Travel

11 affordable California road trips

America’s most populous state has enough to see and do for a lifetime. 

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a lifetime’s worth of money to spend at any given moment. Never fear—California’s beauty can be enjoyed without breaking the bank on lodging, food, and libations. Here are 11 towns, from the state’s south to the north, and how to visit them while sparing your wallet.

Solana Beach

Solana Beach

Drive from Los Angeles: 1½–2 hours
Drive from San Diego: 30 minutes

Solana Beach's 5 beaches, including the big Fletcher Cove, attract swimmers, anglers, sunbathers, and runners, while the Cedros Avenue Design District offers shops, eateries, and art among historic 1950s former warehouses. 

California map highlighting Solana Beach

Where you should stay

Winners Circle Resort. Though rooms start at $149, that’s comparable to nearby chain hotel rates, and all rooms come with kitchenettes. There’s also a heated pool and spa, as well as a clubhouse with a pool table and ping pong. Book your stay at Winners Circle Resort.

What you should eat

The grilled brioche French toast at Lockwood Table Cafe. For $7.75, you get vanilla cinnamon egg batter, berries, cinnamon honey butter, and maple syrup.

What you should visit

The Design District. Tour the specialty art galleries without having to drop the change to actually buy anything, and check out other, more affordable eclectic crafts. There’s also the Belly Up Tavern, where many famous rock, hip-hop, and folk acts have performed.

Palm Springs

Palm Springs golf course

Drive from Los Angeles: 2–3 hours
Drive from San Diego: 2–3 hours

“Palm Springs, land of golf courses? You must be joking.” Nope, there’s plenty to do here for the non-wealthy if they know where to look.

California map highlighting Palm Springs

Where you should stay 

The Caliente Tropics Hotel. Rooms go for as little as $71 a night, which gets you fun Polynesian theming and a slice of history: Elvis once stayed here. It’s also convenient to downtown, and just across a block from the historic Moorten Botanical Garden. Book your stay at the Caliente Tropics Hotel.

What you should eat

A pastrami sandwich at Sherman’s Deli. The family-owned eatery is a longtime local favorite and a great way to get a filling meal downtown without overspending.

What you should play 

Golf at night. That’s right, The Lights at Indio Golf Course is open after dark with greens fees of $28 or below, and you can even tee off after 8 p.m.

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree desert road at sunset

Drive from Los Angeles: 2–3 hours
Drive from San Diego: 2–3 hours

Named after the iconic desert plant, Joshua Tree sits in the high desert above the Coachella Valley. The town is dwarfed by the vast, starkly beautiful landscape of Joshua Tree National Park.

California map highlighting Joshua Tree

Where you should stay

The Joshua Tree Inn. Big on desert charm and small on price, this Spanish hacienda-style hotel features a “zen courtyard” and koi pond. Rooms start at $115 and include a private outdoor patio.

What you should eat

A hefty slice of pizza at Pie for the People. This outpost offers a unique array of experimental pies and toppings—ever had strawberries on a pizza? More importantly, those extra-large slices are cheap and filling: $4 each for “regular” toppings, $5 for the fancier ones.

What you should see 

The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. After experiencing nature with a hike into the national park, return to civilization with amazing sculptures fashioned out of recycled materials. Admission is free.

Santa Barbara

Evening view of the pier in Santa Barbara

Drive from Los Angeles: 1½–2 hours
Drive from San Diego: 3½–4 hours

This city calls itself the American Riviera, and with everything from 18th-century-style Spanish architecture to fig trees and a pier, it’s hard to argue with them.

California map highlighting Santa Barbara

Where you should stay

The Avania Inn. Rooms begin at $107 and are walking distance from the beach and Stearns Wharf. Each room features antique furnishings, which the hotel says offer a “home away from home” feeling. Book your stay at the Avania Inn.

What you should eat

Killer Nachos at the Endless Summer Bar Cafe. They’re $8 during happy hour from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and you can also check out vintage surfboards and a view of the water.

What you should see 

Old Mission Santa Barbara. Known as the “Queen of the Missions,” it was founded by the Spanish in 1786 and is one of the best-preserved California missions. Admission is just $12with discounts for children, students, military, and seniors.

Lompoc

Flower fields in Lompoc

Drive from Los Angeles: 3–3½ hours
Drive from San Diego: 5–5½ hours

Pronounced “LAWM-poke,” this town has earned the name “City of Arts and Flowers” by growing a significant portion of America’s cut flowers and flower seeds. The fields bloom May through August, which makes that the best time to visit.

California map highlighting Lompoc

Where you should stay 

Lotus of Lompoc. Rates start as low as $55 a night, and that includes a free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, and access to the outdoor heated pool. Book your stay at Lotus of Lompoc.

What you should eat

Tacos at Floriano's Mexican Food. It's hard to beat them for value: On Taco Tuesdays, hard-shell tacos are $1.99 apiece and soft tacos are just $1.50. Not there on a Tuesday? No worries—the prices are only a few dozen cents higher the rest of the week.

What you should see

Lompoc’s flower fields, which you can look for along Ocean and Floradale avenues. You may have to look for a bit: Depending on what the market is paying more for, many fields could be growing vegetables instead of flowers. But any flowers you do find should be a sight to see (and looking at them is free!).

San Luis Obispo

Vineyards in Central California

Drive from Los Angeles: 3–3½ hours
Drive from San Diego: 5–5½ hours

Is this the northern end of Southern California or the southern end of Northern California? Either way, its beautiful coastline is a marriage of sea and mountains that draws those looking to enjoy nature—and nearby vineyards.

California map highlighting San Luis Obispo

Where you should stay

The Apple Farm. Queen beds start at $109, including a fireplace and HD television. For those with cash to spare, there are also rooms with private patios and hot tubs. Book your stay at the Apple Farm.

What you should eat

The $9.25 truffle fries at the Apple Farm Restaurant, which is super convenient if you’re staying there but still worth it if you’re not.

What you should see

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. It’s the 18th-century “Prince of Missions” to Santa Barbara’s “queen,” and admission is free, so checking out the gardens and Chumash artifacts is a thrifty way to spend a few hours.

Cambria

Bull elephant seal

Drive from Los Angeles: 3½–4 hours
Drive from San Diego: 5½–6 hours

Cambria is well-known as the gateway to points north, such as Hearst Castle and Big Sur, but there's plenty to do in town, too. Members can visit the famous Nitt Witt Ridge folk art house that overlooks the town, then go antiquing on charming Main Street.

California map highlighting Cambria

Where you should stay  

The Bluebird Inn. Rooms go as low as $114, there's free Wi-Fi, it's located next to Santa Rosa Creek, and there's easy access to Main Street. Willing to spend more? There are also fireplace suites. Book your stay at the Bluebird Inn.

What you should eat

Blueberry pancakes at the Redwood Cafe, which features a shady outdoor patio for people-watching.

What you should see

The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. Elephant seals fight, mate, and sun themselves year-round at this marine sanctuary about 10 minutes north of town. Visitors can park on-site and see seals immediately. The best part? It's free.

Salinas

Rows of crops growing in a field

Drive from Los Angeles: 4½–5 hours
Drive from San Diego: 6½–7½ hours

Salinas is best known as the birthplace of great American novelist John Steinbeck, many of whose books are set in and around the agricultural town. Otherwise, it’s mostly known for being surrounded by massive fields of vegetables.

California map highlighting Salinas

Where you should stay

The Laurel Inn. Rates go as low as $99 a night, which gets you the usual combination of air-conditioned room, queen bed, refrigerator, and access to a heated pool and spa. There’s also a diner on-site that offers generous portions of comfort food. Book your stay at the Laurel Inn.

What you should eat

The $8.50 blackened snapper sandwich at the Golden Fish (it comes with potato salad or french fries). This seafood eatery is conveniently located within walking distance of the National Steinbeck Center.

What you should see

Toro County Park. Sure, no visit is complete without going to the Steinbeck Center, but that costs money. Taking in a grand view of the Salinas Valley from the hills of the park is free, plus there’s a playground for kids.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz beach boardwalk

Drive from Los Angeles: 5½–6 hours
Drive from San Diego: 7½–8 hours

Famous for its boardwalk, its surfing, and the Mystery Spot, perhaps nothing sums up this countercultural hub as well as its unofficial motto: “Keep Santa Cruz weird.”

California map highlighting Santa Cruz

Where you should stay 

The Islander Motel. Rooms at this AAA Two Diamond hotel begin at $70. Continental breakfast is included, as is free Wi-Fi and a seasonally available heated pool. Book your stay at the Islander Motel.

What you should eat

“Gnarly” garlic fries at Woodies Cafe on the Santa Cruz Wharf. That’s as much flavor as $5.95 is going to buy you anywhere. If you’re hungry for more, check out the popcorn clam strips and fries for $11.95.

What you should see

The obvious answer is the boardwalk, and sometimes the obvious answer is the correct answer. The beach is free, the view is free—you only have to pay for rides and food.

Half Moon Bay

Sunset at Half Moon Bay California

Drive from Los Angeles: 5½–6½ hours
Drive from San Diego: 7½–8½ hours

Just 40 minutes from bustling San Francisco, this foggy coastal town is a perfect retreat from stress, especially if you enjoy the great outdoors.

California map highlighting Half Moon Bay

Where you should stay 

The Half Moon Bay Lodge. Rooms start at $139 and come with views of the nearby countryside. The decor is modern but earthy, going for a true "lodge" feel, and there's free breakfast, parking, and Wi-Fi, plus a heated outdoor pool and hot tub. Book your stay at the Half Moon Bay Lodge.

What you should eat

American fare at Dad's Luncheonette, which boasts “American roadside classics with a California focus.” That includes homemade potato chips for $3.75 and mac and cheese for $5.50. Did we mention the kitchen is inside a 113-year-old rail caboose?

What you should see

Mavericks surf break. This world-famous surfing spot at the north end of town is known for its enormous (and dangerous) waves, which can be enjoyed from a safe distance. Their size depends on the weather, but in favorable conditions, they can reach 60 feet high and rattle the earth when they break.

Eureka

Victorian Houses in Eureka

Drive from Los Angeles: 10–11 hours
Drive from San Diego: 12–13 hours

For the ambitious road-tripper, the town of Eureka awaits on California's North Coast. It's about as far from San Francisco as Big Sur is from Los Angeles, so this is no mere daytrip, but a visit offers a trip back in time to California's 19th-century colonial past.

California map highlighting Eureka

Where you should stay

Abigail's Elegant Victorian Mansion. One of Eureka's biggest draws is its historic Victorian homes, so why not spend the night at one? Rooms start at $135.

What you should eat

Fried oysters at Cafe Marina. Digging into fresh local seafood while looking out on Eureka's marina is a great way to get into the spirit of Humboldt Bay.

What you should see

Old Town Eureka. The district's many historic buildings have preserved the town's feel from the 19th century, when it was the playground of lumber barons. Members can also peruse the wares of the many specialty shops and art galleries while appreciating the architecture.

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