On the way to Yosemite: Coulterville, Calif.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:29

I know that the excitement of approaching Yosemite National Park can tend to block out thoughts of stops along the way, no matter how attractive they might be. But the small town of Coulterville is such a picturesque, interesting and unspoiled reminder of California’s famed Gold Rush that it surely merits your consideration if you are traveling to the park from Manteca or Modesto on CA 120 or 132, or from Merced on CA 140.  Located 10 miles south of Moccasin, Coulterville has somehow managed to elude the commercialism that now characterizes such other (but still very interesting) Gold Rush towns as Jamestown, Sonora and Angels Camp.

Coulterville (population 200) is the real thing; so don’t expect everything here to be neat and freshly painted. The historic Hotel Jeffery is pretty much the center of town, and is about as close of a throwback to the “Old West” that one is likely to encounter in 2012.  The Hotel Jeffery has a large, quite charming dining room, which is the place in town for a group lunch. However, don’t miss the opportunity to also at least see the hotel’s adjacent and highly traditional Magnolia Saloon, if you don’t also decide to “belly up to the bar” for a cold one. Using the hotel as a base, everything else worth seeing in Coulterville is within easy walking distance.

Right across the highway (surely not a heavily traveled route) is the Northern Mariposa County History Center. Although I have explored more than my share of dusty old museums with little to spark my interest, this facility, contained in two adjoining historic buildings, definitely does not fall into that category. The museum contains quite a few fascinating (and largely dust-free) exhibits on the Gold Rush and area pioneers, including a detailed scale model of the original Coulterville Hotel. 

Adjacent to the History Center is the small, narrow-gauge steam engine “Whistling Billy,” dating from 1897, as well as a properly weathered sign explaining the origins and history of the town, originally called Banderita in 1850 when George W. Coulter opened his store here. On the opposite side of the highway, and down the street from the Hotel Jeffery, are several interesting shops, a couple of general stores, a “Bed & Breakfast” and varied other enterprises offering selections of obviously well-worn items.  Be assured that you are not likely to mistake any of these establishments for emporiums that could be found in Beverly Hills, but you are not likely to find me in Beverly Hills, either!

 Magnolia Saloon in the historic Hotel Jeffery

Model of the original Coulterville Hotel in the Northern Mariposa County History Center

Unique shopping opportunities

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On the way to the park

On the way to Crater Lake: Union Creek, Ore.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:26

Crater Lake National Park is an important component of any quality tour exploring the splendid Beaver State. Since most groups are likely to reach the park via OR 62, the historic and quite picturesque Union Creek Resort, just about a mile south of the junction with OR 230, makes for a great rest or meal stop. 

Close by is the splendid Rogue River Gorge, right off the highway and free of admission charge. So if you happen to make a day trip to the Crater Lake, you can make stops at Union Creek in both directions.

The Union Creek Resort was one of the original places where early motorists heading for Crater Lake could spend their vacation adjacent to the Rogue River and dense, old growth Oregon forests. The property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, consists of a main lodge (be sure to see the impressive stone fireplace), general store, a variety of rustic cabins, recreational facilities and the small but charming Beckie’s Café. Beckie’s, which offers excellent meals and is renowned for home-baked pies offered in many flavors, is very popular among the locals and knowledgeable visitors. Even though the café is just large enough to handle a full motorcoach if there are no other patrons in the house, they are happy to accommodate tour groups as long as they receive advance notification, so make sure to let them know when you will be coming.          

The Rogue River Gorge is an outstanding scenic wayside administered by the U.S. Forest Service, just a short distance up the road from the resort. A flat, short and easily accessible trail leads to several viewpoints overlooking the rushing Rogue River as it cascades over an impressive waterfall and through the gorge itself.

Beckie's Restaurant

Whitewater in the Rogue River Gorge

Rogue River rushing into the gorge

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On the way to the park

On the way to Mt. Rainier: Elbe, Wash.

by Bob Hoelscher 29. June 2012 20:22

Those who remember my discussion of Mount Rainier National Park here last October already know that this is one of my favorite NPS sites. If one approaches the park from the west via WA 7 and 706, the small community of Elbe (population 30) can be found at the junction of the two highways. 

Originally settled by German-speaking Lutherans, their historic 1906 “Little White Church” (the operative word here is “little”) in the center of town is a National Historic Landmark that is open to sightseers. Immediately adjacent, however, is the depot for the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad, the attraction that brings most of Elbe’s visitors. In fact, the entire town, situated on the east end of Alder Lake, has a railroad atmosphere, with a bar, restaurant and sleeping accommodations available in a series of retired train cars, although these are not really suitable for most tour groups. Even the bell in the church steeple was removed from an old locomotive!        
As the longest continuously-operated steam tourist railroad in the Pacific Northwest, the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad offers excursions on restored vintage coaches and open cars, pulled by one of several historic steam logging locomotives. Although holiday trips (Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween and the Christmas season) are offered, their regular schedule runs from Memorial Day through October, with multiple departures on Saturdays and Sundays, plus additional Thursday and Friday trips during the peak summer months. 

Regular excursions are attractively priced, run about two hours (just about the right length) and are quite scenic. The train travels through a succession of lush green forests and meadows, alongside mountain streams and across rivers on wooden trestles. A 20-minute stop is made at Mineral Lake, where special summertime barbecues are also served at an all-weather dining area on Fridays and Saturdays during July and August.  On clear days, Mt. Rainier can be viewed from the train en route.

The trip to Mineral Lake on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad

The Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad engineer explains the unusual vertical cylinders of the historic Willamette steam engine

Over the river and through the woods on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad

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On the way to the park

Hard work makes great memories

by Brian Jewell 18. June 2012 22:14

The four hardest-working days of my year are coming up this month. But they don’t take place here at the office; in fact, they have nothing at all to do with my job.

I spend four hot, sweaty days each June on a farm in Wilmore, Kentucky, for the Ichthus Music Festival. This contemporary Christian music event is the oldest festival of its kind in the country, and it attracts up to 20,000 visitors from throughout the South and Midwest.

Ichthus is dear to my heart — I first went to Ichthus as a child with my brother and my father to see my favorite band perform. Throughout my teen years, the festival was the regular highlight of my summer. I would get excited just thinking about all of the music, the fun with my youth group, the junk food and the late-night camping. I always enjoyed the shows and appreciated the ministry that took place during the course of the weekend.

As an adult, I began to see Ichthus not just as a place to have fun, but also as a chance to volunteer and help make a difference in the lives of today’s youth. I’m now part of the festival’s steering committee and head up a team of volunteers who take care of the needs of the artists while they’re on the property.

The steering committee has been working since January to prepare for this year’s festival, but the real work starts when the gates open on Wednesday, June 20. The artists arrive early and leave late, which means that my team and I are on duty from 7 in the morning until whenever they leave, sometimes hours past midnight. The days are incredibly stressful and exhausting. And I love every minute of them.

I first went to Ichthus because I loved music; I began working with the organization because I love the ministry behind it. Each year, our work affects the lives of thousands of teenagers and young adults. It’s this combination of fun and ministry that makes the work so worthwhile and brings me back to the festival year after year.

I’m telling you all this because I see a lot of similarities between what I do at Ichthus and what you do as group travel leaders. Many people believe that traveling is all fun for you, but of course, you know better. Although it is fun, it’s also a ton of work. But the work is worthwhile, because you’re touching a lot of lives along the way.

So this travel season, when the stress mounts and the road gets long, remember the love of travel that got you started in the first place. And remember that the fruit of your group’s travels will long outlast the hard work it takes to make it happen.

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Travel Thoughts

Wineries of Mendocino County

by Bob Hoelscher 8. June 2012 20:51

This spring I was fortunate to spend a week in Mendocino County, roughly a two-hour drive north of the San Francisco Bay area. If this is not the single most beautiful county in the U.S., it is certainly high on the list.

Although an area frequently overlooked on California tours simply because the Golden State has so many well-known attractions, Mendocino is well worth a multi-night stay. The area is not only sure to reward group travelers with an exceptional vacation experience, but one that is much more “laid back” than found amidst the bustle of the big cities.

As one arrives in Mendocino, one immediately notices that the highway traffic is now substantially reduced, the passing vineyards and wineries appear to be less overtly commercial and the scenic vistas surrounding them have grown substantially more impressive. With 95 winemakers and grape growers, the county bills itself as “America’s Greenest Wine Region.”

The winemakers I met in Mendocino stressed that their industry has now reached the point where Napa and Sonoma were about 25 or 30 years ago with mostly family-owned facilities and recent discovery by wine connoisseurs worldwide. Even though tours and tastings are just as readily available here, the atmosphere greeting the visitor is demonstrably more friendly and less rushed (as well as less expensive) than one finds frequently to the south. In fact, I found that employees at several vineyards, evidently quite proud of Mendocino’s unhurried pace and genuine hospitality, even referred to Napa Valley as the “Disneyland of the Wine Industry” in comparison. Whether or not that is an accurate description, the wineries of Mendocino are without question as attractive and picturesque, if not more so, than any I have seen anywhere in the world.

Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery

Handley Cellars

Navarro Vineyards & Winery

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Marvelous Mendocino County

Visiting Mendocino’s redwoods

by Bob Hoelscher 8. June 2012 20:48

I have found that one of life’s most humbling and least expensive pleasures is simply a walk under the canopy of majestic trees in a great forest, enhanced by the sounds of native birds and rushing streams. And while forests of the skyscraping firs and cedars of the Pacific Northwest run a close second, nothing equals a stroll through the towering coastal redwoods or massive giant sequoias found in California.

Although not as well known as Del Norte County’s redwoods, Mendocino County also offers a number of spectacular redwood groves for the visitor to explore. Among these are Hendy Woods and Mendocino Woodlands State Parks, as well as Montgomery Woods, Maillard Redwoods and Smithe Redwoods State Reserves. Unfortunately, some of these sites are a bit difficult for a full-sized motorcoach to access, plus California is currently in the process of closing quite a few of its lesser-utilized state parks due to budget woes.    

The good news is that there are two outstanding redwood forest areas in Mendocino County that are ideal for group visits. The first is free and definitely cannot be closed, since CA 128 runs right smack through the middle of Navarro River Redwoods State Park for almost 12 miles. This incredible, awe-inspiring scenic drive is every bit the equal of the famed “Avenue of the Giants” further north. 

Visitors will certainly want to pause at several of the many turnouts available along the way in order to delve even deeper into the forest on foot. Continuing east, past the park on 128, also leads to the lush Anderson Valley wine and fruit-producing region. Don’t miss it, if your tour is in the neighborhood! 

The second ideal opportunity for a redwood experience is into Jackson State Forest via the renowned “Skunk Train,” which departs both from Fort Bragg (drawn by a historic steam engine) from the west, and Willits (aboard classic diesel motorcars) from the east. Narration on these daily summer excursions is provided en route with a stop for lunch and exploring in the heart of the redwoods. Incidentally, the bad-smelling fuel that earned the train its unusual name back in the 1920s, happily, is no longer utilized.

Navarro River Redwoods State Park

CA Highway 128 in Navarro River Redwoods State Park

Skunk Train in Jackson State Forest

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Marvelous Mendocino County

The magnificent Mendocino Coast

by Bob Hoelscher 8. June 2012 20:44

Two hours north of the San Francisco Bay area lies the Mendocino Coast in Mendocino County. Although there are splendid coastal views further south in Sonoma and Marin Counties, the truly memorable scenic drive that stretches from Gualala to Rockport offers unsurpassed views of the blue Pacific Ocean as it meets the rocky shoreline and cliffs of the California Coast. 

Along the way are many state parks, beaches and reserves, picturesque communities like Mendocino, Point Arena, Manchester, Little River, Fort Bragg and Westport. Two historic lighthouses can be visited at Point Arena and Point Cabrillo, which is a State Historical Park with free entry. Wildflowers seem to grow everywhere, including at the formal floral displays of lovely Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. 

Architecture in such towns as Little River, Mendocino and Fort Bragg reflects that of Coastal New England, which was the origin of many of the area’s early settlers. In Fort Bragg, the Guest House Museum boasts an impressive Victorian mansion, built in 1892 by a lumber king who became the city’s first mayor.

In addition to numerous inns and interesting shops all along the coast, first-class lodging is readily available at group-friendly properties convenient to the “Skunk Train” depot in Fort Bragg, as well as in Ukiah for those preferring to make a day trip “loop” from inland. Regardless of how the trip is planned, however, I’d suggest at least a three-night stay in order to take advantage of the major attractions that Mendocino County has to offer. With the addition of two or three nights in the San Francisco Bay area, group leaders can construct a wonderfully varied trip that their travelers are certain to recall fondly for many years to come.

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”.  

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at bobho52@aol.com or by calling (435) 590-1553.

Village of Mendocino

Wildflowers and Rocky Coastline

The Pounding Pacific Surf

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Marvelous Mendocino County

River Walks and Runs

by Brian Jewell 2. June 2012 00:58

The San Antonio River Walk is saving me from obesity.

I've been eating my way across the city for four days now, enjoying the best of San Antonio's food during the annual Culinaria celebration. The events have included elaborate lunch and dinner affairs, a Mexican tasting event and a fancy soiree that featured some of the area's leading chefs offering small bites of their very best dishes. Needless to say, I've consumed more calories than my body has required.

After all of this eating, my waistline would be expanding rapidly were it not of the San Antonio River Walk. I've been stayinig at the beauiful Westin hotel, located right on the River Walk in the heart of the scenic downtown district. The San Antonio River and the charming district built up around it may be the most iconic image of San Antonio (save for the Alamo itself), and it makes an ideal place for visitors to stay, eat, shop and explore.

It's also an ideal place to excercise. The river winds through the downtown and neighborhoods such as La Villita, which give it a distinctly Mexican ambiance. Along both sides of the water, the River Walk offers paved pedestrian access, where visitors can stroll alongside the river and well-landcaped gardens that run along either side. Though the weather is already heating up for the summer, the River Walk provides a welcome respite from the heat, so I've been taking advantage of the setting to run a few miles each morning before beginning my touring for the day. Along the way, I pass plenty of other walkers and runners.

The River Walk is San Antonio's best toursim asset, and the city has gone to great effort to expand it in recent years. An expession project currently underway has added several miles of walkable riverfront extending from the downtown area in either direction; when the project is finished, there will be more than 8 miles of walkable riverfront. The expansion projects allow pedestrians to walk north to the city's museum district, and south to the grand homes in the historic King William neighborhood.

Of course, running isn't for everyone, and the city offers other ways for visitors to experience the River Walk. Groups can take a boat tour of the downtown district, with guides who tell the history of the River Walk and point out some of the area's most interesting spots. River taxis also ply the waters through town, picking up visitors along the River Walk and ferrying them to wherever they want to go. There's even a lock system that allows the boats to ride up river to areas of higher elevation.

I think my morning runs along the River Walk are helping me stay in shape during this trip — or at least that's what I tell myself. Even if I'm not burning off all of the calories, though, I'm certainly enjoying the view.


A group explores the River Walk via boat.

The River Walk includes stone bridges, shade trees and great architecture.

Visitors can use the River Walk to access hotels and museums.

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Tasting San Antonio

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