California is known for its beautiful beaches, national parks, and world-famous attractions. But with high prices in major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, many travelers assume a California vacation has to cost a fortune. Luckily, there are plenty of affordable getaways across the Golden State that offer a memorable experience without breaking the bank. From camping trips to quaint small towns, here are 12 budget friendly vacation ideas in California.
Enjoy Nature at Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park attracts over 3 million visitors per year, but enjoying the breathtaking waterfalls, giant sequoia trees, and sheer granite cliffs doesn’t require an expensive hotel stay. Camping is one of the most affordable ways to take in the natural wonders of Yosemite. At campgrounds like Upper Pines and North Pines, sites are around $26 per night. Bring your own tent, sleeping bags, and food to cook over the fire or grill to keep costs low. The free Yosemite shuttle can take you between your campsite and top attractions like Yosemite Falls and Half Dome.
Soak Up the Sun in Santa Cruz
The laid-back beach town of Santa Cruz offers a quintessential California vacation for less. Stay at an economical motel near the boardwalk like Pacific Blue Inn, where nightly rates start around $100. Hit the beach during the day to swim, surf, or just relax on the sand. Rent a surfboard for around $20 an hour, or bring your own food for a picnic lunch in the sunshine. At night, grab discounted tickets to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park (around $30 for an all-day wristband) and take a ride on the classic wooden roller coaster.
Go Wine Tasting in Paso Robles
Paso Robles has gained recognition for its excellent vineyards and wineries – over 200 of them! But tasting flights here cost much less than the more touristy Napa Valley. Many Paso Robles wineries only charge $10 to $15 for 4 to 6 pours. Some even offer free tastings. Sip affordable Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel at wineries like DAOU Vineyards and Eberle Winery. The charming downtown square has cozy lodging like Summerwood Inn and Carriage Vineyards Bed & Breakfast at nightly rates from $130.
Explore Quaint Coastal Towns
From North to South, California’s coastline is dotted with lovely small beach towns that offer a scenic getaway without big crowds or costs. In Northern California, places like Mendocino and Eureka have inns and B&Bs under $150 per night. Stroll along bluffs, check out the local art galleries, and watch the fishing boats come and go from the harbor. Further south, towns like Pismo Beach and Carlsbad are perfect for long walks on the shore, fresh seafood dinners, and beachy hotels starting around $100 a night.
Go Camping in Big Sur
Big Sur’s picturesque seaside cliffs and redwood forests make it one of California’s top scenic destinations. While hotels here can be pricey, camping is a budget-friendly alternative. Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park both have campsites near trails for $35 to $45 per night. Early reservations are recommended. Pitch a tent and enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean during the day. At night, build a campfire and gaze up at the starry sky through the towering trees.
Take a Road Trip Along the Pacific Coast Highway
A drive along the winding Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most iconic California experiences. Make it an affordable road trip by packing snacks and lunch, avoiding toll roads, and staying at budget-friendly motels along the way like Sea Otter Inn and Newport Channel Inn. Stop to take in dramatic ocean overlooks, wander through seaside towns, and explore beaches where you can dip your toes in the Pacific. Focus your stops on free attractions like 1996 those scenic coastal views.
Visit Channel Islands National Park
Located off the coast of Ventura, the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park provide miles of remote beaches and rugged landscapes to explore. Since no lodging is available, this makes an affordable day trip or camping excursion. The main costs are just the ferry ride out to the islands, which start around $60 round-trip. Once there, activities like hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, and camping are free. Visit in the spring to save money on ferry fare and enjoy wildflower blooms.
See the Giant Redwoods
No trip to California is complete without seeing the giant redwood trees that can live for thousands of years and grow over 350 feet tall. Avoid the crowds and high prices of Redwood National Park, and instead head to one of the state’s other magnificent redwood forests like Humboldt Redwoods State Park or Hendy Woods State Park, where you can explore these giants for just the $10 day use fee. Nearby towns like Garberville also offer budget-friendly accommodations to stay the night after a day of redwood gazing.
Relax in a Sonoma Hot Springs Resort
Sonoma Valley not only offers world-class wineries, but also natural hot springs perfect for a relaxing getaway. Enjoy a soak under the stars at budget-friendly hot spring resorts like Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary or Kenwood Inn & Spa. Just $25 gets you access to Osmosis’s Japanese-style cedar enzyme baths and meditation gardens for an entire day. Kenwood Inn’s nightly rates start at $179, which includes access to their steam rooms, saunas, and mineral pools. Add in some affordable wine tastings, and you have the ingredients for an indulgent but inexpensive Sonoma vacation.
Camp or Rent a Cabin at a State Park
Pitch your own tent or book a rustic cabin – either option allows you to experience California’s magnificent state parks for less. Choices range from seaside parks like Crystal Cove along the Southern California coast to mountainous parks like Mount San Jacinto State Park in eastern CA. Most state park campsites cost $35 or less per night, while cabins start around $100. Enjoy hiking trails, fishing spots, and sometimes swimming and boating too. It’s a great way to spend time in nature without spending big bucks.
Explore Death Valley National Park
This massive desert park offers otherworldly landscapes and plenty of fascinating sights to visit on a budget. Stay outside the park at a motel in Beatty, NV for around $75 a night. Bring your own food and plenty of water, then spend your days exploring Death Valley for just the $30 per vehicle park entrance fee. Hike through rainbow-colored rock formations at Artists Drive and Natural Bridge, view Artist’s Palette at sunrise or sunset, and walk across the salt flats of Badwater Basin – the lowest place in North America.
Relax in a Santa Barbara Villa
Often called the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara offers a Mediterranean vibe with miles of beautiful beaches and cozy villas. Budget-friendly Spanish-style hotels like The Upham and Old Yacht Club Inn have rooms from $159 per night. Spend your getaway strolling the stunning coastline, exploring Stearns Wharf, browsing the shops on State Street, and visiting wineries and beaches in the surrounding wine country and towns.
With its idyllic weather and coastal setting, Santa Barbara is the perfect spot for an affordable California vacation.
From sunny beaches to rugged national parks, California offers extreme natural beauty and endless opportunities for adventure. On a budget-friendly vacation in the Golden State, you can soak up the culture of world-class cities or find solitude in the serene forests and deserts. Whether you go camping under the stars or stay at a charming inn, it’s easy to have an unforgettable California trip without breaking the bank. No matter where your interests lie, these 12 destinations offer an affordable way to experience the best of the state.