The sunshine-drenched sprawl of California gave us the Gold Rush and is home to some of the most expensive cities in the United States, but that doesn't mean you need a lottery win to vacation there. Some of the best experiences in the Golden State are free, from the towering redwoods of NorCal to the surf breaks of SoCal and dozens of wineries, museums, gardens, and cultural touchstones in between.
Whether you're looking for stunning state parks or museums that cover subjects from the avant garde to cryptozoology, Italian grapes or California cuisine, marine wildlife or towering man-made infrastructure, there's plenty to do here that's free (or nearly free). We've rounded up the best budget things to do in California starting in the north of the state and working our way south.
1. Redwood National Park
This park is the southernmost of a patchwork of state and federally administered lands under the umbrella of Redwood National and State Parks. To protect the Tall Trees Grove, a limited number of cars per day are allowed access – get free permits at the visitor center in Orick.
After picking up a map at the visitor center, you’ll have a suite of choices for hiking. Drive a few miles north along Hwy 101 and then turn east on Bald Hills Rd to get to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a kid-friendly 1.5-mile loop trail that is perfect for the whole family. California has great weather all year round but higher water levels in winter mean some of the foot bridges are removed for safety reasons – check with the rangers if you plan to hike at that time of year.
2. Willow Creek China Flat Museum
Drop into this free (though donations are welcome) museum to take in its extensive Bigfoot collection. Footprints, handprints, hair…it has all kinds of exhibits that seek to prove the existence of this mysterious creature. In fact, the namesake Bigfoot Scenic Byway (Hwy 96) starts here and heads north, winding through breathtaking mountain and river country.
3. Shasta Dam
In keeping with the enormous natural features of the area, this colossal, 15-million-ton concrete dam is second only in size to Grand Coolie Dam in Washington state and second in height only to Hoover Dam in Nevada. The dam is located at the south end of Shasta Lake on Shasta Dam Boulevard.
Construction started in 1937 and it took 12 years to complete – its 487ft spillway is nearly three times as high as the drop of Niagara Falls. Woody Guthrie wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’ while he was here entertaining dam workers. Guided tours of the interior of the dam and powerplant aren't currently available but you can do a self-guided tour across the top of the structure. Check with the visitor center for the most up-to-date details.
4. Wild Horse Sanctuary
Since 1978 the Wild Horse Sanctuary has been providing a home to unwanted horses and donkeys and giving them a lovely life. You can visit these beautiful animals, or even volunteer to help out for the day, on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the visitors center. The center is free to visit but to see them on the open plains, you'll need to pay for a one-day or multiday pack trip (contact the sanctuary in advance for availability).
5. Humbolt Redwoods State Park
Along Highway 101, 53,000-acre Humboldt Redwoods State Park protects some of the world's oldest redwoods and has three-quarters of the world's tallest 100 trees. Even if you don't have time to hike in, drive the park's awe-inspiring Avenue of the Giants, a 32-mile, two-lane road parallel to Highway 101.
6. Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve
Two miles west of Orr Hot Springs, this 2743-acre reserve protects some of the best old-growth redwood groves within a day’s drive from San Francisco. A 2-mile loop trail, starting near the picnic tables and toilets, crosses the creek, winding through the serene forest. It’s out of the way, so visitors are likely to have it mostly to themselves.
The trees here are impressive – some up to 367ft tall – but remember to admire them from the trail, both to protect the root systems of the trees and to protect yourself from poison oak, which is all over the park.
7. Graziano Family of Wines
The Italian Graziano family is one of the oldest grape-growing families in Mendocino County and specializes in ‘Cal-Ital’ wines – including primitivo, dolcetto, barbera and Sangiovese – at some fantastic prices. Wine tasting at Graziano is complimentary.
8. Patrick Amiot Junk Art
A cow rides a tractor, a rocket blasts off the lawn, and a dinosaur grabs a red convertible for lunch: it's all happening on Florence Ave, in sculptures Patrick Amiot made for neighbors' yards from recycled junk. You'll spot more around the town of Sebastopol, but Amiot's block hosts three of the best: tin-can firefighters in a bathtub-sized fire truck, a sprinting waitress made of cutlery and – in a driveway with a powder-blue VW Beetle – a tiny driver in a recycled-fuel-can Beetle.
9. French Laundry Gardens
The secret to French Laundry feasts is hiding in plain sight right across the street: a lush organic culinary garden. Walk among these neatly boxed plots, and see if you can guess the obscure heirloom varietals destined for dinner – if you can't tell your Mokum carrots from your Hakurei turnips, check the framed cheat-sheet at the front. Tables and seats are thoughtfully provided near the flowerbeds for lazy summer afternoons. Ungated and open to public (no sampling, please).
10. The Culinary Institute of America at Copia
You don't have to be a chef to find inspiration at the Culinary Institute of America's public food and wine showplace. Turn left at the Winemaker Wall of Fame (salute Merry Edwards, the sole woman!) for gourmet-themed art, including vintage portraits of Julia Child taken before she was famous. Upstairs is fabulous, with its free Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum and dazzling wall of copper baking molds (10:30am to 5pm daily). Check online for cooking classes, demos, documentaries and too-spicy-for-TV star-chef panels.
11. Point Reyes National Seashore
A rough-hewn beauty, Point Reyes National Seashore boasts marine mammals and birds, as well as scores of shipwrecks. Follow Sir Francis Drake Blvd west out to the point’s edge-of-the-world lighthouse, whipped by ferocious winds, where you can observe migrating whales in winter. The lighthouse is about 20 miles west of Point Reyes Station via Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
12. John Muir National Historic Site
Naturalist John Muir's former residence sits in a pastoral patch of farmland in bustling, modern Martinez. Though Muir wrote of sauntering the Sierra Nevada with a sack of tea and bread, it may be a shock for those familiar with the iconic Sierra Club founder’s ascetic weather-beaten appearance that this house (built by his father-in-law) is a model of Victorian Italianate refinement, with a tower cupola, a daintily upholstered parlor and splashes of white lace.
Check the website for special campfire programs, wildflower walks and full-moon hikes. The park is just north of Hwy 4. County Connection buses 16 and 98X from nearby Amtrak and BART stations stop here.
13. Diego Rivera's Allegory of California Fresco
Hidden inside San Francisco's Stock Exchange tower is a priceless treasure: Diego Rivera's Allegory of California fresco. Spanning a two-story stairwell between the 10th and 11th floors, the fresco shows California as a giant golden goddess offering farm-fresh produce, while gold miners toil beneath her and oil refineries loom on the horizon. On the 1st and 3rd Monday of each month, a free tour from SF City Guides provides exclusive access to this two-story mural.
14. Angel Island State Park
Rising in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Angel Island has been a military base, immigration station, WWII Japanese internment camp and Nike missile site, leaving interesting and thought-provoking forts and bunkers to explore. Spread out a picnic in a protected cove or beach with views over the urban grid and bridges, or explore this family-friendly beauty on foot or bicycle. E-bikes are also available for a fee and are increasingly popular.
15. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
It's no mystery why this is one of the Bay Area's most popular hiking and cycling destinations. As the trails wind beside the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay and through the Marin Headlands, they afford stunning views of the sea, the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco.
16. Point Bonita Lighthouse
This historical lighthouse is a breathtaking half-mile walk from Field Road parking area. From the tip of Point Bonita, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. Harbor seals haul out seasonally on nearby rocks. It's worth coming out here even when the lighthouse is closed. Call ahead to reserve a spot on one of the free monthly sunset tours of the promontory.
17. City Lights Bookstore
Free speech and free spirits have rejoiced here since 1957, when City Lights founder and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and manager Shigeyoshi Murao won a landmark ruling defending their right to publish Allen Ginsberg's magnificent epic poem Howl. Celebrate your freedom to read freely in the designated Poet’s Chair upstairs overlooking Jack Kerouac Alley, load up on zines on the mezzanine and entertain radical ideas downstairs in the new Pedagogies of Resistance section.
Visitors who make pilgrimages to this literary landmark will recognize truth in the cult sign declaring 'I am the door' – City Lights is the door to new ideas and nonstop revelations. Idle browsing is highly encouraged here – Ferlinghetti's hand-lettered sign describes City Lights as "A Kind of Library Where Books Are Sold." On the main floor, City Lights publications include titles by Angela Davis, Diane di Prima and Noam Chomsky, proving the point on another of Ferlinghetti's signs: "Printer's Ink Is the Greater Explosive."
18. Haight Street Art Center
Jeremy Fish's bronze bunny-skull sculpture guides you into a wonderland of screen-printed posters, San Francisco's signature art form. Glimpse rock-concert posters in progress at the on-site screen-printing studio, plus jaw-dropping gallery shows featuring Stanley Mouse's psychedelic Grateful Dead posters and Ralph Steadman's original illustrations for Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Gracing the stairwell is a hidden SF treasure: Ruben Kaddish's 1937 WPA fresco Dissertation on Alchemy, surely the trippiest mural ever commissioned by the US government.
19. Travertine Hot Spring
A bit southeast of Bridgepoint, head here to watch a panoramic Sierra sunset from three small but entirely natural hot pools set amid impressive rock formations. To get here, turn east on Jack Sawyer Rd just before the ranger station, then follow the dirt road uphill for about 1 mile. The pools are located over the mound behind the toilet block, and are free to bathe in. There are trails around the hot pools, but watch your footing. There are smaller pools around the area that are big enough to fall in, or trip you up at the least.
20. Earthquake Fault
On Minaret Rd, about 1 mile west of the Mammoth Scenic Loop, detour to gape at Earthquake Fault, a sinuous fissure half a mile long gouging a crevice up to 20ft deep into the earth. Ice and snow often linger at the bottom until late summer, and Native Americans and early settlers used it to store perishable food. Accessibility is difficult during winter.
21. Point Sur State Historic Park, Big Sur
Around 6 miles south of Bixby Bridge, Point Sur rises like a green fortress from the sea. It looks like an island, but is connected by a sandbar. Atop the volcanic rock sits an 1889 stone light station, staffed until 1974. Three-hour guided tours include ocean views and engrossing tales of the facility's importance in tracking Soviet submarines during the Cold War. Tours are first-come, first-served and meet at the locked farm gate 0.25-miles north of Point Sur Naval Facility.
22. Manzanar National Historic Site
A stark wooden guard tower alerts drivers to one of US history's darkest chapters, which unfolded on a barren, windy sweep of land some 5 miles south of Independence. Little remains of the infamous war concentration camp, a dusty square mile where more than 10,000 people of Japanese ancestry were corralled during WWII. The camp’s lone remaining building, the former high-school auditorium, houses a superb interpretive center. A visit is one of California's historical highlights and should not be missed.
Watch the 22-minute documentary, then explore the thought-provoking exhibits chronicling the stories of the families who languished here yet built a vibrant community. A self-guided 3.2-mile driving tour around the grounds usually includes a recreated mess hall and barracks, vestiges of buildings and gardens, and the haunting camp cemetery. Sites are all accessible by foot or an auto road tour.
23. Alabama Hills
The warm colors and rounded contours of the Alabama Hills, located on Whitney Portal Rd/Movie Flat Rd, stand in contrast to the jagged, snowy Sierras just behind. The setting for countless ride-‘em-out movies, the popular Lone Ranger TV series and, more recently, parts of Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), the stunning orange rock formations are a beautiful place to experience sunrise or sunset.
You can drive, walk or mountain bike along dirt roads rambling through the boulders, and along Tuttle and Lone Pine Creeks. A number of graceful rock arches are within easy hiking distance of the roads. Head west on Whitney Portal Rd and either turn left at Tuttle Creek Rd, after a half-mile, or north on Movie Flat Rd, after about 3 miles. Following the latter route, the road eventually turns into Moffat Ranch Rd and brings you back to Hwy 395, only 3½ miles south of Manzanar National Historic Site. The websites of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and the Museum of Western Film History have excellent movie-location maps.
24. Jade Cove
In the waters of Jade Cove in 1971, local divers recovered a 9000lb jade boulder that measured 8ft long and was valued at $180,000. People still comb the beach in search of similar treasures today. Jade is black or blue-green and looks dull until you dip it in water; the best time to find it is during low tide or after a big storm. Trails down to the water start from several mostly unmarked roadside pull-offs immediately south of Plaskett Creek Campground.
25. César E Chávez National Monument
Located within the undulating Tehachapi Mountains, this national monument, Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, is the national headquarters of the United Farmworkers of America and was the home of civil rights leader César Chávez from 1971 until his death in 1993. On view are exhibits on Chávez's work, his office and grave.
26. Rings Loop Trail in Mojave National Preserve
This fun and easy 1.5-mile trail in Mojave National Preserve delivers close-ups of the Swiss-cheese-like cliffs of the Hole-in-the-Wall area. Starting at the south end of the parking lot, it passes petroglyphs before entering an increasingly narrow canyon that you have to scramble out of using metal rings. You'll emerge at a picnic area and follow a paved road back to the parking lot. For a shorter experience (0.5 miles), use the rings to descend straight into the canyon and climb back out the same way.
27. The Getty Center
In its billion-dollar, in-the-clouds perch, high above the city grit and grime, the Getty Center presents triple delights: an engaging art collection (everything from medieval triptychs to baroque sculpture and impressionist brushstrokes), Richard Meier’s cutting-edge architecture, and the visual splendor of seasonally changing gardens. Admission is free, but parking is $20 ($15 after 3pm).
Five pavilions hold collections of manuscripts, drawings, photographs, furniture, decorative arts and a strong assortment of pre-20th-century European paintings. Must-sees include Van Gogh’s Irises, Monet’s Wheatstacks, Rembrandt’s The Abduction of Europa and Titian’s Venus and Adonis. Don’t miss the lovely Cactus Garden on the remote South Promontory for breathtaking city views.
28. The Broad Museum
From the instant it opened in September 2015, the Broad (rhymes with 'road') became a must-visit for contemporary-art fans. It houses the world-class collection of local philanthropist and billionaire real-estate honcho Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, with more than 2000 postwar pieces by dozens of heavy hitters, including Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Keith Haring and Kara Walker.
The museum docents are knowledgeable and the Broad's excellent smartphone app gives further descriptions of the art and artists. Admission is free (except during special exhibitions), but you’ll want to reserve a timed ticket online to avoid any queues in the walk-up line.
29. Fonts Point in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
East of Borrego Springs, a 4-mile dirt road, sometimes passable without 4WD, diverges south from County Rte S22 out to Fonts Point (1249ft). From up here unfolds a spectacular panorama of the otherworldly, wind-and-water-chiseled Borrego Valley to the west and the Borrego Badlands to the south. Anza-Borrego is often at its best during sunset.
30. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
A 20-minute drive inland finds a series of wonderful, mostly flat, shady and sunny paths snaking through a lush valley and past a cascading waterfall surrounded by volcanic rock. The main 7-mile pathway is moderately trafficked with runners, walkers and mountain bikers. Look out for butterflies, mule deer and bobcats. Stay alert when exploring – rattlesnakes also favor these arid pathways. Download the very useful (and free!) Easy2Hike app before you set off, for maps and trail info.
31. Mission and Pacific Beach Boardwalks
Central San Diego's best beach scene is concentrated in a narrow strip of land between the ocean and Mission Bay. There's great people-watching along the Ocean Front Walk, the boardwalk running from South Mission Beach Jetty to the Pacific Beach pier. It’s crowded with joggers, in-line skaters and cyclists any time of the year. On warm summer weekends, the beaches are packed with people frolicking in sand and sea. Get there before noon to secure a parking space.
32. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
On the site of San Diego's first European settlement, Old Town consists of a cluster of restored or rebuilt historic 19th-century buildings filled with quaint exhibits, souvenir stores and cafes. A good place to start is at the visitor center in 1853 Robinson-Rose House; see the neat model of the pueblo in 1872 and pick up a self-guided tour pamphlet (or download one for free). Staff also run free guided walking tours daily at 11am and 2pm.
You may also like:
Visit all of California's national parks on this legendary road trip
California's top experiences
Where to spot gray whales along along the Pacific coast as migration season gets in full swing