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California is the most populated state in the United States for a reason — because it’s awesome. That said, popularity comes with consequences and one of the most notable is price. When looking for a place to stay in Los Angeles or San Francisco many of the “cool” spots are ridiculously expensive. Not only that, many of the classic “surfer” or “hippie” vibes have been overrun with tech money and out of state transplants (see: kook of the day). However, don’t fret travelers! The California Dream is still alive and well. While an affordable vacation may take tourists to more off-the-beaten-path destinations, there is still plenty to see. We’ve broken down the most affordable cities in California to visit (and only ones that don’t totally suck; you’ll get ’em next time Fresno).
Ventura and Oxnard
Just north and around the corner from Malibu — a well-known hangout for the famous and their collection of homes that cost tens of millions — is Ventura and Oxnard. Since these two seaside towns are just a touch too far from Los Angeles for a reasonable commute, they exist outside of the mass chaos of the city. Nonetheless, they still possess the laid-back feeling of the Southern California glory days. An affordable vacation to these spots includes trips to beaches that contributed to the surfing boom in the continental US, a boat ride to Channel Islands National Park, or hikes in the hills that isolate much of Ventura.
Joshua Tree National Park and the Coachella Valley
Joshua Tree — or as the youth know it “the place with trees and rocks to take cool pictures before Coachella” — is the intersection of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts which creates an otherworldly environment and has inspired musicians throughout the ages. The park has become a haven for climbers and the National Park System ensures that places like Joshua Tree stay affordable for all. Outside of the park, Joshua Tree is close to some of the more cost-effective towns in California. Palm Springs may have places reserved for wealthy vacation homes, but other spots like Indio, La Quinta, and Palm Desert have the makings for a cheap getaway.
Death Valley National Park
We get it; the name isn’t exactly inviting. But trust us, Death Valley is cool. Primarily known as the official home of the hottest recorded temperature ever on earth (134 degrees Fahrenheit / 56.7 degrees Celsius), the area is one of the lesser-visited National Parks in the country. When the weather is right, Death Valley is one of the most stunning places in the Golden State. Hiking during the hours around sunset and sunrise presents a mesmerizing display of light dancing off the jagged mountains and rolling dunes. Plan a camping trip to see this eastern California park and save a few bucks.
Big Bear Lake
People who aren’t from California don’t necessarily think of Southern California as an oasis for alpine forests and snow-capped peaks. Enter Big Bear. Just over a two-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles, Big Bear and Big Bear Lake are awesome places to escape into nature. In the winter, Snow Summit Ski Resort is a small affordable mountain with a number of serviceable runs for even skilled skiers and snowboarders. While in the summer, the lake and nearby Lake Arrowhead offer boating and surrounding areas great for hiking and camping. Big Bear also makes the elusive “California Double” (surfing and snowboarding in the same day) a very realistic possibility.
California wine is legendary. With an impressive reputation, wine-producing regions like Napa and Sonoma Valley have become rather exclusive and not the cheapest places to have a good time. Temecula, a town in Southern California that is inland and between Los Angeles and San Diego, has begun making a name for itself for crafting delicious wines at picturesque wineries. Couple that with a quaint old town and reasonable prices, and we have an affordable vacation spot. Just be sure to get there and book a wine tour quickly, prices are rising and the secret is getting out.
Eureka is located in Northern California, and not the part near the Bay Area. No, Eureka is in the portion of the state north of San Francisco that is rarely seen by tourists or even Californian natives. However, the little port town is well worth a visit. The wild coastline and Victorian architecture mean plenty of opportunity for aimless, but entertaining, wandering. The town is also perfectly situated for a visit to Redwood National and State Park, as well as Mount Shasta. Eureka is named after the exclamation miners would shout after finding gold in California, so brace yourself to yell “EUREKA!” after getting the bill from an affordable hotel.
Although Sacramento is the capital of California, it’s always the butt of jokes from bigger cities — it’s actually just about the one thing people from San Francisco and Los Angeles can agree on, making fun of Sacramento is funny. For a long time the turned-up noses were somewhat warranted, but quietly during the last decade, Sacramento has been getting cooler and cheaper by comparison. Neighborhoods like Land Park are extremely nice, while a population that is skewing younger, great breweries, and the Golden 1 Center (the new home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings) has revitalized the downtown area. Sacramento is also a favorite of outdoorsmen, with the Sacramento and American Rivers flowing through the city and the world-class mountains of Lake Tahoe just an hour and a half away. Perhaps the rest of California stands corrected and Sac’s soon to be laughing along with its fellow cities?
The Central Coast
California’s Central Coast can best be defined as the area between Santa Barbara and Monterey Bay along the Pacific Ocean. While for the most part this portion of pristine coastline is not often visited — and hence more affordable — there are some exceptions. Santa Barbara has long been an escape or wedding destination for the well-off living in Los Angeles; while former farm town Paso Robles has become a global wine hotspot, so expect to shell out a few shekels there. Elsewhere, beach towns like Pismo are great base camps to visit cultural landmarks like Hurst Castle in San Simeon, college towns like San Luis Obispo, and the stunning nature in Big Sur.