Where to go glamping in Sonoma County

After 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, thwarted plans and masked playdates, there was no way Emlyn O’Connell and his three kids were going to miss out on their summer getaway to Wine Country.

So the foursome from Mill Valley improvised; they tried glamping, or camping with a luxury twist.

They ended up outside Healdsburg, at a place called Wildhaven Sonoma. There, on the banks of the Russian River, they were able to have traditional camping experiences such as cooking s’mores around a campfire and a night in a spacious tent. But they also enjoyed creature comforts such as cozy beds with heated blankets, electricity and posh bathrooms with hot showers.

“The tents were comfortable, and the private picnic table and fire pit outside each tent helped make the stay relaxing and hassle-free,” said O’Connell, a single dad to children ages 15, 12 and 8. “Walking access to the river and the proximity to Healdsburg and Sonoma were a bonus also.”

The O’Connells weren’t the only ones to turn to glamping for something new this summer; anecdotal evidence from across the county indicates interest in this upscale spin on camping has skyrocketed.

While no organization specifically tracks glamping as a segment of camping, bookings at Wildhaven and the handful of other Sonoma County destinations to offer the luxury outdoor accommodations climbed sharply. Weekends at these places were almost entirely sold out. Even on weeknights, it was difficult to find space.

Ken Barber, co-owner of Wildhaven, said the demand has exceeded even his wildest dreams.

“When we put together the plan for this place, we never thought we’d see this much excitement this early into the process,” Barber said. “It’s pretty remarkable, and yet given what’s going on in the world, it also makes perfect sense.”

Appeal of glamping

For many, in the context of public health precautions that have emerged to protect against COVID-19, glamping does feel safer than overnighting in traditional hotels.

For starters, the entire experience unfolds outside, which epidemiologists have said is the safest place to be to minimize transmission of the coronavirus. Because glamping tents are minimalist, it’s also comparatively easy for housekeepers to sanitize and clean a glamping tent after each stay.

At the same time, glamping in a glorified campground is wonderfully communal, much like camping itself. Tents are more than 10 feet apart but close enough for people to make friends. The O’Connell children, for instance, became pals with the daughters of a reporter and were able to sit distanced and masked around a campfire for hours.

At AutoCamp Russian River, a Guerneville glamping destination with 24 Airstream trailers and 10 luxury tents, all common spaces are outdoors, enabling guests to have the best of both worlds.

Co-founder Ryan Miller said the local outpost of his brand has grown exponentially since June 2020.

“We have lots of fresh air, open space and the ability to interact with others safely from a distance,” said Miller, who is based in Los Angeles. “At the same time, AutoCamp gives guests the ability to have a private Airstream accommodation all to themselves, as well as little need to interact with others and team members if they so choose.”

Options abound

The Airstreams at AutoCamp are among the most luxurious glamping options in all of Wine Country; each comes with its own bathroom and shower, electricity, a pullout couch, a mini kitchen, a private patio and a door that locks.

Other options across the county are exceptional in different ways.

At Safari West, the animal park in Santa Rosa, 30 luxury tents imported from Botswana look out on the giraffe enclosure and include a morning wake-up from a flamboyance of flamingoes.

From a practical perspective, each of these tents also has an en-suite bathroom with a real toilet and a copper sink, a small deck overlooking the giraffe enclosure, electricity and either a ceiling fan in summer or a space heater in winter. Guests also receive a complimentary continental breakfast.

Two glamping sites at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in the Sonoma Valley are more bare-bones — offering a 16-foot canvas tent with a bed and no electricity — but also are among the most remote of all the options, with a real feeling of escape.

Park Manager John Roney said the tents are a hit with first-time campers who don’t want to go all-in.

“What makes these particular tents so great is that you can have a camping experience without having to bring all of the equipment and set it up,” said Roney, who works for the Sonoma Ecology Center, the organization that manages the park. “For a lot of people, if you can reduce the barriers of giving them a camping experience, if you give them less to worry about, they’re more likely to try it out.”

Roney added that Sugarloaf also has a six-tent tent rental program for people who want a more rustic (read: no beds) camping experience but don’t own equipment.

What’s next

Though summer is winding down, interest in glamping at Sugarloaf continues to be strong. Roney said he has never seen so much interest in camping in his park and noted that he expects demand to continue as long as the specter of COVID-19 impacts travel plans.

Elsewhere across the county, other glamping operators shared similar thoughts.

As these entities prepare for a busy future, some are investing money into their offerings to make them even better.

At Wildhaven, for instance, Barber has expanded both programming and product. First, in July, he started booking live entertainment to perform in a common area on Friday and Saturday nights. More recently, he rolled out two new tents with bunk beds. These new tents are designed for groups with up to two adults and four kids. Barber said they were a response to customer requests, and they brought to 40 the total number of glamping tents at the site.

To be fair, no matter how many amenities a destination incorporates, glamping isn’t for everyone. It is, however, undeniably a trend here in Wine Country, and a growing one at that.

Dan Friedell, a traveler from Washington, D.C., put the experience into perspective.

“If you’re used to camping, you’re going to feel like (glamping) definitely is a step up, and you’re going to love it,” Friedell said. “But if you’re used to traveling and sleeping in the Marriott or the Holiday Inn or better, it’s just not the same.”

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