Mining, Ranching, Birding & More In Patagonia, Arizona

Our narrative begins about 60 miles southeast of Tucson in a small historic mining town that still holds claim to a huge treasure—the birding kind.

On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
On the road to Patagonia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At an elevation of over 4,000 feet between the Santa Rita Mountains and the Patagonia Mountains, you arrive in the town of Patagonia. Here, the South Pacific Railroad once hummed with cattle ranchers and prospectors who worked the nearby silver mine. Ranches still dot the hills and historic ghost towns have replaced thriving mining outposts.

At first glance Patagonia is a town that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. However, a second glance will reveal some surprises about this historical former Spanish land grant. There is a growing community of artists and crafts people that have decided that this is a very desirable area to live and work.

Although the rail tracks were abandoned by 1970, the depot is now restored and adjoins a park in the center of town. McKeown Avenue is Patagonia’s authentic but small main street, housing the local saloon and shops.

Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Patagonia is home to several arts and multicultural festivals throughout the year and also has numerous galleries here you can browse local pottery and paintings as well as other contemporary and traditional arts.

Chances are you’re here for Patagonia’s other side—the one that draws thousands of birders each year. Look closely, because this is the time of year when butterflies linger and more than 300 bird species migrate, nest, and live in Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, managed by the Nature Conservancy since 1966. Bird enthusiasts come thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of some of them. Of particular interest are the gray hawk, vermilion flycatcher, violet-crowned hummingbird, thick-billed kingbird, zone-tailed hawk, green kingfisher, white-throated sparrows (in winter), and black-bellied whistling duck.

You’re in luck: Now through September draws the greatest diversity of birds to what the Nature Conservancy dubs “the richest of the remaining riparian (or streamside) habitats in the region.”

Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights
Swimming and picnic area at Patagonia State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights

The 850-acre sanctuary is where a cottonwood-willow canopy follows the ribbon of gentle Sonoita Creek, which runs year-long. You can opt for a guided tour of the preserve or you can head to the open-air ramada visitor center to study maps, peruse a list of the latest bird sightings, and get suggestions from the ranger to shape your own visit.

Three miles of easy walking trails take you along Sonoita Creek and through rare, 140-year old cottonwood willow forest.

A trip to Patagonia would not be complete without a visit to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds. Wally and Marion Paton first began inviting birders into their yard shortly after moving to Patagonia in 1973. They eventually put up a canopy and set out benches, bird books, and a chalkboard for people to record their sightings. The Patons had a special vision for supporting their backyard birds with an array of feeding stations—and supporting the wider birding community by sharing the riches of their yard. After Wally passed away in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build.

212 bird species have been reported for this cozy home lot on the outskirts of the town of Patagonia, including violet-crowned hummingbirds, thick-billed kingbirds, gray hawks, and varied buntings. This amazing diversity results from its location in an ecologically rich and healthy corner of the state. Surrounding the Paton Center you will find: The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, the Patagonia Mountains (one of Arizona’s newly declared Important Bird Areas), the San Rafael Grasslands, and the Sonoita Plain.

Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights
Sonoita Creek Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights

Continuing south on Arizona Highway 82 is Patagonia Lake State Park, a small paradise for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts. Fishermen and beachcombers enjoy a man-made lake more than two miles in length. At an elevation of 3,750 feet and adjacent to the Sonoita Creek Natural Area, the park becomes a year-round haven with 105 campsites with a picnic table, a fire ring/grill, water, and 20/30/50-amp electric service; select sites also have a ramada. A dump station is centrally located in the park.

Patagonia Lake offers a 0.5-mile hiking trail that leads to Sonoita Creek, a popular birding area. Additional trails can be accessed through Sonoita Creek Natural Area.

Worth Pondering…
I only went for a walk, and finally concluded to stay till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
—John Muir

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What Is Birding?

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.

It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada.

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done.

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture, with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem.

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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Summer Is Season of Road Trips But Where To Go?

Summer, season of road trips, is upon us. But where should we go? That, my friends, depends on you.

The Old Talbott Tavern had its share of famous guests over the years. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Old Talbott Tavern in Bardstown had its share of famous guests over the years. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With over 18,000 campgrounds, RV parks, and RV resorts, you have plenty of choices. Get out your maps and pinpoint a couple destinations—both large and small, renowned and obscure—that you think make a great spot to plot into a summer road trip plan. Be sure to include what about your pick (the food? an odd landmark? the view?) makes it so very worth the drive.

Following are four great summer destinations for RVers to make memories that will last a lifetime.

Bardstown, Kentucky

If you like visiting warm, welcoming small towns with beautiful old buildings and colorful history, you’ll love Bardstown, Kentucky. And if you favor bourbon, that’s an added bonus.

One of Bardstown’s most prominent buildings is the Old Talbott Tavern, which has offered shelter to weary travelers since 1779. Modern diners can enjoy Kentucky specialties in the same taproom where Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, and Abraham Lincoln once ate.

Bardstown has about 200 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but the two most famous are Wickland and Federal Hill. Wickland is generally regarded as one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the state. It’s Federal Hill, however, that has gained worldwide fame as, legend has it, the subject of composer Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home.

Monument Valley has isolated red mesas, buttes and a sprawling, sandy desert that has been photographed and filmed countless times. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Monument Valley has isolated red mesas, buttes and a sprawling, sandy desert that has been photographed and filmed countless times. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

Magnificent Monument Valley is not a national or state park but, with 91,696 acres, it is a small part of the great Navajo Nation that covers much of northeastern Arizona and stretches into Utah and New Mexico.

Navajo Tribal Park has isolated red mesas, buttes and a sprawling, sandy desert that has been photographed and filmed countless times. Crimson mesas and surreal sandstone towers rise hundreds of feet into the air, some as tall as 1,000 feet.

Entering Monument Valley is to enter a world of mystery and incredible beauty. It is one of those sights that takes your breath away and makes you speechless. Explore this wonderland of rocks along a 17-mile self-guided dirt road. The road is dusty, steep in a couple of places and rather uneven, but does not need a four-wheel-drive.

Greenville, South Carolina

Falls Park on the Reedy, located in downtown Greenville'
Far more than a nature lover’s paradise, Falls Park on the Reedy, located in downtown Greenville’s Historic West End, is one of Greenville’s greatest treasures. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, South Carolina’s Upcountry packs plenty of alpine splendor. For starters, it’s home to the highest waterfall east of the Rockies—411-foot Whitewater Falls.

Known for its exceptional beauty, the two most distinctive natural features of downtown Greenville are its lush, tree-lined Main Street and the stunning Reedy River Falls, located in the heart of Falls Park.

Among the city’s several historic districts, the West End has developed into one of the Palmetto State’s most eclectic art districts, with buildings adapted for studio space and galleries.

Other attractions within Greenville include the Peace Center for the Performing Arts. a zoo with more than 200 animals and the Roper Mountain Science Center, which features an observatory, Sealife Room, living history farm, Discovery Room, chemistry/physic shows and a planetarium.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

A block east of Santa Fe Plaza is St. Francis Cathedral, named for Santa Fe’s patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A block east of Santa Fe Plaza is St. Francis Cathedral, named for Santa Fe’s patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A combination of altitude, desert, and pueblos has produced a magical city that bears little resemblance to nearby Albuquerque or anywhere else for that matter.

Santa Fe is the United States’ longest continuously occupied state capital. Located high and dry in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this well preserved center of Southwestern art and architecture attracts visitors with its galleries, cuisine, and play of light on its adobe buildings.

Santa Fe is referred to as “the city different,” a city that honors its Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo heritages and embraces its natural environment unlike any other in the United States. A city whose beautiful, brown adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape and a city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals.

Worth Pondering…

Happy Trails. Life is an adventure. Enjoy your journey.

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Junction: Texas Hill Country Hospitality Starts Here

Watch some birds, take a leisurely stroll, tube down the river, enjoy a sunset—and relax.

Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Junction boasts first-class outdoor recreation, a big-rig friendly RV park with true Texas hospitality, and all the mouth-watering Texas BBQ you can eat.

I expected the fresh air and open sky. After all, Junction is located on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, elevation ranging around 2,000 feet. The abundance of outdoor activities was no surprise, either—the town is named for the junction of the north and south forks of the Llano River. Junction is ideal for fishing, tubing, and related activities, and there are scores of low-traffic roads for biking and a sprawling state park and wildlife management area checkered with hiking and biking trails.

What I hadn’t planned on was great Texas BBQ. Junction is a good place to work up an appetite, and, as it turns out, to satisfy it, too.

Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we exited I-10 (Exit 465) for Junction North Llano River RV Park my heart skipped a beat as it jumped for joy! There to the back of a large parking lot was a huge BBQ pit surrounded by many, many, many cords of firewood piled higher than a man’s head like fortress walls. And an outdoor area with picnic tables under the spread of an enormous oak.

The food gods were really smiling on me. Heading west to Arizona with limited time and no hope of seeking out Texas BBQ, I lucked upon Cooper’s. Yes, Cooper’s Bar-B-Q & Grill is a happy accident food-wise on any road trip.

The Cooper family opened its original barbecue joint in Mason in the early 1950s, and Cooper sons later took the tradition to Llano—a location eventually sold outside the family—and here. Roy and Sheila Cooper, their son Mark and daughter-in-law Kim and their children all work at the restaurant, which has been in its current location for 16 years.

Texas Hill Country is the Lone Star State’s prime outdoor destination. But it’s not mountaintops and dramatic views that make this a vacation mecca—it’s water. More than 800 freshwater springs percolate to the surface in crystalline rivers and lakes, and the spot where the North and South Llano rivers meet spawned the town of Junction in 1876. One of the town’s first civic projects was a dam for power and irrigation, and Junction eventually became the commercial hub of Kimble County, named for an Alamo defender, George Kimble. But that has never meant many more than 2,500 people enjoying life in the county seat. Canoeing, kayaking, and tubing are the most popular ways to pass a day in Junction these days.

The dawn of another day along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The dawn of another day along the North Llano River at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rolling hills and open spaces still define Junction. Wild turkeys also are a big part of the landscape. The largest concentration of Rio Grande Turkeys in the American Southwest gather in South Llano River State Park south of town. The gregarious birds winter in large flocks around the cottonwood riparian areas growing by the river. Turkeys can be spotted year-round, especially along the scrubby brush and open grasslands of the Fawn Trail that loops up open slopes for three miles.

The 524-acre park and adjacent 2,155-acre wildlife management area were donated to the state by cattle rancher Walter Buck Jr. Two miles of park front the river, but most folks congregate around the bridge near the entrance.

Activities include camping, picnicking, canoeing, tubing, swimming, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching, and nature study.

The park offers approximately 20 miles of hiking/biking trails—15 of them prime for mountain biking—58 campsites with water and 30-amp electric service, six walk-in tent sites, and five hike-in primitive campsites.

Rest at one of the park’s top-notch bird blinds. These comfy shelters overlook water and feeding stations frequented by birds pretty much all day, although morning and evening are prime times. Common sightings are flycatchers, swallows, wrens, warblers, hawks, and hummingbirds.

Big-rig friendly North Llano River RV Park at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big-rig friendly North Llano River RV Park at Junction. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next door, the Walter Buck State Wildlife Area is a destination to hike, watch birds, and polish wildlife photography skills.

Planning a Visit? Experience true Texas hospitality with welcoming smiles at Junction North Llano River RV Park. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a clean, spacious site nestled in a natural pecan grove along the banks of the North Llano River. Big rig sites over 80-feet in length are available; spacious full hookup sites with 50/30-amp electric service, free cable, and Wi-Fi.

There’s something for everyone whether you’re staying for one night, a week, or more—water sports, birding, fishing, hunting, scenic hill country drives, restaurants, golf, shopping, and good Texas BBQ! We’d be back in a Texas minute!

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

No matter how far we may wander, Texas lingers with us, coloring our perceptions of the world.

—Elmer Kelto

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Cumberland Island: Wild, Pristine Seashore

Public beaches are often crowded, noisy places. But less popular areas can be incredibly peaceful.

A total of 50 miles of hiking trails meander through maritime forests, interior wetlands, historic districts, marsh ecosystems, and the beautiful beaches. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A total of 50 miles of hiking trails meander through maritime forests, interior wetlands, historic districts, marsh ecosystems, and the beautiful beaches. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Are you ready to hit the beach without the crowds? Where you can find a piece of the coast to call your own?

Epoch Times recently named Cumberland Island as one of the top three off the beaten path and secluded beaches in the world. That’s high praise when you’re only bested by Hawaii and Spain.

Published in 21 languages in 35 countries across five continents, Epoch Times said, “Roughly the size of Manhattan Cumberland island is Georgia’s southern-most island and a place where you can truly get away from the modern world. With no bridge to come to Cumberland island the travelers have to use ferry or private boat to get to this beautiful place which is manage by the national park service. ”

Cumberland Island also appears on lists as one of America’s Most Beautiful Beaches and Best Wilderness Beach in the Southeast.

In naming Cumberland Island one of America’s best wild beaches, the Wilderness Society stated, “Glistening white beaches with sand dunes, freshwater lakes and saltwater marshes fill this 16-mile-long island, the northern portion of which is designated Wilderness. Visitors can access the beach at designated dune crossings. Wildlife include alligators, loggerhead turtles and pelicans, as well as many fish that make this a prime place for surf fishing.”

Dungeness Ruins has a very long history to tell. The name came originally from the very first property, which was a hunting lodge named Dungeness, in the area, owned by James Oglethorpe in 1736. In 1803, it was replaced by a mansion built by Nathaniel Greene, which was later on used as a headquarters by the British. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Dungeness Ruins has a very long history to tell. The name came originally from the very first property, which was a hunting lodge named Dungeness, in the area, owned by James Oglethorpe in 1736. In 1803, it was replaced by a mansion built by Nathaniel Greene, which was later on used as a headquarters by the British. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although Georgia’s Atlantic coastline is only about 100 miles long, the Peach State is home to 30 percent of the barrier islands along the Atlantic Seaboard. And Cumberland is the largest and fairest of them all with the longest expanse of pristine seashore—18 glorious miles of deserted sand. Truly, this is a bucket list destination.

Before the National Park Service acquired most of the island for a national seashore, 90 percent of it was the private domain of Lucy and Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew) and their descendants. The Carnegies bought the island in the 1880s and built five mansions on it during the next two decades. The most superb house was the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness on the island’s south end.

Dungeness burned nearly to the ground in 1959 from a fire suspected as arson, but its ruins are a must-see for visitors.

We stopped during our visit to the island in early December 2007 to gaze at the tall chimneys, solid brick walls, and other stark remains of the old mansion.

After pausing at an old cemetery where war hero, “Light Horse” Harry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) was interred following his death on the island in 1818, we further explored the island. Continuing the 3 ½-mile Dungeness Trail as it loops around the island’s southern tip, we walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds including the American Oystercatcher and Least Tern.

Visitors are reminded these are feral horses and should be treated as wild animals. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors are reminded these are feral horses and should be treated as wild animals. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On several occasions we encountered many of the 250 feral horses that roam the island, descendants of steeds the Carnegies released during their heyday. Beloved by visitors, they are perhaps the most popular feature to the island.

We saw in Cumberland what the Native American inhabitants glimpsed thousands of years ago, as they roamed the densely wooded, 18-mile-long isle of land hunting and fishing.

We saw what enchanted Spanish missionaries saw in 1566. And what endeared the British, who built forts in the early 1700s to protect their fledgling Georgia colony. And what captivated industrialist Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, who purchased large swaths of the island in the 1880s and built lavish winter retreats.

And what bewitched John F. Kennedy Jr., who married Carolyn Bessette at a tiny African-American church near the island’s north end. He had personally painted and worked on the chapel himself through the years when visiting friend Gogo Ferguson, a Carnegie descendant, and swore he’d wed there one day. And so he did.

After meandering lazily along the wide, sandy, shell-flecked beach, we slowly made our way to Sea Camp dock where we re-boarded the passenger ferry for a sunset cruise back to the mainland (St. Marys, Georgia).

Don’t be late for that last ferry or you’ll have to spend the night on the porch of the visitors’ center.

We walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
We walked the raised boardwalk over the dunes to the wide, secluded beach, alive with crabs and shorebirds. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is high season, both for tourists and insects, so be sure to reserve your spot on the ferry and the tour well in advance. There are refreshments on the ferry, but nothing on the island, so be prepared!

Worth Pondering…

The beach is the draw—

17 miles of hard packed blonde sands.

You can walk forever and seldom meet a soul

—Esquire

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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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Explore The Diversity Of New Mexico National Parks

From rugged mountaintops to grassy plains to lowland desert, New Mexico is indeed a true Land of Enchantment.

Aztec Ruins National Monument  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Encompassing six of the world’s seven life zones, the state’s landscapes exude diversity. Offering unlimited of unique opportunities, the Land of Enchantment attracts millions of visitors who seek out its scenic beauty and countless outdoor recreation activities.

Enjoy camping, hiking, biking, fishing, boating, birdwatching, picnicking, photography, stargazing and much more. You can do all this and more for bargain prices in the national parks of the Land of Enchantment.

In an earlier post Vogel Talks RVing discussed the unlimited opportunities available for outdoor recreation and camping at New Mexico’s 35 state parks—24 having ponds, streams, rivers, or lakes.

Vogel Talks RVing also discussed New Mexico State Museums and Historical Sites worthy of a visit this summer.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When planning a weekend getaway or summer vacation, also consider coordinating visits to national parks in the area.

There are 19 national parks, national monuments, and national historical trails within the borders of New Mexico.

Aztec Ruins National Monument: Aztec ruins, built and occupied by the Ancestral Puebloan people over a 200-mile period, preserves an extended and planned community of a variety of structures. Included are several large, multi-story public buildings (“great houses”), many smaller residential pueblos, ceremonial kivas, remnants of linear “roads,” and earthen berms.

Bandelier National Monument: Thirteenth-century pueblo-style dwellings dot the rugged, canyon-slashed slopes and bottoms of the Pajarito Plateau. The Bandelier terrain is challenging, the scenery spectacular, with elevations ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet, and lush, narrow canyons that alternate with sweeping mesa-top vistas.

El Malpais National Monument  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capulin Volcano National Monument: Capulin Volcano, a nearly perfectly-shaped cinder cone, stands more than 1,200 feet above the surrounding high plains of northeastern New Mexico.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Established to preserve Carlsbad Caverns and numerous other caves within a Permian-age fossil reef, this park contains more than 100 known caves, including Lechuguilla Cave—the nation’s deepest limestone cave, at 1,567 feet, and the third longest. The Big Room is one of the world’s largest and most accessible underground chambers.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park: Chaco Culture preserves one of America’s most significant and fascinating cultural and historic areas. Chaco Canyon was a major center of Ancestral Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1250. It was a hub of ceremony, trade, and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area—unlike anything before or since.

El Malpais National Monument: Although el malpais means “the badlands,” this unique area holds many surprises. Lava flows, cinder cones, pressure ridges, complex lava tube systems, and other volcanic features dominate the mysterious El Malpais landscape.

El Morro National Monument  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National MonumentEl Morro’s Inscription rock in northwest New Mexico bears silent witness to more than 700 years of history. Drawn here by its secluded water hole, Anasazi, Spanish, and Anglo cultures marked their passing by carving 2,000 petroglyphs and inscriptions on this sandstone bluff. Inscription Rock is a soft sandstone monolith, rising 200 feet above the valley floor.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument: Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument offers a glimpse into the homes and lives of the people of the Mogollon culture, who lived in the Gila Wilderness from the 1280 through the early 1300s. The monument is surrounded by the Gila National Forest, and lies at the edge of the Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first designated wilderness area.

Petroglyph National Monument: Petroglyph protects a variety of cultural and natural resources, including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 images carved in rock by native people and early Spanish settlers.

Petroglyph National Monument  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Monument: This site contains a large portion of the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. Here, glistening white dunes rise 60 feet high, and cover 275 square miles. Driven by strong southwest winds, sand slowly but relentlessly covers everything in its path. Surprisingly, many small animals and plants have adapted to this harsh environment.

Please Note: This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on the Public Lands Of New Mexico

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

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Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together

With the arrival of summer Americans and Canadians are fleeing the cities by the thousands in search of open space and a chance to get away from others.

Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together.  Pictured above the Bavarian town of Helen, Georgia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together. Pictured above the Bavarian town of Helen, Georgia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That means virtually every campground and outdoor recreation venue within four hours of every major cities will be at capacity every weekend— full of people getting away from others while doing it together.

Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together.  Pictured above the Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho. © Rex Vogel, all rights
Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together. Pictured above the Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping courtesy (the unwritten rules of campground etiquette) is an easy way to ensure that a group of people living in close proximity together where sounds travel and light can be a disturbance continue to camp together in harmony.

Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together.  Pictured above an Acadian farmstead at Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, Louisiana. © Rex
Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together. Pictured above an Acadian farmstead at Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site, Louisiana. © Rex Vogel, all rights

Spending time in a campground requires a certain level of community patience and a willingness to live and let live, there are some basic rules of campground etiquette that will help create a friendly atmosphere and make the camping experience more enjoyable for everyone.

Here are a few of our favorite ways to achieve and maintain friendly camper status.

Be a Friendly Camper

Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together.  Pictured above Plimoth Planation near Plymouth, Massachusetts. © Rex Vogel
Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together. Pictured above Plimoth Planation near Plymouth, Massachusetts. © Rex Vogel

Be friendly and greet other campers. This is part of being within the camping community and even though you may not know the other people, you all have a common goal of enjoying the camping experience.

Being a friendly camper is more than saying hi to your neighbors. It’s being the kind of camper who makes the experience better for their friends and family as well as other the folks sharing the campground. It’s really the little things that can truly make a camping trip amazing for everyone around you.

Obey Campground Rules

Follow the campground rules and regulations. These rules usually include speed limits, fire regulations, quiet times, and so on. Adhering to these rules is one of the basics of campground etiquette. Be sure to review and enforce the rules with your children, as well.

Respect Your Neighbors

Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together.  Pictured above Mount Mitchell State Park, North Caroina. © Rex Vogel
Campground Etiquette: How To Get Away From Others While Doing It Together. Pictured above Mount Mitchell State Park, North Caroina. © Rex Vogel

Campgrounds are for relaxing and having fun—consider your neighbors as you kick back and relax. Keep your music and other noise to a reasonable level so everyone can enjoy the serenity of the great outdoors.

Keep in mind that others may be in the campground to get away from it all and wish to hear the wind blowing through the aspens, the babbling of a brook, the chatter of squirrels, or perhaps the call of a jay. While I recognize your right to enjoy a little music, I don’t necessarily share your musical taste unless, of course, it’s Willie’s “On the road again…”. That is why they make headphones.

Power down at night; shut off your generator and dim the lights. Remember not all generators are created equal. Some are designed to run very quietly, and others are not. Quiet hours are there for a reason.

Don’t Feed the Wildlife

Classic camping treats like a perfectly roasted hot dog or some gooey s’mores are amazing, no doubt. They’re just not amazing for the wildlife that make their home in and around the campground. This is one instance where it’s ok to be greedy with your grub.

Pick Up After Your Pets

Be a responsible pet owner. Keep dogs on leashes whenever they are outside so they are not bothering your neighbors and discourage them from barking. Never leave a dog that barks or howls unattended.

It’s great to have a furry friend as a camping companion, but make sure your pet isn’t leaving any surprises behind. When taking your dog for a walk, always pick up all pet waste. Many campgrounds provide pet waste collection bags to make clean up easy and convenient.

Leave No Trace

Clean up after yourself. When you prepare to exit the campsite, be sure to remove all garbage regardless of its origin and if the campground has a recycling program, take advantage of it.

Always leave the campsite as clean, or cleaner, than it was when you arrived. The camp host and the next camper will appreciate it.

The bottom line is that camping requires us to respect the land and one another. When it comes down to it, continued success of this ongoing social experiment requires it.

Have an enjoyable and safe camping summer.

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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5 Things I Learned While RVing The American South

The American South has a mixed reputation in U.S. popular culture: it’s home to sweet tea, gravy and biscuits, country music and the blues, barbecue and soul food, friendly and helpful people, and beautiful and diverse landscapes.

Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first time we visited the South was in 1986 on a working road trip across the U.S. We found an incredible region of helpful people, a countryside dotted with rolling hills, farms, and forests, and hearty food rich in flavor. From Charleston to New Orleans and Nashville to Mobile and everything in between, the South was extraordinary.

During the past 10 years we have further explored the region. There is prodigious variety here, a region of many impressions.

The food will make you happy

Food plays a central role in Southern life and is rich in both flavor and diversity. Each region has its own specialties—barbecue in Memphis and North Carolina, Creole and Cajun food in Louisiana, seafood along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, soul food in the Low Country, and fried chicken and gravy most anywhere in the region. And there’s Sweet Potato Pie, Goo Goo Clusters, and pecan pie, all Southern traditions.

Many picture Southern food as greasy, fried, and heavy fare. While much of it is hearty, the richness in flavor and variety is outstanding. There is something for everyone, and if you go hungry while visiting, it is your own fault.

I could spend a lifetime eating my way through the South. (Mental note to future self: Do that.)

Café Des Amis in historic downtown Breaux Bridge, Louisiana,  hosts a world famous Zydeco Breakfast every Saturday morning and a spectacular Sunday brunch served all day. Fuel up on beignets or Orielle de Cochon, Zydeco or Big Hat omelets, Eggs Des Amis or Eggs Begnaud, sweet potato pancakes or Couche Couche before hitting the dance floor. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Café Des Amis in historic downtown Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, hosts a world famous Zydeco Breakfast every Saturday morning and a spectacular Sunday brunch served all day. Fuel up on beignets or Orielle de Cochon, Zydeco or Big Hat omelets, Eggs Des Amis or Eggs Begnaud, sweet potato pancakes or Couche Couche before hitting the dance floor. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Music makes the region go ’round

Music is a way of life here. The sound of live music fills the air everywhere. Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans are famous music haunts, but even the tiniest towns throughout the South have robust live music scenes. From jazz to country to blues to bluegrass, there’s a music soul to this region. One can dance, jam, and sing the night away.

The people really are friendly 

There’s a common belief that the South is home to the friendliest people in the country. And along with Texans and small-town America they probably are. They are cheerful, talkative, and incredibly helpful. Strangers wave hello, inquire about your day, and generally go the extra mile to make visitors feel welcome. The folks here have hospitality down to an art.

Bye, Ya’ll come back now! Ya hear?

The landscape is stunning

The Southern landscape is beautiful and diverse. The Smoky Mountains are a vast, dense forest filled with inviting rivers, lakes, and trails. The Louisiana bayou is haunting with moss-covered trees and eerie calm. The hills of Appalachia stretch for wooded miles and the Mississippi Delta, with its swamps and marshes is gorgeous. And the beaches of the Florida Panhandle the Alabama Gulf Coast are so white they sparkle.

Sparkling turquoise Gulf waters and stunningly white sand await the RVer on the Alabama Gulf Coast. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sparkling turquoise Gulf waters and stunningly white sand await the RVer on the Alabama Gulf Coast. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To understand The South, you have to understand its past

As a student of history, I was excited to explore the area’s colonial cities and Civil War sites. Cities like New Orleans, Vicksburg, Savannah, Memphis, Pensacola, St. Augustine, Mobile, and Charleston helped shape the country—and their history and influence are important to the story of America.

It was in these cities that many American cultural and political leaders were born, the Civil War began, battles were won and lost, and the rise and fall of slavery was sown. Voodoo, alligators, wild horses, African culture, and the wealthiest families in the United States are all part of the history of the Golden Isles of Georgia. These cities and their history help explain a lot about Southern pride and culture.

I love the area more with each visit. It’s one of the most culturally rich areas in the country. There’s a reason why its cities are booming.

South Carolina Low Country near Beaufort. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
South Carolina Low Country near Beaufort. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go visit the region, get out of the cities, travel through the mountains, and find your way into the small towns. You’ll discover friendly people, heavenly food, amazing music, and an appreciation for a slow pace of life.

Worth Pondering…

Y’all Come Back Saloon
She played tambourine with a silver jingle
And she must have known the words to at least a million tunes
But the one most requested by the man she knew as cowboy
Was the late night benediction at the y’all come back saloon

—written by Sharon Vaughn and recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys

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Shooting Wildlife With a Camera

Bird and animal photography, especially in the wild, can be quite challenging.

Notice how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Notice the smooth bokeh and how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name of the game in wildlife photography—whether you’re trying to capture an exotic bird in a national wildlife refuge or a giraffe in a city zoo or wildlife park—is patience.

Wild birds and animals will do what they’re going to do and no amount of coaxing will make them turn their head, look your way, open their mouth, do something cute, or move to better light.

You have to be there—and ready—when the photo op occurs. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait some more—it takes a long time to get good wildlife photos, even longer for great ones.

The best time for travel photography is either during the early morning or late afternoons and the same applies for birds and animals. Early morning is typically the best for wildlife photography because birds and animals are actively searching for food.

Maintaining fast shutter speeds, especially for birds in flight and small birds that move very quickly is essential—you cannot fix motion blur in post production. You need to completely freeze the action of the bird. To achieve this, set your shutter speed in a range from 1/800 to 1/1600 or even faster for birds in flight.

Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A tripod or a monopod is highly recommended for early morning and late afternoon photography when slower shutter speeds are required due to less available light.

Always focus on the nearest (to the viewer) eye of the bird. It is acceptable to have a blurred tail or other parts of the bird, but at least one eye always needs to be in focus and sharp. For birds in flight, focus on the bird’s head or chest—whichever provides better contrast for the camera autofocus system.

Choose your background carefully to achieve a smooth bokeh (or boke, a Japanese word meaning blur). Photos with objects behind the bird are not as visually appealing as images with an out-of-focus or blurry background. This is achieved by a shallow depth of field when relatively close to the subject while using a large aperture.

Get up close. Use a photo blind whenever possible. One of the best blinds is your RV or car; you’re able to get relatively close to a bird or animal without departing your vehicle. Birds are generally not scared of cars and you can drive up fairly closely and take some amazing shots.

Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
You have to shoot a lot of photos to manage one or two keepers. Pictured above Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You need a good telephoto lens to get close enough to make the image interesting. Zoom in and focus on the head of the bird or animal.

In general, good photos result from careful attention to some basic elements of composition—the placement of the objects in the photo. Frame your subject carefully, try to put the main point of attraction at 1/3 or 2/3 of the image (remember the rule of thirds).

Shoot from the birds eye level, images from the same level with your subject will look more natural and attractive.

When visiting a bird sanctuary or zoo, you may get the chance for some stunning photographs of birds and animals at close range. With patience and practice, you can really do this nearly anywhere.

When you’re in the wild, and happen across birds or animals, you need to be ready to capture the image—even if it’s at a distance. Have your telephoto lens ready. Nothing shouts louder “boring photo” more than a tiny subject in the frame, so move in closer. With wild animals such as bear or moose be sure to maintain a safe distance.

This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photographing wildlife requires patience and skill. If you are a beginner, try easier subjects like robins or finches in your backyard or the park and birds in the zoo before heading out into the wild. Experiment with the shutter speed until you know what will give you the effect you want.

Be patient and let the birds come to you. You won’t get the perfect shot every time but with practice your photos will improve.

Worth Pondering…

A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture you need a camera, a photographer, and above all a subject. It is the subject that determines the interest of the photograph.

—Man Ray

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