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If the number of people visiting Death Valley National Park’s Ranch at Furnace Creek at lunchtime in July is any indication, then some people truly do like it hot. Lots of people, in fact. This arid, desolate and ruggedly Furnace Creek DV09007 FC Ranch Entrance SMALLbeautiful park typically draws some 230,000 travelers during the summer months, when the temperatures can be as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

Situated in east-central California on the edge of the Mojave Desert, the park hosts as many as 900 tour bus travelers each day. Nearly all of the visitors are from European countries; most come from Germany, France and the UK. Lunchtime in the Wrangler Buffet is a smorgasbord of languages – German, French, Italian and Dutch.

“Although we have domestic travelers too, Europeans in particular love Death Valley during our extreme summer months,” said Phil Dickinson, director of sales and marketing for Furnace Creek Resort. “The American West, with its wide open spaces and distinctive landscapes, is a beloved travel destination for European travelers, and Death Valley is particularly appealing to this group, in part because of the extremes.”

Death Valley is one of the hottest places on the planet, with a record-high temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit recorded in 1913.

Yet heat is not the only extreme in this 3.3 million-acre park. With a low point of 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin, it is also one of the lowest places on earth. For perspective, Badwater visitors can look up on a cliff – way up – and see a sign marking sea level. And from that point, travelers can look across the valley to Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains, which rises to 11,049 feet above sea level.

Death Valley is also dry, receiving less than two inches of rainfall per year on average. In years the park receives more than that amount, there are often flash floods in low-lying areas due to the lack of vegetation and the broad expanses of impermeable rock.

Furnace Creek Golf SMALLSnow capped mountains above a desert green.

In addition to the tour buses the Ranch hosts golf groups with a penchant for the extreme and automotive companies conducting hot-weather testing for new vehicle models. Golfers play the year-round Furnace Creek Golf Course all summer. And more than 50 intrepid golfers are expected to participate in the second-annual Heatstroke Open June 22-24.

In mid-July, 90 of the best runners on Earth will compete in the “Badwater Ultramarathon,” a 135-mile race that begins at Badwater and ends at Mount Whitney, 8,300 feet above sea level. In between, runners pass through three mountain ranges. The invitation-only race is described by its organizers as the “most demanding and extreme race on the planet.”

Plus, there are Hollywood movie shoots and national magazine photo shoots regularly staged throughout the park. The park’s otherworldly landscape makes it a particularly great location for science fiction movies. Parts of the 1977 mega-hit “Star Wars” were filmed in the park.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, operator of the Ranch at Furnace Creek and concessions in the park, continually educates visitors about the potential dangers of the park’s extremes through signs and park guides.

“We advise our summertime visitors to drink plenty of water, wear sunscreen and hats and to limit physical activities to the cooler early-morning and evening hours,” said Dickinson. “The Badwater runners never listen to us on that latter point though.”

To harness the power of the unrelenting sun, Xanterra constructed a five-acre, one megawatt solar PV system four years ago. The massive system powers more than one-third of the resort’s electricity needs annually, and 100 percent of electricity during peak power-generating times.

Xanterra’s year-round operations include the 224-room Ranch at Furnace Creek; 18-hole Furnace Creek Golf Course, the world’s lowest course at 214 feet below sea level; two restaurants; a saloon; general store; spring-fed swimming pool; tennis courts; the Borax Museum and a service station. In addition, there is a 3,000-foot airstrip adjacent to the property. Xanterra also operates the AAA Four-Diamond-rated Inn at Furnace Creek, open mid-October through mid-May. The Inn includes a restaurant, gift shop, spring-fed swimming pool, tennis courts, lush gardens and conference and banquet facilities. The Inn provides a stunning and lush oasis in a harsh climate thanks to water flowing from nearby natural springs.

 

For more information about facilities in Death Valley National Park go to www.furnacecreekresort.com.

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of other Desert area lodging and dining options can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

cyclist in occidental8 SMALLTake either of two roads from Occidental to the coast.

Less than an hour north of San Francisco is some of the best bicycle riding in Northern California. You can travel flower-lined country roads that pass organic farms, ride under towering redwoods or pedal down quaint lanes past vineyards and wineries. You can also try winding routes that follow the gentle Russian River to the wild Pacific coastline.

The area is synonymous with good riding. With 2,250 kilometers/1,400 miles of lightly traveled secondary roads and a growing system of off-road bike trails, Sonoma County appeals to a wide variety of riders. Whether you are a dedicated cyclist attacking mountain passes or a weekend pedaler eager to sip wine and cycle through the vines, Sonoma County can provide you the perfect track. It's no wonder Bicycling Magazine listed the area as one of "The 7 Greatest Rides on Earth."

An avid cycling community is here. Perhaps the most notable is star resident and professional cyclist Levi Leipheimer. Serious bicyclists come to train as well as to compete. Sonoma County was at the starting line (and Stage 1 finish) for the Amgen Tour of California, May 13.

 

Here are some ways to explore the county by bicycle:

 

Challenge and Train

Two challenging rides in the county are the Kings Ridge-Tin Barn Road near Cazadero and Coleman Valley Road near Occidental. The Kings Ridge ride, favored by pro racer Levi Leipheimer, is a challenging, hilly course. It is considered one of the most beautiful, fulfilling bike rides in the world. The Coleman Valley ride is a landmark climb in Northern California and was featured in this year's Amgen Tour of California.

The Sonoma Coast 60-kilometer/40-mile ride is best done in the early morning before the motorists hit Highway One. It includes a couple of challenging hills. A good starting place is the town of Occidental through Monte Rio and Duncans Mills along Highway 116 to the fishing village of Bodega Bay.

The Geysers 80-kilometer/50-mile loop (1,000 meters/3,500 feet of climb) is very remote, with no services and very challenging terrain between Geyserville and Cloverdale. Suitable for fit, experienced riders only.

 

Sip and Cycle  

Come for one of the popular wine-tasting rides, known as "sip DryCreek5 Sign SMALLPastoral Dry Creek Valley offers tranquil riding. Photo by George Roseand cycle," where you can stop along the way every mile or so to taste wines at one of the more than 300 wineries. There are ideal places along the way to linger with a picnic of fresh wine country produce, breads, pasta, olive oil, fruit, cheese and chocolates.

The West Dry Creek Road near Healdsburg is a picturesque ride with a few rolling hills through vineyards and country roads. Many of the wineries are only minutes apart. Another great route is Red Winery Road in the Alexander Valley between Healdsburg and Geyserville. This is a quiet, peaceful, flat and virtually traffic free area with beautiful oak dotted hills and miles of vineyards.

 

Bring the Whole Family

Explore the many paths as you pedal through Armstrong Redwoods under the giant trees in a truly tranquil and peaceful setting.

The Joe Rodota Trail, a segment of the West County Trail, is paved and runs between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. It's built on an former railroad right-of-way; several bridges have been constructed over the old trestles. The trail is especially popular in the spring with the vivid blooming of the wildflowers. It is an excellent place for bird watching year-round.

The West County Trail between the towns of Sebastopol and Forestville is a paved path and relatively flat with a few gentle climbs. An unpaved horseback riding trail runs parallel. The West County Trail and the Joe Rodota Trail offer beautiful farm and agricultural views.

 

Leisure and Moderate Trails

The leisurely 32-kilometer/20-mile Sonoma Valley ride explores the scenic Valley of the Moon. Begin at the Sonoma Plaza, ride past the historic General Vallejo home and continue on back roads through the town of Glen Ellen to the Jack London State Historic Park. The winding roads and gentle climbs allow you to soak in the beautiful views of lush greenery, vineyards, streams and oak trees.

Starting and ending in Petaluma, the 48-kilometer/30-mile Spring Hill-Chileno Valley ride is a pleasant tour of the dairy lands along the border between Sonoma and Marin Counties. Much of this trail is on quiet back roads and is very scenic; some sections offer moderate to fairly serious climbs.

 

The following Santa Rosa-based companies offer bicycle rentals or tours:

 

Getaway Adventures & Rentals

www.rinconcyclery.com

Bike rentals or guided personalized tours; gourmet lunches available.

 

Rincon Cyclery

www.rinconcyclery.com

Located just blocks away from excellent riding sites - Spring Lake Park, Howarth Park and Annadel Park. Staff will help you find the right bike and the right trail or road to ride on.

 

Other good places for cycling information:

 

Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition

www.bikesonoma.org

The coalition also has a bicycle map online, or available for purchase a printed map.

 

Santa Rosa Cycling Club

www.srcc.com

Excellent site for group events and rides.

 

(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of Sonoma County lodging and dining options can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

Napa and Sonoma may get all the press, and the Gold Country may have all of that rugged history, but the wine country of California’s Central Valley has its story too. Rightly famous for its rich soils and temperate climate, the Central Valley can produce wines of character that, when compared to some of those other regions, are a great value. You may not be familiar with some of these California wine regions, but they're definitely worth investigating.

 

Yolo County

Known for its warm days and mild Delta breezes, the wine country of Yolo County yields unforgettable wines of great character and diversity. Here you’ll find outstanding Syrah, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Cabernet Souvignon, but also lesser-grown varietals such as Viognier, Malbec, Primitivo, and Albarino, plus Sparkling and Port. You’re sure to find something memorable, and affordable, to suit your taste.

bogle port weekend CORKS SMALL

Virtually all of Yolo County's some two-dozen wineries are family owned and operated—including major producer Bogle Vineyards in the Clarksburg AVA—making for a more intimate experience for visitors. In the little town of Winters you can sample wines at the tasting rooms of Berryessa Gap and Turkovich Family Wines (also home to the Winters Cheese Company, which offers samples, as well). In Clarksburg, the Old Sugar Mill is a unique, historic venue, housing six tasting rooms representing eight wineries all under one roof!

Yolo County is also home to the U.C. Davis Viticulture and Enology department, as well as the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science

From Clarksburg to Davis, Winters to verdant Capay Valley and Dunnigan Hills, you’ll also enjoy gorgeous scenery, great dining opportunities, and comfortable, welcoming places to stay. For more information about Yolo County wineries and other attractions, visit www.yolocvb.org.

 

Suisun Valley

Suisun Wooden Valley Winery I 31n SMALLThree generations of the Lanza family have made Suisun wine at Wooden Valley Winery. Photo by Jo Diaz

Suisun Valley is rustic wine country, nestled in the unspoiled Solano County farmland between San Francisco and Sacramento. The Suisun Valley appellation was established in 1982, and is nestled between two coastal mountain ranges, southeast of Napa Valley. In this diverse agricultural region are approximately 10 wineries, whose vineyards grow 23 different wine grape varieties. They are best known for their Petite Sirah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

If you fancy Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone varietals, you must visit Ledgewood Creek, a winery named after the creek that meanders along the northern border of this estate. For lesser known varietals—such as a Malvasia Bianca made in a late harvest style—visit Blacksmith Cellars. And for a rugged, natural experience try Winterhawk Winery, which has placed owl houses and hawk boxes strategically throughout the vineyard, beckoning a wide variety of birds including Red-Tailed Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Sparrow Hawks, and Northern Harriers.

Besides the wineries, visitors will encounter many farm stands, selling fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and freshly produced olive oils, from family farms that have been handed down for generations. There are also regular, seasonal events that are fun and laid-back. For more information about Suisun Valley wineries, visit www.suisunvalley.com.

 

Lodi

Though Lodi has produced wine for well over a hundred years, quality has soared in recent years. Growers have made commitment to the best viticultural practices and they've planted many new varieties to complement the Zinfandel which has always done well here. Located directly east of San Francisco at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, the Lodi appellation (which has seven sub-appellations) is noted for its classic Mediterranean climate and its distinctive sandy soils. Today you can choose from nearly 80 wineries that call Lodi home, an abundance that’s impossible to bypass.

Lodi is the self-proclaimed Zinfandel Capital of the World, producing more than 40 percent of California’s premium Zinfandel. Many of the region’s most distinctive wines come from the thousands of acres of “old vines”, some dating back to the 1880s. Styles range from medium to full-bodied with intense red and black fruit flavors of cherries, raspberries, and blackberries.

Lodi is predominately a red wine producer with approximately 66 percent of the acreage dedicated to red varieties. For many years it was California’s best kept secret, enhancing the fruit in many of the state’s most popular premium varietal wines. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay account for the lion’s share of the acreage; however with more 60 varieties in commercial production Lodi offers a vast portfolio of exciting wines.

No visit would be complete without a stop at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center. Here guests can taste from more than 200 Lodi wines and marvel at the hands-on demonstration vineyard.

For more information about Lodi wines, visit www.lodiwine.com.

 

Fresno

In the heart of the Central Valley, and a gateway to Yosemite National Park, Fresno is a surprisingly good destination for wine tasting in rambling Madera County. Nearly 20 wineries are open to visitors here, with vintners who are passionate about making the best wines possible.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay are the leaders here, but visitors will also find excellent Tempranillo, Albarino, Sangiovese, and Barbera, plus delightful late harvest Zinfandel and luscious ports. Quality is paramount for these largely boutique wineries. For example, Engelmann Cellars focuses on creating hand-crafted reds and blends. Third-generation Ficklin Vineyards specializes in ports, including their lineup of flavored “Passport” wines. Nonini Winery, a fourth-generation family operation established in 1936, has 15 varieties of premium wines and offers a tour of the winery starting with the 1941 Garolla grape crusher from Italy and ends with the finished product resting in redwood tanks/oak barrels.

Two venues give visitors a chance to try several wines at once. Vino & Friends is a downtown Fresno wine store with a changing tasting menu. Also, be sure to stop by Appellation: California Wine Tasting & Visitor Center, which pours products from family owned wineries or vineyards of the Central Valley. The Center also offers wine education classes.

For more information about Fresno wineries and other activities in and around town, visit www.playfresno.org.

 

Editor's note: Planning a visit to any of the areas mentioned in this article? You'll find links to hundreds of lodging and dining options in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

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