Touring California’s top wine-producing districts—here, we’ll concentrate on just five of the state’s 46 wine-producing counties —in a Leisure Travel Van is a treat to the palate and the eye, from the moment you pull into a parking lot, to the anticipation of lingering over every sensation of that first sample pour, and knowing that the wine you walk out with to serve your friends back home may not be available anywhere else.
The problem you may run into, however, is choice. There are more than 400 wineries in Sonoma County alone, and more than 400 in Napa too, so, where to start? How do you narrow a mind-boggling search that otherwise would leave anyone frustrated, possibly confused, and certainly parched? We’ll tell you how we did it, and will share some of our favorites.
Picking a good central campground or campgrounds is the first step, and we’ve got at least four that we can highly recommend for your LTV. Some of these parks have bridges that an RV bigger that our Leisure Unity couldn’t go over due to weight restrictions. Others have hairpin entrance roads. There are plenty of alternatives, however.
Then chose which wine regions to visit, so your ducks, campgrounds, and counties, are all in a row. Our choices: Mendocino County, then moving just to the south, Sonoma, inland to Napa, of course, and to our eastern-most location, the relatively undiscovered (read: inexpensive) but very special wineries of Amador County, and to the south, Paso Robles. Most can be easily reached off Highway 1, that famous drive that’s now re-opened all the way after the fires.
We picked these because we were slightly familiar with them and wanted to get to know them and the wineries along the sometimes twisting, gnarly riverside drives a bit better. Advantage once again: Leisure Travel Vans. You may have a different area in mind, but for our money, these are the mother lode of great California wine.
First, a few tips. Pick a winery by deciding what wine type you like. Even within wine types, taste varies by winery and each winemaker’s individual taste. I’ve had some petite syrahs from one winery taste good, but not remarkable, when a few miles away, I gushed over one far superior that tasted like liquid caramel, at least on my palate.
If you have a friend or relative who can recommend a specific winery, and your tastes are similar, trust them and go. Above all, while all this can be pretty intimidating, don’t let it be. If you find a wine you enjoy, then do it, and let the bottles—and recommenders, be it a best friend, or those now-ubiquitous points ratings—fall where they may.
That tip also can apply to campgrounds. Some of you may like boondocking with the bare necessities, with your solar panels pumping out juice. Some like to be pampered.
California’s Highway 1 sweeps, dives and rises while the white waves of the Pacific, not being so pacifico when we passed, rolled onto the beaches near Fort Bragg. The Mendocino County region may be more known as having a reported half the population engaged in growing marijuana, but just inland you will find some great wine after camping in redwood country near the Oregon border.
Here California’s golden hills swell up from the Pacific, the leading edge of its great wine-growing regions. Nearby sites along Highway 1 looking over the Pacific headlands (great views, but it’s almost always windy), include Van Damme State Park to the south, or the redwood groves of Hendy Woods State Park or Navarro River Redwoods State Park a bit farther inland. And, speaking of Navarro, wherever you land, get ready to sip and spit the next day at a winery that won’t disappoint.
Southeast of Russian Gulch on California 128, Navarro vineyards occupies part of the eastern Anderson Valley’s picturesque hillsides, just north of the community of Philo, population about 450. Growing grapes since 1974, its Riesling was among the first to bring international acclaim, but samples of all its varietals, from its juicy zinfandel to subtle pinot, deserve a definite linger in its rustic-looking tasting room.
About two-dozen other wineries dot Highway 128 between Navarro and Yorkville. More are along U.S. 101 inland. Pick up the guide, “101 Things To Do In Mendocino County, including the “skunk train,” offering scenic trips through redwood groves along The Nyo River and Pudding Creek.
These are arguably California’s two most famous wine-producing counties, sporting multiple growing regions, with some definite favorites. Because of their fame, expect to pay more per bottle, and more to taste.
These two counties are so popular, you can park your LTV at a campground and book a mini-bus tour to several to get started, so you also won’t have to worry about over-imbibing.
The campground we headquartered at to tour both counties was perfect from every standpoint. I usually prefer state and national forest camps instead of modern ones, but the San Francisco North/Petaluma KOA is outstanding. The best KOA I’ve ever pulled into, period.
Want the comforts of a nice pool? Check. Daily tours of San Francisco leaving right from the campground May-October? Check. An outdoor kitchen for your use? Special themed meals on occasion? Check. Kid’s programs? Yup. And bike rentals and wine country info? That, too. And while the campground is near Highway 101, highway noise is non-existent.
This KOA treats you nice, from the widely spaced full hook-up sites to those with water/electric only. Staff are friendly, and restrooms kept spotless.
We picked site 222, close to the site near the ultra-clean restrooms, and with plenty of internet bandwidth, plotted our two-day spree across the two counties that most of the world knows California wine by. First, and closest to the coast, Sonoma. Again, where to start? Best advice? Ask check sites like the Sonoma Tourist Guide and information from Sonoma County Tourism.
You’ll also find some other places to visit like the cute-as-a-peanut Charles M. Schulz Museum, where you can see, among other things, the “Peanuts” cartoon strip creator’s desk, between winery visits. Some wineries here offer free tasting or knock off the tasting cost if you buy something, but most will charge per visit, so do your homework beforehand, pick a dozen or so populating the important growing regions—Sonoma, Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys—and have at it. Most of all, trust your instincts and your palate. Here are some suggestions we’re personally fond of:
An aerie perched atop the Sonoma hills southwest of Healdsburg, Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery is one of the county’s most picturesque. Reached by a steep, winding road that’s a challenge to larger RVs, the winery is perfectly positioned to visit in the afternoon to sit on the patio sipping its boutique golden chardonnay or its fruity prize-winning pinot noir to watch as the raptors ride the upswells above the Russian River below. Stunning. It’s not owned by Farrell anymore, who cashed in and moved on to found the boutique Alysian winery in the Russian River Valley, but its newest new owners have brought the label back. Both are definitely worth a visit.
At Dashe Cellars, also near Healdsburg, you’ll get more bang for your sipping buck because its tasting room is part of the Family Wineries of Dry Creek, a cooperative of six. Among Dashe’s offerings are several great deep zinfandels including a Zin dessert wine.
The entire region near Santa Rosa to Healdsburg is your tasting room. Known collectively as the Wine Road, there are so many wineries along its two-lane highways like CA 128, and 12, it boggles the mind. The farther one gets onto roads like West Dry Creek, the narrower the roads get, so take care around those blind corners. For a wine nut, as the slogan says, The Wine Road is truly Heaven Condensed. Among the wineries to visit: Paradise Ridge, reliable big producers like St. Francis, Kendall-Jackson, Clos Do Bois, and Chateau St. Jean. and smaller outlets like Jordan, Imagery, Dutton Estate, J, Gundlach Bundschu and other labels you may never see outside California.
Leave the KOA and head west to the coast for some truly memorable experiences like restaurants of Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock chose as the setting for his famed movie, “The Birds,” along with tiny, worthy eateries like The Glen Ellen Star, in Glen Ellen, and for great food and accompanying prices, John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa.
And, if you can’t get into the KOA, there is great camping here or inland above it all spots like 49-site Sugarloaf Ridge State Park 1,200 feet above the valley. The road up is definitely twisty, and at times you wonder where you’re going, but it’s definitely worth it. Watch for that tiny bridge I mentioned, too.
Only 15 miles east from Sonoma, if pinot, chard and zinfandel are kings in Sonoma, Cabernet holds court in Napa, the county most people think of when they think of California wine. It’s the priciest county to visit due to its tasting room fees and bottle prices that sometimes are higher than at wine superstores like Total Wine and BevMo.
The same rules apply here as in Sonoma: twisty roads. But along St. Helena Highway, wineries are easily accessible. Orin Swift Cellars is a must. Varieties like The Prisoner, Saldo and other blends are feasts to the taste buds. Also hit Heitz and Merryvale, among others here. In the shadow of famed Atlas Peak, make an appointment at William Hill, and also stop for tasting in the Stags Leap district at Shafer, Sinsky, and for zin, Biale, all along Silverado Trail, or pick from the scores of others along neighboring California 128.
Welcome to the undiscovered country. Centered around the small town of Plymouth, you’ve entered what Sonoma and Napa were maybe 30 years ago. In other words, fantastic wines at reasonable cost, especially zinfandels.
There are at least two campgrounds within shouting distance of “downtown.” The Far Horizons 49er Village, a Good Sam park along CA-49 outside town, or Gold Country Campground farther from this county’s mother lode of tastings. Both offer loads of amenities, however.
Must-stops here include Jeff Runquist Wines, one of my all-time faves, where that caramel-like Petite Syrah is casked. Just down the road, Renwood Winery, which seems to have regained its former prominence, Young’s, sporting especially beautiful labels, foretelling what’s inside each great bottle, and the northern outpost of famed, and expensive, Turley. Deaver is definitely a sleeper as well.
You’ve got almost 40 more to choose from that occupy the rolling hills here.
Here’s another county, in somewhat southern Cali, that also deserves attention for great, often overlooked wines in the rush to Napa and Sonoma. The roads again twist around the live oak and vineyard-covered hills, and at the end of each are some true gems. Justin Vineyards is one of the best, and Opolo is one of those that, when you taste, you immediately sign up for its wine club. There are great camping possibles here as well, from Morro Bay State Park, to full service state parks like Wine Country RV Resort.
In fact, you’ll want to sign up for many of these. Just check to see if they can ship to your state. You’ll then have access to these unique wines all year long, including those you cannot buy beyond the winery gates.
That’s my primer to wine country camping. My favorites may or may not become yours. But it sure will be fun to see!
Check out all the wineries online, or through each county’s visitor bureau. They’re great resources for sipping as well as camping. Here are a few sources: camping in Sonoma County. Amador County. In Paso Robles region. Napa County. And don’t forget Harvest Hosts. It costs to join, and most don’t have hookups, but it’s also a great resource.
If you’re planning other California park stays, be aware that some more popular parks in the redwoods now limit RV lengths to 25 feet. In other words, you may want to/have to leave your tow vehicle parked outside the gates. Some of the roads in Sonoma/Napa and Paso areas are recently twisty and tight. Some may want to consider renting a car or using a tow vehicle instead of piloting even a nimble LTV.
It began with a simple goal: put Depression-era men and women back to work. Quickly.
In the early 1930s, the world’s economy had collapsed. Unemployment in the U.S. alone stood at 25 percent. Many states, even higher. As they viewed the shanty towns and “Hoovervilles,” as homeless communities were then called, many feared that a revolution was coming if something wasn’t done.
Then some forward-thinkers, including a then-young Army officer named Dwight Eisenhower, had a transformative, and innovative, idea. Why not change America’s highway infrastructure from mud-rutted roads to paved highways as a way to put people back to work?
From the CCC and the ERA to the WPA, Congress and the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration worked through their differences together and saw to it that the men who would move the rock and dirt, and lay the concrete and steel to create what began as the Appalachian Scenic Highway, came from the poverty-ravaged “hollers” and mountains from Tennessee to Virginia that the road’s route would take.
When it was finally completed in 1987—yup, it took that long—this work of beauty winding through, around and over the country’s eastern mountains that became the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) would rank as one of the greatest public works projects in American history.
The world’s longest, at 469 miles, and narrowest—as narrow as 200 feet—national park would be free except for camping. A free national park that today is the most-visited in the National Park Service, mainly because stretches are often used by locals. It is ranked No. 3 in one list of Great American Drives, and should be on yours, too.
Linking two great other eastern national parks, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountains, it may not be on your radar to visit. But it should be. And, last fall, we headed “Lucky Us,” our 2015.5 Leisure Unity MB south from our Michigan home base to first spend some time in the Smokies, and then at Cherokee NC, hop aboard the Blue Ridge at its southern end/beginning.
I was aware of some of what we’d see and do driving the bottom 200 or so miles on this trip. Denise wasn’t. But following spectacular vista after spectacular vista, interspersed with craft shops and Appalachian towns through three states that tempted with both scenery, history and food, we both were convinced to plan another trip to do the top half, plus a bit more. More on that in an upcoming article. We’ll also concentrate on the Smokies in a near-future story.
This is about The Blue Ridge.
Most printed guides you’ll pick up actually begin at Milepost 0, logically enough, at Shenandoah National Park, to the north. Since we began in the Smokies, we went backwards, but we didn’t care. You shouldn’t either.
You’ll enjoy the journey, and the incomparable mountain overlooks, quiet trails leading from eight rustic (your $20 nightly fee–$10 with a senior access pass–buys no power; our 200w of rooftop solar kept us going), but all have flush toilets, and some with showers, albeit some a bit dated, victims of years of federal park service de-funding, campgrounds conveniently built about every 58 miles, and glimpses of the lives of some of the residents here, from moguls to mountaintop nearly self-sufficient farmers, who gave up their lands to create this park.
On the first day, you’ll quickly gain an appreciation for those reservable campgrounds—there are private camps also sprinkled along the way too, if the national park sites are filled. And those incomparable views. You’ll soon be doing an “ohh, let’s stop here….wait, pull over here…how about pulling off here…I need to get a shot of this…” to each other as we did, as the changing overlooks of the blueish ridges of this part of the Appalachians ripple and fold before you. Among other things, you’ll be seeing, passing or going through:
And hundreds upon hundreds of scenic pullouts, so many that after Day 1, you’ll be simply overwhelmed at what you’re seeing. That’s the reason to take your time.
Remember this above all: most drives get you to your destination. On the Blue Ridge, the drive IS the destination.
Plan on about 50 to 110 miles a day to stop, poke around neighboring towns, walk trails, and light a campfire or two. The BRP’s speed limit is 45, but considering the multiple stops you’ll be making, plan on a 30 mph average. Or, even less.
Don’t rush this. Because by the second day, you’ll begin hearing the history encased in these ancient ridges whisper to you, from the waterfalls and trout streams, to hooting owls and eagles, to the echoes of voices of the fathers, mothers and children in the lone cabins still standing, where mountain families lived out their lives a long wagon ride from any town.
Here are our highlights on the southern half.
We hopped on the southern end of the BRP at Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center, at Mile 469.1, near the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the area’s first human inhabitants. The guides quickly caught our attention: height restriction warnings about some tunnels in the first 50 or so miles from that entrance.
No worries for us, however, at least after we double-checked at the lowest tunnel, at 10 feet, 6 inches. That’s because it’s measured from the side of the tunnel, not the center. So with me walking behind just to be sure, we were feet below the tunnel’s rounded side, where many large RVs would be in danger of ripping the roof off if they didn’t stick to the center. One more advantage of a smaller RV.
Once that was out of the way, we got down to some serious rubbernecking. I was familiar with the BRP, but Denise was wondering what all the fuss was about. She quickly found out. As soon as we hopped on, we were climbing. Through, around and alongside mountains upwards of 6,400 feet. Not high by western standards, but in the east, almost Everest-like. At Mile 451, is Waterrock Knob, named for a spring that quenched travelers from the Cherokee onwards. You’ll be looking at four states from here.
Once past those low tunnels, we climbed another 20 miles to Richland Balsam Overlook, highest point on the parkway at 6,047 feet, or 6,400 feet, depending on the source, and who’s counting.
Looking out at the vistas of the Nantahala National Forest ahead and the Smokies already miles behind, we realized why we were here. “The layers of mountains and valleys, with the blue hue of it all, is simply spectacular,” Denise said. Well put.
While we could have camped at private and state parks neighboring the parkway, we chose to stay within the park, at, for us, $10 per night with our senior parks pass. And we could have first stayed in the ridges at 4,900 feet at Mount Pisgah, formerly part of the vast Biltmore Estate of the Vanderbilt family, but the weather in September-October can be tricky that high. We opted instead to only take in the views. Besides, we just had to stop at the Parkway Visitor Center, mile 384, with exhibits about the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area we were traveling through.
Typical of the park’s campgrounds are Julian Price Park and Doughton.
Located just off the parkway, they, like other campgrounds, are well-marked, and we had no problem finding a site in early fall. Julian Price at mile 295 or so, features 193 sites. Price Lake, with canoe rentals and a hiking trail, is across the parkway from the campground. There are also other hiking trails in the area.
Doughton, near mile 239, has 31 sites. Our paved campsite featured a natural rock barrier between the circle drive and our spot, which overlooked more of the BRP’s beauty.
Take the mile or so walk through fields and woods, or drive instead, to Brinegar Cabin, where the Brinegar family literally carved out a farm homestead atop the mountain here in 1876 to raise crops and livestock. Martin and Caroline built the cabin around 1889, raised flax, and had an apple orchard and a granary.
The sound of water still trickling from the homestead’s springhouse is just a sample of what it must have felt like to live here, miles from anyone else, with just the trees and wildlife for neighbors. In summer, the National Park Service uses the site for interpretive programs.
Laurel Springs, NC is about as quirky little stop as you’ll find along the Blue Ridge. Catering mostly to motorcyclists who find the parkway’s corners, dips and overlooks as appealing as we do, it’s a great little diversion near Doughton campground. Here are two places to duck your head into:
Wild Woody’s. Think Sturgis Rally year-round with a campground attached. Park yur hawg—or LTV– step inside for a brewski or two. Woody’s was empty when we visited in October, but I’m sure it’s packed in summer.
If it’s still there, check out the custom crystal metallic blue Caddy-turned RV parked nearby, replete with a chopped travel trailer bolted behind the front seat. It may still be for sale unless some lucky adventurer put a ‘sold’ sign on it after his or her fifth Bud. There’s also a campground, and you can preview your visit here.
New River. You’re close to the New River at Laurel Springs, which is a misnomer. It’s recognized as the world’s second oldest river, 10 million to 360 million years new. You can take a leisurely canoe trip on the New—It’s also famous elsewhere for sphincter-tightening whitewater raft trips—at Dusty’s Trails Outfitters, which also has primitive camping.
Everything from bluegrass and country, to rock-n-roll, owes its heritage to what happened in these hills, when Scots, English and others came to live here and brought their music and cultures. Those broadsides and ballads evolved over the centuries into the mountain tunes many of us know, then changed again by greats, including the man considered the father of modern bluegrass, Bill Monroe, and others like Doc Watson and the Stanley Brothers.
It’s all told at the Blue Ridge Music Center at mile 213 on the parkway. If you’re lucky after touring the museum stick around for a concert (at least July through October), or take part in one of the free, local mini-events from noon to 4 p.m. every day the center is open. Which basically is every day.
Do you play? Maybe they’ll even let you sit in.
If you’re either a fan of NASCAR, or mountain music and bluegrass, come to Galax, VA, pronounced ˈ’ɡeɪlæks,’ maybe 15 minutes from the music center and about seven miles from the parkway.
The town, named for an evergreen groundcover found across the Blue Ridge, is considered to be the center of “old time” mountain music, has a type of dulcimer named after it, and carries on that tradition with Friday night concerts at the theater downtown. It also is a destination for strummers and pickers following another famed route, The Crooked Road, a.k.a. Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail.
The annual Old Fiddler’s Convention has taken place each August here since 1935. The annual Leaf and String Festival takes place in mid-June. Downtown’s Rex Theatre broadcasts a music show weekly live and online. If you get the idea that music is in the town’s soul, you’re right. So’s barbecue. The state BBQ championship, Smoke On The Mountain, takes over downtown in mid-July.
If you can’t make it, a good place to sample what’s cookin’ at the festival is downtown’s Galax Smokehouse. Where? Just follow your nose to the corner of Main and Grayson. St. Louis-style ribs, pulled pork, smoked brisket, chicken and the like are all on the menu in this unpretentious and tasty stop. Parking your LTV is easy downtown. Check out the NASCAR memorabilia, and also if the Wood Brothers, the oldest active team in stock car racing, are checking out the menu. They’re regulars here.
This was the last piece of the parkway to be completed and was also the most complicated. In fact, when it was built it was considered the most complicated bridge ever attempted. The main issue: How to protect Grandfather Mountain, one of the world’s oldest peaks, and around which the viaduct bends.
Started in 1983, its only 1,243 feet of precast concrete pieces on piers, but it took four years to build. Stop at the Visitor Center to understand the hows and whys of its construction. It affords sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, as well as making for great photo ops at either end, where you can park while your partner stands by to snap a perfect shot of your LTV rounding the “S” curve.
Plan a stop at the Park Service’s Visitor Center at mile 384, and the Folk Art Center near Asheville, NC at mile 382. It’s not only a museum of mountain crafts but you can also buy to your credit card’s limit here. During the tourist season, talk with local craftsmen.
Hiking is another draw. At almost every stop and overlook there’s a trail, including the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which runs, well, from these mountains, to the Atlantic coast, leading to the woods, a trout stream, or other feature.
Asheville’s Biltmore estate, built by the Vanderbilts from 1889-1895, opened for tours in 1930 to increase tourism which crashed like everything else during the Depression. There’s even a hotel there now.
That’s just a preview of the parkway’s southern half. We’ll be sure to take you along when we do the rest.
Yup, Hurricane Florence had its way with the entire southern Appalachian area. So before you go this year, check for updates by calling the park, or monitoring its website, or other associated sites.
We found the parkway’s reservable campgrounds most accessible in fall despite expected the fall color rush. Camping is open mid-May through October for $20 a night, but $10 with a National Park Service senior lifetime pass. There are also lots of private campgrounds within a few minutes of the route
For information on many of the spots mentioned, just click on the provided links.
When I heard fall was a great time to go to Door County Wisconsin to see beautiful foliage, I knew I needed to plan a trip for our group, the Midwest LTVers. It did not disappoint!
What I didn’t anticipate was a little cooler weather then normal. But it’s ok, I thought, perfect campfire weather. But I forgot about with cooler weather we might need to winterize. So we just made sure everyone brought some RV antifreeze to winterize, just in case. Fortunately, we didn’t need to do that.
Our journey started as we headed up to Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin the 2nd week in October where we stayed at Potawatomi State Park and spent the next 7 days. The fall beauty was all around us and each day it becomes even more beautiful. Just like the advertisement said, it was fall in all its glory!
Our first night was spent around a campfire bundled up (it was pretty cold) getting to know everyone and sharing stories about our motorhomes and the amazing places they take us.
Over the next 7 days, the group went to Sister Bay for a craft show, a lighthouse tour on the Door County Trolley in Egg Harbor, a cave tour of the process on how they age cheese, a fish boil at Pelletier Restaurant in Fish Creek, wine tasting and tour at Lautenbach Orchards, hiking in the park and gathering for meals back at the campgrounds. Our days were filled with lots to do and great company.
If you have never been to a fish boil, you need to go to one. Now, I will say, I am not a fish lover, but they told me I could have ribs instead. Whew! Outside behind the restaurant is where they had the big fire pit with the large kettle filled with boiling water. The owner told us the history of fish boils and the process. Then he told us to take a few steps back as he grabbed a huge scoop of salt to put in the water and the fuel oil for the fire. He dumped it on the fire and it erupted like a volcano. Very impressive and entertaining. Now time to go inside and eat those ribs! 🙂
Cherries are a big crop here in Door County, so of course, they had cherry everything….from cherry mimosas, cherry chicken salad wraps, jellies, donuts, wine and salsas to name a few. And it all was great!
One of the many highlights was on our trolley lighthouse tour that took us to Cana Island Lighthouse. First, we had to take a tractor that was pulling a “hay ride” trailer across to the island. Normally you don’t have to do this, but since the water levels were so high, we had to get across to the island somehow. Once we arrived on the island, we saw the lighthouse. It was beautiful! Some of us took the spiral staircase up 97 stairs to the top of the lighthouse where you were able to look out over Lake Michigan. The view was absolutely amazing, but a little scary going up and down all those stairs. But once at the top, the views were well worth it.
A few of us even went to a working dairy farm where we saw the process of milking the cows. Line those cows up, hook them up and out comes the milk. Unhook them and move them out! It was pretty interesting. We then ventured out to the 20-acre corn maze. WOW! This was one HUGE corn maze! I thought it was going to be a little tiny maze, oh no! Miles and miles of corn rows. We were in the maze for almost 2 hours and only got to about 1/3 of it. We decided it was a little cold and windy, and they did have homemade ice cream back at the dairy farm, so we had to figure out how to get out of the maze. I looked up and there it was Franklin our Motorhome peeking over the corn. Now we knew how to get out! 🙂
On our last night, we gathered together and brought our favorite camping meal to share. One thing about going on rallies with fellow LTV owners, you never go hungry. We chatted about the week’s activities and said our goodbyes. We hope to meet up again soon…spring is not far away!