The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is most popular during the summer when its most beautiful features are revealed after a long snowy winter

While Lassen Volcanic National Park is just as serene and peaceful as other California national parks, it was established to protect and aid the research of a turbulent landscape. The birth of this park as a federally protected area really began in the summer of 1914 when three climbers ascended Lassen Peak in an attempt to uncover the reasons why the dormant volcano had recently started rumbling deep beneath its surface.

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As they neared the top, the volcano began to erupt, spewing ash and debris into the air forming a 12-mile long mudflow that flooded across the region. The climbers narrowly escaped and survived the event—an event that would become one of intense study for many years to come. In 1915, the peak blew its top. The catastrophic eruption forced rock, trees, and debris miles down into valleys devastating the surrounding areas and changing its landscape forever. Then in 1917, the volcano fell dormant. 

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Today, the active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape of jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

With all of that said, it is not surprising that Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for its extreme weather. During heavy snow years, the main park road along the Lassen Volcanic National Park Scenic Highway (the main park road) may not open until May and sometimes not until mid-July putting visitors at the mercy of Mother Nature during any season of the year. Lassen Volcanic fully opened for summertime activities this year in late June. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads are open for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with some patches of snow.

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Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that is set amid forests, lakes, and streams. The centerpiece, 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, has just an inch or two of snow left on portions of the switch-backed trail that leads up from the parking lot. It is expected to melt off soon.

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As a national park, Lassen is like Yosemite’s little brother—it gets about 750,000 visitors each year (542,274 in 2020) compared to Yosemite’s 5 million (2,268,313 in 2020). It is a unique destination for camping, hiking, trout fishing, and wilderness treks. The Pacific Crest Trail also runs through much of the park.

With summer heating up, here is the ultimate guide to Lassen Volcanic with ideas on how to enjoy the park’s greatest hits and stay cool.

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Along the Lassen Park Highway, you can find major campgrounds and camping cabins at Manzanita Lake (multiple loops, 179 sites, 20 cabins). Or check out Summit Lake with two separate campground areas and 94 sites which opened June 25. Near the southern entrance station, Southwest Walk-in has 20 sites, first come, first served. In the park’s more remote regions, the campground at Butte Lake (101 sites) is located across the entrance road from the car-top boat access.

Camps are also available at the distant Warner Valley (17 sites, first-come, first-served) and the even more remote Juniper Lake (16 sites, first come, first served, opened June 25). Access to these spots is along dirt roads and SUVs are advised to reach them.

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Three easy hikes

The park’s most popular hike, the Bumpass Hell geothermal area (named after a guy who accidentally fell in), is now open. It’s a 3-mile round trip: a short climb and then a descent to a basin filled with boiling pots, hot springs, steam vents, and hydrothermals. A series of boardwalks provide access to the basin.

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From Hat Lake along the Lassen Park Highway, there’s a pretty hike along a creek past a waterfall (a short cutoff on the right provides the best view) to gorgeous Paradise Meadow. It’s a 2.8 miles round trip with a 700-foot climb on the way in. The meadow is nestled in a mountain bowl at 7,100 feet where visitors will find an explosion of wildflowers.

Mill Creek Falls, a gorgeous 75-foot chute-like waterfall, is a 3.8-mile round trip. The route starts near the southwest parking area (near the park entrance, behind the amphitheater), then is routed through the forest with a few small stream crossings.

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Two tougher hikes

The park’s signature hike, the Lassen Peak Trail, has recently become accessible for hiking as the snow melts off the south-facing switchbacks. It’s a 5-mile round-trip with a 2,000-foot climb on the way up to the rim. Then it’s a short jaunt across the caldera to the plug dome summit crag. As you approach, the best route up to the pinnacle is on the far side on the left.

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From the trailhead at Butte Lake, the park’s most unusual climb is the 2-mile trek to the rim of the Cinder Cone (4.5 miles roundtrip). It’s somewhat of a slog through volcanic rubble but the reward is a view inside the collapsed caldera of the cone and views of the Spectacular Lava Beds and also to Lassen Peak. A trail rings the rim of the cone with a cutoff spur that plunges to the bottom.

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The park’s most famous lake is Manzanita Lake, located a short distance from the Highway 44/89 entrance station. During the summer, it is a favorite area for kids of all ages to hike, swim, and paddle. With a kayak or canoe, you can paddle across the lake with a backdrop of Lassen Peak. Kayak rentals are available at the Camper Store. The lake is also a destination for flyfishers with special regulations in effect for catch-and-release wild trout.

National Park Service rangers at Lassen also provide regular guided tours that examine summer bird species in the area (there are 213 species in the park) The one thing that never changes at Manzanita Lake is the straight-on view of Lassen Peak from its north side. Gorgeous! 

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Summit Lake, ringed by conifers, is also popular for kayaking with the best access on the northern shore; no rentals.

Remote Butte Lake has a designated area to launch car-top boats and from here you can paddle amid a backdrop of pine forest, volcanic crags, and shoreline rubble. The lake has fair trout fishing with fish up to about 12 inches. No motors are permitted at any of the lakes at Lassen.

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Fact Box

Size: 106,372 acres

Date Established: August 9, 1916

Location: Northern California, at the southern foot of the Cascades Range

Park Elevation: 5,300 feet-10,463 feet

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: Lassen Volcanic National Park was named after the high-point in the park, Lassen Peak (10,463 feet). Lassen Peak was named after a Danish blacksmith named Peter Lassen who explored the area and settled there in the early 1840s. It has also been called Mount Lassen or Lassen Butte. It’s Native American names varied, translating loosely as Fire Mountain, Water Mountain, Snow Mountain, and The Long High Mountain That Was Broken.  

Iconic site: The unobstructed view of Lassen Peak from Manzanita Lake is a showstopper and a site that can be accessed all year long. Along the popular 1.5-mile trail that circumnavigates the lake, there are plenty of cool offshoot trails meandering the serene alpine setting. From the north side of the lake, forests of conifer trees frame-up Chaos Crags, Eagles Peak, and Lassen Peak like a painting. Stay for sunset! It’s an easy walk back to the car and the alpenglow is beautiful. 

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Did you know?

Sunset Magazine called Lassen The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland.

Lassen is one of the few places on Earth that contains all four of the world’s known types of volcanoes—stratovolcanoes, volcanic domes, shield volcanoes, and cinder cones. A shield volcano can be seen at Prospect Peak, a cinder cone volcano that formed the Painted Dunes when it erupted in 1666, Lassen Peak itself is a plug dome volcano—the largest in the world, and the stratovolcano (also known as a composite volcano) can be seen at Mount Diller.

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All of the mountains in this national park are volcanic.

The only volcanic eruption occurring in a national park in the lower 48 states during the 20th century was at Lassen Volcanic.

 Worth Pondering…

Lassen’s Peak looks sharper from this side than any other, and views seen from among these pinnacles and rocks are some of the most picturesque imaginable. A series of photographs would be treasured indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California (Journals; 1860-1864)

The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

At one of America’s newer National Park, the possibilities for discovery are limitless

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

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The Salinas Valley in west-central California is the site of an ancient history spanning 23 million years. Over the course of that time, the “pinnacles” have migrated some 200 miles from their original home on the San Andreas Fault where the volcano that they were born from once stood. Today, that volcanic rock from the Pacific Coast Range has morphed to form monoliths, spires, peaks, cliffs, and other formations that jut out from the pastoral hills of the region. 

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The park is split into east and west districts between which there are no driving roads connecting the entrances on either side. In the west district, there are rare and unusual talus caves—caves made up of fallen rock sandwiched in slot canyons. On the east side, you will find the most interesting views of the formations along with broader views of the entire park landscape, the main park visitor center, and an established camping area. Both sides are beloved by technical climbers, day hikers, cave-goers, and bird watchers eager to catch a glimpse of the endangered California condor.

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The first 2,500 acres of the rugged Pinnacles were made a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Since 1908, the monument significantly increased in size to 26,000 acres and on January 10, 2013, Pinnacles became America’s 59th national park. 

Hiking and rock climbing are popular activities in Pinnacles National Park as is watching for the majestic California condor overhead. Pinnacles National Park is a nesting place for the endangered soaring bird, the largest in North America.

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By the early 1980s, the California condor population had dwindled to just 22. The birds were placed in captive breeding programs, and Pinnacles became one of the release sites. Other condors from the Big Sur area also frequent the area which increases the odds of seeing one of these rare creatures.

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Remarkable rocks sculpted by 14 million years of volcanic turmoil. The rocky spires and pinnacles have long attracted rock climbers. So have talus caves (formed when massive boulders tumbled into narrow canyons) inhabited by protected bat communities. A well-maintained 30-mile trail system, partially created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, beckons hikers to this rugged landscape. Wildflowers bloom in the spring, and the temperate climate makes for year-round exploration opportunities.

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The rock formations of Pinnacles National Park divide the park into east and west access points which are connected by trails. But, there is no road connecting the east and west entrances of the park.

The eastern access road (CA 146) branches off CA 25, 30 miles south of Hollister, and leads up a wide, partly wooded valley alongside Bear Creek, and past the park campground. The mountains are visible to the west though they seem unremarkable from a distance as the volcanic formations are hidden behind more conventional rocks.

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Pinnacles Campground offers 149 tent, group, and RV sites with 30-amp electric service. Water is located throughout the campground. Showers and a dump station are available. During the spring and summer seasons, campers can enjoy the campground swimming pool and ranger programs at the campground amphitheater.

The road bends around a side canyon and ends next to the visitor center just as the main valley (Bear Gulch) starts to become relatively narrow. The center has exhibits, a small selection of books for sale, a public telephone, and flashlights for use in the caves.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The surrounding vegetation is typical of the chaparral zone, mostly small oak trees, and bushes, reflecting the low elevation, moderate rainfall, and long hot summers of this part of California. The main hiking area is to the west, further along, the canyon—within 2 miles are Bear Gulch Cave, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and many rock climbing sites, while 2 miles further are the extensive formations of the High Peaks. Many trails intersect, allowing for a short loop or a longer all-day hike.

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The Bear Gulch Cave provides a home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats as they rest there in winter and raise their young in the late spring and summer. The colony in the Bear Gulch Cave is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The lower half of the Bear Gulch Cave is usually open from mid-July through mid-May each year, depending on the presence of the colony of bats. The entire cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July while the bats are raising their young. Bring a flashlight if your hike leads through a cave.

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The west entrance has just a ranger station plus parking and is reached by a narrow, 12-mile road from Soledad that is not recommended for RVs or other large vehicles. From the road’s end, three trails depart to the north, west, and east; the most popular routes are the Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail which leads to volcanic rocks and a talus cave.

Fact Box

Size: 26,000 acres

Date Established: January 10, 2013

Location: West central California, in the Salinas Valley

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How the park got its name: In 1880, the area where the national park is now was known as “the Palisades” until a newspaper article came out in 1881 describing the trellised areas as “the Pinnacles.” Further exploration of the area and additional marketing of it as a tourist destination helped the new name to stick. It has been officially known as Pinnacles since it was protected as a National Monument in 1908. 

Iconic site in the park: The geologic formations are known as “the pinnacles” are a series of volcanic and sedimentary rocks that have eroded over time to take the shape of colorful and ornate cliffs, crags, and talus cave formations that rise from a forested landscape. 

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Did You Know?

Pinnacles, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon were all set aside as national monuments in the span of seven days in January 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt.

American writer John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley and lived there until he went to Stanford University in 1919. The location inspired several of his works, one of them being East of Eden

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740

Entrance Fees: $30/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Camping Fee: $37/night

Worth Pondering…

May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view……where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you.

—Edward Abbey

The Other Shenandoah Valley

What Napa was like 25 years ago

The beautiful Shenandoah Valley stretches 200 miles across the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains of Virginia. A lesser-known Shenandoah Valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills also offers country roads with breathtaking views and charming postcard-perfect farms.

Amador Flower Farm in the Shenandoah Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most concentrated Gold Country wine-touring area lies in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley, east of Plymouth—you could easily spend two or three days just hitting the highlights. Zinfandel is the primary grape grown here but area vineyards produce many other varietals from Rhônes like Syrah and Mourvèdre to Italian Barberas and Sangioveses. Most wineries are open for tastings at least on Friday and weekends and many of the top ones are open daily and some welcome picnickers.

Amador Flower Farm in the Shenandoah Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This undiscovered California gem features rolling, golden hills studded with majestic oaks and rolling vineyards producing exceptional full-bodied wines. Shenandoah Valley produces some of the most interesting wines due to its terroir, a unique combination of rocky soil and warm temperatures that gives the wines their distinctive flavor.

Home to some of the oldest vines in California, the wines produced from the vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley are renowned for their intense fruit and deep color. Stylistically, zinfandels from the Shenandoah Valley tend to be fuller, riper, and earthier with a characteristic dusty, dark berry fruit character, hints of cedar, anise and clove spice, and scents of raisin and chocolate.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

While Shenandoah Valley heats up early in the day, it rarely exceeds 100 degrees. Equally important, temperatures typically drop 30-35 degrees in the evening as breezes cascade down from the Sierras. This rapid cooling helps the grapes retain the acidity essential to balanced wines.

Bella Piazza Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Villa Toscano Winery brings the essence of the beautiful Tuscany region of Italy to California. Many of their full-bodied wines are crafted from century-old vines. Starting with rich, mature fruit, winemakers, George Bursick and Susan Farrington, create wines in a style that displays both richness and balance. Extended oak aging on their red varietals ensures wines of depth and complexity. The white varietals receive no oak aging to preserve their fruit character and freshness.

Borjón Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Borjón Winery is a dynamic, Mexican-American, family-owned winery. The Borjón family comes from the small town of Paracuaro in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. Isy’s parents, Jesus and Nora Borjón, arrived in the Shenandoah Valley over 30 years ago with passion and drive they built Borjón Winery together, as a family. They offer a range of European-influenced wines including Italian (Barbara, Primitivo, Sangiovese), Spanish (Garnacha and Tempranillo), and French (Petite Sirah). We tasted five hearty reds and purchased a bottle of 2013 Petit Sirah.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helwig Winery offers sweeping vistas overlooking lush vineyards, breathtaking views of the Sierra and Coastal mountains, and a sky you won’t believe until you see it for yourself.

Helwig Winery offers guests a multitude of wine tasting experiences in a setting that cannot be beat. With sweeping vistas overlooking lush vineyards, breathtaking views of the Sierra and Coastal mountains, and sunsets that will take your breath away, your experience will be a memorable one.

Helwig Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helwig boasts a new, state-of-the-art winery with a unique wine cave system. Visit their spacious Tasting Room, well-equipped meeting and conference rooms, an outdoor terraced concert amphitheater, and the popular picnic Pavilion and their “cool” wine cave. They offer a little something for everyone, no matter the weather, the event, or the mood. The Tasting Room is a great place to taste a range of exciting wines including several made from Rhone varietals (Syrah, Marsanne, and Viognier), several wonderfully complex Zinfandels, and a big, bold Barbara. The Tasting Room is open seven days a week from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm, except for major holidays.

Cooper Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A visit to Coopers Vineyards is a visit to one of California’s most charming family wineries.

Dick Cooper, whose family originally arrived in the Sierra Foothills in 1919, is generally considered Amador County’s “Godfather of Barbera.” Zinfandel might be Amador’s heritage grape but it is a grape that does well in other parts of California. Barbera, on the other hand, makes a red wine that many of today’s wine lovers believe grows better in Amador County than just about anywhere else in the world—even as well as the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where the grape originated.

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A grape grower first, Dick moved into the winemaking business in 2000 and opened the Cooper Vineyards winery and tasting room in 2004. Before grapes, Dick’s family grew a wide variety of crops including tree fruit and nuts. Gradually over the years, the walnut and fruit trees gave way to Zinfandel and Barbera and Rhone grape varietals. Now totaling almost 80 acres, Dick has expanded the vineyards to a potpourri of exotic grape varieties including Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Mourvèdre, Petit Sirah, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Grenache, and Sangiovese.

Cooper Vineyard © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Sierra Foothills: A Road Trip Waiting To Happen

The wild and scenic Mokelumne River, gold rush history, and quaint historic towns that beckon around every turn and you have a road trip waiting to happen

The Mokelumne River stretches almost 100 miles from its headwaters in the Sierra as it flows west to merge into the Sacramento Delta just west of Lodi. The river is divided into the Upper Mokelumne River which stretches from the high Sierra to Pardee Reservoir in the foothills and the Lower Mokelumne River, the section of the river below Camanche Dam to the Delta. In its lower section, the Mokelumne is heavily employed for irrigation and water for the east Bay Area through the Mokelumne Aqueduct. The river bisects Amador and Calaveras counties especially beautiful this time of year.

Jackson Rancheria RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conveniently located in the heart of Gold Country, we used Jackson Rancheria RV Resort as our home base to explore this part of the Mother Lode. New in 2008, the RV resort is part of a casino complex. Even if you’re not a fan of the casino scene you’ll love this 5-star resort. Big rig friendly 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are centrally located. Wide, paved interior roads with wide concrete sites. Back-in sites over 55 feet with pull-through sites in the 70-75 foot range. Reservations over a weekend are required well in advance.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Jackson Rancheria Casino RV Resort we drove southwest 4.5 miles to Jackson. Jackson is a vibrant old and new town with quaint Main Street preserving gold rush history with a variety of cute shops and eateries.

The early gold rush camp turned city was, like so many other gold rush towns along California Highway 49, destroyed by a raging fire in 1862. The city was rebuilt with as many as forty-two of those Civil War era buildings still standing today on and around Jackson’s Historic Main Street. At the turn of the 19th century Jackson had about 3,000 residents with three churches, three newspapers, four hotels, five boarding houses, two candy factories, cigar and macaroni factories, eight physicians, and two dentists.

Amador County winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once the richest mining area in the Mother Lode, Jackson also has ties to the lumber industry and wineries of Amador County. The area’s rolling foothills are checkered between tall golden grass, oak trees, and thousands of acres of grapevines, and Plymouth close by is now famous as one of California’s favorite places to go for a wine tasting tour.

National Hotel, Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to wine tasting, Jackson is full of unique gift shops, antique shops, restaurants, museums, parks, and historical sites like the Kennedy Gold Mine and the former home of Armstead C. Brown, now the Amador County Museum. Stop at the National Hotel at the south end of Main. Built in 1852 and visited by many noteworthy guests over its history, the hotel was extensively renovated a few years ago.

Kennedy Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the old Kennedy Mine and the historic Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheel #4 north of town on Highway 49 for a quick dose of early mining history. At 5,912 feet, it is one of the world’s deepest gold mines. The Kennedy has approximately 150 miles of underground tunnels, a great deal of surface equipment which once included the famous Jackson Gate elevator wheels and miles of flumes. The total production was $34,280,000. The Kennedy was closed in 1942 by order of the government while in full production.

From Jackson we followed Highway 49 south for 7.5 winding miles to the wonderful old town of Mokelume Hill. Just outside Jackson, you can detour down Middle Bar Road back to the river to find wildflowers. Just before crossing the Mokelume River you’ll detour east on Electra Road along the river for more wildflower sightings.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiding in Calaveras County is a sleepy little Gold Rush town that flies under the radar for most people. Mokelumne Hill is the western-most Gold Rush era town in Calaveras County and boasts a charming, historic Main Street which is accessed off the highway. The village of Mokelumne Hill nestles on a small flat at an elevation of approximately 1,500 feet surrounded by hills and within a few miles of the river. “Moke Hill,” named for the Mokelumne River, sits high above the river with a variety of well-preserved buildings dating to the 1860s.

Few people realize that Mokelumne Hill was actually one of the richest mining towns in the state during the Gold Rush. So much gold was found in the town’s surrounding hills that miners were restricted to claims of just 16 square feet.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Leger Hotel—a portion of the building served as the Calaveras County Courthouse from 1852 to 1866 but when the courthouse was moved to San Andreas, George Leger made it part of his hotel. Fire damaged the building and it was restored in 1879, renamed the Leger Hotel.

The Hotel Léger is one of only two continuously operating Gold Rush era hotels in Calaveras County. At the heart of the town’s culture it serves as friendly, local gathering place and watering hole, restaurant, hotel and event-center, and most-famous haunted building on the west side of the county. Those with the interest and courage are encouraged to pick up a ghost-hunting kit from the front desk for an impromptu ghost-hunt. The Whitewater Grill and Saloon is the premiere restaurant and saloon in town and well-worth a visit for surprisingly inexpensive fine-dining.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mokelumne Hill was known as one of the most violent, bawdy towns in the Mother Lode. As the gold played out, Mokelumne Hill shrunk from a wild and woolly 15,000 to a quiet historic village. Take the time to walk the historic blocks of Moke Hill and you will feel the ghosts of gold rush days.

Tourism has become a new industry to the town. Many of the early homes on the hillsides and the historic buildings downtown have withstood the boom and bust economy of the gold regions of the west.

Worth Pondering…

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

—Alex Pettyfer

Beautifully Bizarre Joshua Tree Has Springtime Written All Over it

Camp, hike, and rock climb your way through California’s High Desert

California’s Mojave Desert has inspired a number of monumental artistic endeavors including the fictional planet Tatooine in Star Wars and the iconic U2 album The Joshua Tree. But Joshua Tree National Park which lies within the boundaries of the Mojave has a landscape and special magnetism all its own. People come to Joshua Tree for their own special reasons. Sometimes it’s wilderness. Other times people come here for the music history, the diversity of raptors, or the epic landscapes. People come to Joshua Tree to find themselves. And find yourself you will—whether you’re hiking, biking, rock climbing, camping, stargazing, or daydreaming about selling all your stuff to move to the desert. Here’s how to do it all on your next trip.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park 

Joshua Tree is open (and beautiful!) year round. Come in the spring or fall for the best weather (but keep in mind, the park gets extra busy January through April). If you visit in the hot summer months, plan outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler just to be safe. Most people spend four hours in the park according to park rangers. But Joshua Tree’s abundance of jaw-dropping geological and ecological sights mean one could spend days exploring the otherworldly landscape.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fuel up in the funky artist towns nearby

There are over 100 miles of roads within the park and not a gas station in sight so fill up beforehand. The quirky towns surrounding the park—especially Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, and Yucca Valley—are also your best bet for grabbing a bite and a beer after a long day in the park. Populated by UFOlogists, solitude seekers, antique dealers, and offbeat creatives drawn to the desert, there are plenty of unusual adventures to be had in town. Definitely swing by Pioneertown which served as a film set for Old Westerns in a past life and today houses the area’s most famous bar and music venue, Pappy & Harriet’s.

Joshua Tree National Park Cottonwood entrance © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting into Joshua Tree National Park

The park’s larger than Rhode Island which means there’s a lot of ground to cover. Of the three main entrances, the Joshua Tree entrance (known as the West Entrance) is often the busiest. The North and South Entrances near Twentynine Palms and the Cottonwood Visitors Center, respectively, are less crowded. Get there early; parking lots often fill up by mid-morning.

Just drive up to one of the park’s entrances and pay at the booth. A seven-day vehicle permit runs $30. Alternatively, $55 gets you a pass valid for a full year—OR, if you think you’ll visit more than one national park in the next 12 months (and you should!), NPS offers an $80 pass that buys you entry to any park for a year.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit Joshua Tree’s best hiking trails 

Once you’re all geared up with hiking boots and as much water as you can carry (seriously, it’s hot, especially in summer), it’s time to hit the trails. Skull Rock Nature Trail is one of the most popular in the park. From the Jumbo Rocks Campground, it’ll take you winding through about 1.7 miles of desert until you arrive at Skull Rock, an enormous boulder with two eye sockets carved into it by years of water erosion. It’s a pretty mild route and great for beginners. 

The second trail you should hit is the Wonderland of Rocks which lives up to its name. Pebbles, stones, and giant boulders are yours to traverse for 5.5 wonderful miles. Given the terrain, it’s considered a difficult trail so be sure you’re up to the task.

Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around sunrise or sunset, wander over to Keys View, the highest lookout point in Joshua Tree at 5,187 feet. You can look out across the Coachella Valley and see as far as the Salton Sea and Palm Springs on clear days.

Check out the unparalleled plant and animal life 

I’ll assume you know the park’s tall and spiky namesake: the Yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as the “Joshua Tree.” In Spanish, the tree is known as izote de desierto, or desert dagger, which pretty much sums it up. It’s important to remember that since these trees are native to this 1,235-square mile expanse of desert, they’re strictly protected—aka, no touchy!

Cholla Cactus Garden, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Cholla Cactus Garden to walk amongst hundreds of beautiful cholla. This flat loop leads hikers through nearly 10 acres of landscape dominated by the teddybear cholla. Swaying in the desert breeze they almost resemble coral (and, much like coral, should be left alone). A word of advice: do not attempt to pet this teddybear. The stem-joints can easily detach and hitch a ride due to the miniscule barbs on the spines giving it the nickname “jumping cholla.” Once they’ve latched on the spines are very painful to remove.

You’ll also spot the ocotillo (pronounced oh-koh-TEE-yoh), one of the most curious and unique plants of the southwestern United States. Ocotillos produce clusters of bright red flowers at their stem tips which explain the plant’s name. Ocotillo means “little torch” in Spanish.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park is known more for its flora than fauna but there’s also plenty of wildlife in and around the park. Birding is especially popular with native species like roadrunners, raptors, and migratory flocks as well. Predators like bobcats, coyotes, and snakes also roam these parts, and—lest we forget—keep an eye out for our adorable friend, the desert tortoise!

Wonderland of Rocks, Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree is a rock climber’s paradise

Whether you’re brand new to climbing or navigate cliffs like a baby mountain goat, Joshua Tree’s 9,000+ climbing routes means that everyone’s welcome to give it a go. I also feel the need to note that most of the routes have truly creative names; take, for example, Yabba Dabba Don’t (15-foot climb), Breakfast of Champions (170-foot climb with 2 pitches), Room to Shroom (80-foot climb), Dangling Woo Li Master (100-foot climb), and so on. 

For a route best suited to beginner and moderate climbers, head over to the Quail Springs area, home to the ever-charming Trashcan Rock, one of the most popular climbing spots due to its relative ease and the cool shade that covers it during the afternoon. Intersection Rock also makes a great spot for novices and The Eye ends with a tunnel that opens up onto excellent views across the desert.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look up at the stars

Joshua Tree National Park is a Silver Tier International Dark Sky Park which means nighttime can be pretty extraordinary.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to bed down at night

Of the 520 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park about half are first-come, first-serve. The others accept reservations through

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What to bring and other essential tips

Sunscreen and water are must-haves year-round. The National Park Service stresses that there are no water sources inside the park, so again, pack a lot of water… and then pack even more. Binoculars, sturdy hiking shoes, snacks, a flashlight, a camera, and wide-brimmed hat (I recommend a Tilley) are also suggested.

To avoid being one of the approximately 60 search-and-rescue operations Joshua Tree sees every year, explore the park with a buddy and always let people know where you’re going. Cell phones don’t work in most of the park so if communication is crucial bring a satellite phone and a printed map to get around.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over 80 percent of Joshua Tree is officially designated wilderness—emphasis on wild. Be respectful of wildlife to avoid tangling with an angry critter. And if you remember one thing about your visit to Joshua Tree National Park, it should be “leave no trace.” Be sure to leave the park as pristine as you found it to help preserve its natural beauty for generations to come.

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

California Missions: San Antonio de Pala Asistencia

When visiting, be sure to see the chapel which has been fully restored

Starting in 1769, Spain built a chain of 21 missions across the length of Alta California—from San Diego to Sonoma—as a way of gaining a foothold in the new frontier. California’s mission era ended in 1834 but you can still see the architectural legacy that endures in the state’s red tile roofs, whitewashed walls, arched colonnades, and bell towers.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The missions were built approximately 30 miles apart—about a day’s journey by horseback—covering 650 miles total. All 21 missions are open to visitors and feature a gift shop and museum and most of them hold mass on Sundays (or even daily).

Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is the 18th in a chain of 21 California missions. It was established in 1798 by Father Fermin Lausen who was president of missions during that era.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in present-day Oceanside, the mission was named for Louis IX, king of France. The main church was designed and constructed in the shape of a cross. Its impressive architecture combined Spanish, Moorish, and Mexican influence. All the buildings were arranged around a 500 by 500 foot quadrangle, nearly the size of two football fields.

Mission San Luis Rey was one of the largest outposts stretching over 1,000 square miles in what is now San Diego and Riverside counties. This outpost provided support for the mission and also allowed baptized Indians to remain in their native villages and serve the mission by working on the ranchos.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Luis Rey expanded its influence north and east including the Pala Valley. Mission San Luis Rey’s first record of construction at Rancho de Pala was in the annual report of 1810. This construction was a granary and other buildings soon followed. As Mission San Luis Rey began to flourish, Father Peyri felt it was necessity to establish an asistencia near Pala because it was the natural congregating place for a large native population. A chapel was built in 1816.

Within two short years, the quadrangle was complete, two granaries were built, and two apartments were built, one for men and boys and one for women and girls. By 1818, a small town had began. Father Peyri had an aqueduct built to supply water to the mission. By 1821, the mission only lacked a resident priest to make the asistencia a full mission. Mission Pala had reached its peak prosperity by 1827.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three mission asistencias were built in the San Diego district. Mission Pala is still in active service and is the only Mission to have remained in continuous service as was originally established ministering a native population.

The Asistencia was named in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua, nicknamed the “Wonderworker of the world.” Pala continues to be an active Church.

The bell tower is striking in that it is detached from the building, unusual in the mission system. It is modeled on a tower in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The two bells were cast in Mexico. The larger is dedicated to St. Francis, St. Luis the King, St. Clare, and St. Eulalia. The maker of the bell is named as Cervantes. The smaller bell is dedicated to Jesus and Mary.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step back from the tower and look carefully at the top of the tower. There you will see a small cactus plant growing by the base of the cross. It is said that upon completion of the Asistencia, Padre Peyri climbed the tower and planted a cactus to symbolize Christ conquering the desert (both in California and the human heart and soul).

There is a courtyard in front of the church entrance.

Across the street from the Asistencia is a park.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Inside the Church you will find the original floor and outstanding Indian art. The chapel here is much smaller than the typical mission chapel and it uses a lot of large wood beams which you do not see as often in the other missions. The chapel can still hold a decent amount of people though and it is working chapel for Mass on the weekends. The altar is relatively plain but beautiful in its simplicity and the walls are covered in a fading pattern.

San Antonio de Pala Asistencia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Behind the bell tower is the cemetery for both Indians and people who lived and worked at the mission. It is the original cemetery for the Asistencia and contains the remains of hundreds of Indian converts and early California settlers. It is still in use as evidenced by some of the current dates on the headstones.

Pala Casino RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walking through the cemetery and out the back to the main church office offers an interesting view on cultural differences. In front of the office you will find a statue of St. Anthony of Padua; but unlike many such statues you see at other churches and missions, this one depicts St. Anthony as a person of color. Around the front, there is a bell post that signifies this spot as a mission on the El Camino Real Trail.

It took about 20 minutes to walk around this mission and see it. I wouldn’t say you should plan a trip just around visiting this mission but if you are in the area then it is worth stopping by as it is interesting and historic.

Pala Casino RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pala Casino RV Resort is reason enough to be in the area with 100 large full-service sites with grass lawns and picnic tables. Temecula and Temecula Valley wineries are 22 miles to the north. Here you can taste and tour through nearly 50 wineries, stroll the boardwalks of historic Old Town, shop Promenade Temecula or the local farmers’ markets, and play a round of golf.

Worth Pondering…

The lack of a sense of history is the damnation of the modern world.

—Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)

Visit Friendly Bakersfield, the Southern Gateway to the Central Valley

Bakersfield is considered the southern gateway to the Central Valley

Huge for the economy of California, Bakersfield is significant in production of the nation’s agriculture, as well as oil production. The County Seat of Kern County, Bakersfield is the ninth largest city in California and covers over 150 square miles in size and ranks as the 52nd largest city by size in the country, ahead of Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

Bakersfield Gate © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bakersfield was founded on hospitality. In the mid-19th century, Col. Thomas Baker was known for offering travelers a place to rest in the area he settled. It was called “Baker’s Field.” By 1870, with a population of 600, Bakersfield was becoming the principal town in the area.

Bakersfield Gate © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Oil is what drew people here at the turn of the century. It’s what kept the Okies here fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. And when they came—nearly doubling Kern County’s population—they brought their hillbilly music with them. Displaced and impoverished, they sang around campfires in work camps. They held dances in Farm Security Administration settlements. They opened cheap beer joints—later called honky-tonks—whose house bands began to play a different kind of country music: electric, danceable, swinging.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace with Bakersfield Gate © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Music became the region’s second natural resource. Performers such as Lefty Fizzell, Wynn Stewart, and Ferlin Husky ignited a national buzz around Bakersfield. The 1953 Jean Shepard/Ferlin Husky classic, “A Dear John Letter” marked the inauguration of the musical eminence that would define this town. It was the area’s first national hit.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Right around this time, Buck Owens strapped on that Telecaster. He started out as the lead guitarist for Bill Woods’ Orange Blossom Playboys, the house band at a local honky-tonk called the Blackboard (which has since shut down). He hit sharper, more rock-and-roll lyrics than the sweet country tunes being over-produced in Nashville by Chet Atkins and performed on the Grand Ole Opry.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buck Owens moved from Texas (by way of Arizona) in 1950 when he was 20 and had dreams bigger than the truck-driving career he’d landed. And in 1969, Buck Owens hit his first Top 10 single, “Under Your Spell Again”. Three years later, he was off and running on his marathon of Number-Ones. Most significant, perhaps, he’s credited with giving rise to a new kind of country—the hard-driving, bare-bones honky-tonk style that came to be known as the “Bakersfield Sound“.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buck’s Bakersfield legacy is rivaled only by that of local boy Merle Haggard, who also started out by playing in honky-tonks when he wasn’t doing time. (Merle sings about these establishments—Blackboard, Lucky Spot—in “Bars of Bakersfield”.) Buck and Merle share that guitar-driven sound, a line-up of No. 1 hits, an ex-wife by the name of Bonnie Owens (herself a local singer of note) and a reverence for Bakersfield which reveals itself in many of their lyrics.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The difference is that Buck stayed here. He lived on a ranch 20 miles out of town while Merle moved up to Shasta County in the early 1980s.

The main exit of Highway 99 is now known as Buck Owens Boulevard. The old Bakersfield sign, once down on Union Avenue/Highway 99, now arches over Select Avenue adjacent to the Crystal Palace, a $6.7 million nightclub and restaurant opened by Buck in 1966. Buck bought the sign to save it from the wrecking ball. He also owned the main country music station, KUZZ.

Buck first recorded “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1972 and re-recorded it in 1988 as a duet with Dwight Yoakam, again hitting No. 1.

Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Bakersfield River Run RV Park, Orange Grove RV Park, Bakersfield RV Resort

Worth Pondering…

Streets Of Bakersfield
I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
I’ve spent a thousand miles a-thumbin’
Yes, I’ve worn blisters on my heels
Trying to find me something better
Here on the streets of Bakersfield

—lyrics by Dwight Yoakam; vocals by Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam

Touring & Tasting Lodi

Quality, not quantity, is what draws savvy wine tasters here

Longing to spend a weekend in a land less traveled? A land covered with acres and acres of fertile vineyards, fruitful wineries, and interesting things to see and do? Spend a week in Lodi, California wine country.

Lodi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s closer than you may think—just 30 minutes south of Sacramento and 90 minutes east of San Francisco—and it has all you need for an ideal wine country getaway.

Our day started with a stop at the AAA to pick up area and regional maps. Next we drove to the Sacramento Delta to observe the Sandhill cranes and snow geese on Staten Island (wintering grounds) and Historic Walnut Grove, one of the earliest settlements along the Sacramento River.

Michael David Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We concluded the day with a delightful wine-tasting experience at Michael David Winery. 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 quirky labels. With more than 800 vineyard acres and more than 30 years experience making wine, the winery is considered one of the region’s finest.

Michael David Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dynamic winemaking team crafts 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 fruit-driven 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 Winery © 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. The Michael David label, available in all major U.S. markets and Canada, embraces the Phillips family’s long history in the Lodi area.

Lucas Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next morning we located Sweet Mel’s Bakery, tucked away behind a vacant used car dealership on Cherokee Lane and Oak Street. Sweet Mel’s specializing in pies, sweet breads, cookies, and other delicious sweets that owner Mel Haining, 79, has quietly run for the past four years.

Lodi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sweet Mel’s got its start with Haining baking pies in his garage in his spare time. He could not find any pies in town to his liking, so he decided to open up his own bakery and share his homemade pies with others.

Haining’s best selling pies are his Marionberry, apple, apricot, and peach pies, but he also offers a German kuchen pie, creme pies, and cheesecake by request. Aside from the typical cookie varieties, Haining makes a popular ranger cookie, which is a mix of corn flake cereal, coconut, and walnuts.

Lodi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We spent several enjoyable hours wandering historic downtown Lodi with century-old brick buildings, brick-cobbled streets lined with elm trees and turn-of-the-century light poles. We love this area and the way the city has maintained its history and heritage. Many unique shops, restaurants, and more than a dozen wine tasting boutiques and exciting restaurants.

We checked out the amazing selection of cheeses and charcuterie at Cheese Central. Pausing at The Dancing Fox Winery, Bakery, Eatery, and Brewery we sampled several unique wines and purchased a loaf of artisan bread.

Van Ruiten Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The following afternoon, we stopped by Van Ruiten Family Winery. Founded 15 years ago, its wine-growing history dates back more than 65 years. 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 106-year-old vines and Zinfandel from the first vineyard John Sr. planted in the 1950s. Guests relax on the outdoor patio and enjoy tasting wines served by a knowledgeable staff that enhance their overall wine tasting experience.

Jessie’s Grove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We were met at Jessie’s Grove Vineyards & Winery by owner, Greg Burns, a 20-year commercial winemaker. Jessie’s Grove was founded by and named after Jessie Spenker, who was the daughter of Joseph and Anna Spenker who founded the Ranch and Estate in 1868. Throughout the years, the ranch and farm have survived the depression, prohibition, droughts, disease, and more.

The property is currently over 320 acres, with 265 acres of premium grape vines. Some of these vines were planted in the 1800s making them over 120 years old. Fabulous wines are still produced from these ancient vines.

Jessie’s Grove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jessie’s Grove is all about history. We enjoyed their ancient-vine wines in an ancient building. Built in the late 1800s, the Olde Ice House Cellar is home to their second tasting room in downtown Lodi, just blocks away from restaurants, shops, and other wineries.

Worth Pondering…

Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.

―Andre Simon

Monsters in the Desert: Sky Art Sculptures of Borrego Springs

Something prehistoric. Something mythical. Something otherworldly. Here, in the middle of the desert, is a magical menagerie of free-standing sculptures that will astound you.

Imagine driving along Borrego Springs Road and something catches your attention—a dark form in the desert landscape. You spy a horse as it rears off to the side of the road. You look again and it is big, but it doesn’t seem to be moving. Then you look again and you realize it is a huge sculpture that has captured your attention. Then, rising out of the flat desert landscape, an elephant appears. Alarmingly close by, a T-Rex bears its maw chasing a saber-tooth tiger.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the corners of your eyes these large structures can be deceptively realistic. This is not a mirage but the gifts of visionary benefactor Dennis Avery (now deceased) and the craft of artist/welder Ricardo Breceda.

The original steel welded sculptors began arriving in April 2008, taking up residence on Avery’s private parcel of land known as Galleta Meadows Estate and easily visible from Borrego Springs Road, north and south. There are now over 130 meticulously crafted metal sculptures sprinkled throughout the small town of Borrego Springs. Elephants, raptors, mammoths, sloths, and saber-toothed tigers prowl the desert off Borrego Springs Road north and south of the town proper. From ground-hugging desert tortoises to rearing horses, each rust-colored sculpture is filled with intricate detail–from the curling eyelashes of 10-foot high elephants to the shaved metal fur of the equally imposing sloths.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Made of waffle-sized pieces of shaped steel, the sculptures weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds each. It’s just basic rusting steel that gives it a very nice patina resembling hide. The forms are representative of prehistoric animals, the original inhabitants of Borrego Springs. The Gomphotherium free-standing art structures are placed in various locations along Borrego Springs Road and Henderson Canyon Road. The sculptures are set in natural areas where the animals appear to be a normal part of the landscape.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery is the son of the founder of Avery Dennison, one of the world’s largest label-making companies. In the early 1990s, Avery was persuaded to buy land in Borrego Springs, primarily by people who wanted open space preserved.

“When there was the huge savings and loan crash in the early 1990s everything was for sale in Borrego,” Avery said. “Nobody wanted to buy a thing. So I bought everything.”

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery owns roughly three square miles of noncontiguous parcels stretching across town.

“I ended up being landed gentry in the basin of Borrego somewhat accidentally,” he said. “I haven’t done anything with it except open it up to the public once a year when the flowers show up.”

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery had long been interested in the paleontological history of the basin. In 2006, he helped finance a book about the fossil treasures of the Anza-Borrego Desert. He also came across a Mexican artist, Ricardo Breceda, who worked out of Perris, California, and conceived the notion of having Breceda re-create the fossil history in a way people could appreciate. The designs are based on the book’s renditions, drawn by other artists and based on fossils, of what the animals looked like.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Starting more than 100 years ago, some paleontologists started kicking up some tusks and bones and birds, and it turns out Borrego Springs is the burial ground for the past 7 million years of these fossil remains of the original inhabitants of Borrego, when it was really water and jungle-like,” Avery said.

The sculptures, two of which are 12 feet tall and 20 feet long, depict a family of gomphotheres—relatives of the woolly mammoth that lived roughly 3 million years ago in the Borrego Valley. All are three-dimensional replicas of animals that roamed the Borrego Valley during the Pliocene epoch, when the area was riparian forest.

Galleta Meadows sculptors © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Palm Canyon Campground (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park); The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course

Worth Pondering…

I am part of all that I have met
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson

Top 10 States with the Best Winter Weather

Here are 10 states that will make your winter warmer

It’s winter! Welcome to the season when conversations center around the weather and how unbelievably cold and miserable it is outside.In most of America, winter sucks. It is cold out. Pipes freeze. Lips, noses, and cheeks get chapped and raw. Black ice kills. It’s horrible.Growing up in Alberta, I have experienced the personal hell that is winter’s awkwardly long, frigid embrace. That’s why I’m a snowbird.

No. 10 is a state that might not come to mind when thinking of a safe haven from cold temperatures.

Golfing in Utah Dixie © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Utah

Below the rim of the Great Basin sits Utah‘s warm-weather retreat, the town of St. George. And there’s good reason they call this area Utah Dixie. Like New Mexico and Nevada, you can generally count on the fact that winters will be packed with sunshine. 

Main Street Downtown Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. New Mexico

Did you know that New Mexico is basically southeastern Arizona? I mean, in the sense of topography. They both have high plains, mountain ranges, deserts, and basins.

Laughlin, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Nevada

Other than in the northern reaches of the state, Nevada’s generally pretty well protected from the worst aspects of winter.

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Mississippi

While North Mississippi can get hit with a little blizzard action (snow tornadoes!) it’s far from the norm. And even when a cold snap does hit, people are generally back to porch-sittin’, sweet tea-sippin’ weather in no time. There are also 26 miles of pristine water and white sand beaches in Mississippi without anywhere near the number of tourists or tacky T-shirt shops you’d find in Florida. And, unlike the other beach towns on the Gulf, Biloxi and Gulfport have casinos. And don’t overlook funky Bay St. Louis. Overall, Mississippi is a state with reasonably painless winters.

Alligator in southern Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Louisiana

You think they’d have Mardi Gras in February if that wasn’t an ideal time for a party?!?!! Wait—what do you mean “it’s set by the church calendar to always fall the day before Ash Wednesday?” Well, you think they would’ve petitioned the pope for a change by now if that humid subtropical climate didn’t laissez les bon temps rouler?!?  Yeah, I have no idea either, I guess. 

If I could eat in only three states for the rest of my life, Louisiana would be in this select group.

Boudin at Don’s Specialty Meats in Scott, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More to the point, y’all know the high regard to which I hold the food culture of Cajun Country and the rest of Louisiana (thank you for Tabasco, po’ boys, gumbo, crawfish, jambalaya, boudin, and crackling) and nature abounds.

Alabama Gulf Coast near Gulf Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Alabama

The people of Alabama asked the Lord that He make the climate of Alabama suitable to play football outside year-round and He listened to the people and granted them a mild winter climate for which to play His game. Except up in Huntsville. While mostly known for college football and slow cooked ribs, Alabama is actually geographically diverse with the rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains in the North, open plains in the center, and the Gulf Coast’s sandy shores in the south. This makes Alabama an excellent destination for RVers.

Corpus Christi Bay, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Texas

According to a quick eyeballing of the globe, Texas is roughly the size of South America or something, and you can’t speak on the weather in Brazil like it’s the same as Chile, right? West Texas is mostly arid desert and you can get the occasional blizzard that shuts down Amarillo. East Texas is subtropical and humid even in the winter. At a spot where the U.S.-Mexico border and the Gulf of Mexico meet sits Brownsville. Warm winds blowing off the sea on 70-degree days make for an ideal scene in the wintertime especially if you’re dealing with stiff, frigid winds blowing feet of snow against the front door back home. With all that said, outside of the Northern Plains, the average temps in Texas in the winter usually stay in the mid-60s during the day, and that’s pretty darn nice.

Lovers Key, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Florida

It goes without saying that the warm weather is a major draw to Florida in December, January, and February. Look out the window… if it’s anything other than sunny and 75 degrees, you probably wish you were in South Florida right now. Just think—you could go from freezing in the cold to boating, golfing, or laying out in the sun. And Key West is the furthest from depressing Northern winter you can get in the Lower 48.

Near Desert Hot Springs in the Coachella Valley, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. California

Yes, California has issues and does a lot of things wrong. Lots of ’em. Let’s talk for a minute about how this state has every single kind of scenic beauty you could possibly want. Start in the south with the expansive, natural beaches set against towering cliffs. Then move inland to the moon-like desertcapes in the Mojave and Joshua Tree. Then it’s a short drive to Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, and the other desert cities of Coachella Valley where the winter weather is near perfect.

Usery Mountain Regional Park near Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Arizona

Ah, Arizona. Occasionally, retired executives from the northeast will accidentally move to Flagstaff and get very sad and angry when they realize the average winter temperature is somewhere in the 20s. But most of Arizona offers up that dry desert day heat (it was 75 in Phoenix last week) that is good for arthritis. Arizona is a warm-weather perch for snowbirds from around North America and one of the most popular getaway destinations in the Southwest.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

Home to cactus, prickly pears, rattlesnakes, the Grand Canyon, roadrunners, the world’s oldest rodeo, and the bolo tie, the state is rich in attractions that entertain the young and the not-so-young. From eroded red rock formations to large urban centers, from the Grand Canyon’s stunning vistas to small mountain towns, from Old West legends to Native American and Mexican culture, and from professional sporting events to world-class golf—Arizona has it all!

Worth Pondering…

As Anne Murray sings in the popular song, “Snowbird”:

“Spread your tiny wings and fly away

And take the snow back with you

Where it came from on that day

So, little snowbird, take me with you when you go

To that land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow…”