From small beach towns to wine country hot spots, California offers a diverse array of destinations to visit for a quick trip.
With a state as large and varied as California, trying to narrow down where to go for your next trip can feel overwhelming. Plus, many of the state’s vacation hot spots like Napa, Los Angeles and San Francisco can be pretty expensive. Whether you’re looking to escape into the wilderness, stretch out on some sand for days, spend a weekend hopping between wineries or get lost in a small town, these destinations are great for a quick, affordable getaway in California.
Joshua Tree National Park
Travelers looking for an outdoor escape should consider visiting Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park. From hiking and rock climbing to bird-watching and stargazing, there are countless outdoor activities to keep you occupied during a weekend trip. Entrance fees to the park are slightly cheaper than others in California at $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle and $15 per pedestrian or bicyclist. Camping within Joshua Tree costs between $15 and $20 a night, but keep in mind that many campsites require making reservations up to six months in advance. You’ll also find recreational vehicle rentals outside the park starting at just $25 a night and nightly cottage rentals as low as $104.
Located about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Ventura appeals to those who want to enjoy the same laid-back vibe they’d find in LA without the city’s cost (or traffic). This coastal city is home to excellent beaches, including San Buenaventura State Beach, which is known for its pier. Additionally, the often underrated Channel Islands National Park is a boat ride away and free to enter. The park offers a variety of fun activities, from hiking to whale watching to water sports like boating, kayaking and snorkeling. You can also enjoy shopping for vintage wares in downtown Ventura or strolling through the Ventura Botanical Gardens for just $7 per person.
Pismo Beach sits almost halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, making it a convenient weekend trip option from either city. This small town on California’s Central Coast features relaxation-focused amenities like incredible beaches and top-notch wineries. With oceanfront hotels charging less than $200 a night, you can enjoy easy access to the town’s beaches. Pismo State Beach offers ample opportunities for surfing, bird-watching and coastal walks (among other activities), while Dinosaur Caves Park in the Shell Beach area is ideal for families thanks to its play area. What’s more, the winemaking regions of Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande and Avila Valley can be found less than 10 miles outside of downtown Pismo Beach.
Big Bear Lake
Nestled high in the San Bernardino Mountains, Big Bear Lake is the ultimate year-round destination for outdoor enthusiasts. While the area is probably best known for skiing and snowboarding, its spring, summer and fall activities can be easier on the wallet. Hit the lake for swimming and water sports like boating and water skiing. Then, try casting a line to see what you can catch in one of Southern California’s top fishing destinations. You can also venture into the surrounding forest for hiking and biking, though some trails require purchasing an Adventure Pass for $5 a day. In summer, free guided nature walks depart from the Big Bear Discovery Center every Saturday and Sunday.
If you’ve been itching for a European vacation but don’t have the time or the budget, take a quick trip to Solvang instead. Situated less than 34 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, this Danish village will make you forget you’re in California. You can find affordable rates at charming, Danish-style inns like the Atterdag Inn and the Wine Valley Inn & Cottages that put you within walking distance of Solvang’s authentic Danish bakeries, more than 150 boutique shops, historical churches and interesting museums. Plus, you can’t visit Solvang without stopping by one of the area’s 120-plus wineries for a tasting.
Ojai is an excellent place to visit if you want to slow down for a few days. A real-life Shangri-La of sorts (the town served as the setting for the 1937 movie “Lost Horizon”), Ojai is a haven for relaxation and rejuvenation about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Spend a weekend here exploring the outdoors along scenic trails or perusing the art galleries and shops around town. (Bart’s Books, the country’s largest independent outdoor bookstore, tends to be a visitor favorite.) Resorts and hotels can be a little pricey in Ojai, so you might want to consider renting an Airbnb instead; many charge less than $150 a night.
Although vacationers commonly choose to visit California’s beautiful coastal cities instead of its capital, Sacramento is a terrific option for a getaway, especially if you want to learn more about the state’s history. Not only are hotels usually cheaper on the weekends (you can save around $30 to $60 a night compared to weekdays), but the city boasts several free and affordable museums and historical attractions. You can start your trip with a free tour of the California State Capitol Museum before spending some time strolling through Old Sacramento Waterfront. This district transports you back to Sacramento’s gold rush days with its restored 19th-century buildings. It’s also home to several interesting museums, such as the California State Railroad Museum.
Palm Springs may be known as a playground for the rich and famous, but it’s surprisingly easy to take a budget-friendly trip here. If you’re willing to brave temperatures in the triple digits, summer is a superb time to visit thanks to smaller crowds and cheaper hotel rates. You can often find great deals during fall, too. The city is packed with free attractions that will appeal to a variety of travelers. Culture hounds will enjoy visiting the Palm Springs Art Museum in nearby Palm Desert and hunting for public artworks throughout the Greater Palm Springs area, while nature lovers can explore Big Morongo Canyon Preserve and the Coachella Valley Preserve.
Ferndale, a small dairy town on California’s Redwood Coast, is one of the most beautiful places in the state. The entire town is a California Historical Landmark, and you’ll certainly feel as if you’ve stepped back in time as you stroll past Main Street’s colorful Victorian-era buildings and visit historical landmarks like Fernbridge. You’ll also discover a thriving arts scene that includes art galleries and performing arts venues. Plus, you can visit Russ Park, Centerville Beach County Park and nearby Humboldt Redwoods State Park to immerse yourself in nature. When it’s time to retire for the night, head to one of Ferndale’s historic hotels or bed-and-breakfast accommodations. Or, stay at an affordable vacation rental; most cost $165 or less per night.
Those looking for more of a rustic getaway should take a trip to Idyllwild. Sitting a little more than 100 miles southeast of Los Angeles in the San Jacinto Mountains, this small town is a mecca for outdoor activities, especially hiking and rock climbing. The Idyllwild Nature Center offers day use passes that cover access to popular trails and on-site facilities for $4 per adult and $3 per child 12 and younger. You can also trek more than 50 miles of trails for free in Mount San Jacinto State Park. When you’re not hitting the trails, spend a few hours exploring Idyllwild’s art galleries, locally owned restaurants and mom and pop shops. As for accommodations, you can find cozy cabin rentals starting at $100 a night or inns that cost as little as $75 a night.
Known for its dramatic landscape and breathtaking views, this 90-mile stretch of central California coastline is a nature lover’s paradise. Many of Big Sur‘s campsites cost only $35 per night and offer easy access to Los Padres National Forest, as well as the area’s beaches and state parks. Day use passes to the parks cost $10 per vehicle, but each one is valid at all California state parks until sundown, making it easy for you to experience the best outdoor recreation that Big Sur has to offer. Can’t-miss weekend activities here include hiking to scenic waterfalls, surfing and whale watching.
Morro Bay beckons to families looking for a quaint, affordable beach vacation. This Central Coast town is easily recognizable thanks to Morro Rock, which towers 576 feet above the bay. Children and animal lovers will enjoy the town’s ample opportunities for wildlife viewing, including looking for peregrine falcons nesting on Morro Rock and spotting sea otters swimming in the bay. Signing up for a boat tour aboard a semi-submersible vessel is another great way to get a glimpse of bay animals like fish, jellyfish and sea lions. Plus, Morro Bay is an excellent base for visiting ornate Hearst Castle and is home to Morro Bay State Park, where visitors can go hiking, biking, sailing and even golfing on an 18-hole golf course.
Just a stone’s throw from San Francisco, Sausalito makes for an easy, laid-back weekend trip in the Bay Area. Drive across the Golden Gate Bridge or catch a ferry to reach this charming town, where the colorful houses lining the hilly landscape give it an almost Mediterranean feel. There’s plenty to see for free in Sausalito, including its famous houseboats (though you can only view their exteriors), Viña Del Mar Plaza and The Marine Mammal Center. You can also check out the Bridgeway Promenade, which features shops, restaurants, art galleries and incredible views of San Francisco. Casa Madrona and Hotel Sausalito offer some of Sausalito’s most affordable lodging, with rooms for two costing around $230 or less per night.
Many travelers automatically think of Napa Valley when they imagine California wine country, but nearby Sonoma is a cheaper, more laid-back alternative. Not only do hotels like the Sonoma Creek Inn and the L&M Motel offer rooms for less than $200 a night, but several of Sonoma County’s 400-plus wineries — including Korbel Winery and Alexander Valley Vineyards — host free tastings. Additionally, there are all kinds of free or low-cost activities to do when you’re not busy sampling wine. Set aside a few hours for hiking and boating around Lake Sonoma, admire the art in Paradise Ridge Winery’s outdoor sculpture garden or take a leisurely stroll through the area’s public gardens.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is one of the most-visited national parks in the country — and for good reason, access to its nearly 768,000 acres won’t break the bank. Entrance fees range from $20 per person for pedestrians and bicyclists to $35 per vehicle. What’s more, campgrounds within the park start at $6 per person, per night. While accommodations outside of Yosemite can get pricey, affordable options are available at places like the River Rock Inn and the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort. No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll find a seemingly endless amount of outdoor activities available on-site, from summer pursuits like hiking, fishing and rock climbing to winter sports like skiing, snowboarding and sledding.
Monica Echols is a contributor for the Travel section of U.S. News & World Report.