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Palm trees, a sandy beach, or Los Angeles may be the first things you think of when someone says California. But the real draw of this state extends far beyond fancy city life and beach towns.
Over 200 million people visit the Sunkist State each year, and honestly, we’re not surprised because California is one of the most beautiful and diverse states in America! From the vivid waters of Lake Tahoe to epic drives along the Pacific Ocean and the rugged beauty of Joshua Tree National Park, there is so much to explore here!
And here’s the best news: you can actually visit some of the most incredible spots without breaking the bank! In fact, this state is bursting with places that are perfect for a cheap weekend getaway.
To show you what we mean, we’ve rounded up our ten favorite cheap weekend getaways in California so you can start planning your next epic trip for cheap!
Best Cheap Weekend Getaways in Northern California
Just because San Francisco is popular doesn’t mean that it’s expensive to visit. While living in here on a budget may be out of the question, your weekend getaway doesn’t have to be pricey because there are so many free things to do.
Start with a visit to the famous Golden Gate Bridge! There’s a welcome center on-site where you can learn all about this iconic bridge and take free walking tours. You can also take a hike around the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for some epic views.
Walking around the area is also one of the most popular things to do, despite the hilly terrain. If you’re up for the challenge, you can join a local walking tour or create your own to hit the most popular tourist attractions. We recommend stops at the Fisherman’s Wharf, Dolores Park, the Castro and Mission districts, Chinatown, and the Painted Ladies.
If you prefer mountain biking, you’re also in luck because the Bay area has some great trails! Try China Camp State Park, the San Francisco Bay Trail, and Mount Sutro Open Space Trail.
Finally, for all you wine enthusiasts, be sure to check out the Napa Valley. This popular wine country is part of northern San Francisco, and you can easily make a day trip there to enjoy some of the most famous wines in America!
Another of our favorite cheap weekend getaways in California is San Jose. There’s a little bit of everything here, which makes it good for a variety of people.
Alum Rock Park is one of California’s oldest public parks, and it has a wide array of outdoor activities to experience. Hiking and horseback riding are exceptionally popular ways to explore the park’s canyons, hills, and wildlife.
If romantic getaways are on your radar, there are lots of free attractions that are great for dates. Kelley Park is a beautiful outdoor area that’s absolutely perfect for a couples’ picnic. There are trails, a Japanese Garden, and a zoo to explore. Afterward, head over to the renowned San Jose Municipal Rose Garden to take in the scent and beauty of nearly 200 kinds of roses!
Other great budget-friendly to totally free activities include visits to Japantown, the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, the local farmer’s market, and the Los Gatos Creek Trail.
Any visit to Sacramento should definitely include a visit to the California State Capitol Museum. The Capitol is both a museum and the working government seat of California, so there’s a lot going on here.
Join one of the free daily tours to explore Capitol Park with the help of a guide and learn all about the area’s history, architecture, and more!
For more history, be sure to stop by Old Town Sacramento and enjoy the gold-rush atmosphere.
If history isn’t your thing, you still have plenty of free things to choose from. Mountain bikers will love the famous American River Bike Trail (also known as the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail), which winds for 32 miles along the American River.
It starts at Discovery Park in Sacramento and ends at Folsom Lake, another popular destination. Along the way, you’ll find plenty to see and do, including scenic stops, places to eat, several parks and swimming areas, plus 2 notable bridges.
And of course, a day trip to Napa Valley is once again a must! It’s one of the most popular excursions from Sacramento and a relaxing way to spend your weekend getaway.
Speaking of romantic getaways in California, it doesn’t get much better than the breathtaking Lake Tahoe. It’s one of California’s most popular tourist destinations, and there’s no question why.
You can spend days just taking in the blue waters, soaring mountains, and rocky beaches. And with such a gorgeous lake available, you won’t even need to splurge on a hotel with an outdoor swimming pool!
We love that Lake Tahoe has so many free things and cheap activities to do. Of course, swimming in the lake and hiking the numerous trails are always an option. But there’s a lot beyond those obvious options.
Take a ride on the aerial tram, go mountain biking, or rent a kayak to explore far from the shoreline. You’ll find no shortage of trails, beaches, and waterways to fuel your wanderlust.
Of course, some time to sit back and relax is necessary, too! Check out the Sierra Hot Springs to enjoy some luxurious r&R without a hefty price tag. This non-profit retreat offers day passes (reservation required) for just $30, so you can enjoy their springs, trails, and sundeck.
Eureka, California, offers a gorgeous mix of natural beauty and fun architecture. It’s the perfect weekend getaway for nature enthusiasts!
Start with a drive down the scenic Redwood Highway for jaw-dropping panoramas of the California Coast. You won’t regret using up the gas.
Next, take some time to explore the Sequoia Park Zoo, which is the oldest zoo in California! It’s also one of the smallest zoos in the country, so it won’t take much of your time, but the red pandas alone are worth the stop!
For some unique architecture highlights, be sure to swing by the Carson Mansion and Old Town Eureka. You’ll feel like you stepped back into Victorian times!
And for more nature-based fun, we recommend the Sequoia Park Garden, Humboldt Bay, Lost Coast Trail, and Humboldt Botanical Garden.
Best Cheap Weekend Getaways in Southern California
One of the most popular southern California cities is Pismo Beach, located on the central coast area. There are so many great things to do here for a cheap weekend getaway without even trying.
The Monarch Butterfly Grove is absolutely stunning during the months of November to February when the eucalyptus trees come alive with colorful wings. In the off-season, it’s still pretty, but the butterflies add a lot to the atmosphere.
Another popular stop is the Dinosaur Caves Park, which is a beautiful bluff-top park that overlooks the Pacific Ocean by Shell Beach. Kids will love the dinosaur-themed play area, while adults will enjoy the many walking areas and ocean views.
The Margo Dodd Park and Eldwaylen Ocean Park are also great options for some nature-centric fun, while the Pismo Beach Premium Outlets offer the opportunity to go on a spending spree without breaking the bank.
Finally, you can’t go wrong with renting a kayak or other small watercraft and just enjoying the great outdoors and California sunshine!
Joshua Tree National Park
Another fantastic option for nature enthusiasts is the Joshua Tree National Park. This famous national park is where the Mojave and Colorado deserts join together, and you’ll find a wide variety of wildlife and cultural history here.
There are many outdoor activities to try here, including backpacking, mountain biking, rock climbing, bouldering, horseback riding, and hiking! And if you happen to be snap happy, the photography opportunities here are endless!
After a hard day of exploring, treat yourself to a $12 day pass at the Desert Hot Springs Spa and Hotel for some well-earned pampering.
And if you don’t want your cheap weekend getaway to feel cheap, book your hotel in the classy Palm Springs area. While the area offers some of the world’s best luxury hotels, you can also enjoy the area’s high-end feel at a less-expensive hotel. Even the lower-end hotels tend to have a swimming pool, hot tub, classy landscaping, and beautiful settings.
Last but not least, this beautiful slice of California coastline that’s teeming with things to do. This cluster of little towns makes it easy to change up your activities from day to day without driving too far.
It’s one of our favorite cheap weekend getaways in California because you can visit some of the state’s most popular and expensive spots without paying the price to stay overnight. Day trip, anyone?
For example, if you want to splurge a little, head over to the Disneyland Resort. For a less expensive theme-park option, Knott’s Berry Farm is right there, too, in Buena Park.
Just down the road, Newport Beach has a gorgeous harbor, the Balboa Pier (complete with an amusement park), and some great waves for surfers. You can shop and dine to your heart’s content or save your money for other things.
Laguna Beach is a great alternative for those who’d rather meander through art galleries or discover tide pools on the beach. But it also offers an underwater park (Crystal Cove State Park) and hiking at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
If you want to mix things up with a day trip, Venice Beach and Santa Monica are just over an hour away! Spend your day at the famous Santa Monica Pier, exploring the boardwalk, or soaking in the sun and scenery at Venice Beach.