Camping restyled: Modern campgrounds now have loads of extras
Airstream trailers are available for rent at Santa Cruz KOA. (Courtesy KOA via Contra Costa Times/MCT)
I remember camping as a no-frills family vacation, but also all about outdoor family time: paddling a canoe in the Russian River, roasting marshmallows and mountain pies around the campfire and telling ghost stories in our sleeping bags.
Now, the great outdoors is filled not only with pools, game rooms and horseshoe pits but giant movie screens. Tent sites and recreational vehicle parks sharing space with cabins and fully appointed lodges.
Campers need look no farther than the California coastline to find campgrounds such as Manchester Beach, Petaluma and Santa Cruz.
"They're like department stores," explained Jim Rogers, chief executive officer of KOA, a leading private campground company in North America. "If you want to set off by yourself and pitch a tent, we have it. Parties of five or six can go in together and park their rigs in the group area. We have cabins overlooking the ocean for wedding parties. We want to be a place for everyone."
Camping has become an outdoor hospitality industry, but without the $200- or $300-a-night resort price tag.
In 2008, the travel industry slapped the word "glamping" onto this trend of luxury camping. Since then, some of those "glamping" perks have burrowed into even mainstream camping.
KOA offers free Wi-Fi at all its locations and has added more cottagelike trailers, complete with kitchens, bathrooms and lofts. One state park now even includes cabins with kitchenettes and televisions with DVD players. Cable hookups and satellite television are available, often free of charge.
Sacred Rocks Reserve near San Diego has gone a step further, allotting 36 sites for eco-friendly, solar-powered park models that are on sale as year-round vacation homes. "It's for people who want to escape the noise of the city and hear the owls at night," said owner Sharon Courmousis.
I'll be the first to admit — I prefer camping with four walls, a real bed and a private bathroom. But laptops propped up on picnic tables? RVs with outdoor televisions? Texting around the campfire? Has our inability to disconnect from the outside world and our favorite tech toys gone too far?
Courmousis sees it this way: "At least they're getting some of what nature has to offer."
Rogers sees an even more valuable upshot: "We're getting our youth outdoors. If we don't find some way to do it, we will not have future land stewards."
The trick, says Pauline Wood, co-owner of Petaluma KOA Camping, is to provide entertainment that will draw campers away from their televisions, laptops and cell phones. To that end, her campground offers a full schedule of events from May to October, including hay rides, pool parties, rock wall climbing and wine tastings.
"We're like the Disney of camping," she said. "We offer the full spectrum."
Here's a closer look at a few California sites that have redefined camping in style (all rates are nightly):
El Capitan Canyon: About 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, this luxury campground offers fully appointed cedar cabins — some of which look bigger and nicer than my house — and raised canvas safari tents with willow beds and linens. There's a restaurant and deli selling barbecue kits. During the summer, guests can enjoy free concerts on Saturday nights. Beach cruise bikes are also complimentary.
Details: www.elcapitancanyon.com; 866-352-2729; cabins from $185 a night offseason and $225 peak; safari tents from $135 offseason and $155 peak.
Petaluma KOA Camping: The 70-acre campground has tent and RV sites, cabins and Wine Country lodges with a private bedroom, bunk bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, television and DVD, fire pit and deck. The campground has a playground, basketball and volleyball courts, pool, arcade, movie theater, dog park and themed weeks during the summer. San Francisco and Wine Country tours also are available.
Details: www.petalumakoa.com; 800-992-2267; tent sites from $39.50, RV sites with hookups from $59, cabins from $73 and lodges from $185.