Friday, January 24, 2020

Camping Local: Discovering Your Big Backyard

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Wright's Beach, California, the Pacific Ocean in the background

If you live in paradise and then take a long road trip, are you leaving paradise? The question, of course, is a bit too clever and not really fair. "Paradise" isn't just one place and isn't the same for all campers. There are even many who would argue that "paradise" really isn't a place but rather a state of mind.

What is fair to say, though, is that California, with its seven climate regions from alpine to desert, has a lot of beautiful country. Alissa and Richard Levenberg, who live just east of San Francisco, have discovered that there are many great campgrounds in in the country close to home, that they really have a big, beautiful "backyard" for camping, with their favorite campground being just thirty-nine miles from their home.

Alissa and Richard's camping experience has its basis in backpacking and bicycle touring. Therefore, when they bought their Safari Condo Alto R-1723, a small, lightweight teardrop with a retractable top for travel, the trailer's accommodations were a step up in comfort and swank.
"Having a comfortable bed with hot showers and an inside kitchen really can’t be beat and represents a huge step up in comfort," says Alissa. "From backcountry camping we learned to love the outdoors, and from bike touring we learned we strongly dislike campground showers. Having a tiny trailer that can bring the comforts of home into beautiful state parks is why we bought an Alto."
Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
When in dropped-down travel mode, the retractable teardrop has 76% less wind resistance.

The Levenberg's set-up is an Acura MDX for the tow vehicle (maximum tow capacity of 5,000 pounds), towing the Alto R-1723, which has a dry weight of 1,867 pounds. On purchase, they opted for the installation of a remote-controlled trailer mover, so they are able to maneuver the rig into small spaces with the best views.
"We tend to choose state or county parks, and even if we find ourselves in a tight space, we can fit both car and trailer. One of our favorite campgrounds has sites on the beach, and we are able to turn the trailer 90 degrees so the windows face the ocean. Then the car can just tuck in next to it. We’ve squeezed into spots that were unexpectedly small, using that orientation, and it makes it possible to reserve sites that wouldn’t work for similar-sized trailers. The Acura handles extremely well, and even in high wind situations, we don’t feel like we’re towing anything."
Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, January 2020.

Because the Levenbergs are still active in their careers, much of their camping is local, either in the inland Coastal Ranges or on the Pacific Ocean coast. They take full advantage of their local options so that they can enjoy camping yet still be back for work come Monday, and have explored "a whole lot of places within a two hundred mile radius." Most of their camping trips are stays in state parks or county parks, but they also stay at private campgrounds. Some places they camp at are "solid favorites" that they’ve visited more than a few times. "There are twelve places we’ve visited four or more times."
"We camp every weekend unless something obligates us to stay home. It takes a lot to keep us from camping. We both find that we need to take work with us, but it is more palatable to get things done in the redwoods, or at the beach, or on a lake, when you can take a break by taking a hike or staring at birds. Because I’m a teacher, I get some longer breaks in the year, and that allows us to venture farther from home. Our primary camping experience, though, is weekend trips that are about an hour or two from home."
"Carpe Dory" is Alissa's blog, which documents all the adventures she has had with her trailer, "Dory," and her car, "Bruce," over the last five years. One has to zoom out on the Carpe Dory Map in order to get some detail; otherwise, the map which catalogues their travels is just one big blotch of colored pins of destinations. Alissa's blog includes photographs and descriptions of Dory's adventures, and is a testament of the notion that a beautiful and enjoyable experience is not always found somewhere far away from home.
"There’s fun in finding new spots, but returning to a favorite place has a more relaxing vibe to it. Once you know what’s there, you can spend your time doing the things you already know you love to do. My husband has his favorite bike rides for certain areas, I have favorite places to kayak, and we both have special hikes we look forward to doing. One thing I typically do on a first visit is scope out the sites for views so that I can try to reserve them for the next visit. It can be a challenge to score those perfect sites, especially in the popular campgrounds, but there is something extra satisfying when you do. And it does make it easier to plan for meals when you know in advance whether there are good places nearby to eat out. Or, if you know you’ve got that amazing spot on the beach, you can plan for outdoor grilling while you watch the sunset. It’s also nice to know in advance whether there will be cell service, both for work and for general communication purposes."
Three local campgrounds that the Levenbergs frequent are Wright's Beach at Sonoma Coast State Park, Butano State Park, and Brannan Island State Recreation Area.

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Wright's Beach

Wright's Beach

"This is one of our absolute favorites for the quintessential California coast experience. The premium sites face the ocean, but be aware that those are very hard to reserve. Once they go on sale, they’re generally gone in seconds. It’s close to amenities in nearby Bodega Bay, like restaurants and grocery stores, but there’s no cell service in the campground, so you still get to have that feeling of turning it all off for a while down at the beach."

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Butano State Park

Butano State Park

"This is one of our favorite deep redwoods campgrounds. The drive from the kiosk up to the campground is like entering a fairy forest. It is populated with lush greenery, giving way to the darkness of thick redwood forests. It’s not too far from the town of Pescadero, so we often stop on our way in to get food from their famous deli and grocery store. And on the way home, we usually stop there again, inevitably coming out with a pie."

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Brannan Island State Recreation Area

Brannan Island

"This one is a go to for being very close to home, at thirty-nine miles away. The campground sits on the Delta of the SF Bay and provides access to boating and biking. The 'Delta Loop' is one of my husband’s favorite rides, and I can even enjoy some of it because it’s very flat. It’s also usually easy to get a site, even on short notice. There aren’t too many restaurants nearby, so we know to come prepared with our own meals."


Although all parks and campgrounds have their unique qualities, the Levenbergs live at the center of significant geographic diversity--and have found beautiful campsites within that diversity. "For diversity," Alissa says, "I would pick Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Pinnacles National Park, and Bothe-Napa Valley State Park.

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, October 2015.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

"In Big Basin," Alissa says, "you get to experience one of California’s most impressive old growth redwood forests. I don’t care how many solar panels you have, you won’t be getting any sun in this campground. The trees go on forever and the campground feels remote, even though it is geographically not all that far from Silicon Valley. This is partly due to the narrow, twisty roads into the park, which serve to keep this place feeling like a genuine backwoods retreat."

One of the 3,802 Google Maps reviews of the park also talked about the trails. "Beautiful park with lots of redwoods and many different hike options. It has an easy 45-minute loop through the redwoods, a bunch of moderate hikes in the three-hour range, or nice long hikes that are more strenuous. Also the park has some waterfalls along some of the trails. Parking is $10, and you may have to drive a bit to the alternate lots."

The first time the Levenbergs camped there with Dory was in 2015, and they had nothing but positive comments from Alissa's blog post. "Huckleberry Campground is set apart from the main part of the park, and as such, is very secluded and shielded from the day use folks. The views out our windows cannot be beat. In every direction you could see, as far as you can tip your head back, beautiful California redwoods, reaching way up into the sky. Shafts of sunlight shot through the gaps, but mostly you are in the deep, cool shade of an old growth forest." In this post, the Levenbergs also discuss the lack of sunlight and the nuts-and-bolts of how well their solar array and batteries worked.

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Pinnacles National Park, September 2019.

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
"We got the same site we’ve had in the past, under a huge old oak tree. This time of year was a little exciting because we kept getting bombarded by an artillery of acorns creating huge thuds on the roof. I’m surprised there was no damage, considering how loud they were." (Pinnacles)

Pinnacles National Park

"Pinnacles feels as remote as Big Basin," Alissa says, "but here you are camping among the rocks and talus caves. And if you’re lucky, you just might spot a condor, or a tarantula. There are plenty of world class hikes, and it is a popular destination for rock climbers."

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
"Friday we abandoned town, hoping that by heading south we might escape some of the smoke coming from the 'Camp Fire.'”
"Of course, our eyes were drawn to the skies as we walked, on the lookout for Condors. I think it is entirely possible we spotted one. We’d been told by other hikers that there were two in the area and we definitely saw a Condor-like bird slowly circling around the peaks. I took a bunch of blurry pictures and showed them to the ranger when we got back. He wouldn’t fully commit since my pictures were so small, but my description of flight patterns and where we’d seen it did earn a nod and a, 'Yeah, that could definitely have been one.' So I’m going with it."
With over 2,300 Google Maps reviews, Pinnacles is a popular park, with an average 4.7 rating. One reviewer said, "What a beautiful place to hike--especially after all the rains. The creek was bubbling, waterfalls were cascading, and coyotes barking on a perfect sunny day in late December. Tons of trails to suit all abilities and ages including very well marked and maintained trails to rock faces for climbers."

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Both-Napa Valley State Park

Bothe-Napa Valley State Park

According to the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District website, this park provides a variety of activities, from hiking to local wine tasting.
"Located in the beautiful Napa Valley, Bothe Napa Valley State Park, is operated by the Napa Open Space District and offers year-round camping, picnicking, hiking and seasonal swimming. Daytime visitors can bring a picnic basket and bottle of wine to enjoy in the leafy shade of our day use area. On hot summer weekends, bring a swimsuit and enjoy a dip in the park’s spring fed swimming pool. Overnight visitors can enjoy Bothe Napa Valley’s campsites, yurts and cabins year round. Over 10 miles of hiking trails among redwoods, maples, oaks and madrones are available in this 1,900-acre park."
While the Levenbergs feel that Pinnacles National Park feels remote, not so Bothe-Napa, which is in the heart of wine country. "The campground maintains a nice woodsy feel, but is biking distance from a dizzying array of wineries. It is also close to the town of Calistoga if you’re looking for a day in a mud bath or spa. Or you can simply enjoy the world-class dining."

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is located in the California wine country. March 2019.

Alissa and Richard have camped at Bothe-Napa four times. On their second trip, they engaged in a variety of activities.
"We stayed at this park once before, in the very same site, on a double date. We officially like it. It’s not too far away and has lots of fun things to do. Saturday I actually got on my pretty blue bike, and Richard and I rode into Calistoga. It’s about a six-mile ride each way if you head over to the Silverado Trail. That is, by far, a more pleasant way for bikers to go than staying on Hwy 29 because there are fewer cars and a nice, wide shoulder. Everything is quite lush at the moment, and the rivers were flowing full throttle. Nice. In Calistoga, we got to window shop a little and have lunch in a great Thai place, the Thai Kitchen. Then we grabbed an eclair to share from Bella Bakery. The skies were iffy, so we decided to head back, but it didn’t end up raining on us."

The Levenbergs were presented with the following question: "What are the most challenging aspects of camping multiple times at the same place?" People who own a cabin on a lake face the same circumstances and activities each time they visit. Could campers who frequent the same campgrounds face similar challenges? Alissa responded in a positive manner.

Alto Safari Condo tiny trailer camping California
Doran Beach, Sonoma County Regional Parks, January 2020.
"I’m having a hard time coming up with challenges. Camping, even with repeat visits, is always enjoyable. As an example, last weekend we made a repeat visit to Doran Beach and went on a hike we’ve done before. This time, however, we discovered the beach was covered with sea stars. In fact, there were researchers out on the beach cataloging them because it was something of a phenomenon that there were so many. Or there was a repeat visit to Half Moon Bay when there were dozens of whales combing the waters nearby. Or the repeat visit to Lake Solano where I went boating and spotted a family of river otters. Even when we go to the same spots, there always seems to be something new to see or experience. And even if there isn’t, we’re out there in our tiny camper together. We always seem to have fun. I’ll let you know if we ever get bored."
Alissa and Richard have found a way to both work and play, and the secret includes discovering and enjoying local campgrounds close to where their home is. Living in the rich and varied California landscape certainly helps the necessity of weekend camping rather than extended trips. It wouldn't be out of line to use the word "paradise" to describe some of their camping locations, although the Levenbergs have complained in some blog posts about too many people and too much traffic. Their small single-axle Alto isn't a beast to tow, though, and that certainly helps.

Alissa and Richard are hoping to get up into western Canada next summer for a long trip. During the spring, they are planning to head to the Grand Canyon, "unless it's freezing." If it's too cold, they have back-up plans: "just keep on keeping on as long as we can."  Their adventures teach us that the best journeys don't have to be the longest ones.

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  1. How do you like the Safari Condo? This was the other serious contender when I bought my Happier Camper HC1. Still wonder about it for the future.

    1. There's about a year's wait when ordering a SC camper, so my wife and I will be picking ours up next September. We did research them online and saw and walked through one that came through our campground when we were camping near home. This was quite a coincidence! They are expensive, along the Airstream lines, but well made. We feel we will have to adapt to the new trailer; there are always trade-offs. The shower/toilet solution isn't perfect, but that curtain use rather than enclosed room is because of the retractable roof. Also because of the retractable roof, the storage cabinets are fewer. However, there are more windows up high. We will also have to see how the aluminum and windows deal with the cold. Good reviews, though, and some from folks who camp in cold weather. It is built in Canada,eh?

  2. Well this settles it....sometime, somehow, I have to get to California to camp! Currently I schedule at least 1 and more like 3 camping trips to my local (less than 5 miles away) campground each summer. I do that because it's easy and still feels like I've 'gotten away.' Spending a few days in the woods doesn't necessarily mean I have to drive for hours to get there and that makes me happy

    1. It's wonderful to have nice campgrounds nearby, I agree. California does have its charms, though!