My 5 Favorite State Parks

Every year, America’s nearly 8,000 state parks see more than 720 million visitors—more than two-and-a-half times the number of all visits to national parks, which include marquee names such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These state parks tend to be smaller than national parks, and relatively modest in comparison, but they form the backbone of the park system and enjoy fierce loyalty from families who visit year after year.

Chances are you’re not too far from a state parks. Visit a state park today.

Everyone has lists and seldom do any two lists agree. But lists can be interesting fodder for discussion, debate, and sometimes agreement.

Here are My 5 Favorite State Parks.

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center. Witness hawk migrations and enjoy bird walks and natural history tours at this key migratory stopover.

You can spend a whole day exploring bird life along a one-mile walking trail through sugar hackberry, Rio Grande ash, and Texas ebony; and the six-mile paved inner and outer loops. Or take the tram or rent a bicycle to meander around the loops.

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina
Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

One of the special features at Catalina State Park (among many!) is an amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas
The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its blood-red sandstone cliffs and weird rock formations, there’s an other-worldly feeling at Valley of Fire State Park. The terrain at Valley of Fire so resembles Mars that the Mars scenes of Total Recall were almost all filmed here.

Popular activities include camping, picnicking, photography, hiking among the intriguing rock formations, and soaking in the fascinating story of the area’s geological evolution. Park features include Fire Canyon/Silica Dome, Rainbow Vista, White Domes, and Beehives. Valley of Fire State Park is 55 miles—and a few light-years—northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and on exit 75.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Consisting of 6,150 acres with two miles of sugar white sand beaches and three fresh water lakes, Gulf State Park has a modern full-service campground, cabins, cottages, back country trails, and the largest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico.

The park also features an interactive nature center, nationally recognized scenic nature trail, new tennis courts, beautiful beach pavilion, 18-hole Refuge Golf Course, and a 900-acre lake for fishing in the picnic area on Lake Shelby.

Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota
With its pine-clad mountains and striking stone spires giving way in the south to gently rolling grasslands, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park occupies one of the prettiest corners of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Drive on the windy Needles Highway in the north, through narrow tunnels carved through the rock, to mirror-like Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel.” To the south, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop is the place to find pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and the famous “begging donkeys”.

Custer State Park touts itself as one of the few remaining wild sanctuaries in the country. Elk, mountain goats and nearly 1,300 buffalo roam this 71,000-acre park, set in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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Death Valley National Park: Hottest, Driest, Lowest

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.

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

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

Dead wrong. Despite its inhospitable name, Death Valley National Park can, in fact, be quite welcoming.

Death Valley National Park has 3.3 million acres of desert and mountains, making it the largest national park in the contiguous United States. The park sits in a low depression east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though Death Valley measures in at just 12 miles wide, the expanse covers 130 miles in length. Telescope Peak marks the highest elevation in the park at 11,039 feet, while the lowest spot, Badwater, is down at 282 feet below sea level, the fifth lowest point in the world.

A 600-foot-deep freshwater lake once filled the valley floor, but that water dried up about 10,000 years ago. Now the valley floor is a salt pan, which contributed to the naming of the spot. It is said a man who was sent out to find all the watering holes in Death Valley could not get his horse to drink because of the salt content, and called it “bad water.”

In 1849, pioneers trekked through with covered wagons. Ironically, while some pioneers died while crossing other areas, including the Sierra Nevada, no one died in Death Valley, despite its inhospitable conditions. When a woman said “Goodbye, Death Valley” as she departed, the misnomer stuck.

Furnace Creek Ranch boasts the lowest-elevation golf course in the world
Furnace Creek Ranch boasts the lowest-elevation golf course in the world at 214 feet below sea level, tennis courts, spring-fed swimming pools, horseback riding, hiking trails, and carriage rides. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In later years, the area provided a source for borax mined for use in glass, porcelain, ceramics, detergents, and other items. Twenty-mule teams pulled wagonloads of borax from the mines to the railroads. Gold and silver were also mined in the valley.

Contrary to its name, Death Valley teems with life. The Park contains an amazing variety of terrain, historic sites, plants, and animals for outdoor adventurers to explore. Amazingly more than 1,000 species of plants (50 of them found nowhere else in the world), 51 species of mammals, more than 300 types of birds, and even some fish call this area home. And with the darkest nights of any national park, it’s perfect for sky gazing.

The possibilities for discovery are endless. From the magical burst of wildflower blooms in spring to the allure of ghost towns, historic mining operations, and dramatic landscapes of rugged canyons, mountains, and valleys, Death Valley National Park offers something for everyone.

Spring is the most popular time to visit Death Valley. Besides warm and sunny days, the possibility of spring wildflowers is a big attraction. If the previous winter brought rain, the desert can put on an impressive floral display, usually peaking in late March to early April.

Autumn arrives in late October, with warm but pleasant temperatures and generally clear skies. Winter has cool but pleasant days and chilly nights. With snow capping the high peaks and low angled winter light, this season is especially beautiful for exploring the valley. Summer starts early in Death Valley. By May the valley is too hot for many visitors.

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

Using Wine Ridge RV Resort in Pahrump, Nevada, as our home base, we explored the southeastern portion of Death Valley National Park including stops at Dante’s View, Zabrieski Point, Furnace Creek, and Badwater Basin.

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.

Looking out from Zabriskie Point, you are surrounded by one of Death Valley’s forbidding, almost unearthly, desert landscapes. Everywhere you look, you see bone-dry, finely-sculpted, golden-brown-black badlands.

The National Park Service maintains a large visitors center at Furnace Creek, a good place to begin an exploration of Death Valley. There are several nice campgrounds throughout the valley, but the three at Furnace Creek are the most popular.

Nearby is Furnace Creek Ranch, which boasts the lowest-elevation golf course in the world at 214 feet below sea level, tennis courts, spring-fed swimming pools, horseback riding, hiking trails, and carriage rides.

salt flats at Badwarwe Basin
Walk onto the crusted salt flats at Badwarwe Basin for a short distance to enjoy the expansive views up and down the valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eighteen miles south of Furnace Creek at 282 feet below sea level is Badwater, probably the best known and most visited place in Death Valley. Walk onto the crusted salt flats for a short distance to enjoy the expansive views up and down the valley and get a closer look at salt crystals. They feel soft and springy underfoot.

Did You Know?

In 1929, no rain was recorded in Death Valley. From 1931 through 1934, a 40 month period, only 0.64 inches of rain fell.

Details

Death Valley National Park

Established: National Monument, February 11, 1933; National Park, October 31, 1994

Size: 3,372,401.96 acres

Vehicle Entrance Fee: $20 for 7 Days

2013 Visitor Count: 951,972

Worth Pondering…

But it was so hot that swallows in full flight fell to the earth dead and when and I went out to read the thermometer with a wet Turkish towel on my head, it was dry before I returned.

—Oscar Denten, caretaker of what is now the Furnace Creek Ranch on the record hot day of 134°F (56°C) in July 1913

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North-South Snowbird RV Routes

As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds escape winter at home by migrating southward each year.

RV Park at Rolling Hills Casino at Redding, California,
RV Park at Rolling Hills Casino at Redding, California, is a great travel stop on I-5. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Selecting a balmy snowbird roost is when all the fun begins. Choice is in rich supply.

Many snowbirds are north-south creatures, meaning those from the Northwest tend to settle in Arizona, Nevada, and California; those from the Midwest flock to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; and those from the Northeast head for Florida.

Are you planning on heading directly south from your home location? Or will you cut across the country in a diagonal direction, exploring a whole new longitude?

Choice of route is also subject to your own inclinations. Do you want to sightsee along the way, or—as might be the case in mid-winter—do you prefer to go hell-bent-for- leather to the Sunbelt?

A successful—and stress free—trip requires a little homework  before you leave.

Regardless of your journey, factor in the drive times and travel expenses.

While you’re at it, be sure to account for the changing weather conditions you’ll encounter on your travels. If you haven’t given yourself enough time to avoid the first winter storm, plan accordingly. Allow yourself sufficient time for cold-weather driving, and bring ample warm-weather clothes to get you through the journey.

After settling into Flag City RV Resort, a 5-star RV park, we started our seven-day tour. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
After settling into Flag City RV Resort, a 5-star RV park, we started our seven-day tour of the Lodi (California) wine area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the interstate highways are generally well-maintained and have priority for snow clearing and sanding, they’re a good bet for safe winter travel.

With many interstate highways in America, the price one pays for fast speed convenience is a lack of variation in the scenery one passes through. North-south interstates are different, partly because they are north-south routes and therefore pass through varying climatic conditions and altitude changes.

Interstates 95 and 75 are the two preferred north-south travel routes from the northeast to Florida because they are direct and provide a wide range of service facilities.

“Along Interstate-95” and “Along Interstate-75” are two popular spiral bound mile-by-mile guidebooks with practical information on these two major north-south routes.

I-95 is the longest north-south interstate in the US, traveling through 15 states. It is the main highway on the East Coast of the U. S., paralleling the Atlantic Ocean from Maine to Florida and serving some of the best-known cities in the country including Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Miami.

Whiskey Flats RV Park (Hawthorne, Nevada) is conveniently located mid-way between Reno and Las Vegas
Many snowbirds from the Northwest use US Highway 95 for their north-south travel route. Whiskey Flats RV Park (Hawthorne, Nevada) is conveniently located mid-way between Reno and Las Vegas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Snowbirds who RV south for the winter from the northwest have a choice of several routes with most opting for I-5 or 1-15 for a major portion of the journey. But many RVers ask, “Isn’t there a better route?” That seems to be a common question on RV forums.

Although friends have shared little short-cuts with us (such as leaving I-15 at Dillon and going 41/55 to Whitehall and 69 into Boulder, avoiding the big climb to Butte), the result of our conversations and research have shown few strong alternatives to the I-15.

It’s winter, we’re not interested in the icy scenery and we just want to get out of the cold. Getting there is not half the fun. All of this points to the I-15 as the best Snowbird path south from Alberta, Montana, and eastern Idaho.

Snowbirds from the Midwest often use Interstate 35 and a combination of several other interstates and secondary highways to reach their Sunbelt roost.

Plotting a route in common mapping software or relying exclusively on a GPS generally produces the fastest or shortest route, which isn’t necessarily the best winter driving route for RVs.

Orange Groove RV Park, off US-99 in Bakersfield
Orange Groove RV Park, off US-99 in Bakersfield is a popular overnight stop for snowbirds. It’s a 40-acre orchard where you park your RV between row after row of beautiful orange trees. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Watch the weather and road reports. Leave when you have a three-day window of good weather and clear roads.

Mountain driving, with its steep grades and hairpin turns, can be scary enough in the summer especially for those accustomed to gunbarrel-straight highways. However, it’s really the ice and snow that are the big concern.

If you get caught in a winter storm, wait it out and give the road crews time to clear the highway.

Drive carefully leaving extra room between vehicles and allow extra time to stop.

If the weather looks like it will be getting bad, or becomes terrible overnight, then stay put. Much better to spend an extra day in a campground than in a cold RV stranded on a snow-bound highway.

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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Snowbird Tips—Exploring the Sun Belt

As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds escape winter at home by migrating southward each year.

Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Selecting your balmy Snowbird roost is when all the fun begins. Choice is in rich supply, and for those who like to hop around a bit, a combination of spots can let you sample entire regions and states.

Perhaps the biggest consideration should be on the type of environment you prefer, as well as the type of activities you’d like to pursue. Do you crave white sandy beaches and tropical palm trees? Or dry air and rustic frontier homesteads? Perhaps a thriving music and arts scene? Or maybe you’re after a balance of big city fun and small-town charm?

Many communities seem tailor made for snowbirds, complete with popular tourism attractions, spectacular national parks and scenery that’s open year-round. Check out the RV shows, farmers markets, swap meets, seasonal festivals, sports events, and other events occurring in your prospective destination.

Many follow the sun to snowbird hotspots in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Less familiar snowbird roosts attract others to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Nevada. Great snowbird destinations thrive across the Sun Belt; all you have to do is find the one that’s right for you.

Many Snowbirds are north-south creatures, meaning those from the Northwest tend to settle in Arizona, Nevada and California; those from the Midwest flock to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; and those from the Northeast head for Florida.

This may sound crazy, but I am going back to Crazy Quartzsite again this year!
This may sound crazy, but I am going back to Crazy Quartzsite again this year! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While many snowbirds head directly south from their northern home and enjoy long-term stays at RV parks and resorts, others cut across the country in a diagonal direction, exploring a whole new longitude. Still other snowbirds follow an itinerary across the Sun Belt sampling a variety of regions and roosts.

The routes to the southern destinations are filled with attractions—if you plan to take your time on your way to the sunshine you will undoubtedly discover that getting there is half the fun.

Some snowbirds break up their journey into segments taking several weeks to a month or more to reach their southern roost.

While many snowbirds enjoy long-term stays at RV parks and resorts that cultivate a sense of community among seasonal residents, others spend the winter months traveling from one warm-weather location to another.

Getting there can be half the fun!

The southwest is amazing. The colors are vibrant, the land varied and breathtaking.

Southern Utah is a land of unsurpassed, surprising beauty, characterized by contrasting landscapes of snow-capped mountains, towering fins of orange sandstone shaped by erosion into bridges, arches, and strange hoodoos. The major draw for many visitors to Southern Utah is Utah’s five spectacular national parks: Bryce Canyon and Zion in the southwest, Capitol Reef roughly in the center of the state, and Arches and Canyonlands in the southeastern reaches.

You only live once, so Las Vegas is a must! From casinos to shopping to mega extravaganza shows, it’s a world wonder of glitz, glamour, and non-stop action. Gambling to showgirl glamour, everything is bigger-than-life and abundant in Vegas.

When the lights, sights, and sounds of the Strip become over-stimulating and you crave the thrill of adventure, take a gamble and see what sort of excitement awaits in the desert beyond Las Vegas. Not everything revolves around the casinos—get out of town and do some exploring.

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

Red rock formations, towering mountains, vast expanses of high desert covered with Joshua trees, and Hoover Dam are all within an hour’s drive of the city. From Valley of Fire State Park to the Speedway and world-class fishing on Lake Mead, there’s always something to do.

The way the Texas countryside changes from the stark desert to the prairie to the juniper forests and lush green of the hill country is spectacular. Across the state you’ll find award-winning BBQ, the original Tex-Mex, truly astounding seafood, and the best chili to ever grace a bowl. And yes, pecan pie and Blue Bell ice cream.

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…”

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Snowbird Migrate Southward To U.S. Sunbelt

As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds escape winter at home by migrating southward each year.

Canyon Vistas RV Resort, Gold Canyon, Arizona
Canyon Vistas RV Resort, Gold Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is an actual bird, the common snowbird, or dark-eyed junco, that migrates south from the cold in groups. John James Audubon, the great naturalist and painter, once wrote of the snowbird, “The migration of these birds is performed by night, as they are seen in a district one day and have disappeared the next.”

Then he added, “So gentle and tame does the snowbird become on the least approach of hard weather that it forms, as it were, a companion to every child. Indeed, there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little snowbird, which, in America, is cherished as the Robin is in Europe.”

Not all of the human variety may be similarly cherished, but they do become companions. As each autumn gives way to winter, most seem to be welcomed back — warmly — to the U.S. Sunbelt.

The attraction of recreational vehicle travel is to see the country, visit new places, meet interesting people, and experience the freedom of the open road. As we explore North America by RV, natural beauty abounds when least expected, and surprises wait at every turn of the road.

Furnace Creek Ranch boasts the lowest-elevation golf course in the world
Furnace Creek Ranch boasts the lowest-elevation golf course in the world at 214 feet below sea level, tennis courts, spring-fed swimming pools, horseback riding, hiking trails, and carriage rides. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each journey we take represents a passage, whether it’s an adventure to a new state or province, a day trip to a new attraction, or an outing with friends.

Never driving our motorhome along a pre-arranged route, we vary stops along the way often taking two to three months to reach our southern destinations.

Sound familiar to anyone?

Even though many consider leaving their home constitutes a vacation, this popular lifestyle should really be thought of simply as being able to enjoy life as you relocate your condo-on-wheels to more desirable seasonal locations.

Selecting your balmy Snowbird roost is when all the fun starts. Choice is in rich supply, and for those who like to hop around a bit, a combination of spots can let you sample entire regions and states.

Superstition Mountain Museum
To further understand and appreciate the Superstition Mountains area, its legend, history, and intrigue tour the 12.5-acre Superstition Mountain Museum, near Apache Junction, Arizona. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps the biggest consideration should be on what kind of environment you’re looking for, as well what kind of activities you’d like to pursue. Do you crave white sandy beaches and tropical temperatures? Or dry air and rustic frontier homesteads? Perhaps a thriving music and arts scene? Or maybe you’re after a balance of big city fun and small-town charm?

Many communities seem tailor made for snowbirds, complete with popular tourism attractions, spectacular national parks and scenery that’s open year-round. Check out the RV shows, farmers markets, swap meets, festivals, sports events,  and other events occurring in your prospective destination.

You’re probably familiar with the snowbird hot spots in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California. Keep in mind that you can also find great snowbird roosts in places like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Nevada. Great snowbird destinations thrive across the Sun Belt; all you have to do is find the one that’s right for you.

Many Snowbirds are north-south creatures, meaning those from the Northwest tend to settle in Arizona, Nevada and California; those from the Midwest flock to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana; and those from the Northeast head for Florida.

The Cajun Palms RV Resort (Breaux Bridge, Louisiana) swimming pool contains a big plastic pirate ship for children to board and a gigantic purple-and-green dragon stretched across the middle of the water.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Cajun Palms RV Resort (Breaux Bridge, Louisiana) swimming pool contains a big plastic pirate ship for children to board and a gigantic purple-and-green dragon stretched across the middle of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Are you planning on heading directly south from your home location? Or will you cut across the country in a diagonal direction, exploring a whole new longitude?

Regardless of your journey, factor in the drive times and travel expenses. You wouldn’t want your snowbird stay to be cut short by time on the road.

While you’re at it, be sure to account for the changing weather conditions you’ll encounter on your travels. If you haven’t given yourself enough time to avoid the first frost or snow, plan accordingly. Make sure you allow yourself enough time for cold-weather driving, and bring enough warm-weather clothes to get you through the journey.

Carefully plan the stops along the way, and give yourself some time to do some sightseeing on the journey south.

Worth Pondering…

It started out a dream

A simple someday soon

But we worked hard

and made it real

This snow-bird life

behind the wheel.

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3 Places To Go In August

This is it: The last full month of summer.

Don’t start pulling out the sweaters yet. There’s still a full month of summer to enjoy.

Before the cool air starts moving in, these three festival hot spots are great for your late summer escape.

Elvis Week 2014

elvisweek_2014_logoAugust is a special time for Elvis Presley fans and the city of Memphis. Each year, thousands of Elvis fans from around the world descend on the hometown of the late performer to celebrate his life, music, movies, and legacy during the annual Elvis Week.

Graceland is front and center for events celebrating the life of the iconic performer. But Elvis’ Memphis home is just the heart of the activities during Elvis Week. Traditional events such as the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest, musical tours around the city of Memphis, special concerts, fan club gatherings, and much more will occur at Graceland and around the city during Elvis Week.

The highlight of the week is the annual Candlelight Vigil, which takes place the night of August 15. Fans walk up the driveway to Elvis’ gravesite and back down carrying a candle in honor of the King, who died in his home on August 16, 1977.

Elvis Week 2014 kicked off Friday, August 8, with the Hard Rock Last Chance Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest. It ends more than a week later on Sunday, August 17, with the Elvis Gospel Celebration.

When: August 8-17, 2014

Cost: Ticket prices vary by event

Website: www.graceland.com

Burning Man 2014_theme_caravansaryBurning Man 2014: Caravansary

One of the most famous art and music festivals in the world, this year’s Burning Man theme is Caravansary. Come find yourself in the dust while donning fabulous costumes, gifting things to strangers and new friends alike, and marveling at some of the most impressive artwork out there.

Burning Man is an annual event and a thriving year-round culture. The event takes place the week leading up to and including Labor Day, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

The Burning Man organization creates the infrastructure of Black Rock City, wherein attendees (or “participants”) dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. They depart one week later, leaving no trace.

As simple as this may seem, trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind. To truly understand this event, one must participate.

When: August 25-September 1, 2014

Cost: Tickets run $380

Website: www.burningman.com

43rd Annual Hatch Valley Chili Festival

Hatch Chii Festival header-140218As summer cools down, the Village of Hatch, New Mexico, heats up. Labor Day weekend heralds the annual Hatch Chile Festival, a two-day celebration of the valley’s world-famous crop. The festival attracts over 30,000 visitors from all over the United States, including such notables as the Food Network and the BBC.

Festival goers can sample famed chile recipes, watch the crowning of the chile festival queen, or toss a horseshoe in celebration of this famous crop. The event also features chile ristra contests, artisan and food booths, red chili cook-off, chili eating contests, a carnival, and live entertainment including bands, mariachis, and children’s folklorico.

The Village of Hatch, the “Chile Capital of the Universe”, is located off Interstate 25, between Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences.

The opening of Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, brings the exciting frontier of commercial space travel to the Village. The entrance to Spaceport America is only nine miles south from Hatch, which makes us the Village “New Gateway to Space.”

When: August 30-31, 2014

Cost: $10/vehicle; valid for both days

Website: www.hatchchilefest.com

Worth Pondering…
Much travel is needed before the raw man is ripened.
—Proverb of the Caravan of Dreams

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Valley of Fire State Park: Simply WOW!

The lights! The glitz! The shine!

Sculpted, chiseled, and twisted red rock formations more dramatic than most others we have seen dominate the park's 42,000 acres. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sculpted, chiseled, and twisted red rock formations more dramatic than most others we have seen dominate the park’s 42,000 acres. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bizarre to the beautiful, Las Vegas has it all: New York, NY, The Venetian, Caesars Palace, and Paris—and the Bellagio water fountain show.

When the neon of Vegas becomes too much, head out to Valley of Fire, Nevada’s first state park, so designated in 1935. With its blood-red sandstone cliffs and weird rock formations, there’s an other-worldly feeling here.

Valley of Fire State Park is 55 miles—and a few light-years—northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and on exit 75.

Sculpted, chiseled, and twisted red rock formations more dramatic than most others we have seen dominate the park’s 42,000 acres. We felt as though we had been transported to the alien surface another planet.

The Valley of Fire derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. Complex uplifting and faulting of the region followed by extensive erosion created the present landscape.

Popular activities include camping, picnicking, photography, hiking among the intriguing rock formations, and soaking in the fascinating story of the area’s geological evolution.

The Valley of Fire derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Valley of Fire derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it is possi­ble to enjoy the park just by driving through, it is by getting out of your vehicle and walking the trails that you really experience the magic and the mystery that is Valley of Fire.

Many intriguing hikes are available to visitors. Inquire at the visitor center for suggestions on day hikes of varying length and terrain.

Winters are mild with temperatures ranging from below freezing to 65 degrees. Daily summer highs usually exceed 100 degrees and may reach 120 degrees. Average annual rainfall is four inches. Spring and fall are the preferred seasons for visiting making the Valley of Fire an ideal stopover for snowbirds as head south to their winter roost or on the return trip to their northern home.

Located near the middle of the park the visitor center offers extensive interpretive displays and exhibits on the geology, ecology, prehistory, and history of the park. An orien­tation film and well-stocked gift shop are also available. Check the schedule or the park’s Web site for ranger-led activities. The visitor center is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The rest of the  park does not close.

There are two campgrounds with a combined total of 72 units. All campsites are first-come, first-serve. Campsites are equipped with shaded tables, grills, water, and restrooms. A dump station and showers are available. RV sites with power and water hookups are now available.

Park features include Fire Canyon/Silica Dome, Rainbow Vista, White Domes, and Beehives.

Fire Canyon/Silica Dome offers an excellent view of the deep red sandstone of Fire Canyon and the unique geological features of Silica Dome. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Fire Canyon/Silica Dome offers an excellent view of the deep red sandstone of Fire Canyon and the unique geological features of Silica Dome. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fire Canyon/Silica Dome offers an excellent view of the deep red sandstone of Fire Canyon and the unique geological features of Silica Dome. Powerful forces within the earth caused thousands of feet of surface rock to fold, break, and in some areas push several miles from their original location.

The canyons, domes, towers, ridges, and valleys of Rainbow Vista were carved from sand deposited 150 million years ago, during the time when the dinosaurs walked the earth.

Here the road reaches the top of a low ridge revealing a vast area of multicolored rocks stretching for many miles northwards, rather different than the dark red cliffs found further south.

White Domes are sandstone formations with brilliant contrasting colors, picnic area, and a one-mile loop trail that combines sweeping desert vistas, a slot canyon, colors galore, windows, caves, and a historic movie site.

The Beehives are unusual sandstone formations weathered by the eroding forces of wind and water. They an excellent representation of geologic cross bedding, grooved lines going in different directions. The layers or beds represent different layers of silt that were deposited at different times. The beds indicate the angle of the wind or water was moving at the time the material was deposited.

Other points of interest include Arch Rock, Atlatl Rock, Petrified Logs, Balanced Rock, Mouse’s Tank, Seven Sisters, and Elephant Rock.

Details

Valley of Fire State Park

Camp amid the beauty of Valley of Fire at Atatl Rock Campground. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Camp amid the beauty of Valley of Fire at Atatl Rock Campground. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elevation: 1,500-3,000 feet

Entrance Fee: $10.00/vehicle

Camping Fee: $20.00/day (includes entrance fee); $30.00/day for RV sites with water and power hook ups

Address: P.O. Box 515, Overton, NV 89040

Phone: (702) 397-2088

Website: parks.nv.gov

Worth Pondering…

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

—Rachel Carson

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Are You Ready for Another Snowbird Tax?

In recent stories I reported that the governor of two northern states have declared war on the so-called rich snowbird.

NoNewTaxesGovernor Mark Dayton of Minnesota proposed a snowbird tax on residents who live 60 days to just under six months in the state.

Dayton told snowbirds that since you’re rich, you can pay more.

“It’s time snowbirds paid their fair share,” he stated.

In a separate story the Iowa Senate approved a bill intended to prevent tax evaders (their words, not mine) from using out-of-state shell corporations to avoid paying registration fees on million-dollar recreational vehicles and other luxury vehicles.

In the most recent development this new rule affecting all current and future RVers was inserted in a catch-all bill approved by Iowa legislators.

And now a third state proposes a plan to squeeze more tax dollars out of the so-called rich snowbird.

Nevada lawmakers are looking to see if they turn up more cash from snowbirds. Already the state mandates that anyone of the age of 10 who resides in the Silver State for more than 31 consecutive days must purchase a seasonal identification card at a cost of $12 (reduced to $7 for seniors).

However, if Nevada AB405 is passed into law, that mandated fee will jump to $17 for all, the RV News Service reported.

Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even more odious is what’s hidden in the fine print in the bill: Bring a vehicle into Nevada, you’ll need a seasonal decal, at $18 per year. Bring your Class A motorhome and a tow vehicle, make the total decal bill $53.

The Nevada Assembly voted 40 to 1 to send the bill to the Senate for its consideration.

In an article carried by the Mojave Daily News, tourist promotion officials are shown to be more than a little concerned.

“Assembly Bill 405 reminds me of the issue with the RVers and dry camping back in 2006,” said Connie Davis, executive director of the Laughlin Chamber of Commerce.

“The economic impact that issue caused was tremendous, due to the fact that the RVers went national with the message that Laughlin doesn’t like RVs. To this day, we still haven’t recovered.

“Snowbirds and RVers bring in tourism dollars to Laughlin and the whole Tri-state area,” continued Davis.

“The perceived benefits from AB405 won’t outweigh the negative effects. Those folks will go spend their money elsewhere.”

The bill is the brain-child of sponsor Assemblyman Richard Carrillo, D-Clark County.

You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.—David Crockett © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.—David Crockett © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In an ironic twist, a view of Carrillo’s web page lists the Alliance of Retired Americans as one of his affiliations.

Just another one of those initiatives where politicians say “they’re rich, let them pay more.”

As one of “them” I can assure you I will visit another state before I will pay Nevada one dime.

The proposed tax grabs by the states of Iowa, Minnesota, and Nevada draw the contrast of what is happening in United States today. At least, let’s hope it is not a trend.

Maybe, it’s time to move to Texas!

Worth Pondering…

In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.
—John Adams

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50 Magnificent RV Trips

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

Late afternoon shadows enhance the beauty of Joshua Tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Late afternoon shadows enhance the beauty of Joshua Tree. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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:

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park encompasses one of the most interesting and diverse patches of desert in the U.S. Its namesake species, the spiky, dramatically crooked Joshua tree, is also considered by many to be the defining characteristic of the Mojave Desert.

But this huge desert park actually lies at the meeting point of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. The park’s eastern and southern areas, with sub 3,000-foot elevation and plants such as “jumping” cholla cactus and spidery ocotillo, is Sonoran in character; its western areas are higher, cooler, wetter, and quite densely forested with the park’s namesake tree.

Continue reading →

Las Vegas, Nevada

You only live once, so Vegas is a must. The Strip is fun, even for those who don’t like to throw away their money—err—I mean gamble. Scores of free shows and nightly programs drop the collective jaw of be-dazzled viewers. Nearly a hundred casinos light up the Nevada sky to woo penny pinchers and high rollers alike. Area tours, desert beauty and some of the country’s best golf courses make Vegas far more than just a gamer’s paradise.

Memphis, Tennessee

Put on your blue suede shoes and drop on in. Whether it is the strains of the Blues, the smell of old fashioned Southern barbecue, or the myriad sights that catch your eye, there is something unique about the city of Memphis.

There are approximately 600 cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birthplace of rock ‘n roll and the blues, Memphis lays greater claim to shaping the music of the 20th century than any other city in the nation. Memphis is home to blues notables such as B.B. King and the late W.C. Handy, as well as rock ’n roll pioneer Elvis Presley.

No visit to Memphis would be complete without a visit to Graceland, the home of the late Elvis Presley, otherwise known as “The King.”

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national park devoted to preserving the works of man — Mesa Verde. Here, approximately 1,400 years ago, the Pueblo Indians lived in what we now call cliff dwellings.

Although the majority of these domiciles are relatively small, the largest, known as the Cliff Palace, contained 150 rooms. The park has more than 4,000 known archaeological sites, with many open for ranger-guided tours.

Continue reading →

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona & Utah

Sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the Western backdrop made famous in movies directed by John Ford.

An unpaved, and at times rough, road loops through the park. Several overlooks offer spectacular views of the wonders of Monument Valley.

Some of the most striking and recognizable landscapes of sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires in the entire Southwest are found in Monument Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Some of the most striking and recognizable landscapes of sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires in the entire Southwest are found in Monument Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the grandest—and most photographed—landmarks in the United States, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is a sprawling, sandy preserve that straddles the border of northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah.

Continue reading →

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Ascending to 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier stands as an icon in the Washington landscape. An active volcano, Mount Rainier is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. spawning six major rivers. Subalpine wildflower meadows ring the icy volcano while ancient forest cloaks Mount Rainier’s lower slopes. Wildlife abounds in the park’s ecosystems. The most popular destination for visitors to Mount Rainier is Paradise located on the south slope at approximately 5,400 feet.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

South Dakota’s Black Hills provide the backdrop for Mount Rushmore, the world’s greatest mountain carving. These 60-foot high faces, 500 feet up, look out over a setting of pine, spruce, birch, and aspen in the clear western air.

The sculpture was carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum. This epic sculpture features the heads of four exalted American presidents (from left to right): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Please Note: This is Part 5 of an 8-part series on 50 Places to RV Before You Die

Worth Pondering…

The West is color. Its colors are animal rather than vegetable, the colors of earth and sunlight and ripeness.

—Jessamyn West

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Nevada Gold Rush Fills RV Parks

In Nevada’s gold country the global boom that’s pushed gold prices to an all-time high—currently approaching $1,700 per ounce—brought an influx of jobs to mining towns like Elko, population 18,000.

In most every way Nevada is still reeling from the recession. It has the highest unemployment rate in the country at almost 13 percent, and one of the highest foreclosure rates.

But in the northeastern part of the state, almost 500 miles from the Vegas Strip, life is suddenly very good, reports NBC News.

This far-flung capital of Nevada’s Gold Belt is booming once again.

Nevada is stippled with so many mining camp ruins—more than 100 in Elko County alone, locals say—that “ghost-towning” is a weekend pastime.

Only a decade ago, tanking gold prices saddled the region with abandoned homes and shredded dreams.

A city born as a transportation hub in the 1860s and possibly named by a railroad official with a fondness for elk, Elko has survived a roller-coaster history. Its fortunes are tied to the seesaw industries of mining, ranching, and tourism, though gold is clearly king.

Elko serves as the center of Nevada’s mining industry, which churned out 5.34 million ounces of gold in 2010 valued at $6.54 billion, reports GATA.

It’s not unusual to see yellow-flagged mining vehicles puttering around town and bumper stickers that taunt: “Earth First—We’ll Strip Mine the Other Planets Later.”

In Elko, Nev., the high price of gold has created a bevy of mining jobs. (Source: NBC News)

Nevada churns out more gold than all but four nations. The Elko area’s 7.4% jobless rate is about half that of the once-thriving Las Vegas region.

At the Gold Quarry mine, just 26 miles outside Elko, Newmont Mining Corporation brought on about 600 employees in 2011, and is expecting to make another 600 hires this year.

Leading a jobs boom is not without challenges, however.

With the average salary for a metal mine worker in Nevada around $86,000, thousands are clamoring for these jobs—some 34,000 people applied for the 600 positions that opened in Newmont’s Nevada mines last year.

Finding the highly skilled workers needed for many mining positions has led recruiters to military bases across the country, where they can find veterans fresh from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who have extensive heavy machinery training.

Newmont is also recruiting workers from closing mine sites—from as far away as Missouri and Tennessee—and has a partnership with six research universities to attract and train engineers and geologists.

But finding accommodation in Elko for the new arrivals has proven more difficult than finding qualified workers.

The four RV parks in town are booked solid, as are the motels, originally built to house tourists visiting local casinos.

At Double-Dice RV Park, the largest in town, all but 13 of the park’s 143 spots are reserved for long-term guests, some staying as long as six months to a year while they work at the mine.

Normally, only 90 or so of the park’s spaces are booked for long-term stays,

“We get calls all the time,” said owner Dean Vavak. “We have to turn people away.”

In fact, Double-Dice is running a wait-list for long-term tenants.

Elko Mayor Chris Johnson knows the housing shortage is something his government has to take on for Elko to grow sustainably.

But getting financing from banks to build big developments has been a challenge, he said. This is still Nevada, after all, the epicenter of the nation’s housing crisis. And there’s always the possibility that gold prices could plummet, as they did in the early 2000s, when gold went down to $250 an ounce, and the mines shed workers.

“We’re based on mining; it’s well over 50 percent of our economy,” said Johnson. “There’s no question that if it plummets and the mines just couldn’t make the ends meet that it’s going to affect Elko.”

The mining companies, however, are willing to invest in Elko’s growth. Developer Pedro Ormaza was asked by another company working in the area, Barrick Gold Corporation, to build a 200-unit apartment complex on the outskirts of town to help alleviate the housing crunch. Barrick is funding the project.

“As soon as I get a building built its occupied the next day, with people usually leaving a motel room,” said Ormaza. “They’re moving up from a motel room to an apartment, and hopefully in the future they can move into a house.”

Worth Pondering…

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

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