thinking about the brave and dedicated men who walked into certain death across open fields during battle. It helps to have an appreciation for military history but even families will enjoy a visit. Some recommended reading beforehand: The Red Badge of Courage for background and The Killer Angels.

Painted churches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Painted Churches of Fayette County, Texas

The term “Painted” comes from the elaborate faux-finished interiors—painted by itinerant artists who advertised in church bulletins and newspapers. Gold-leafed, stone, and polished marble columns and ceilings are (upon closer examination) finely-fitted woodwork. The paint—mixed on site—is still vibrant and bright—even after all these years.

Painted churches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the mid-1800s, thousands of German and Czech immigrants left Europe due to poverty in search of a new dream and landed in Central Texas.  These communities embraced America and the promise of their new future while still preserving the traditional values, culture, food, and faith of their homelands. Each community of ~600 families came together to build their community church—purchasing the statues and donating them to the churches. They decorated the interiors with colors and symbols to remind them of their homelands.

The Painted Churches are in a tight cluster (relatively speaking) in southern Fayette County near Schulenburg. The tour can easily be a day trip from Houston, Austin, or San Antonio.

Tubac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tubac, Arizona

In Arizona, several villages have been preserved in their original state; however, none are quite as untouched as the beautiful artist colony of Tubac. Located on the Santa Cruz River in Southern Arizona, it was founded in 1752 when the Spanish army built the Presidio of San Ignacio de Tubac, in other words, the Fort of Tubac. It was established to protect the Spanish missions and settlements which were located around the Santa Cruz River Valley. Today, Tubac Presido is a state historic park.

Tubac Presidio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a population of nearly 1,200, the town has become famous for the Festival of the Arts in February. As an artist colony, Tubac is home to 100 art galleries, home decor shops, jewelers, potters, and artists of all kinds. You can purchase clothing, paintings, sculptures, and many other hand-crafted items which have been made by the locals.

Related article: Discover Arizona’s Extraordinary Verde Valley

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. These areas share a primitive desert atmosphere but each offers different opportunities for sightseeing and adventure.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park preserves one of the last, relatively undisturbed areas of the Colorado Plateau, a geological province that encompasses much of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Carved out of vast sedimentary rock deposits this landscape of canyons, mesas, and deep river gorges possess remarkable natural features that are part of a unique desert ecosystem. With elevations ranging from 3,700 to 7,200 feet Canyonlands experiences very hot summers, cold winters, and less than ten inches of rain each year. Even daily temperatures may fluctuate as much as 50 degrees.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina

Are you in the mood for a leisurely, legendary drive? If so, head for the Blue Ridge Parkway where the speed limit sits at a comfortable 45 mph, and commercial vehicles are strictly prohibited. Snaking through the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, the 469-mile route connects the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks. For prime leaf-peeping, visit in autumn when foliage explodes in a brilliant display of crimson, auburn, and golden leaves. 

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can’t-miss pit stop: Spend some time at Mount Pisgah in North Carolina, famous for its extensive network of hiking trails and the storied Pisgah Inn which dates back to 1919.

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Dora, Florida

Time slows down in this quaint Florida town filled with unique shops and delicious eateries.  Located approximately 45 minutes north of Disney World, Mount Dora is like a real-life Main Street U.S.A. This small town is known for its boutique stores and the downtown area is filled with eateries, and tasty coffee, and ice cream shops. Cruise on Lake Dora, sip on a signature cocktail while enjoying the spectacular sunset, and slow down and take in the relaxing atmosphere. 

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

There’s no experience quite like the untamed beauty of Cumberland Island National Seashore, a barrier island only accessible by boat from the small town of St. Marys. Home to a handful of residents and a whole lot of wildlife, it’s an incredible place to go off-grid. Visitors can hike the miles of trails sharing the space with wild horses, alligators, and birds.

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tours are available of historic Carnegie mansions like Plum Orchard and the ruins of Dungeness. On the northern side of the island, you can see the First African Baptist Church, a historic African-American church where John F. Kennedy Jr. was famously married. To spend the night, choose from the multiple tenting campsites or the luxurious Greyfield Inn set in another Carnegie home with chef-prepared meals and naturalist tours.

Mission San Jose © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio Missions National Historic Park

Four of the original six Spanish colonial missions built along the San Antonio River make up the park. The missions continue to be used as places of worship by parishioners and can be toured daily by park visitors, Learning about the craftsmanship of the architecture, the extensive acequia system (irrigation canals), and the grist mill built in the 18th century takes visitors beyond the religious aspects and into the past lifestyles of the people who built and lived in these missions. The visitor center at Mission San Jose has museum exhibits and an introductory film about the establishment of the San Antonio missions.

Related article: Texas is BIG—Beautiful & Diverse

Worth Pondering…

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein

Honoring Bravery at Historic Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory that ended General Robert E. Lee’s second and most ambitious invasion of the North

America’s history is full of bravery and bloodshed, noble ideas, and flawed men. One of the places that seem to show this so clearly is Gettysburg National Battlefield.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Battle of Gettysburg marked the turning point of the Civil War. The North and South met for three days in the stifling July heat and fought each other in what became the bloodiest battle of the war. General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia retreated and would never cross the Mason-Dixon line into the Union side again. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The battle was fought as tensions between the Union and the Confederacy had reached an all-time high. In January 1863, six months before the battle took place, President Lincoln had delivered his famous Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves to be free. The objective of the war which had been kindled by questions of states’ rights versus the governments’ rights now became about whether a man had a right to be free. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We slowly made our way through the historic battlefield, beginning with the Union side. Gettysburg in person feels completely different from learning about the battle in a textbook.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Reality of War

The Battle of Gettysburg, like many battles in the Civil War, took place on the farms of civilians. Many of the farmhouses are still standing today allowing visitors to imagine what it felt like to watch war happen right outside their windows. Many picture war as separate from real life. Gettysburg intentionally reminds visitors of the ways that they intersect. The battlefield feels like a picture of the human paradox: that we are capable of both tending to soil and procuring fruit from it, and fighting one another on that very same soil. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest and most prominent monument on the battlefield is the Pennsylvania State Memorial. Standing an impressive 110 feet high, the monument looms over the battlefield. Etched into the four sides of the monument are the 34,530 names of the Pennsylvanians who served their state and country fighting in this battle.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The battlefield monuments are designed to educate visitors on where the Union and Confederate lines were and how the fighting took place. As we moved to the Confederate side of the battle, I was struck by the number of monuments, plaques, and markers that honored the men who fought with these states. The Gettysburg Battlefield National Park website has stated their commitment to preserve “these memorials while simultaneously educating visitors holistically about the actions, motivations, and causes of the soldiers and states they commemorate. A hallmark of American progress is our ability to learn from our history.” 

The park is dedicated to providing accurate information and historical context to their visitors to reflect what really happened on the battlefield.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Visitor Center

After visitors wander around the field the Gettysburg Visitor Center provides a welcome relief from summer heat. More than that though, its Museum of the American Civil War is packed with information, relics, and stories from the Civil War. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Soldier’s National Cemetery (Gettysburg National Cemetery), the final resting place of the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg and where President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address, is also located in the park and is open from dawn to dusk throughout the year.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I left Gettysburg feeling overwhelmed by the reality of war and would return again to the park to find the stories of bravery and courage in the midst of it. The battlefield is full of stories of people who in a season when their country was hanging on by a thread, summoned enough hope for what their more perfect Union could be to fight for its future. 

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain―that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

―Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

Gettysburg National Military Park: A New Birth of Freedom

Gettysburg National Military Park offers a variety of experiences including opportunities to explore the battlefield

The Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory that ended General Robert E. Lee’s second and most ambitious invasion of the North.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Often referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Rebellion”, Gettysburg was the Civil War’s largest battle. It was also the bloodiest single battle of the war, resulting in over 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

To properly bury the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg, a “Soldiers Cemetery” was established on the battleground near the center of the Union line. It was here during the dedication ceremony on November 19, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln spoke of “these honored dead…” and renewed the Union cause to reunite the war-torn nation with his most famous speech, the “Gettysburg Address”.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The cemetery contains more than 7,000 interments including over 3,500 from the Civil War. 

The National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center is the place to begin your visit to Gettysburg National Military Park. Here visitors will find information on how to visit the park and what to see around Gettysburg.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War, with 22,000 square feet of exhibit space, features relics of the Battle of Gettysburg and personalities who served in the Civil War, inter-active exhibits, and multi-media presentations that cover the conflict from beginning to end as well as describe the Battle of Gettysburg and its terrible aftermath.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The center also hosts the film, “A New Birth of Freedom”, narrated by award winning actor Morgan Freeman and the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, which depicts the final fury of Gettysburg―”Pickett’s Charge”.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center is owned and operated by the Gettysburg Foundation in cooperation with the National Park Service. Entry to the center is free. There is a fee for the film experience, cyclorama program, and access to the museum exhibit hall. The center hosts a massive book and gift store operated by Events Network as well as a “Soldier’s Rest” saloon that offers a full menu throughout the day.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Battlefield tours on your own, on a bus, or with a Licensed Battlefield Guide can be arranged at the Center.

The Soldier’s National Cemetery (Gettysburg National Cemetery), the final resting place of the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg and where President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address, is also located in the park and is open from dawn to dusk throughout the year.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Battle of Gettysburg

Fought over the first three days of July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most crucial battles of the Civil War. The fate of the nation literally hung in the balance that summer of 1863 when General Robert E. Lee, commanding the “Army of Northern Virginia”, led his army north into Maryland and Pennsylvania, bringing the war directly into northern territory.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Union “Army of the Potomac”, commanded by Major General George Gordon Meade, met the Confederate invasion near the Pennsylvania crossroads town of Gettysburg, and what began as a chance encounter quickly turned into a desperate, ferocious battle. Despite initial Confederate successes, the battle turned against Lee on July 3rd, and with few options remaining, he ordered his army to return to Virginia.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg resulted not only in Lee’s retreat to Virginia, but an end to the hopes of the Confederate States of America for independence.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

Gettysburg National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

It is for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain―that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

―Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863