Wine country in the Bay Area of California has become one of the most popular trips for people from all over the United States. You can visit wineries all year. But “Crush” — which is what they call the harvest season in September — is when many people choose to visit because it’s such a unique opportunity to experience how wine is actually made.
I’m planning on returning to the area this fall to write about Crush but in advance of that my 20-year-old son and I took a trip to Petaluma and stayed at what is now our favorite KOA (click HERE to visit Petaluma’s Campground Landing Page) Now you must understand, there are numerous KOAs around the country (click HERE to find one close to you) that we have branded as our “favorite,” but the bar was certainly raised in Petaluma.
In the early 1970s, a farm was converted into this KOA and the second-generation owner is Chris Wood. He wisely chose to maintain the farm environment and expand the KOA throughout. I cannot pass a petting zoo without stopping to pet the sheep, donkeys and goats. Ever. So I loved starting every day down by the animals in the early morning, feeding them some hay and getting ready to start our adventure.
This is one of those locations that makes everything easy. The charming city of Petaluma is literally five minutes away. It’s like a living, breathing movie set — as all of the primary scenes from the George Lucas classic American Graffiti were shot here. But it’s also jam-packed with antique stores bookstores and great restaurants.
We had plans to explore the system work and beautiful town, but our real mission was to visit as many historic sites as we could. As a launching point for history in Northern California, it does not get much better than the Petaluma KOA.
Day one, we ventured into the city of Sonoma, only about 20 minutes away. The magnificent and historic Sonoma Plaza is the largest such plaza in California. While there, we visited the Mission San Francisco Solano, the old Carnegie library, the Bear Flag Rebellion monument and several other historic sites, including the home of Gen. Mariano Vallejo — the famed military commander, politician and rancher. The city provides a terrific self-guided walking tour. From there we took a hike into the hills above Sonoma, a 3-mile round-trip trek that provided a stunning view of San Francisco, approximately 30 miles away.
Next, we visited the California Missions Museum at Cline Cellars Winery before heading back to our Deluxe KOA Cabin for a cookout.
The next day, we rose early, visited the animals at our KOA, and headed to Jack London State Historic Park. I’m a huge fan of this great American writer and had always wanted to visit the ruins of what he called Wolf house, his private estate tucked deep in the forest that tragically burnt down just two weeks before it was finished in 1913. London’s winery and cottage where he lived are still intact and make for another spectacular hike. But it was the ruins and his burial site on the property that truly gave me pause. Seeing the home he envisioned and the humble boulder he is laid to rest beneath, both located in the forests where he would often roam, was quite profound. (There is a wonderful museum on the property, as well.) And the hamburger down the in town of Glen Ellen at the Jack London Inn was one of the best I’ve ever tasted (and I have tasted a few hamburgers),
Before the day was through, we also visited the Petaluma Adobe, just about 10 minutes from our KOA, which was the home of the aforementioned General Vallejo.
We had another cook at our cabin and our next (and final) day we drove just 20 minutes down highway 101 to visit China Camp State Park. Tucked down in the salt marsh lands of San Pablo Bay, this former Chinese fishing village still remains and is inhabited by one man, a 90-year-old resident who literally grew up on the property. Our chance meeting with him made the trip extra worthwhile.
In just several days in the area, we managed to visit literally dozens of historic sites along with some of the best antique shops we’ve ever seen and some wonderful bookshops in Petaluma. While in Petaluma, I picked up an American Graffiti film location map at their tourism center and retraced many of the scenes from one of my favorite films.
When we next visit, we plan on visiting Point Reyes and some of the other towns in the area to experience more of the rich California culture that makes the state such a marvelous place to wander.
We love history, and because of much of the writing I do, many of our trips are built around visiting historic places. But the beauty of this area is that whether you like wine, history, hiking, fine restaurants or something entirely different, you can selfishly tailor several days to your heart’s delight while feeling like you have truly escaped the real world. The postcard nostalgia of quaint, small and historic California towns is a wonderful travel experience whether you’re just passing through or if this is your final destination for a vacation.
And as usual, to end the day at KOA cabin roasting steaks and marshmallows over a roaring fire is always something I will cherish. I think I may be done with hotels for good.
And oh yeah, there are all those wonderful farm animals that just happened to be roaming about. Can’t find that at a hotel.
Chris Epting is an award-winning journalist, travel writer and author of 25 books including “Roadside Baseball” and “James Dean Died Here – the Locations of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks.” And he loves all of KOA.