West Texas & Big Bend: The Mysterious Lands With Majestic Vistas

Nothing beats the West Texas sky when the clouds roll in. Or when the sun sets. Or when the stars come out. Take a tour of Big Bend National Park, Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, and Balmorhea State Park.

Big Bend National Park with the Rio Grande River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park with the Rio Grande River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is Texas’ best-kept secret. The 800,000-acre park is a stunning mix of topography and ecosystems from the rugged Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert to the verdant banks of the Rio Grande River.

Marathon

Lying some 36 miles to the north, the tiny community of Marathon is dotted with adorable old-timey eateries and other super Texas-y things. Built in 1927 by acclaimed architect, Henry Trost, the legendary Gage Hotel offers authentic laid-back luxury and a first class dining experience. 12 Gage Restaurant is a sophisticated restaurant to satisfy even the most ardent foodies. The hotel’s famous White Buffalo Bar was selected by Texas Monthly Magazine as “Best Hotel Bar” in Texas.

Established in 1991 by Shirley Rooney, Shirley Burn’t Biscuit Bakery is a Marathon institution  providing fresh baked goods daily. Dine in, carry-out, or have any of the freshly baked goods, specialty fried pies, donuts, pastries, cookies, or cinnamon rolls shipped anywhere in the world.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alpine

Alpine is a gem. A remote, high-desert jewel nestled in the tall hills of West Texas at an elevation of 4,475 feet. It is a friendly, bustling community of a little over 5,000 people in a scenic valley with surrounding mountain peaks over a mile high. You’ll immediately take note of the natural beauty surrounding the city.

For more than 70 years the Museum of the Big Bend has been collecting and exhibiting artifacts of the vast Big Bend region. Located on the campus of Sul Ross State University, this is a great starting off point for visitors to the region.

Don’t Miss the Alpine Mural Project, a salute to the town’s ranch heritage.

Fort Davis

Fort Davis is pure Texas, as genuine as the working cattle ranches on the outskirts of town.

The area’s lively military history is preserved at Fort Davis National Historic Site. This 19th-century frontier fort has one of the best preserved “Buffalo Soldier” outposts.

Big Bend Country sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend Country sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another internationally known attraction is McDonald Observatory, a 17 mile drive up a pretty canyon north of Fort Davis.

The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens is located on 507 acres, four miles south of Fort Davis on Highway 118. The Center is in a marvelous setting, with views of Mt. Livermore to the north and Blue Mountain to the southwest. The Center is an interesting blend of informative exhibits and programs, a greenhouse and botanical center, and picturesque hikes featuring spectacular views of the Davis Mountains.

Marfa

Marfa has long been known for its art-world, off-beat cool factor, a mix of kitsch and bizarre.

The 1956 filming of “Giant” starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson first put Marfa on the cultural map. Then Donald Judd, the late minimalist artist, moved to this tiny town to escape New York’s art scene in the ’70s; instead he transported a little piece of it to West Texas. Today Marfa is home to the Judd and Chinati Foundations and Ballroom Marfa, a cultural arts center, as well as several galleries.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Cosmico, hippie-chic hotel and campground offers accommodations in vintage trailers, teepees, tents, and an authentic Mongolian yurt. The 18-acre property also includes a communal bathhouse with showers and a tub, hammocks, and an outdoor kitchen area.

Accounts of strange and unexplained mystery lights just outside of Marfa began during the 19th century and continue to this day. The Marfa Ghost Lights are sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes white, and appear randomly throughout the night. The official Marfa Lights Viewing Area is located 9 miles east of town on Highway 90, towards Alpine. Bring an open mind. The Marfa Lights Festival kicks off on the Labor Day weekend (29th annual; September 4-6, 2015).

Balmorhea

Balmorhea State Park is an oasis in the desert north of Big Bend. The San Soloman Springs feed the swimming pool, keeping the water at a refreshing 74 degrees. The size (1.75 acres, 25 feet deep), temperature, and chlorine-free water make this a great scuba-diving spot.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

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

—Wyman Meinzer

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Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude

Big Bend National Park is well off the beaten path…and well worth exploring.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Welcome to a national park where you can actually revel in its silence and solitude. Remote, huge, and austere, this national park along the Rio Grande River is an uncrowded gem. One of the largest parks in the country, with more than 800,000 acres, Big Bend is also one of the least visited—thanks to, you guessed it, its remote location.

Big Bend National Park is a land of paradox, beauty, and above all, vastness. Even today, only three paved roads run south into Big Bend, but from those roads the view can astound.

The Rio Grande River squiggles its course across the harsh desert landscape, carving through limestone and shale. The river separates much of the state of Texas from the country of Mexico, and within the big bend formed by the river, sits a region that will appeal to RVers and other travelers who believe the best things in life require a little effort.

The nearest interstate highway access is 1-10 to the north; from Fort Stockton southbound on US 385 it is 125 miles to park headquarters at Panther Junction. Nearest town to the park is Marathon, 70 miles from Panther Junction.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In other words, Big Bend visitors must plan their trips. You can see and enjoy plenty on a day visit, but you won’t see nearly enough, and you will have burned a lot of fuel along the way. Big Bend rangers recommend three days, and depending on what you want to do, a week or more may be a better choice.

Prior to visiting the park, we spent several enjoyable days in Big Bend country at Marathon in a charming little place, Marathon Motel & RV Park.

The next day we headed for the heart of Big Bend down US Highway 385 making a stop at the visitor center at Panther Junction for orientation, maps, brochures, and hiking information. Before setting out on greater quests we, strolled Panther Path and checked out the vegetation found in the Chihuahuan Desert—yucas, lechuguillas, creosote brushes, and bunch grasses.

We then continued to the Rio Grande Village on the Rio Grande River to secure a full hookup site for the duration of our stay.

Big Bend is vast deserts, mountains, canyons and THE river—the Rio Grande—and along the river are several hot springs.

But the park touts more than a famous river: In the middle of Big Bend there’s a grand series of peaks known as the Chisos, accessible by dinghy and small RVs along a narrow and curved access road. Ponderosa and pinyon pine carpet the cool flanks of these hills, providing a haven for black bears and cougars.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park was officially created in 1944, but evidence of human habitation of the Big Bend area dates back roughly 12,000 years. The Mescalero Apache and Comanche tribes were on the long list of those who came to the area.

Each season is unique. Summer temperatures can soar to 120 degrees while mild winters allow RVers to explore fascinating geology. The spring months of March, April, and May bring especially good birdwatching with more than 450 species having been counted within the park—more than in any other national park.

There’s not a lot of water here. An average of just 18 inches falls annually in the heights of the Chisos Mountains that tower nearly 8,000 feet into the sky. And if you think that’s not a lot, these mountains get a deluge when compared to the rest of the park. It is a land that is lucky to see 10 inches of rain in a year. This is an arid landscape.

While touring the park in our dinghy we stopped in the Chisos Basin, a valley within a mountainous ring, and one of the park’s most popular areas, with a visitor center, RV park (not suitable for big rigs), and a lodge.

We take a short hike for a clear view of the Window Overlook, or V-Window, as it’s called since its mountainsides form a “V” shape with views of distant mountain ranges.

Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park: Splendor & Solitude © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend has four campgrounds: Rio Grande Village RV Campground (25 full hookup sites), Rio Grande Village Campground (100 non-hookup sites), Chisos Basin Campground (60 non-hookup sites), and Cottonwood Campground (24 non-hookup sites).

Big Bend is filled with surprises, scenic beauty, native plants, wild­life, fantastic outdoor recreation, and the opportunity to enjoy them all in a rugged, majestic setting. A visit to this incredible place will provide wonderful memories for years to come.

If you’ve never been to Big Bend, take your RV, take your time, and go. Go. Just go!

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

After 7 days of trial and error,

God created Texas on the 8th day.

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4 Best National Parks For RVers

The US National Park Service administers a network of nearly 400 natural, cultural, historic, and recreational sites. In an earlier post, Vogel Talks RVing selected four national parks that are great for RVers. Following are the four best national parks for RVers.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

801,000-acre Big Bend National Park is defined by the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between Texas and Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
801,000-acre Big Bend National Park is defined by the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between Texas and Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Far West Texas, along the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park, there’s a magical place with a great deal of silence, beauty, and space—creating an ideal habitat for the turkeys, javelinas, roadrunners, and coyotes.

The 801,000-acre park is defined by the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between Texas and two Mexican states. But the park touts more than a famous river: In the middle of Big Bend there’s a grand series of peaks known as the Chisos, accessible by dinghy and small RVs along a narrow and curved access road. Ponderosa and pinyon pine carpet the cool flanks of these hills, providing a haven for black bears and cougars. The park bisects one of North America’s most significant deserts, the Chihuahuan, creating an abundance of variety.

Big Bend has four campgrounds: Rio Grande Village RV Campground (25 full hookup sites), Rio Grande Village Campground (100 non-hookup sites), Chisos Basin Campground (60 non-hookup sites), and Cottonwood Campground (24 non-hookup sites).

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mesa Verde National Park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.

The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

But for an intimate look at the kivas and actual living accommodations take the 15-minute hike from the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to Spruce Tree House. If you would like to explore Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House guided by a ranger, stop by the Far View Visitor Center for information and tour tickets.

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Zion National Park, Utah

A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile park is Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles long and up to half a mile deep, cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follow the paths where ancient native people and Mormon pioneers walked. Gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky. Experience wilderness in a narrow slot canyon.

Catch a shuttle for Zion Canyon, the only vehicular means by which you can access this gorgeous area in the summer. And as you progress, soak up the splendor offered by the Court of the Patriarchs and the Temple of Sinawava with their secluded hiking trails.

Zion National Park has three campgrounds. South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon. South Campground (127 non-hookup sites) and Watchman Campground (176 sites, 95 with electric hookups; reservations recommended) are near the south entrance at Springdale.

Situated at 7,890 feet above sea level, the Lava Point Campground (6 primitive sites) is off the Kolob Terrace Road, 25 miles (45 minutes) north of the town of Virgin. It takes approximately one hour and 20 minutes to drive to the campground from the South Entrance of Zion Canyon.

There are no campgrounds in Kolob Canyons. Private RV parks are also available near the park’s entrances.

Death Valley National Park, California

Dante’s View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley, affords the best overall views of the southern half of the national park including Badwater. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Dante’s View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley, affords the best overall views of the southern half of the national park including Badwater. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.

Death Valley offers six campgrounds suitable for most RVs: Furnace Creek (136 sites, a few full hookups), Stovepipe Wells Village (190 sites; 19 full hookups), Sunset (270 non-hookup sites), Texas Spring (92 non-hookup sites), Mesquite Spring (30 non-hookup sites), and Widrose (23 non-hookup sites). A high-clearance vehicle is required to access Thorndike (6 non-hookup sites; 7,400-foot elevation) and Mahogany Flat (10 non-hookup sites; 8,200-foot elevation).

Worth Pondering…

Not to have known…either the mountain or the desert is not to have known one’s self.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

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Nothing Behind Me, Everything Ahead Of Me On The Great American Road Trip

One of the most quintessentially American experiences is the road trip.

Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine the transcendent beauty of Shenandoah National Park.
Anyone who has listened to John Denver sing about country roads and the Blue Ridge Mountains can easily imagine the transcendent beauty of Shenandoah National Park along the Skyline Drive. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is it about road trips? The adventure? The unknown?

Maybe Jack Kerouac nailed it in his highway-focused tome On the Road when he wrote, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road”.

Undecided about your RV vacation? Here are four tips to make your road trip a fantastic experience.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road that bisects the length of Shenandoah National Park winding along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains provides stunning views of the park’s mountains, valleys, and forests.

Skyline Drive is the only public road through the park and offers 75 overlooks with breathtaking views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont area to the east. The long, narrow park flows outward, upward, and downward from the highway that splits it.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Native Indians named the valley Shenandoah, mean­ing Daughter of the Stars, for the expansive firmament that roofed their world. Daylight vistas of gently slop­ing mountains, forests, and tumbling rivers, and mountain streams are equally sparkling.

West Texas & Big Bend

Nothing beats the West Texas sky when the clouds roll in. Or when the sun sets. Or when the stars come out. Take a tour of Big Bend National Park, Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, and Balmorhea State Park.

Big Bend is a stunning mix of topography and ecosystems from the rugged Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert to the verdant banks of the Rio Grande River.

Lying some 36 miles to the north, the tiny community of Marathon is dotted with adorable old-timey eateries and other super Texas-y things. Check out the historic and beautiful Gage Hotel and Shirley Burn’t Biscuit Bakery, a Marathon institution providing fresh baked goods daily.

A remote, high-desert jewel nestled in the tall hills of West Texas, Alpine is a friendly, bustling community of a little over 5,000 people in a scenic valley that feels like nowhere else in the state.

Marfa has long been known for its art-world, off-beat cool factor, a mix of kitsch and bizarre; the Marfa Lights Festival kicks off on the Labor Day weekend (29th annual; September 4-6, 2015).

Red Rock Scenic Byway Visitor Information Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Red Rock Scenic Byway Visitor Information Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis is pure Texas, as genuine as the working cattle ranches on the outskirts of town. The area’s lively military history is preserved at Fort Davis National Historic Site. An internationally known attraction, the McDonald Observatory is a 17 mile drive up a pretty canyon north of town.

Don’t miss Balmorhea an oasis in the desert north of Big Bend. The San Soloman Springs feed the swimming pool, keeping the water at a refreshing 74 degrees.

Red Rock Scenic Byway, Arizona

Red Rock Scenic Byway winds through Sedona’s Red Rock Country, often called a “museum without walls.”

This highly acclaimed National Scenic Byway, begins shortly after you exit #298 off I-17 and has earned the distinction of being Arizona’s First All-American Road. Although the Scenic Byway is only 7.5 miles, it is long on spectacular sights.

Sedona’s Red Rocks are comprised of sediment layers deposited over many millions of years. The shale foundation is the remainder of ancient swamp lands. Other layers are the remainder of an ancient beachfront that deposited iron about 275 million years ago. This iron is what gives Sedona’s rocks their rich red color.

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina and Tennessee

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.

Located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina, the Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is about 40+ miles long. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?

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Texas is BIG—Beautiful & Diverse

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse.

Big Bend National Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

In a state as diverse as Texas, there’s always an adventure around every corner and unique attractions at every turn.

From West Texas to the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, El Paso to Texarkana to Brownsville, from outdoor enthusiasts to foodies to culture buffs, there’s always something to see and do in Texas.

Even those of us who visit Texas frequently and spend a big chunk of our time traversing it leave most of the state untouched.

We’ve driven through Texas numerous times over the years. But yet, it always amazes us just how big Texas really is.

Charting any RV trip through the state can be a daunting task. So many miles, so many routes, and even after all our years on the road we’ve still not seen large portions of the Lone Star State. Every trip through, we explore new areas—and revisit favorite haunts.

The state overflows with awesomeness at every turn, places we find completely captivating.

Monahans Sandhills State Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually we just follow I-10 in from the west. Yes, it can be boring but it is the most direct route.

We take our time and schedule varied side excursions along the way and make the journey—and not the destination—the highlight of the trip. It is the journey that is the joy of RVing.

We’ve explored the Big Bend area, including Big Bend National Park, Terlingua, Alpine, Marfa, and Davis Mountain Observatory. If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

The wind-swept, dynamic rippling sandscapes in Monahans Sandhills State Park is one-of-a-kind. A half-hour’s drive west of Odessa it’s well worth a visit. The park consists of 3,840 acres of wind-sculpted living sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high. The Park is set in one of the areas where the dunes are still active and constantly being shaped by the wind and rain. The dunes grow and change shape due to seasonal prevailing winds and you can watch them change whenever the wind is blowing.

Blue Bell, Brenham  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Blue Bell, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ice cream. For us aficionados, ice cream is one of the four food groups. Blue Bell has become the best tasting and certainly the most successful ice cream in Texas (and that means the best in the world). Would my taste buds lie? To learn what makes an exceptionally good thing good, we visited “the little creamery” in Brenham: I think we found out but every few years we require a refresher course.

Lockhart is the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Out-of-towners and locals flock to four smoked-meat emporiums—Black’s Barbecue, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s Market. Several tons of barbecued beef, pork, chicken, and smoked sausage links are served each day. Aside from the barbecue, Lockhart is a wonderful old town to visit. This small Texas town exudes a rustic, slow-paced charm arising from its Western heritage, rooted in cattle and cotton.

One of the great joys of RVing is visiting new places and making interesting discoveries. Another is just the opposite—revisiting those places that demand a closer look. Sometimes that second chance leads to a third—and a fourth. City Market in Luling, is such a place. The meat-market-turned-barbecue-restaurant started in 1958, and over the years has become a barbecue icon. This is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.

Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town. Not surprisingly, the best way to learn the history of Shiner is to learn the history of Shiner Beer, as the two have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. So, we headed to Spoetzl Brewery and joined a tour. The tour gave use a firsthand look into the brewing process and, of course, a firsthand sampling of the final product, from flagstaff Shiner Bock to the Extra Pale Ale, Haymaker. A day trip to Shiner goes down as smooth as the namesake beverage. As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!”

There’s more—much more—adventure in Texas. Space does not permit to detail our numerous other unforgettable adventures and experiences from The Alamo, River Walk, and San Antonio Missions National Historic Park in San Antonio to Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park in the Hill Country. Galveston, Johnson Space Center, Big Thicket National Preserve, Caddo Lake, Rockport, Goliad, Rio Grande Valley, Palo Duro Canyon, and Austin.

Don’t Mess with Texas, Y’all!

And, of course, because we haven’t yet been quite everywhere, we’ll keep exploring Texas

What’s Next?

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

After 7 days of trial and error,

God created Texas on the 8th day.

Read More

2 National Parks That Are Best During Winter

Touring America’s national parks in an RV can be a transcendent experience.

Dante's View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley
Dante’s View, a 5,450-foot overlook near the edge of the Black Mountains on the eastern border of Death Valley, affords the best overall views of the southern half of the national park including Badwater. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter can be one of the best times to get out and explore the great outdoors. Although some parks may have limited access to certain areas due to ice and a heavy accumulation of snow, many of the unique natural environments found in America’s national parks are best appreciated during the winter months.

Many of the most famous national parks experience a drastic drop in attendance, allowing visitors better viewing opportunities amid less crowded conditions. In fact, you may just have the park mostly to yourself.

Many of these parks are located in the US Sunbelt offering snowbirds a wide variety of unspoiled landscapes to enjoy in warm comfort during the winter. This is a perfect time to visit one or more national parks.

With snowbirds and Winter Texans in mind, the following are my picks for the two best national parks to visit this winter.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley. The very name repels. So do the superlatives: the hottest (134 degrees in 1913), driest (less than 2 inches of average annual rainfall), and lowest (282 feet below sea level) of the U.S. national parks. Nearly 550 square miles of its area lie below sea level.

Its forbidding name, suggests a vast stretch of nothingness. Boring. Bleak. Empty. Right?

Looking out from Zabriskie Point, you are surrounded by one of Death Valley's forbidding, almost unearthly, desert landscapes.
Looking out from Zabriskie Point, you are surrounded by one of Death Valley’s forbidding, almost unearthly, desert landscapes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead wrong. Despite its inhospitable name, Death Valley National Park can, in fact, be quite welcoming, especially during the cooler winter months.

With average temperatures that hover around 120 degrees during the summertime, Death Valley National Park is best visited during the winter months. The typically harsh environment of Death Valley is much more inviting during the winter, with temperatures in the low 70s during the day and the high 30s during the night.

The largest national park outside of Alaska, Death Valley offers everything from snow-covered mountain peaks to sand dunes. It’s a spot unique on Earth, with high, snow-frosted 11,000-foot peaks towering over a valley that drops 282 feet below sea-level.

There are whimsical salt formations, reflective pools, and hidden side canyons. There are date palms, historic borax mining equipment, and volcanic craters.

Take a tour through Scotty’s Castle, one man’s dream retreat, or drive to Dante’s View as the sun leaves the valley. It’s a big park, with lots to see, and it’s a lot easier when the temperatures are in two, not three, digits.

Unlike many other parks, Death Valley’s peak season is during the winter and early spring. The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the least-crowded. It is advisable to make camping reservations in advance.

Big Bend National Park

The Rio Grande River borders more than 100 miles of the park, and scenic half-day canoe floats are available year-round. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Rio Grande River borders more than 100 miles of the park, and scenic half-day canoe floats are available year-round. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest protected area of Texas, Big Bend National Park is perhaps most appealing in winter. Temperatures hover in the 60s, perfect for taking on the park’s nearly 200 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, which span desert, riverside, and mountain terrain.

The Rio Grande River borders more than 100 miles of the park, and scenic half-day canoe floats are available year-round.

Elevation in the park ranges from 1,800 feet along the river to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures can vary by 20 degrees between the two, so bring extra layers.

Rio Grande Village is the center of visitor activity during the winter months. Great scenery, warm temperatures, abundant wildlife, and full visitor services make this a must-see location for any Big Bend outing. Rio Grande Village has an NPS campground and visitor center, and a concession-operated camper store, laundry, and shower facility. The store also runs the Rio Grande Village RV Campground, the only campground with full hook-ups.

Ringed by massive cliffs and amazing views, the Chisos Basin is a year-round focal point. Numerous trails begin in the basin, and range from short walks to longer backcountry hikes. The paved, 0.3 mile Window View Trail provides an excellent place to view the mountain peaks or watch an evening sunset.

A mix of desert, canyon, and mountain landscapes with many and varied desert plants and wildlife, Big Bend National Park is crossed by a few roads and many trails © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A mix of desert, canyon, and mountain landscapes with many and varied desert plants and wildlife, Big Bend National Park is crossed by a few roads and many trails © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are a number of services in the Basin including the lodge, restaurant, and camper store. A 60-site campground is located in the lower portion of the developed area.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983

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Eyes on Texas

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. Besides serving up quiet in big, Texas-size portions, Big Bend boasts geologic wonders, unique wildlife, and plenty of room for hikers and campers to spread out.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. The Indians thought this land was the Great Spirit’s rock storage facility; the Spaniards called it “El Despoblado,” or “the uninhabited land.” However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Chihuahuan Desert vegetation—bunchgrasses, creosote bushes, cactuses, lechuguillas, yuccas, sotols, and more—covers most of the terrain. But the Rio Grande and its lush floodplains and steep, narrow canyons form almost a park of their own. So do the Chisos Mountains; up to 20 degrees cooler than the desert floor, they harbor pine, juniper, and oak, as well as deer, mountain lions, bears, and other wildlife.

The National Park Service operates three developed front-country campgrounds: Chisos Basin Campground, Cottonwood Campground (near Castolon), and Rio Grande Village Campground.

The concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground (with full hook-ups) is also located at Rio Grande Village.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge's grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is special for many reasons. It is home to America’s tallest bird, the highly endangered whooping crane. One of the rarest creatures in North America, the whooping crane is making a comeback from a low of 16 birds in 1941.

Each winter the refuge plays host to huge wild flocks of whooping cranes whose bugle-like call echoes across the marsh. Productive tidal flats provide clams and crabs for the whoopers to eat. These cranes can often be seen from the observation tower from late October to mid-April.

With a spectacular wing span of 8 feet, the cranes reach speeds of 30 mph and travel 400 miles a day along their 2,600-mile migratory route between summer nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and wintering grounds at the Aransas refuge.

The refuge also provides an important resting, feeding, and wintering grounds for more than 390 migratory and native species including pelicans, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and many other birds.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through the refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Additional activities include hiking, birding, picnicking, and fishing. Six leisurely hiking trails totaling 4.3 miles are available.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chain of five missions that were established along the San Antonio River during the 18th century stands as a reminder of Spain’s most successful attempt to extend its New World influence and control. Representing both church and state, these missions were charged with converting the local Native Americans, collectively called Coahuiltecans, into devout Catholics and productive members of Spanish society.

More than just churches on the Spanish Colonial frontier, the missions also served as vocational and educational centers, economic enterprises involved in agricultural and ranching endeavors and regional trade.

Before the Spanish came, there were no horses in Texas and no gunfire, except for the raiding Apache. A vast frontier had never been touched by a wheel or felt the blade of an iron ax.

Among other contributions, the missions planted the roots of ranching in Texas. Indian vaqueros tended huge herds of cattle, goats, and sheep. They marked stock with branding irons like the ones used in Spain and Portugal as early as the 10th century.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 10 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.

—Davy Crockett

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10 Spectacular National Parks for Camping

Camping in America’s national parks allows a visitor to more fully appreciate the beauty of America’s natural treasures.

If you’re in search of a camper’s delight, these are the best national parks for you.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona/Utah

Encompassing over 1.2 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based & backcountry recreation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Encompassing over 1.2 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based & backcountry recreation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encompassing over 1.2 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based and backcountry recreation. The recreation area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah, encompassing scenic vistas, geologic wonders, and a vast panorama of human history.

Lees Ferry Campground offers 55 developed camping sites; no hookups available.

Primitive Camping is available at Stanton Creek, Hite, Farley Canyon, and Dirty Devil.

Lone Rock Beach is a beach camping area

Additional developed campgrounds are operated by Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas, are available at Wahweap, Bullfrog, and Halls Crossing.

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Big Bend National Park, Texas

Located in the southwest corner of Texas where the Rio Grande makes its “big bend” of a ­turn from south to north along the Mexican border, Big Bend National Park is a scenic blend of desert, mountain, and river environments. The peaks are the Chisos and the desert, the Chihuahuan stretching deep into Mexico.

The National Park Service operates three developed front country campgrounds: Chisos Basin Campground, Cottonwood Campground (near Castolon), and Rio Grande Village Campground.

Shenandoah National Park covers the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for over seventy-five miles. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Shenandoah National Park covers the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for over seventy-five miles. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground offers full hook-ups.

A limited number of campsites in Rio Grande Village and the Chisos Basin campgrounds are can be reserved from November 15-April 15.

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Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park is a beautiful, historic national treasure which includes the scenic 105-mile long Skyline Drive—a designated National Scenic Byway. The Park covers the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for over seventy-five miles.

The Native Indians named the valley Shenandoah, mean­ing Daughter of the Stars, for the expansive firmament that roofed their world. Daylight vistas of gently slop­ing mountains, forests, and tumbling rivers, and mountain streams are equally sparkling.

As each season arrives, and the changing leaves hit their peak of rich color, the expansive views become a tapestry of lush green in spring and summer to red, yellow, and orange in autumn.

There are four campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park: Mathews Arm (mile 22.1), Big Meadows (mile 51.2), Lewis Mountain (mile 57.5), and Loft Mountain (mile 79.5).

Although Shenandoah National Park doesn’t have a campground that is just for RVs, it does have three campgrounds that will accommodate large RVs. Mathews Arm, Big Meadows, and Loft Mountain campgrounds have pull-through and deep back-in sites which can accommodate an RV with a tow vehicle. Although hookups are not available, the campgrounds do have potable water and dump stations (with the exception of Lewis Mountain Campground).

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls, © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly has sheer sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

The northernmost and southernmost edges are accessible from paved roads—the North and South Rim drives. The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls and a site of special significance for the Navajo.

The campground, located in a shallow valley less than ¼-mile from the visitor center is large with approximately 100 spacious campsites, plus a large group camping area. Sites are of varying length and suitable for RVs up to 40 feet in length. Each site includes a parking space, picnic table, and grill. There are 3 restroom facilities that include sinks and flushable toilets, but no showers. No hookups are available, but a dump station is located in Loop 1. Limited services are available during winter months.

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Please Note: This is Part 3 of a 3-part series

Part 1: Top 10 National Parks for Camping

Part 2: Best 10 National Parks for Camping

Worth Pondering…

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in, for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

—Wallace Stegner

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50 Things To See or Do See in Your RV Before You Die

You might have read it or flipped through it or seen it on a shelf and thought, “I should pick that up.”

The first thing many visitors notice about the Alamo is its small size, especially when compared with the buildings of the surrounding city. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The first thing many visitors notice about the Alamo is its small size, especially when compared with the buildings of the surrounding city. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s the national bestseller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

The list, which includes everything from Asian sailing excursions to African horseback riding sites, might be mouthwatering to the wannabe world traveler. For most, however, the financial ability to travel the world simply isn’t there.

But have no fear. Sometimes the best adventures are those in your own backyard.

Here, in alphabetical order, are 50 things to do or see in your RV before you die:

Acadia National Park, Maine

People have been drawn to the rugged coast of Maine throughout history. Thanks to the robber barons that used the park as a private playground in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the islands of Acadia have been preserved in a pristine state.

Acadia’s largest island, Mount Desert Island, encompasses a range of geological diversity, including rocky Atlantic shoreline, lush forests of spruce and fir, dozens of lakes and ponds, and rugged granite hills. Today visitors come to Acadia to hike granite peaks, bike historic carriage roads, or relax and enjoy the scenery.

The Alamo, Texas

One hundred seventy-six years ago the Alamo was the site of a pivotal moment in the history of the Texas Revolution where 250 or so Texian and Tejano defenders held off an estimated 1,500 Mexican soldiers for 13 days.

The Alamo is remembered as a heroic struggle against overwhelming odds—a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. For this reason the Alamo remains hallowed ground and the “Shrine of Texas Liberty.”

If you have never visited this sacred shrine, you haven’t really visited Texas.

Remember the Alamo!

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Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, New Mexico

Each October, New Mexico skies are full of bold blues, imperial reds, and vibrant yellows. The event is the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot-air balloon event in the world. This extravaganza takes place from the first weekend through the second weekend in October—this year’s festival is from October 6-14—and attracts hundreds of hot-air balloonists from around the world.

After you’ve been to the Fiesta, it will be easy to see why New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment.

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Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Searching for the Whooping Cranes in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Searching for the Whooping Cranes in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is special for many reasons. It is home to America’s tallest bird, the highly endangered whooping crane. In fact, each winter the refuge plays host to huge wild flocks of whooping cranes whose bugle-like call echoes across the marsh.

With a spectacular wing span of 8 feet, the cranes reach speeds of 30 mph and travel 400 miles a day along their 2,600-mile migratory route between summer nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and wintering grounds at the Aransas refuge.

The refuge also provides an important resting, feeding, and wintering grounds for more than 390 migratory and native species including pelicans, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and many other birds.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Park is a geological wonderland and one of Utah’s most accessible parks. The extraordinary features of the park create a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures that is unlike any other in the world. An awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations dot its landscape.

The greatest density of natural arches in the world occurs in Arches which preserves more than 2,000 imposing natural sandstone arches—including the world-famous and much-photographed Delicate Arch.

Continue reading →

Big Bend National Park, Texas

If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. Besides serving up quiet in big, Texas-size portions, Big Bend boasts geologic wonders, unique wildlife, and plenty of room for hikers and campers to spread out.

Arches is renown for an awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Arches is renown for an awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. The Indians thought this land was the Great Spirit’s rock storage facility; the Spaniards called it “El Despoblado,” or “the uninhabited land.” However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of an 8-part series on 50 Places to RV Before You Die

Worth Pondering…

“My favorite thing is to go where I have never been,” wrote photographer Diane Arbus, and so it is with us.

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