Scenic views and sun-soaked fun can be found up and down the Golden State—especially when you're willing to splurge on a visit to one of California’s iconic beach towns, wineries, or mountain resorts. Less common? An affordable getaway with all the charm at a fraction of the cost. But if you know where to look, these hidden gems exist. Some are steeped in history while others offer outdoor adventures you won’t soon forget. Whether you’re on a budget or just looking for an under-the-radar destination where you can stay for less than around $200 per night (depending on the season), check out these 14 cities that overdeliver on the value front, listed north to south.
Hear echoes of the past in this tiny city nestled in the shadow of Mount Shasta. The entire downtown district of the former mill town is on the National Register of Historic Places, with some of McCloud's landmark buildings taking on a new life as churches, restaurants, and inns. Make an historic property such as the McCloud Hotel—which once housed men who worked in the lumber mill—your home base for exploring the mountain landscape. While steak dinner at the on-site Sage Restaurant might dent your wallet at more than $40, cut that bill in half by ordering a rib eye at White Mountain Café. To work up an appetite, follow the McCloud River Falls Trail to trek through canyons with cooled lava flows and waterfalls or try some catch-and-release fly-fishing. In the winter, the nearby Mount Shasta Ski Park offers 38 uncrowded trails and two terrain parks. Before leaving town, stop by the McCloud River Mercantile Company general store for a vintage souvenir. (Get to know more about McCloud on the California Now Podcast.)
Nestled between two forests of towering giants, this Redwood Coast town is a Victorian village frozen in time. Gift shops, galleries, and restaurants line Ferndale’s historic Main Street behind old-timey storefronts, along with quaint bed-and-breakfasts. Check into the Shaw House Inn for an affordable stay at a Victorian mansion that’s the oldest building in town. Pack cash to grab lunch for under $10 at Poppa Joe’s diner, housed in a former drugstore built in the 1870s. But be sure to save a couple dollars to visit the Ferndale Museum, a haven for history buffs with exhibits ranging from turn-of-the-century dairy equipment to the oldest working seismograph in the U.S. Bird-watching and hiking can be found along Russ Park’s miles of trails within walking distance of Main Street. Head to the Ferndale Repertory Theatre for an evening’s entertainment or wet your whistle at The Palace Saloon, which has served as a local watering hole since the turn of the 20th century. (Find more things to do in Ferndale.)
Though Grass Valley is known for its gold, you’ll be able to keep most of yours while visiting Empire Mine State Historic Park. For a $5 entry fee, you can tour one of the oldest, deepest, and richest gold mines in the Golden State. For more living history, book a room at the historic Holbrooke Hotel, where five past presidents and Mark Twain have all rested their heads. Despite the town’s penchant for the past, dining options are surprisingly modern and diverse. Feast on surf-and-turf fajitas or a steak dinner at Diego’s for a little over $20, or start your morning with a $15 lobster Benedict at South Pine Cafe. When the weather warms up, visit South Yuba River for wildflower walks or to take a dip in a swimming hole. Other local pastimes range from fishing and boating to easy out-and-back hikes on the Sugarloaf Mountain and Buttermilk Bend trails. (Find more things to do in Grass Valley on this episode of the California Now Podcast.)
On the California Delta, the port city of Stockton has become a cultural oasis. You can find the Golden State’s largest display of Buddha statues at the Stockton Cambodian Buddhist Temple (also known as the Wat Dhammararam), where many of the nearly 100 jewel-colored sculptures tower over visitors. Stockton also has a public art trail with more than 50 murals, mosaics, and sculptures, and offers free self-guided tours of the diverse architectural styles found throughout the Magnolia Historic District. The Haggin Museum offers more cultural immersion with 19th-century European art and local history exhibits. Or let your palate be your cultural guide, leading you to Papa Urb’s Grille for cheap Filipino favorites like sisig fries, lumpia, and empanadas. Spend a magical afternoon with kids in tow enjoying the attractions and themed play areas at Pixie Woods Amusement Park or let imaginations run wild with 40 interactive exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Stockton. Stay at the wallet-friendly University Plaza Waterfront Hotel, which has a courtyard overlooking the San Joaquin River. (Find more things to do in Stockton.)
A stay in Petaluma puts you within an hour’s drive of Bay Area hot spots including San Francisco and Sonoma, but with all the benefits of small-town boutique lodging—think free parking and complimentary coffee and pastries at spots such as the historic Metro Hotel & Cafe. Standard rooms are a bargain, but you can also upgrade to an air-conditioned Airstream trailer—it has a semiprivate lawn, plus it’s still a steal at around $150 per night. There’s plenty to do in the active city, from stand-up paddleboarding on the river to guided walking tours of historic downtown from the Petaluma Historical Library & Museum. Make time to visit Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, the largest privately owned adobe building in Northern California dating back to the 1830s. And for dinner, tacos from El Roy’s Mexican Grill or food truck are a must—and a deal, at just $2.75 each. (Find more things to do in Petaluma.)
A rural ranch town, Pescadero is also home to the tallest lighthouse on the California coast. Though you can’t go inside the historic Pigeon Point Light Station, you can take a free guided tour of the grounds. Head north to explore tide pools and wildlife along the mile-long stretch of Pescadero State Beach, or south to see elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Reserve (just don’t forget to request a free permit, and plan for a 3- to 4-mile hike). Adventures also await inland, where you can wander through redwood groves at Butano State Park or visit Harley Farms Goat Dairy for cuddles with babies in the nursing pen. Find some of the region’s most unique accommodations at Costanoa, an eco-resort that offers glamping in secluded tent bungalows that are a bargain at about half the price of the private cabins and lodge rooms. If it’s olallieberry season, splurge on a slice of pie or margarita at Duarte’s Tavern, but for more affordable eats grab a sandwich at the Arcangeli Grocery deli counter.
About 30 minutes from Yosemite’s south gate, Bass Lake beckons with fragrant pine trees, aquatic recreation, and miles of trails circling the warm body of water. During the winter, it’s an affordable retreat within driving distance of snow play areas and plenty of hiking without crowds. The Way of the Mono interpretive trail is great for families with small children; for more of a challenge and views of two scenic waterfalls, try the Willow Creek Trail. They’re both a stone’s throw from the waterfront Pines Resort, which has spacious chalets and rooms that make a great home base for water skiing, kayaking, and fishing. In the winter, rates here can drop below $130 per night, a bargain compared to peak-season pricing. Skip the on-site dining options in favor of Casa Velasco Mexican Restaurant within walking distance, where portions are generous and chips and salsa are on the house. During the summer months, lakeside camping is a budget-friendly option—just don’t forget to reserve a spot in advance. (Find more things to do in Bass Lake.)
Smithsonian Magazine included this Monterey County hidden gem on its “15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2023” list, calling it a “buzzing small town in the midst of a revitalization.” Experience one of Soledad’s budget-friendly wine tastings at Hahn Estate, where for $20 guests can try five specially selected vintages surrounded by views of the Santa Lucia Highlands. Hike the famous talus caves and gaze up at the rugged spires of Pinnacles National Park, formed by a volcanic eruption some 23 million years ago. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars as Pinnacles is a home to many incredible birds of prey, including peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and the always-recognizable California condor. Soledad is also located on the historic California Mission Trail. Take a free self-guided tour through Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad to discover how the original founders and inhabitants of this adobe once lived.
To enjoy superlative California wines in a relaxing and low-cost setting, the Santa Ynez Valley has a bountiful harvest ripe for tasting. Featured in the film Sideways, Buellton is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. You can sample these varietals at wineries such as Buscador, Ken Brown, and Brick Barn Wine Estate, where tastings are complimentary with the purchase of a bottle. Beers are right at home in Buellton as well, with a highlight being small-batch brews from Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s wild ale program at Barrelworks Tasting Room. The dining prices there can be a bit steep, so check out Burritos Lalo for Mexican combo platters on the cheap. Take a break from the booze to visit the flightless birds at OstrichLand USA, a whimsical landmark where you can feed animals for just a dollar (in addition to the small entry fee). A stay at the Sideways Inn is a must for movie fans, but you can also book a vintage trailer or glamping tent at the Flying Flags RV Resort for fun, offbeat accommodations starting at a little over $100.
Along California’s Central Coast, an affordable beach town is a rare find. Yet, Oxnard has some of the most active (and uncrowded) shoreline you’ll find in the area. Swim and surf at Hollywood Beach or hop into a kayak at Silver Strand Beach. There’s also a protected area for families, Kiddie Beach Park near Hobie Beach, where the lack of ocean waves creates a safe enclave for little ones and leashed dogs. History buffs can take a docent-led walking tour of Heritage Square, while gearheads will love the French racing cars at Mullin Automotive Museum and antiques and street rods at Murphy Auto Museum. When it comes to accommodations, you’ll find the lowest pricing inland at budget spots such as the Channel Islands Inn, but if you’re set on the coast check out Casa Via Mar for ocean views at half the cost of on-the-sand stays—just be willing to walk a couple blocks to get to the water. There’s also great Mexican cuisine in town, with affordable and flavorful options like Sabor and Carnitas El Rey. (Find more things to do in Oxnard.)
Though big in size, Glendale flies under the radar as a Los Angeles suburb in the San Fernando Valley—this means you can book a bargain stay at spots like the no-frills Hotel Xilo and reliable chains such as Hyatt Place Glendale. Its proximity to Hollywood also makes it a fitting final resting spot for some of the industry’s biggest stars, from Lauren Bacall to Elizabeth Taylor, plus other notable figures such as Walt Disney and Michael Jackson. While it doesn’t offer maps to the graves, Forest Lawn Memorial Park does have a free public museum with original art and replicas of famous works such as Michelangelo’s David statue and The Last Supper. To see the quirkier side of Glendale, head to Brand Boulevard—you can’t miss the glowing Museum of Neon Art, home to a collection of historic signs and electric media created by contemporary artists. Brand Boulevard is also the city’s main drag, where you can ride the free trolley through The Americana at Brand retail center. A few blocks east, find a wide selection of eateries serving Middle Eastern fare, with affordable highlights such as the $10 chicken shawarma pita wrap at Skaf’s Lebanese Cuisine. (Find more things to do in Glendale.)
This desert community is more than just a military town. A gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms extends a colorful welcome to visitors with its Oasis of Murals, a series of 26 large-scale works depicting desert wildlife and homesteader history. Public art abounds around town, with more than three dozen other sculptures, mosaic works, and murals on view. Get your fill of arts and culture at local galleries such as the 29 Palms Creative Center, where you can also paint pottery. Boutique shops, restaurants like local favorite Grnd Sqrl, and a drive-in theater add to the small-town charm, but you’d be remiss if you didn’t take advantage of the desert’s natural beauty. Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center hosts monthly night-sky programs and provides free access to its nature trail, sundial, and meditation garden during the day. Plenty of clean and comfortable lodging can be found in town, with affordable options such as the colorful rooms at Harmony Motel or rugged yurts at 28 Palms Ranch. Wherever you stay, head toward downtown Twentynine Palms to start your morning with a fresh-baked pastry at Campbell Hill Bakery (and don’t forget to grab a sandwich as fuel for a day of hiking).
Hidden among the ponderosa pines of the San Jacinto Mountains is Idyllwild, a SoCal wilderness getaway that’s home to a small community of artists and adventurers. You can book a cozy mountain cabin at the Fireside Inn, which offers multiroom accommodations with kitchens and fireplaces. Check out hiking trails in Mount San Jacinto State Park and San Bernardino National Forest that range from the easy, one-mile Panorama Point loop to the strenuous Devil’s Slide with a 4,500-foot elevation gain. The Idyllwild Nature Center has an easy perimeter loop that ends at a museum featuring Cahuilla history exhibits and live animal displays. Adrenaline-seekers may want to scale granite cliffs such as Tahquitz Peak, one of the first technical rock climbing areas on the continent, but there’s plenty to experience indoors too. Eclectic galleries showcase works including mixed media, photography, and pottery; at Middle Ridge Winery, you can also enjoy a wine-tasting experience while viewing local artwork. Manzanita Cantina and Grill offers one of the most affordable dinner menus in the alpine town, with hearty entrees and seafood for around $20 per plate. (Find more things to do in Idyllwild.)
The winding mountain roads on Highway 79 in San Diego County act as a time portal of sorts, transporting visitors to the tiny town of Julian. Wooden storefronts line a Main Street so quaint a horse and carriage wouldn't feel out of place. The Julian Gold Rush Hotel fits right in with its Victorian-era decor such as antique beds and clawfoot tubs. Pop into spots like Julian Beer Co. and Mom's Pie House, where you can try a slice packed with award-winning apples. In the fall, there are plenty of orchards where the whole family can pick your own. The Pioneer Museum houses relics from the past, or for an immersive experience head to Eagle Gold Mine Co. to take a tour of an 1870s mining operation. On the outskirts of town, you can find a handful of wineries and cideries. Julian is also along the route to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a great day trip for stargazing excursions or action sports. (Find more things to do in Julian.)
It should come as no surprise that you’ll find some of California’s most authentic Mexican cuisine just north of the border. Aside from birria and carne asada from trucks and taquerias such as Tacos El Gordo, Chula Vistaoffers outdoor recreation in spades. Hit the bike path at Swiss Park, which offers access to Otay Valley Regional Park and the 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway circuit. Stretching along the city’s salt ponds, the park has more than eight miles of trails for bird-watching, picnics, and scenic hikes. Just off the bikeway, you can also visit attractions such as the Living Coast Discovery Center, an aquarium with exhibits including a stingray touch pool and raptor-feeding demonstration. The Rambler Motel offers easy access to these waterfront attractions at an affordable price point, plus a retro coffee bar and lively pool scene. On the east side next to Lower Otay Lake, Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center allows visitors to take free self-guided tours along the mile-long Olympic path, where national and international teams train in sports such as archery, BMX, rugby, and track and field. (Find more things to do in Chula Vista.)