SAN FRANCISCO — My pal Darby and I love to go where the wild things are. In his case, that's because he qualifies as one of them.
Darby is a happy-go-lucky wheaten terrier with a penchant for travel. The mere whisper of the words "Let's go" unleashes boundless enthusiasm in him. We make great traveling companions because I also get pretty hyped when I hear those words, although I try not to leap around and whine.
Last month the great outdoors called, and we answered with a resounding yes and a hearty woof. Both of us love luxury hotels, but we don't mind roughing it now and then.
Luckily, conditions are improving for dogs that camp or go RVing with their families. It makes economic sense: Statistics show that 50% to 75% of the nation's RVers travel with a pet, enticing some private park owners to become more sensitive to the needs of dog owners.
Still, most RV parks and campgrounds have a long way to go.
"While over 90% of the RV parks and campgrounds listed on Camp-California.com accept dogs, most have limited amenities," said Debbie Sipe, who represents the California Assn. of RV Parks & Campgrounds. "However, a handful of parks are investing in unique pet activities."
That sounded like an invitation to me. Who better to test these new amenities than Darby? As we prepared to take off, I ran into Leslie, a longtime friend. Would she and her West Highland white terrier Bonnie like to join us on our mission? Yes, they would.
Rather than rent an RV or invest in camping gear, we decided to try cabin camping, which is now available at most RV parks, and concentrate on a Northern California route that included parks known for their pet-friendly amenities.
On a sunny September morning, we piled sleeping bags, luggage and a passel of toys into an SUV and headed north out of Los Angeles on U.S. 101. Traveling with pooches requires more stops. It was after 8 p.m. by the time we rolled in and found our home away from home for the night, a shiny new Airstream trailer, at the Santa Cruz / Monterey Bay KOA. The park rents six Airstreams, besides RV and tent sites, primitive camping cabins and cushy lodges.
The flash-from-the-past Airstreams are a trip unto themselves, sleek aluminum-skinned trailers that come with a shower, toilet, galley, TV and a couple of double beds. The "land yachts," as they were called when they originated in the 1930s, rent for $150 a night. Manager Linda Evans says no one complains about the price: "The people who want to stay in them don't care; they just want to try one."
After dog-chow dinners, Darby and Bonnie crashed. Darby sprawled across the middle of my bed; at the other end of the trailer, little Bonnie crawled into Leslie's sleeping bag to stay warm.
The next morning we were up early to check out the park's doggie-agility course and fenced play park, where dogs can roam without being leashed.
Bonnie jumped onto an A-frame climbing ladder and motored her short legs up and over the ramp. Darby couldn't quite figure out how to do it and watched her quizzically. Then he spotted a ground squirrel brazenly staring at him from the top of a hidey-hole, let out a startled bark, sprang at the rodent and began digging; Bonnie joined him, both of them barking and trying to flush it out of the hole.
The squirrel just retreated into its maze of tunnels and popped out 10 feet away, chittering and bouncing its head up and down as if to say, "Nyah, nyah."
It was the ultimate insult to a couple of terriers, who were bred by Irish and Scottish farmers to rid their islands of varmints just like this one.
After breakfast and a three-mile hike, we tumbled into the SUV and drove a mile to Manresa State Beach, a wide flat stretch of sand with a nice vibe and a bonus: Dogs are OK here, as long as they're on a leash ( www.santacruzstateparks.org/parks/manresa).
The rules weren't as pleasant at our next stop, Capitola City Beach, which bans dogs. The little village that surrounds it, Capitola, is a Monterey Bay gem reminiscent of an Italian coastal town. Bright pastel cottages line one section of the beach; on another, galleries, small restaurants and shops crowd the shoreline.
With the beach off-limits to them, Darby and Bonnie sat on a low concrete wall watching sea gulls and other birds soaring.
"Those dogs are darling," said a woman sitting on a bench nearby. "What are their names?"
"Bonnie and Darby," I replied.
"Bonnie and Clyde?" she asked.
"Darby, not Clyde."
"Clyde's a better name for him," she said.
Tickled with Belly
It seemed time to move on; we packed up the SUV and headed north toward Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake entirely in California. But first, a short stop at the Jelly Belly Candy Co. in Fairfield, northeast of San Francisco ( www.jellybelly.com,  522-3267).