AutoCamp, Russian River: California's latest spin on the luxury camping experience

In 1929, a man named Wally Byam had a dream. Fostered by years at sea, a love of exploration caused him to imagine "a travel trailer that would move like a stream of air, be light enough to be towed by a car, and create first class accommodations anywhere".

That year he built his first prototype. Consisting of little more than a tent set atop a rusted old chassis, it did little to enthuse his wife when the rains swept in off the Oregon coast. But Byam persisted, replacing the tent with a permanent shelter that quickly caught the eye of fellow travellers. Soon his neighbours were asking him to build similar models and by 1931 he'd opened his own factory. The airstream trailer was born.

As my wife and I pull into the AutoCamp complex in Russian River some 90 minutes north of San Francisco, I can't help but wonder what Byam would have made of the spectacle before us.

Set amid lush Redwood Forest, 24 silver bullet airstream trailers stand in a horseshoe formation, the burning amber hue of the evening sun burnished in their immaculate bodywork.

At reception, an indoor fire pit flickers beside a communal area furnished with stacks of books and chess boards. But it's only when I unlock my trailer that I'm truly stunned. At the far end, an elegant queen sized bed stands between curved windows overlooking the forest and river. There's an en suite bathroom with walk in shower, a fully stocked kitchen, artful lighting, even a marshmallow kit for toasting smores on the fire pit outside.

AutoCamp is no white trash trailer park. Following on from the success of its sister property in Santa Barbara, the Russian River camp was opened in September 2016 with a view to attracting adventurous travellers who don't necessarily want to wind up looking like Bear Grylls in the bush while enjoying a city getaway.

About 150 kilometres north of San Francisco, it's smack in the heart of Sonoma County, a haven for wine enthusiasts and lovers of The Great Outdoors. A couple of minutes' drive away, the main town, Guerneville, is a charming if rough around the edges settlement that's something like a 1990s Glebe meets Twin Peaks.

It's the perfect base from which to explore.

Come morning, we head out to the Sonoma Coast State Park, a 30-minute drive west. Following the meandering Highway 1, our route skirts lush green cliffs plunging into an indigo ocean of boisterous surf. The 17-mile stretch of beaches are separated by rugged bluffs and headlands, a series of marked trails leading down to the shorelines at periodic intervals.

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Part of the joy of this region is the lack of need for an agenda. At times, we stop to let our dog run wild chasing driftwood along the shore or wander the headlands simply to gaze out at epic views across the California coast.

Cruising further south towards Bodega Bay – a sleepy surf town that was the location for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds – we drop in at a celebrated outfit known as Spud Point Crab Company.  Though it's little more than a simple shack, the line out front suggests someone there knows what they're doing.

Outside on a grill, crabs boil in cast-iron pots, while a stoned looking old-timer in Raybans plays jazz guitar in the afternoon sun. We order up big; crab rolls, New England clam chowder and crab cakes, washed down with chilled bottles of root beer. The place is held in high esteem for good reason.

Even with so much to explore we're almost giddy at the prospect of returning to AutoCamp. After nipping in for a swift beer at Stumptown Brewery, a cracking little riverside pub in Guernevillle, we're back at camp by early evening.

There's a special ambience to the place as dusk settles in; guests reclining by the fire with glasses of wine, the moodiness of the encroaching forest juxtaposed by the brilliant chrome of the airstreams.  It has a sense of community, though without the need for twirling firesticks or walking a tightrope in a tie dye T-shirt.

"We're a cross between a fine hotel and a great outdoor adventure," says AutoCamp manager Cathy La Plante.

"Our vision is to make the great outdoors accessible, easy, and enjoyable for everyone. So many people don't get to experience the great outdoors because they don't have the equipment or know how. At AutoCamp, we provide everything you'd need to have a weekend filled with outdoor adventures, yet with comfort and style throughout."

It soon becomes clear a weekend just isn't going to cut it.

Our final day is a euphoric blur; we kayak the Russian River—during which time our dog is chased by a curious seal; we hike the majestic Redwoods (much like San Francisco's Muir Woods minus the crowds); we drop in at cellar doors and buy ridiculous quantities of cheese at boutique stores. But we could easily spend several more days here without running out of options.

If Byam's vision for Airstream trailers was to inspire people to "dream, travel and explore the open road", then he has surely succeeded.

AutoCamp have put their own spin on his concept, utilising his beautifully designed product to revolutionise the traditional camping model.

And I can't help thinking he would have approved.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN SONOMA COUNTY

1 Follow the Sonoma and Marin Cheese Trail. See cheesetrail.org

2 Drive the Sonoma Wine Road. See wineroad.com

3 Test your mettle ziplining above the treetops. See sonomacanopytours.com

4 Go horseback riding through the Redwoods and mountain wilderness. See redwoodhorses.com

5 Play golf at the Northwood course. See northwoodgolf.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

sonomacounty.com

VISIT

Entry to the Armstrong Woods State Natural Redwood Reserve is free when you park at the Welcome Centre parking lot before passing the gate. See parks.ca.gov

Getaway Adventures offers a variety of kayaking tours along the Russian River to suit all abilities. See getawayadventures.com

The Stumptown brewery features a sizeable outdoor deck overlooking the Russian River with numerous local beers on tap. See stumptown.com

FLY

Qantas flies direct from Sydney to San Francisco up to six times a week. See qantas.com   

STAY

AutoCamp offers airstreams from $US200 and luxury tents from $US175. See autocamp.com

Guy Wilkinson was a guest of Sonoma County and AutoCamp.

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