California is a state known for its glitz, glamour, and expensive tourist destinations. However, there are many cheap vacation spots in California that offer a great vacation without breaking the bank. From stunning beaches to scenic mountains and everything in between, California has something for everyone.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the cheapest places to visit in California, perfect for those seeking an affordable vacation without sacrificing fun and adventure.
Whether you’re a budget-conscious traveler or just looking for an affordable California destination, this article will provide you with all the information you need to plan an affordable and memorable trip. We’ll take a closer look at the top cheap vacation spots in California, including hidden gems that are often overlooked by tourists.
So, pack your bags and get ready to explore some of the most beautiful and affordable destinations in the Golden State with our guide to the cheapest places to visit in California.
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Table of Contents
1. BIG BEAR LAKE
Big Bear is just 2 hours drive away from Los Angeles and is one of the cheapest vacation spots in California. Whether it is summer or winter, Big Bear and Big Bear Lake both are amazing places to escape into nature.
This is a popular ski destination in the USA and can get crowded in winter. Getting a cheap deal on accommodation in Big Bear can be difficult during the winter season.
But if you travel in summer, Big Bear Lake and nearby Lake Arrowhead are popular lake destinations in California and have plenty of things to offer its visitors like hiking, camping, fishing, swimming, mountain biking, and many more.
Although Big Bear has no offseason but traveling in the shoulder season can save your budget. During spring and fall time, one can find some great deals on accommodations.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Big Bear
- Visit Big Bear Alpine Zoo, located right next to Big Bear Mountain Resort. You can see some native animals in this area such as black bears, arctic foxes, bald eagles.
- Big Bear Lake itself has a lot of water activities. Rent a kayak or take a boat ride in the lake. If you are looking for something more interesting try your hand at fishing.
- During winter, Big Bear is popular as a ski spot that offers ski runs for all levels.
- You can hike the San Bernadino Mountains, one of the best hikes in southern California, or can explore the place by riding on a mountain bike. Castle Rock trail is another popular scenic hike(short) that offers a stunning panoramic view from the top. Check the hiking tours below and choose the most appropriate one:
- Go on this Family-Friendly Nature Hike around the Big Bear Valley which is fit for kids and adults. Go off the beaten path, learn all about the flora and fauna of this incredible area, taking in the landscapes, and more
- Explore Big Bear by hiking and swimming in the lake with this Private Guided Hike in Big Bear
- Escape the crowds of Big Bear on this Private Hiking Tour to Bluff Lake Reserve
Suggested Budget for Big Bear
Hotel(2 people): $55-100
Daily Budget: $70/person
Cheap Hotels in Big Bear Lake
- Robinhood Resort: It is an affordable hotel in Big Bear Lake that features an onsite tavern and pub for a variety of food and entertainment options.
- Big Bear Frontier: Nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains, surrounded by tall pines this breathtaking resort expresses a chic, yet rustic charm that offers serenity and tranquility. Cabins are very cute and close to the lake.
Mendocino, located on California’s rugged north coast, is a hidden gem that offers a unique blend of natural beauty and small-town charm. Last year, I visited this place with my parents and I was really surprised to see how affordable the place is.
This scenic California beach town is a fantastic choice for travellers on a tight budget. There are many low-cost or free activities to enjoy, from the scenic Mendocino Headlands State Park to the historic Point Cabrillo Light Station.
Additionally, you can find affordable accommodations such as cozy B&Bs or vacation rentals with breathtaking Pacific Ocean views. Overall, Mendocino is an excellent choice for people seeking a budget-friendly and memorable California vacation.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Mendocino
- Discover the Mendocino Headlands State Park, which features a network of hiking paths and breathtaking ocean vistas.
- Visit the Ford House Visitor Centre & Museum, which welcomes visitors and offers free admission to learn more about the fascinating history of the area.
- Explore Mendocino, a lovely town famous for its unique shops, galleries, and Victorian architecture.
- Visit the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park to take beautiful hikes along the rocky shoreline and discover the lighthouse’s past.
Relax on stunning beaches including Van Damme State Park Beach and Big River Beach.
- Explore the hiking trails, waterfalls, and scenic beaches in the Russian Gulch State Park.
Budget-Friendly Hotels in Mendocino
- The Mendocino Hotel and Garden– This historic hotel offers affordable rooms and suites, many of which feature ocean views or fireplaces. The hotel is located in the heart of downtown Mendocino, making it a convenient base for exploring the town and its surrounding areas.
- The Hill House Inn – This budget-friendly inn offers cozy rooms and suites with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. The property also features a heated outdoor pool, hot tub, and a garden area where guests can relax and take in the scenery. The Hill House Inn is located within walking distance of downtown Mendocino and is a great option for budget-conscious travelers who want to stay in a picturesque location.
Just north of Los Angeles, Ventura is an inexpensive beach town outside the hustle and bustle of city life. It is a laid-back beach town with lots of free activities, natural beauty, and reasonable accommodations.
Ventura is not all about the beach. Beyond this, it has a delightful Ventura Pier and promenade, gardens, and natural beauties.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Ventura
- Take a short stroll on the Ventura Pier in the evening and watch the shimmering sunset. The promenade is perfect for morning or evening runs. You can rent a bike and explore the Ventura Pier.
- Ventura Botanical Gardens is a popular botanical garden in California and it is free to visit. Follow the walking trail that leads uphill and offers mesmerizing ocean vistas.
- Take a boat ride to Channel Island National Park. It opens daily and admission is free here. Learn about this island, see exhibits. You can spend a nice family time here.
- Visit The San Buenaventura Mission which was built in 1749. This Spanish mission has experienced pirate attacks, fires, earthquake but still is in working order. The admission fee for adults is $4 and for kids just $1.
- If you love biking, don’t miss the chance to explore Paved Bike Path. The path goes to the neighboring city of Ojai which is also known as ‘Shangri La’ for its stunning landscapes.
Suggested Budget for Ventura
Hotel(2 people): $60-110
Daily Budget: $60/person
Cheap Hotels in Ventura
- Amanzi Hotel: If you are looking to stay near the beach, book Amanzi Hotel which is just 200 m away from the beach. It features free breakfast, a heated outdoor pool, as well as free WiFi throughout the property. All rooms are air-conditioned, spacious, and equipped with a microwave and refrigerator.
- Vagabond Inn Ventura: It is located in Downtown Ventura near the historic Oldtown and features an outdoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, free WiFi, and free parking. Ventura State Beach is just 300 m away from the hotel.
4. DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
If you are into adventure and are looking for cheap vacation ideas in California, Death Valley National Park could be the perfect weekend destination for you.
Well, the name isn’t inviting though, but trust me, Death Valley is strikingly beautiful. It is located in central California. It takes around 2.5 hours to reach Death Valley from Los Angeles by car.
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Death Valley is one of the hottest and driest places in the US. The best time to visit Death Valley is March to early May when the wildflowers bloom and the weather is comparatively pleasant.
Camping in Death Valley is very cheap if you arrive there early. There are a total of nine campgrounds and four of which are free. All of them are first come first served. The rent of chargeable campsites starts from $14. Check out 10 Best Campsites in Southern California.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Death Valley
- Visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the USA. The surreal landscape features a vast salt plain that makes up a serene white concrete spanning for miles.
- Go for the Natural Bridge hike in late fall, winter, or early spring. This is a short hike that offers stunning rock formations.
- Ubehebe Crater must be included in your Death Valley itinerary. It is the largest of the maar volcano clusters, created by a volcanic belch about 300 years ago. To see it from a different point of view, hike the trail that leads along the giant Ubehebe Crater’s southwest rim to other older craters.
- There is a short bike path from Furnace Creek Visitor Center to Harmony Borax Works. Explore the park’s extensive network of dirt roads with a mountain bike.
Suggested Budget for Death Valley
Camp(2 people): $14-60
Daily Budget: $42/person
Cheap Hotels in Death Valley NP
If Camping is not your thing, you can stay at Death Valley Inn & RV Park which is located 13 km away from the entry point of Death Valley National Park.
This motel offers all the modern facilities including a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a coffee machine in an air-conditioned room with free WiFi and an outdoor pool.
5. JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
There are lots of amazing National Parks in California and Joshua Tree is one of those which is located in the southeastern part of California. Whether you’re looking for a calm atmosphere, a strenuous adventure, an Old West-inspired getaway, you will find plenty of things to do in Joshua Tree National Park and its surrounding area.
Though the park is open year-round, the best time to visit Joshua Tree National Park is early spring(March to May) and October to November.
There is an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle and $25 per motorcycle. The cheap campgrounds and lots of free activities(hiking, rock climbing) made Joshua Tree National Park an affordable vacation in California.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Joshua Tree National Park
- With 8000 climbing routes, 2000 boulder problems and hundreds of natural gaps, Joshua Tree national park is a climber’s paradise. It has challenges for all ability levels. However, the routes in Echo Cove are great for first-timers.
- Located just 12 miles south of the park’s north entrance, Cholla Cactus Garden is a must-visit place in your Joshua Tree National Park itinerary. Walk through the garden of the world’s densest concentrations of the dangerous cholla cactus.
- Enjoy the shimmering sunset from the Key View, the highest point and a secret place in Joshua Tree National Park. From an elevation of 5185 feet, this viewpoint offers a breathtaking view of Coachella Valley and Palm Springs.
- There are plenty of hiking trails in Joshua Tree National Park. Indian Cove Natural Trail is highly recommended. Enjoy the park’s namesake flora. It is an easy straightforward hike. If you are lucky you can see the wildlife animals such as bighorn sheep and desert tortoises
Suggested Budget for Joshua Tree National Park
Hotel(2 people): $50-100
Daily Budget: $60/person
Cheap Hotels in Joshua Tree NP
- High Desert Motel Joshua Tree National Park: This motel is just 10 minutes drive from the National Park entry point. It offers an outdoor pool, free parking. Each room has a cable TV and microwave and coffeemaker. The staffs are really friendly and helpful.
- Safari Motor Inn – Joshua Tree: Nice and quiet despite being in a great location for the national park at an affordable price.
Oxnard is one of the cheapest cities in California located in the north of Malibu. It is a coastal town of southern California, just a few miles away from Channel Island also known as America’s Galapagos. Many people are moving to California and choosing coastal towns to spend the rest of their life. Check out the pros and cons of living in California.
From local cheap farmer’s markets to the palm tree-lined beachfront, biking trails, museum- Oxnard is packed with a lot of tourist attractions. Early spring is the ideal time to visit Oxnard when the crowd is less and the room rates are less expensive.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Oxnard
- Stroll around Channel Islands Harbor. It boasts several activities such as picnic spots, biking, and hiking trails, Channel Islands Maritime Museum, and many more. Take some magnificent photos at sunset of the homes that line the waterway.
- If you are into culture, tour the local farmer’s market. It’s free to wander through the shops. Explore the market, buy some local treats, or grab a bite to eat and enjoy the mild breezes.
- You must visit The Murphy Auto Museum if you are fond of vintage cars. It features cars that date back to 1903 with great classics like the 1910 Duro, the 1963 Studebaker. See the model railroad display. There is no admission fee.
- Fly kites on Mandalay beach. It is a natural pristine beach with fragile dunes and a palm tree-lined beachfront. Rent a kite for $5 from Wheel Fun Rentals and enjoy flying kites.
Suggested Budget for Oxnard
Hotel(2 people): $70-120
Daily Budget: $60/person
Cheap Hotels in Oxnard
- Crystal Lodge Motel: This inexpensive motel offers comfortable guestrooms and suites with convenient amenities.
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites Camarillo: It is a mid-range hotel located between Santa Barbara and Malibu and offers an outdoor pool and hot tub.
Want to get European flavor while traveling in California? Visit Solvang, the Danish Capital of America, located in the scenic Santa Ynez Valley. The city is mostly known for its wineries and Danish-style unique architecture.
The city is filled with picturesque buildings in the central point where there are also plenty of options to enjoy museums, local food, and culture at a reasonable price.
You can save decent money on hotels if you stay in Buellton which is just a 5-6 minute drive from Solvang. The numerous hostels, hotels, and other types of accommodations give visitors plenty of options to find a room that fits their budgets.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Solvang
- Solvang is a small town. Walk around the town and stop at the Visitors Center of Copenhagen Drive. It has a free travel guide. Visit the wooden windmills throughout downtown. Take some fantastic photos of this large windmill. You can also rent a bicycle to get around the city.
- Exploring the vineyards and wineries is one of the best things to do in Solvang. Visit the Rusack Vineyards that produce world-class wines. Go for wine tasting and relax on the oak-shaded deck while sipping the award-winning handcrafted wines. Enjoy a homemade picnic that can be ordered on-site.
- Don’t miss Hans Christian Anderson Park, especially if you are here with kids. There is no entrance fee. The park features lots of fun activities for kids of all ages. There are a skate park, climbing wall, playground, and a music-making machine.
- Take a hike in the beautiful countryside of Solvang. The lush green hills, Santa Ynez and San Rafael mountain ranges that hug the valley provide impressive scenery. Climb to Gaviota Peak which offers a bird’s-eye view of the Pacific coastline.
Suggested Budget for Solvang
Hotel(2 people): $50-90
Daily Budget: $70/person
Cheap Hotels in Solvang
- Hadsten House Inn: This European style hotel is located at the center of Solvang and boasts decorative fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, and lavish linens.
- Hotel Corque: It offers a restaurant on-site, an outdoor pool and free WiFi.
When you are planning for a cheap weekend getaway in California, how can you miss the state capital Sacramento? Filled with rich history, culture, interesting museums, and lots of affordable dining, and sleeping options, Sacramento is a popular California road trip stop that you shouldn’t miss.
Sacramento can be traveled at any time of the year. During the spring and fall seasons, temps are mild and the sun is plentiful. Sacramento is also considered as one of the best fall destinations in the USA. Visitors can use the city’s SacRT public transit system to get around the city at a low cost.
Locating at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, Sacramento offers lots of free or cheap things for its visitors that include California State Capitol Building, historic sites, candy tours, and many more.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Sacramento
- Visit The California State Capitol Museum, the iconic Neoclassical-style building which was constructed in 1874. It is totally free to visit. Explore the splendid architecture of the building. Don’t miss free documentary films which are shown daily at the basement theatre.
- Do you love cycling? Go for the American River Bike Trail, one of the best free things to do in Sacramento. Starting from Discovery Park in Old Sacramento to Beal’s Point, the entire 32 miles trail is full of natural beauties. If you are not into cycling, consider hiking or horseback riding.
- If you are with kids, you must take Jelly Belly Factory Tours which offers an inside view of California’s Jelly Belly factory. Every day it offers a free walking tour that lasts about 40 minutes from 9 am to 4 pm. More than 50 types of delicious jelly beans are produced here.
- Folsom Lake is one of the most visited places in California. This man-made reservoir sits at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills. You will have several outdoor activities here that include hiking, biking, horseback riding, boating, and waterskiing.
Suggested Budget for Sacramento
Hotel(2 people): $45-100
Daily Budget: $55/person
Cheap Hotels in Sacramento:
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9. PISMO BEACH
Probably the best destination on this list for travelers looking for a beach vacation and great deals that fit into their budget. It is a small town along the California coastline.
From a charming ocean-view to Monarch Butterfly Grove, Dinosaur Caves Park, and Pismo Pier, there are plenty of budget-friendly things to do in Pismo Beach. Visit this beach town in the spring or fall season to get a clear sky, smaller crowds, and amazing hotel deals.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Pismo Beach
- Riding on the Oceano Dunes is the most popular activity on Pismo beach. This is the only public beach in California where you can drive your vehicle. You can rent ATVs or ride dune buggies with your friends or families.
- Take a short stroll on Pismo Beach Pier and Promenade. Take some stunning snaps at the end of the pier with the limitless and unobstructed ocean in the background.
- If you are bored with beaches, take a short drive to Central Coast Wine County. See the vineyards and go for wine tasting at Edna Valley Vineyard Tolosa winery.
- Dinosaur Caves Park is a kid’s friendly park where kids can play on the ground. You can enjoy a laid-back stroll in this 11-acre park.
Suggested Budget for Pismo Beach
Hotel(2 people): $80-100
Daily Budget: $60/person
Cheap Hotels near Pismo Beach
This charming seaport town is another cheap place to travel to in California. The city has a magnetic collection of cultural charms and boasts of outdoor activities.
With a Victorian-style Old Town, historical parks, and plenty of museums, Eureka is such a beautiful place that you cannot afford to miss. For its beautiful combination of old-fashioned charm and modern comforts, it is an ideal destination for couples looking for a budget romantic getaway in California.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Eureka
- Explore the Old Town of Eureka on foot. It is packed with ample Victorian styled architecture and historic buildings. The Old Town features an array of art galleries, antique stores, museums, restaurants, and coffee shops.
- Visit Fort Humboldt State Historic Park which was built in 1853. It was abandoned in 1870 and now it stands as a historical museum that showcases the history of logging in Eureka, with displays of logging equipment, an authentic Native American canoe, and trains.
- Visit the Sequoia Park Zoo, the oldest zoo in California. This zoo is home to over 200 vertebrates and approx. 1700 invertebrates. It has a good collection of llamas, various bird species, mammals, and reptiles.
- Go for a scenic drive on the Redwood Highway. You will find the giant redwood trees on both sides of Highway 101 that create a magical ambiance throughout the route.
Suggested Budget for Eureka
Hotel(2 people): $60-100
Daily Budget: $70/person
Cheap Hotels in Eureka
11. DANA POINT
Dana Point is a charming city in Southern California and is also known as one of the best surfing areas in the USA. The city has been wooing whale and dolphin watchers and water sports lovers for generations.
From the lively Dana Point Harbor, and beautiful Nature Interpretive Center to adrenaline-pumping parasailing excursions or whale watching, there is no shortage of activities for all types of travelers.
The best time to visit Dana Point is late August to early September. Traveling in the fall season is highly recommended to get plenty of cheap hotel deals.
Cheap or Free Things to do in Dana Point
- Visit Dana Point Harbor. It is also known as the ‘Whale Capital of the World’. Dana Point Harbor offers specialty shopping, fishing and whale watching excursions, and a variety of restaurants.
- You shouldn’t miss the Ocean Institute, a natural attraction in Dana Point Harbor. The institute conducts different nature-focused educational programs throughout the year.
- Adventure enthusiasts must experience parasailing in Dana Point. Dana Point Parasail is a very popular and renowned company for its high-quality operations to have safe, fun, and memorable parasailing adventures along the beautiful Pacific Ocean coastline.
Suggested Budget for Dana Point
Activities: $20(parasailing is not included here)
Daily Budget: $70/person
Cheap Hotels in Dana Point
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Frequently Asked Questions about Cheapest Places to Visit in California
1. What are the great and cheap family vacation spots in California?
A: Carlsbad and Big Bear Lake are pretty affordable places in California and offer countless family-friendly activities.
2. Where should I go for a cheap weekend getaway in California?
A: It depends upon what you want to see. California is a large state and full of natural wonders. If you like to go for an affordable beach vacation in California, you can visit Ventura and Oxnard. You can also visit Solvang, an underrated place in California.
3. What is the cheapest National Park to Visit in California?
A: If you are looking for a cheap National Park in California, visit Death Valley NP or Joshua Tree NP. Don’t miss the Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree where you can world densest concentrations of the dangerous but beautiful cholla cactus.
4. Where is the most affordable place to visit in Southern California?
A: Oxnard is a beautiful coastal city in SoCal that offers plenty of free things to do. Walk along Channel Islands Harbor, visit The Murphy Auto Museum or fly kites in Mandalay beach – all are free activities in Oxnard.
5. What are the cheapest places to visit in California with kids?
A: You can visit Carlsbad if you have kids. Legoland California is an amazing place in Carlsbad that offers various rides and shows that keep children well entertained.
6. Where should I visit for a cheap vacation in Northern California?
A: Looking for an inexpensive place to visit in Northern California? Sacramento can be an ideal place for you. Visit California State Capitol Museum and explore Old Sacramento State Historic Park.