Temecula Valley: 50 Years in the Grapes

Winegrowing goes back over 50 years in Temecula Valley

A stone’s throw from the millions of people who inhabit Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, the Temecula Valley sits in western Riverside County.

Robert Renzoni Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a hot August day in the late 1960s, Eli Callaway, a very East Coast businessman, was being driven on what is now Rancho California Road when he came upon a very pregnant woman working in a small family vineyard.

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“It must have been over 100 degrees,” said Audrey Cilurzo, who with her husband, Vincenzo, had planted the first commercial vineyard in the region.

Dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and wearing white shoes, Ely Callaway wasted little time.

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“He walked up to me and said, ‘My name is Ely Callaway and I’m the CEO of Burlington Industries and I only have two hours to learn all there is to know about the wine business.'”

Fifty years later, much has changed in Temecula.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Temecula’s Wine Country, a dream of a handful of pioneers five decades ago, has grown in both size and prestige having been named one of the “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations for 2019” by the prestigious Wine Enthusiast.

Ely Callaway and John Moramarco met on a dirt road in what is now Temecula’s Wine Country when Callaway was looking for property to buy.

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In 1967, Moramarco who descended from a long line of viticulturists had been hired by Brookside Winery of Rancho Cucamonga to come to Rancho California to plant 1,000 acres of grapes. Brookside and the Cilurzos were the first to plant commercial vineyards in the valley.

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Callaway asked Moramarco where a good location would be for a winery. Moramarco pointed to the spot where the winery sits today.

In 1968, Callaway bought 150 acres. Soon after, he hired Moramarco away from Brookside to plant grapes and manage the vineyard.

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The next year, Moramarco planted 105 acres of grapevines, including 40 acres of sauvignon blanc, 40 acres of chenin blanc, and 25 acres of white riesling.

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In 1973, Callaway sold 25 tons of grapes to Robert Mondavi Winery, keeping just enough of his harvest to determine whether he should build a winery in Temecula.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After heading up giant textile manufacturer Burlington Industries, but being passed over for its chief executive officer position in 1973, Callaway “retired” to Temecula to oversee the vineyard. In January 1974, he began building the winery, with plans to crush and bottle the first Callaway wines that September. Moramarco served as the vineyard’s manager. The first wines were sold in October 1975.

Eli Callaway sold the winery to Hiram Walker & Sons in 1981 and went on to gain fame and fortune in the world of golf with his namesake company, Callaway Golf.

You can find almost every familiar variety in California here, from Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to Syrah, Zinfandel, Grenache, and Merlot. There are also some grapes that aren’t so common, like Vermentino, Falanghina, and Counoise.

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Red blends are popular including classic styles like Rhône and Bordeaux blends. Grapes that originate in warmer climates, like Sangiovese and Tempranillo, also do well.

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The rather warm region is cooled by Pacific Ocean wind and fog that sails through the “Rainbow Gap” of the Santa Margarita Mountains. Today, thanks to more than 40 wineries and their multifaceted tasting rooms, the hospitality industry is thriving, with restaurants, hotels, golf courses, breweries, distilleries, and even a casino with a 5-star RV Park.

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With great wines and beautiful scenery, Temecula Valley is a fun place to spend a few days or a few weeks in your RV with lots of options for all ages.

Where to Stay: Pechanga Casino RV Resort, Temecula

Pechanga Casino RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Joshua Tree National Park Turns 25. But what is a Joshua tree?

Joshua Tree National Park celebrates 25 years as a national park

It should come as no surprise that 3 million people visit Joshua Tree National Park each year. California’s High Desert is a veritable wonderland of unique desert plant life, beautifully bizarre rock formations, and dreamy views, after all.

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Located near the Greater Palm Springs area, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Diego, the park is best known for the oddly shaped Joshua trees which actually aren’t trees at all; they’re yucca plants.

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If you’ve been itching to visit, now’s a great time. The park recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. According to the National Park Service, on October 31, 1994, Joshua Tree National Monument was elevated to national park status as part of the Desert Protection Bill. The bill also added 234,000 acres to the park, bringing the total acreage of the park to nearly 800,000. 

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Joshua trees are rock stars in the plant world when it comes to their ability to survive in scorching heat, freezing cold, and environments with little water. They can be found in the Mojave Desert at elevations of 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

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Technically, Joshua trees are not trees, but plants. In 2011, The American Journal of Botany published a report confirming that there are two distinct varieties of Joshua trees: brevifolia and a smaller plant, jaegeriana McKelvey. The plant is a member of the agave family.

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It’s uncertain how the Joshua tree got its name though it is thought to have originated with the Mormon pioneers heading west. The strange, contorted branches, it is said, made the sojourners think of the Biblical figure Joshua pointing westward to the “promised land”. Native Americans call them “humwichawa,” among other names. They are also referred to as yucca palms, and in Spanish they are called izote de desierto, “desert dagger.”

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Native Americans used the plants’ tough leaves to make baskets and sandals. They used flower buds and raw or roasted seeds for food.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the trees there’s so much to see including incredible sunsets and stellar views of the Milky Way. There are rugged mountains of twisted rock and exposed granite monoliths. Huge, rounded boulders pile up on top of each other and rectangular blocks thrust up from the ground at sloping angles, forming steep precipices.

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The hiking is fantastic! There is a variety of self-guided nature trails and longer hikes that offer different perspectives of the park. The aptly named Jumbo Rocks has a half-mile nature walk to Skull Rock and the Barker Dam walk (1.1 mile loop) is interesting in terms of the cultural history of the area.

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Plus, there’s no shortage of desert critters including 3-foot-long lizards called chuckwallas, bighorn sheep, leaf-nosed bats, and red-tailed hawks. Also keep an eye out for American kestrels, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, and black-tailed jack rabbits. It’s not uncommon to see coyotes, rattlesnakes (five types of them make their home in the desert), and tarantulas, too. If you’re really lucky, you may spot a desert tortoise or a bobcat.

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With eight different campgrounds offering about 500 developed campsites, Joshua Tree offers a variety of options for RVers. There are no hookups for RVs at any campground in Joshua Tree. Black Rock (99 sites) and Cottonwood (62 sites) have RV-accessible potable water and dump stations. At Hidden Valley (44 sites) and White Tank (15 sites) RVs may not exceed a combined maximum length of 25 feet. Additional campgrounds include Belle (18 sites), Indian Cove (101 sites), Jumbo Rocks (124 sites), and Ryan (31 sites).

Worth Pondering…

Trampled in dust I’ll show you a place high on the desert plain where the streets have no

name, where the streets have no name…

—Joshua Tree, sung by U2, 1987

Explore Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks create a recreational wonderland covered by ancient forests, soaring domes, stone canyons, and rivers that roar or ripple, depending on the season

The giant trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks will fill you with awe—and give you a crick in your neck from staring up at them. But who cares about a little pain when the payoff is so grand? And the high season is over for these two incredible parks meaning the time is right for a leisurely visit minus the crowds. And the campgrounds that are always full during the summer now have vacancies.

Eleven Mile Overlook in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoulder-season visitors (September-November) avoid the hustle and bustle of peak times. Traffic lessens, autumn leaves appear, and it becomes easy to find a parking spot.

Forest Center in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The weather also cools off, a big plus. Many days here top 100 degrees during the summer. Weather like that is brutal if you’re hiking—or even just taking a quarter-mile nature walk. Skip the sizzling July and August weather and visit in October when average highs are in the 60s.

November is a little chancier: We was here in mid-November and encountered some snow in the High Country. But, to be honest, not enough to alter our plans!

Castle Rocks in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A couple of other problems also arise if you visit too late in the year. The road to Kings Canyon’s Cedar Grove area closes November 11. And you don’t want to miss that spectacular area of the park. Many campgrounds also close. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

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Let’s start when naturalist John Muir wrote about the area that eventually became Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. “In the vast Sierra wilderness south of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind,” Muir wrote in 1891.

Forest Center in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grander than Yosemite? Those are strong words. But many park fans agree. Sequoia has the largest trees on the planet and Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. Kings Canyon is by some measures considered the deepest canyon in the country.

It’s a place that can make visitors feel very small. It also can bring a sense of tranquility.

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The adjacent parks, which are administered together, offer beautiful rivers and waterfalls, lush valleys, vast caverns, snow-capped peaks, and terrain ranging from 1,300 to 14,500 feet. And it’s all in the southern Sierra Nevada.

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Nowhere else in the national park system can you experience the diversity of landscapes within a day’s hike, from blue oak woodlands to red fir forests to alpine tundra. Plus, the stunning ancient giant sequoia groves!

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The colossal trees can grow as tall as a 26-story building and live more than 3,000 years, thanks to a chemical in their bark that protects against rot, boring insects, and even fire.

Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s hard to comprehend the size of a sequoia until you stare up at one, especially the General Sherman Tree, a giant among giants—275 feet tall and more than 36 feet in diameter. It’s the largest tree in the world by volume and is a favorite stop for visitors. Yes, you’ll have to walk half a mile to see it, but it’s a pilgrimage you’ll remember the rest of your life.

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Even better: Take the 2-mile Congress Trail, which begins at the General Sherman Tree and loops through the heart of the green and beautiful Giant Forest, home to more than 2,000 sequoias with trunk diameters greater than 10 feet. It’s an easy trail and like the Sherman Trail is both wheelchair- and kid-friendly. Like no other place on Earth, the Giant Forest is alive with mystery and wonder.

Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another highlight of Sequoia National Park is Moro Rock, which isn’t an easy trail. If the walk to General Sherman fazes, Moro Rock will stop you in your tracks. The bald granite dome looms thousands of feet above the park highway, protruding from a forested ridge 6,725 feet above sea level.

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Kings Canyon is a rugged landscape of granite, water, and sky. Like Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Park is more than 95 percent wilderness and few roads disturb the peace. But, that’s the topic of another post.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Between Kings River and the Kaweah, we enter the colossal forests of the main continuous portion of the sequoia belt.

—John Muir, 1876

Temecula Valley Named Best Wine Destination for 2019

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

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

Old Town Temecula © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

This marks the first time that Temecula Valley was selected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Renzoni Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Robert Renzoni Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Pechanga RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Pechanga Casino RV Resort, Temecula

Worth Pondering…

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

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Lodi’s Legendary Vines

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

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

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

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

Lucas Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Michael David Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Michael David Freakshow © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Van Ruiten Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Van Ruiten Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Van Ruiten Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

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

Lodi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Pinnacles National Park: Born of Fire

Some 23 million years ago multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what would become Pinnacles National Park

The difference is immediately apparent. You know at once why this park is called Pinnacles. Here you face spires and crags that bear no resemblance to the surrounding smooth, round hills. Abruptly, the pinnacle rock formations dominate the scene.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These rocks are the remains of an ancient volcano. Or rather they are part of the remains, for the rest of this volcano lies 195 miles to the southeast. Sound intriguing? It is all part of the story of the San Andreas Rift Zone, which runs just east of the park, and the geological forces that have shaped the face of the landscape in this part of California for millions of years. It is the story of heat, frost, water, and wind wearing at the rock.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The remains of an ancient volcanic field consisting of massive monoliths, rocky spires, pinnacles, red crags, and talus cave, rise out of the Gabilan Mountains, a sanctuary for the California condor.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23 million years ago multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what would become Pinnacles National Park. A few million years of powerful explosions, lava flows, and landslides created the 30 mile wide volcanic field that forms the foundation of Pinnacles National Park today.

This field of fire was then split down the center by the San Andreas Fault and the west side traveled 195 miles north at a rate of 1-3 inches each year, all while being worn away by water, weathering, and chemical erosion.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What remains is a landscape unlike any other. The result of these millions of years of fire, ice, and upset are the serene rock formations visited by 250 thousand visitors each year. Travelers journey through grasslands, chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms.

Hikers enter rare talus caves and emerge to towering rock spires teeming with life: Prairie and Peregrine falcons, Golden eagles, as well as the inspiring California condor. Strange, the way a violent and dynamic past has resulted in such a peaceful landscape for today’s hikers and climbers.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles have over 30 miles of trails that show the best of the park and of the rock formations for which it was named. Hike through the caves, through grasslands, and mountainous areas or up close to the spires and pinnacles. Park staff can recommend the perfect trails based on your available time, physical fitness, and access. Due to the terrain, most of the trails offered are either moderately difficult or strenuous.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Pinnacles visitor center to the Bear Gulch day use area is an interesting trail that is about 2 miles one way and takes about one and a half hours to complete. Visitors will walk along creeks and climb about 300 feet in elevation.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another trail leads from the visitor center to Balconies Cave which is about 9 miles round-trip. Bring a flashlight as hikers will pass by the cave on the way back. There are fantastic views of some of the largest rock formations in the park along this trail.

Follow the path leading from Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop that is about 5 miles round trip. Be prepared to climb over 1,000 feet in elevation along this trail, but visitors will be treated to a walk through the heart of the pinnacles formations in the park.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Balconies Cliffs and Cave Loop Trail is an amazing experience that crosses up and over Balconies Cave and then leads back through the cave itself. Be prepared to get wet as some wading might be necessary if rain occurs and water fills parts of the cave. Don’t forget your flashlight on this trail as the cave is dark.

There are numerous other trails to explore in Pinnacles National Park. Crawl through caves or gaze up at the towering spires created millions of years ago at this relatively new and wondrous national park.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to steaming fumaroles, meadows freckled with wildflowers, clear mountain lakes, and numerous volcanoes

When it comes to National Parks with steamy geothermal features, people usually think of Yellowstone National Park—but it’s certainly not the only park that’s hot to trot.

There’s also California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On June 14, 1914, three men climbed Lassen Peak to see why a seemingly dormant volcano had started rumbling 16 days before. Now, peering into a newborn crater, they felt the ground tremble. As they turned and ran down the steep slope, the mountain erupted. Rocks hurtled through the ash-filled air. One struck a man, knocking him out. Ashes rained down on the men. They seemed doomed. But the eruption stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and the three men survived.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From 1914 to early 1915, Lassen spewed steam and ashes in more than 150 eruptions. Finally, on May 19, 1915, the mountaintop exploded. Lava crashed through the 1914 crater. A 20-foot-high wall of mud, ash, and melted snow roared down the mountain, snapping tree trunks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three days later, a huge mass of ashes and gases shot out of the volcano, devastating a swath a mile wide and three miles long. Above the havoc, a cloud of volcanic steam and ash rose 30,000 feet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eruptions of steam, ash, and tephra continued until June 1917, when the volcano resumed its quiet profile, with minor steam clouds occasionally reported. Since 1921, Lassen Peak has remained quiet. But it is still considered an active volcano, the centerpiece of a vast panorama, where volcanism displays its spectaculars—wrecked mountains, devastated land, bubbling cauldrons of mud.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome—so you know a park that’s packing that much heat is definitely gonna have some cool sights to see. Here are some of the park’s best other-worldly landscapes and hidden gems to explore.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Hydrothermal Areas. Boiling pools, steam rising from the ground, bubbling mud pots—these are just some of the types of hydrothermal areas that can be found within Lassen Volcanic National Park. One of the most popular of the park’s natural attractions is Bumpass Hell, a 16-acre bowl of mud pots, pools, and steam vents accessible via a three-mile roundtrip hike.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Others to check out include Devil’s Kitchen, Boiling Springs Lake, and Cold Boiling Lake.

Sulphur Works is a trail that will get you a little closer to the bubbling mudpots and steaming pools. It’s also right off the main road, so if you’re short on time but still want to check out some hot and heavy geothermal weirdness, this is your best bet. The main attraction here is a 5-foot mudpot—it’s all that remains of an extinct volcano known as Mount Tehama. Definitely be cautious here—this is an area known for looking deceptively safe, but stepping off the boardwalk could mean falling into boiling mud.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a drive and see Lassen Volcanic from the comfort of your car—the 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway is a terrific way to do just that. Allow at least an hour to do the drive non-stop, or build in more time to stop at the various highlights along the way, including Bumpass Hell Overlook where you can see the former Brokeoff Volcano, or Mt. Tehama; Kings Creek Meadow Scenic Pull-out; and Hat Creek, which is a must during fall foliage, to name just a few.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do hike to the peak. Lassen Volcanic National Park offers more than 150 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy to strenuous. The keystone of the park is the peak itself, and the recent completion of the four-year Reach the Peak project restored the five-mile roundtrip Lassen Peak Trail. The hike is strenuous. Allow six hours for a terrific family experience with fantastic views of the valley and the High Sierras from the top.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the subway. Take the self-guided trail to Subway Cave, which is in Lassen National Forest and accessible via the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, near the town of Old Station. The cave was formed about 20,000 years ago when lava flow from Hat Creek cooled and hardened on top, while hot lava continued to flow underneath, eventually leaving tube-like caves.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, extend your trip and drive the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway All American Road from Lassen Volcanic National Park north to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Miles of its flanks are reeking and bubbling with hot springs, many of them so boisterous and sulphurous they seem ever ready to become spouting geysers…

—John Muir, Mountains of California (1894)

California Gold

Get a taste of frontier life as you retrace the history of California’s boom-and-bust Gold Rush, a defining event of the 1800s

Pan for the glittering metal and see merchants in period dress recreate life as it was in the 1850s at Columbia State Historic Park. Climb aboard an inflatable raft for a bump-and-splash whitewater raft trip down the American River. Discover Placerville known during the gold-rush era as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West, the American tumbles through the Gold Country, an inviting jumble of churning rapids, deep pools, and tumbling cascades. While its rich riparian ecosystem long supported Native American tribes, the next wave of humans—the legendary ’49ers—saw the waterway as means to their fortune, panning for gold in the river silt.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While remnants of old mining equipment still poke up in or near the river, the rush for gold has mostly been replaced by the rush for adrenaline. Each of the American’s three forks serve up their own style of watery fun, and outfitters offer everything from family-friendly half-day floats to white-knuckle multi-day adventures.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though it only has a population of around 10,681, the number and variety of attractions to be found in and around Placerville will be a pleasant surprise to visitors.

After news spread about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, thousands began arriving from all over the United States, and even from abroad. People from all walks of life wanted to make their fortune in the area’s streams and hills.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merchants and others hoping to profit from the miners soon followed. The “gold rush” was born, and by 1849 it was going full bore.

It has been estimated that at least 39,000 people arrived in California by sea, and another 42,000 via overland routes, by the end of 1849. Though Coloma was the initial rendezvous point for those who became known as “Forty-Niners,” camps soon sprung up elsewhere in the area, including what eventually became known as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is now State Route 49 follows approximately the same course as the trail used by miners—and the merchants who supplied them—as they moved between Coloma and Hangtown. But mining was hard work, and not everyone was willing to do it for long. Some resorted to stealing gold from others, resulting in many robberies and even some murders.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before the name Hangtown was applied to the camp, it was referred to as Old Dry Diggins (because the miners had to cart the dry soil to running water for washing out the gold).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details seem to vary by some accounts, but in 1849 an impromptu jury met there to decide the fate of three accused murderers. After a trial that lasted about 30 minutes, someone reportedly shouted “Hang them!” Up to 1,000 miners gathered, and the sentence was carried out. Those first known hangings in the Mother Lode were carried out at a giant white oak near the center of the camp (where Coloma and Main streets intersect today).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Word spread rapidly, and other hangings were later carried out at the same place. The location soon became known as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1854, Hangtown was the third-largest town in California—behind only San Francisco and Sacramento in total population. Los Angeles, at 15th place, had a population of only 541 voters. That same year, Hangtown was incorporated and renamed Placerville. The name was chosen for the deep-reddish-brown soil that the gold was mined from. Some of the methods used included excavating pits, digging tunnels and hydraulics (eroding the soil by shooting large volumes of water under high pressure).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many fortunes were made. Merchants from near and far flocked to the rapidly expanding town.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still a robust community today, Placerville also serves as the El Dorado County seat. Through a variety of attractions and sponsored activities that are put on within the historical section throughout the year, people can now visualize what it was like during that wild period.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though terrible fires tore through and destroyed most of the historical section, visitors can still see buildings of stone or brick that were constructed as early as 1852

Worth Pondering…

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Big Trees: Sequoia National Park

Huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world’s largest trees

Big trees are the prime attraction of Sequoia National Park—many groves of the remarkable giant sequoia are found scattered along the moist, west-facing slopes of the Sierra Nevada between elevations of 5,000 and 7,000 feet.

The scale and grandeur of these reddish giants is stunning, and the park has many easy trails that wind through the woody groves leading to quiet undisturbed places, ideal to contemplate the ambience of the forest.

Lake Kaweah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Using Sun & Fun RV Park in Tulare as our home base, we approached Sequoia National Park from the southwest. Long and straight, California Highway 198 crosses the flat San Joaquin Valley, through endless acres of citrus and vegetables. Hazy foothills slowly appear. At first these hills are low and covered only by parched grass, typical of the southern and western extremities of the Sierras.

Potwisha Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Gradually gaining elevation, the road passes around the edge of Lake Kaweah and runs through Three Rivers, the last town before the mountains. It is named after the Kaweah River, which nearby splits into South, East, North (and Middle and Marble) branches, each of which flows through a steep canyon.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The main road to Sequoia follows the Middle Fork and begins to climb several miles east of town. For 5 miles the route is along the side of the canyon, gaining in height above the river and crossing the national park boundary. The landscape is still mostly arid, with yucca and other desert plants.

One mile inside the park entrance, the Foothills Visitor Center offers information, exhibits to explore, and a small bookstore.

Eleven Range Overlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Passing the Hospital Rock picnic site, the road turns away from the canyon and heads north into the mountains. The 8 miles between the picnic area and the first group of sequoias at Giant Forest is amazingly steep and twisting, passing through countless hairpin bends and steep grades during a total climb of 3,700 feet. Vehicles over 22 feet are not advised to drive this route; even our toad is often reduced to speeds of only 15 mph.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

On the ascent there are several great viewpoints over the continuation of Middle Fork Canyon far below. The scenery changes from bushes to oak trees, to forests of fir, pine, and cedar, and finally sequoias; at first scattered and relatively small, although still of distinctive color and much larger than the neighboring trees, but quite suddenly the giants are all around, towering above everything else.

Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

This is the Giant Forest, centerpiece of Sequoia National Park. The largest trees on earth are found here, including General Sherman, which is the world-record holder for the most massive living thing. Dozens of magnificent groves of sequoias can be seen in just 3 square miles.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Other unforgettable attractions of Sequoia National Park include Tunnel Log, Moro Rock, and Crystal Cave.

In 1937, due to natural causes, a 275-foot tall and 21-foot in diameter tree fell across a road. A year later, an 8-foot tall, 7-foot wide tunnel was cut through the trunk to make the road passable again.

Castle Rocks, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Moro Rock is a granite dome that affords one of the best views of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In the 1930s, a 400-step stairway was cut into and poured onto the rock so visitors could climb to the top.

Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Hiking trails wind through the sequoia grove and meadows. Moro Rock-Crescent Meadow Road leads to Moro Rock, Tunnel Log, and the High Sierra Trail. The Big Trees Trail offers an easy hike around a meadow that’s ideal for families and people in wheelchairs.

Did You Know?

After spending five days with five men cutting down a single sequoia, Walter Fry counted the growth rings on the fallen giant. The answer shocked him into changing careers. In just a few days they had ended 3266 years of growth. Fry later became a park ranger and, in 1912, the parks’ superintendent.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Between Kings River and the Kaweah, we enter the colossal forests of the main continuous portion of the sequoia belt.

—John Muir, 1876

Murphys: Charming Queen of the Sierra

Its nine miles up Highway 4 from Angels Camp to the neighboring mining town of Murphys, founded in 1848 by John and Daniel Murphy

Murphys’ rich and colorful past came alive in 1848 when John and Daniel Murphy established a trading post and gold mining operation in the area that is now their namesake. They were part of the first immigrant party (Stephens-Townsend-Murphy) to successfully bring wagons over the Sierra in 1844, paving the way for westward migration.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

It is reported that the brothers took two million dollars in gold ore from the Murphys Diggins in one year’s time, making them millionaires before the age of 25.

During the first year, 50 tents, several lean-tos, and two blockhouses were erected, and by 1850, the camp had a population of 1,200. In 1852 there were 3,000 people, close to the present-day population.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Murphys was one of California’s richest diggins. During one winter, five million dollars worth of gold was taken from a four-acre placer area, and the town grew prosperous despite the usual cycle of devastating fires and rebuilding.

Once a hodgepodge of miners’ tents and lean-tos, Murphys has aged well.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The picturesque village is known today for its many natural attractions including caverns for public viewing, a charming Main Street with friendly merchants and unique shops, spectacular wineries, and art galleries.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A stroll down tree-lined Main Street transports visitors back to the mid-1800s with buildings bearing thick stoned walls, iron shutters, and pastoral gardens. Its leafy streets are lined with white picket fences, oaks and sycamores, eateries, and tasting rooms.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Sperry & Perry Hotel—now known as Murphys Historic Hotel & Lodge—opened to guests in 1855. Ulysses S. Grant slept here; so did Mark Twain, Horatio Alger, and Charles Bolton, aka Black Bart, the poetry-writing bandit who successfully robbed 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches before his arrest in 1883. Locals line up along the saloon’s bar. In the morning, follow the divine smells across the street to Biga Murphys Bakery.

Unique from any other wine region, you can literally do wine country on foot in Murphys. There are over 25 wineries here and 20 of them have tasting rooms within walking distance from one another along Murphy’s historic downtown. Picturesque vineyards and destination wineries are nestled in the nearby rolling hills.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Ironstone Vineyards, on the outskirts of Murphys, attracts visitors year-round with wine tastings and events such as the daffodil festival in the spring. Explore the seven-level winery, its extensive wine caves, museum, and outdoor mining exhibit, before you grab lunch at the deli and picnic on the grounds.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Then, belly up to the elegant 1907 bar to sample Ironstone’s Obsession Red Blend, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel. You can see a fully restored 769-pipe theater organ, originally made in 1927 for Sacramento’s now-defunct Alhambra Theater.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Don’t miss the 44-pound specimen of crystalline gold leaf, which, its sign claims, is the “largest single piece of gold mined in North America.” Ironstone also has weekend gold panning, concerts, and fly-fishing classes.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For a more intimate tasting, drive a few miles north of Murphys on Sheep Ranch Road to bucolic Stevenot Winery. In the tasting room, buy a bottle of Tempranillo, a medium-bodied red wine, and assorted chocolates in the gourmet section.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Also on Sheep Ranch Road is Mercer Caverns. It has all the awesome cave accessories: stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, and columns. It’s 161 feet, down several flights of stairs, to the bottom. When you emerge from this dark hole in the ground, consider a visit to something soaring high above ground—the giant sequoias.

Ironstone Vineyards © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

You’ll find them 14 miles up Highway 4 from Murphys in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. It’s both humbling and thrilling to prowl among the planet’s largest living things. Tourists from around the world follow the well-trampled trails through the North Grove.

Worth Pondering…

My travels led me to where I am today. Sometimes these steps have felt painful, difficult, but led me to greater happiness and opportunities.
—Diana Ross