Camping cabins designed to lure millennials to parks

“Wedge cabins” were designed by students at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and are being placed in some state parks as a lure for the millennial generation.
“Wedge cabins” were designed by students at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and are being placed in some state parks as a lure for the millennial generation.

Millennials love getting out into nature – as long as they have a cozy place to hang with their friends and somewhere to plug in their iPhones.

That’s the theory behind the new-age camping cabins popping up at California parks, part of a push to get more diverse demographics, including people born in the 1980s and 1990s, hooked on the Great Outdoors.

While campgrounds have long enjoyed the patronage of boomers and young families, they’ve struggled to reel in single professionals in the high-tech age. In consumer surveys, millennials say they love the outdoors but aren’t willing to sacrifice creature comforts such as beds and space.

So park officials are trying a new twist on an old idea: the “wedge cabin,” a sleek prefab unit made from reclaimed wood and tempered glass that is straight out of a modern architecture magazine.

The cabins let visitors enjoy campgrounds without investing in a recreational vehicle or purchasing camping equipment, said Karl Knapp, special assistant for transformation implementation at California State Parks.

That transformation effort, launched in 2014, involves placing up to 750 cabins at 84 locations in 51 state parks over the next few years. Parks officials on the “relevancy committee” have been working with graduate students from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, to find ways to draw younger crowds.

“Millennials really were attracted to enhanced camping,” Knapp said. “That involves everything from putting in more amenities to bringing in Airstream trailers and yurts.”

One of the students’ solutions was the wedge cabin, with the first prototype on display at the California State Fair in summer 2015 and now available for rent at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

“It was just supposed to be a fresh, new design on what a cabin can be,” said Juintow Lin, the architecture professor who oversaw the student project. “It was also supposed to be sustainable and have lots of light and fresh air and not have that traditional dark, dingy cabin look.”

The wedge model has a drastically slanted roof, French doors and a spacious porch with beds, benches and storage areas inside. The state has 13 wedge cabins planned for Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay, with more going into Calaveras Big Trees State Park near the Stanislaus National Forest and the Silverwood Lake campground in San Bernardino County, although designs for those sites have not been finalized.

Three wedge cabins are available at the Sonoma County-owned Spring Lake campground in Santa Rosa, which will be available for use by early 2017. Eventually the county would like to add similar units at Doran Beach, Stillwater Cove and Gualala Point, said Brandon Brédo, supervising park ranger for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

At Spring Lake during peak season, the four-person cabins cost $79 per weeknight and $89 per weekend night, with lower rates during the non-peak season and higher rates during the holidays. They aren’t heated and don’t have electricity or running water.

“With changing demands and evolving demographics our goal is to meet the recreation needs as they happen in this contemporary environment,” Brédo wrote in an email.

According to the 2016 North American Camping Report from the Cairn Consulting Group, about half of millennial campers said they would be interested in camping in a full-service cabin with a bathroom, compared to 44 percent of older campers. Millennials were also more likely than any other group to expect free Wi-Fi and to prefer camping with friends.

“Getting away from it all has a different definition,” said Mike Gast, spokesman for Kampgrounds of America, which sponsored the report. “They like to go out and have this big group event where they can really kick back and relax.

“Social media has just become an absolute necessity. They want to share the experience with their friends and their peers as they’re doing it in real time.”

Whitney Delgado, a 27-year-old information technology professional who lives in midtown Sacramento, said that while she enjoys spending time outdoors, she’d rather not sleep on the ground or use outdoor bathrooms. However, a cabin with a built-in shower would up the appeal, she said.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a lot of money to be dirty at all times,” she said. “I don’t have to have electricity, but it would be nice.”

In creating the cabin network, California State Parks has worked closely with other states including Oregon and Alaska, who have historically had more robust cabin and yurt offerings.

While traveling in Oregon a few years ago, Jenny Lillge of Woodland stayed in a cabin at a public park. She and her husband, both in their 30s, had always been tent campers, she said, but decided to make the step up in housing.

It was great to not have to bring camping gear, she said. There wasn’t a need for bug spray, either.

“This time we knew we were arriving in the dark, and even the idea of a 3-inch-thick plastic mattress sounded better than setting up a tent,” Lillge said. “It still feels like you’re outside. You can still hear all the noises, you can open your door and look up at the stars.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola