(with free and affordable things to do while you’re there!)
California is an amazing state with SO much to offer! There are big, popular cities with tons of things to do as well as some hidden gems you probably never knew existed. As someone who has spent a good bit of time exploring all areas of California, I’m excited to share four of my top destinations with you! As I could basically write a novel on all the golden state has to offer, it was super tough to narrow it down. Visiting these four places will give you a good idea of how diverse and amazing this incredible state is!
We begin our tour in the southern tip of the state. Everyone sings the praise of San Diego. “San Diego has perfect weather.” “There’s so much to do in San Diego.” “San Diego is my favorite city in the world.” I hear these things so often that I simply cannot talk about California without recommending San Diego!
There are an insane number of ways to spend your time in San Diego. You could spend a ton of money visiting Sea World, Legoland, the zoo, the safari zoo , etc. And all those places are a blast, but they do get pricey! I travel full time in a RV with my family, visiting new cities all the time. If we did ALL THE THINGS in ALL THE CITIES – we’d be broke as a joke! We focus on finding free activities where we go. You won’t believe how much fun you can have for FREE! Seriously. We do it all the time.
La Jolla is one of my all time favorite places to visit in San Diego. First, let me save you some embarrassment and explain how to pronounce it – Lah Hoy-ya. Since it’s a Spanish word, the j sounds like hoy as in “a – hoy, mate.” And a double L is pronounced like a y. You’re welcome.
In La Jolla, you can see seals and sea lions. The coastline is stunning so walk along it, admiring the animals and the beauty. You can get down on the rocks to get closer to the sea lions. You don’t want to get too close and bother them, but close enough for better pictures and to watch them fuss at each other!
Balboa Park provides a fantastic way to spend the day. You can walk around and take in all the gorgeous architecture, visit the (free) greenhouse, enjoy the street musicians, and rest by the huge fountain. Museums and restaurants are nearby if you want to spend some money, and it’s right by the zoo.
Coronado Island isn’t technically an island, but a peninsula, well-known for the historic (and some say haunted) Coronado Hotel. It’s a neat place to walk around especially if you like to get out on the beach.
Torrey Pines is famous for its golf course and tournament, but has great spots to hike and spend an evening on the beach!
Old Town is 12 beautiful acres of Mexican heritage and historical sites. With colorful shops, early California style restaurants, museums, a theater and the restored Cosmopolitan Hotel, it is a great place to spend the day or just stop for lunch. A big winner in my book – it includes free parking!
Gaslamp Quarter is a sixteen and half block historical neighborhood in downtown. With great restaurants and bars, it’s the perfect spot for a fun night out. And if you like nightlife, this is THE place to be.
Seaport Village is a 14 acre waterfront shopping, dining, and entertainment complex. Home to the famous Unconditional Surrender statue and USS Midway, it is a really cute place to walk and catch a harbor cruise which are often discounted on groupon.
Where we stayed
We enjoyed staying at Pio Pico RV Resort & Campground as Thousand Trails members. We had little to no cell service, but our friends enjoyed their stay at Sweetwater Summit Regional Park and had cell service. Both spots are about 20- 30 minutes from all the San Diego hotspots.
Santa Barbara is a gem of a city on the central coast, about 215 miles north of San Diego. Filled with white stucco buildings, terra cotta Spanish style roofs and tons of character, this town has a small town feel, is less touristy than other California towns and is beeeeaauutiful!
My favorite Santa Barbara beach is Arroyo Burro Beach (also known as Hendry’s Beach.) A dog friendly beach – they allow dog to run and play freely on half while they are welcome on a leash on the other half. We love this beach because it has a nice sized (and free) parking area, gorgeous cliff and rocks for exploring, and a little restaurant with great reviews – the Boathouse – for when you get hungry. A small beach, it has a nice vibe.
You may not think of a courthouse as a “must-see” spot; but trust me, this is one you need to visit. The Santa Barbara courthouse is stunning. Entry is free. Then, if you’re able, walk several flights of stairs to get to the million dollar view on the observation deck. You will feel like you are in Italy, looking at cute homes on the hills with the ocean in the distance. Downstairs, the kids can play in the grassy courtyard while you picnic.
A short walk away is a park with the most amazing play area called Kids World. My kids thought they were in Disney! With a gigantic play structure and maze, this totally free option entertains kids for HOURS. I brought my laptop and worked at the picnic table while they had the time of their lives!
The Santa Barbara Harbor and Pier are two iconic must see spots. At the Harbor, take the long path around the boats to the ocean. This pretty route starts as a concrete walkway that becomes rocks you walk on to the sandy beaches. Great views and loads of fun!
A few places that make a great day trip:
Solvang – Cute little Danish town with great bakeries, wine and windmills!
Ventura – Beach town just south of Santa Barbara and home of the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center. You can learn about the island and (for a fee) take a boat out to the islands for a day of fun in the sun! Ventura also has a great little downtown for a nice stroll and dinner.
Where we stayed
My new favorite thing about Santa Barbara is the RV Park from our most recent visit. Rancho Oso is a working ranch and RV park (also a Thousand Trails). Located about 30 minutes inland, it is simply beautiful. The rolling green hills will have you stopping every few minutes to take pictures (or am I the only crazy one who to has to document everything?!)
The ranch has horses, pigs, goats, ducks, chickens, and a farm cat. The staff will let you feed, pet and play with them! On Friday nights, they host a “shindig” with games for kids including a “yeehaw contest.”. A hayride drives through the rows of RVS to picks up people who want to hitch a ride to the stables for the shindig! Rancho Oso is our favorite RV Park. It’s an experience in itself!
From Santa Barbara, head north and inland for our next stop, Alabama Hills. This is one of those “hidden gems” I mentioned. Had it not been for the recommendation of a fellow traveler, we wouldn’t have known about this incredible destination. While staying in Alabama Hills means dry camping, or boondocking, I highly recommend it. If you have to have hookups, you could stay in nearby Lone Pine, CA. But if at all possible, I highly, I “repeat” HIGHLY recommend staying IN Alabama Hills.
Imagine waking up to view of the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountain range from your front door with Mount Whitney staring down at you in all her glory. And on your other side, you are surrounded by GIGANTIC boulders. Your very own natural playground just waiting to be explored. Wake up, it’s not a dream- you are in Alabama Hills.
Every day I was there, I kept asking myself if this was real life! We visited in May, which was a great time. While it warmed up in the day, we never needed the air conditioning. At night, it cooled down nicely. There was a consistent desert wind that kept things feeling good. The snakes hadn’t emerged for the season yet and the snow was still on the mountain. Pure perfection!
Basically, you drive down Movie Road (yes, that its real name since tons of movies have filmed here) and find your own campsite. There are SO many to choose from. We are in a 42 foot fifth wheel and were told our options might be limited, but we arrived on a Saturday late afternoon and found the perfect spot right away. The hubs skillfully maneuvered our rig into a great space, nestled in some giant boulders, and we were in heaven.
You could spend an infinite amount of time exploring on your own. My kids created multiple “hide-outs” in the rocks and entertained themselves for hours. There are designated trails and hikes, too. We did an easy and beautiful hike called Mobius Arch Loop Trail that was fantastic. There are rock climbing spots for serious climbers, as well as boulders for scrambling and trails for biking and ATVs.
There is little to no cell signal in Alabama Hills; but if you find yourself needing to work, the little town of Lone Pine is a short five minute drive.from Movie Road. My husband enjoyed the free wifi, coffee and lunch at Lone Star Bistro while he worked. There’s a grocery store in town and a small library we visited. At the Lone Pine Film History Museum, kids enter free and adults are asked for a $5 donation. Showcasing the movies filmed here, it has memorabilia from old western films and the more recent releases such as Iron Man, Gladiator, and Tremors. In their little movie theater, they play a short movie with clips of many movies filmed in the area. It is well worth the stop!
South Lake Tahoe
For our final California destination, we head about 4.5 hour north, near the Nevada border to South Lake Tahoe. Many people say that Lake Tahoe is one of their all-time favorite vacation spots in California. I’ve seen stunning photos and heard it was underrated, so we just had to go to check it out for ourselves. Holy moly, it didn’t disappoint! We focused our stay on South Lake Tahoe since the lake is HUGE!
Winter and summer are the high season. Since we visited in spring, it was a bit quieter but still super beautiful. (Even the snow we got.. in MAY). The season you visit will determine the activities you enjoy! In the winter, all winter sports such as skiing are huge. In warmer months, people enjoy the beaches, hike, bike, or get out on the lake with paddle boards, kayaks, etc. Be warned – the water stays chilly year round.
I absolutely love the wood cabin feel through the city. All the shop and restaurants were designed and built with a woodsy theme. Even the Goodwill (which was a short walk from our camp) looked like an A-frame log cabin! Soo cute!
There are two state parks just a few miles away from each other – DL Bliss and Emerald Bay. The Rubicon Trail stretches between the two parks and is 11.9 miles round trip with gorgeous lake views! If you want a shorter option, you can park at Emerald Bay and walk down to the water on Vikingsholm Trail, which is only 1.7 mile round trip, but steep hike back up. It takes you down to Vikingsholm Castle, which is a really unique and has a cool history! You can take a paid tour of the inside or just admire from the outside.
Heavenly Mountain is the main ski mountain in the area, and there’s a little shopping and dining area at the base of the mountain called “Shops at Heavenly.” You can enjoy hanging out here if you don’t feel like going up the mountain. They often have live music which is a favorite of mine! I may or my not have head banged to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit right in front of the stage while there!
Where we stayed
The Tahoe Valley Campground, which is an Encore resort, provided full hookups and a true “deep in the woods” feel. We scored a great spot, which was really spacious and surrounded by tall pine trees. The campground is in a great location, close to shopping, restaurants and activities, but still super quiet and peaceful. There are tons of things to do at the campground such as basketball, horseshoes, a swimming pool, playground, volleyball, tennis, and pickle ball – something for everyone! There’s even a beer garden with occasional trivia and karaoke – my kind of fun!
Tell us your favorite?
I hope one or more of my top four destinations piqued your interest and maybe even inspired you to take a road trip to check it out in person. California is so diverse in so many ways and has some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen.
Drop your favorite CA destination in the comments below and perhaps we will see you there!
Lauren and her family of four travels full time in their fifth wheel. They’ve been full time RVers since Nov. 2018 and have no end in sight! They chase adventure and love the freedom their lifestyle allows. You can check out more of their adventures by visiting their website, www.thewanderpreneurs.com