13 Budget-Friendly Road Trips to Take from San Francisco

From picturesque Northern California escapes to Central California wine country, these budget trips won’t break the bank.

You love the West Coast's most iconic road trips, and you love a good under-the-radar California road trip. The thing is, traveling through California can get pretty expensive pretty fast and your bank account isn’t always on board for $800 per night hotel rooms and $400 dinners. Next time you're in need of a weekend getaway from SF, consult this list of 13 destination-worthy road trips that are guaranteed to be a good time and that you can do on a budget. You’ll find affordable places to stay (that aren’t flea bag motels), places to eat and drink (that aren’t chain restaurants or fast food), and cheap stuff you actually want to do that isn’t always hiking (but fair warning, this is California, so we’d be remiss not to include some hiking options).

Nevada city

Nevada City

Distance from SF: 150 miles; 2.5-hour drive
Despite its name, Nevada City is actually in California—the foothills of the Sierras to be more specific. It was once the state’s most important mining town and today is home to historic sites and opportunities for outdoor adventures.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: The Inn Town Campground is just a few (walkable) minutes from downtown Nevada City with an option to hook up an RV ($50-$68), pitch a tent ($40-$50), or (the one you should choose): stay in one of the deluxe glamping tents ($85-$180). On the historic 15-acre site you’ll also find a general store (with beer, wine, s’mores ingredients, etc.), a communal kitchen, BBQ area, and a swimming pool.
Eat and Drink: The recently-renovated National Hotel was built in the 1850s and served as a communication hub for miners and their families. Today, it's got a few on-site dining and drinking options, including Lola, a French-inspired restaurant with small plates like Oysters and Steak Tartare, and main courses like a Double Cut Pork Chop and Half Chicken. The National Bar is the perfect spot to get a drink and take in some Victorian-era opulence. (Pro tip: The second story veranda makes for excellent people watching.)
Do: Empire Mines State Historic Park is home to one of the oldest, deepest, and richest gold mines in California— with 5.8 million ounces of gold extracted before it closed. You can see a bunch of the mine’s buildings, owner’s home, entrance to the 387 miles of abandoned shafts, restored gardens, and hike 14 miles of trails for a $5 admission fee.

Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg

Distance from SF: 170 miles; 3.5-hour drive
Mendocino County is huge and while there are definitely some good pit stops en route to Fort Bragg (Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Hopland for beers and disc golf is just one), the town, which was founded in 1857 as a military garrison and sits right on the coast, is an excellent spot to call home for a couple of days.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: The Beachcomber Motel and Spa sits right on the coast and is walking distance to town. Plus, the rooms ($109 to $269 per night) are super comfortable with in-room hot tubs, fireplaces, ocean views, and free bike rentals.
Eat and Drink: The Harborview Bistro and Bar at the Noyo Harbor Inn has tourist vibes in a good way, aka exactly what the name promises, but it also has an awesome seven-day-a-week happy hour from 2 pm to 5:30 pm with $5 beers and $9 small plates.
Do: Obviously, you’re going to visit Glass Beach (and leave every piece of colorful glass alone so that it can be enjoyed by the next visitors) and you should probably take a ride on the world-famous Skunk Train, which is delightfully touristy. For $15, you can tour the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, where you can spend hours exploring 47 acres of blooms and birds that overlook the Pacific Ocean.

Brester Irina/Shutterstock

Big Sur, CA

Distance from SF: 145 miles; three-hour drive
Sure you can stay at the Post Ranch Inn for $3,000 a night (yes, you read that correctly) or rent a fancy cabin for $300, but visiting one of California’s most beautiful spots doesn’t actually have to cost you your whole month’s rent.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: Reserve a site at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. A regular site will cost you $35 per night, but you can upgrade to one on the riverfront for another 15 bucks (worth it). You’ll have to plan ahead though as reservations fill up six months in advance—even in the winter. Not into camping? Check out the Ripplewood Resort where cabins start at $120 a night.
Eat and Drink: You’re going to want to cook your food at your campground for maximum savings, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a load off and enjoy a beer at the Big Sur River Inn, where you can sit on a chair IN THE RIVER. You can also grab breakfast and lunch sandwiches at the Big Sur Deli & General Store and the Big Sur Lodge, which has a dining room looking out at the redwoods and a patio overlooking the river. Neither spot will break the bank for dinner, especially if living in SF already has you accustomed to spending $20 on a burger.
Do: Definitely go hiking blah blah blah, but if you’d also like to take in some non-outdoors culture, stop by the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a nonprofit bookstore and arts center. Not only will you learn a lot about the Tropic of Cancer author, the center also has a ton of events, including live music (Arcade Fire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ryan Adams, and a bunch of other big names have all played there), film screenings, open mic nights, theater, and more.

Palm Springs
Karen Culp/Shutterstock

Palm Springs, CA

Distance from SF: 487 miles; 7.5-hour drive (or 1.5-hour flight)
Yes, this is California’s playground for the rich, but there’s no reason you can’t enjoy the desert resort city known for its mid-century modern architecture, golf courses, and spas.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: Desert boutique Los Arboles Hotel offers a Petite Express room complete with a full-sized bed, flat-screen TV, and shower, and averages around $129 a night. Plus, there’s a heated pool, sun deck, jacuzzi tub with mountain views, poolside dining, and it’s walking distance to the strip, which is basically a must.
Eat and Drink: It’s easy to lose an entire day at Boozehounds, a restaurant and bar that encourages you to bring your furry friends along and where daily happy hour runs from 2-5 pm and grants you $7 cocktails and wine, $4 beers, and shareables like Pork Lumpia and Shrimp Aguachile for $6 and $12, respectively. For late-night fun, hit up Bootlegger Tiki. Nothing says vacation like a cocktail with an umbrella in it and you can get one of those for $5 during happy hour at this tiki bar that was once the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant that opened in 1953 where Frank Sinatra was once a regular.
Do: Play night golf at The Lights at Indio Municipal Golf Course. It's the only desert course that's lit up once the sun goes down, with tee times going up until 8 pm on normal days and through midnight (or later!) for special events, and green fees start at just $20. Don’t feel like playing 18 holes? For $15, you can hit as many balls as you want for as long as you want at the driving range.


Calistoga, CA

Distance from SF: 74 miles; 1.5-hour drive
It’s basically impossible to do Napa or Healdsburg on a budget, but who cares when you can go to Calistoga, a charming town with a more relaxed vibe.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: If you go Sunday-Thursday, a room at the Calistoga Inn starts at $169 and that includes a continental breakfast. Sure you’ll have to share the bath down the hall, but there’s a brewery on-site, which definitely makes any inconveniences totally palatable.
Eat: You can get three Beef Ribs plus Garlic Toast and two sides for $17 at Buster’s Original Southern BBQ and that’s all you need to know about that.
Do: There are plenty of redwood forests to see in Northern California, but not plenty of petrified redwood forests with three-million-year-old redwoods that turned to stone when a local volcano erupted. Calistoga happens to have one, which you can check out for just $12 (and docent tours are free).

Fern Grove Cottages Bed & Breakfast

Guerneville, CA

Distance from SF: 75 miles; 1.5-hour drive
Located between the Russian River and the surrounding hills, Guerneville is a funky, laid-back town that’s perfect for someone who's on a budget and/or is obsessed with Pliny the Elder.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: AutoCamp Russian River is basically a very fancy RV park with Airstreams and luxurious glamping tents provided. It sits on pristine grounds surrounded by redwoods right between the Russian River and the town of Guerneville. It also has a clubhouse and lounge (with an indoor fire pit), general store (with wine and beer), and complimentary bikes. Tents start at $69 per night depending on the time of year, but are typically around $169.
Eat and Drink: You can get a cheeseburger and fries for 10 bucks at Stumptown Brewery, which has a sun-filled patio and, yes, lots of beer.
Do: The free, 50-minute tours at Korbel Champagne Cellars and museum are expected to resume soon, but until then, enjoy three tastings for free without spending an hour walking around!

San Luis Obispo
randy andy/Shutterstock

San Luis Obispo, CA

Distance from SF: 230 miles; 3.5-hour drive
SLO, as they call it, is every reason to love the California coast all in one town. The ocean, the mountains, plus plenty of good wine and beer.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: Apple Farm is a wine country inn-meets-luxury hotel; rooms start at $139 a night and will get you a queen bed AND a gas fireplace.
Eat: An Italian sub with the works at the High Street Market & Deli will run you around $12.50 but considering it’ll keep you full for hours, it’s worth it. (If you live in SF, that won’t even come with sticker shock.) Plus, it’s been around for almost 100 years and used to cater to the families of local railroad workers, so it doubles as a history lesson!
Do: Catch a movie at the drive-in. The Sunset Drive-In shows new releases and tickets are just $11, a small price to pay to see what that whole nostalgic (for some) experience is about. Or, if you prefer not to spend even more time in your car, check out the Valencia Peak hike, which offers stunning views of the ocean and a great workout.

BarrelHouse Brewing Company

Paso Robles, CA

Distance from SF: 205 miles; three-hour drive
Go to Paso Robles for the charm and over 200 wineries, and stay for the super-secret secrets.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: There are plenty of budget motels in Paso Robles, but if you want something that isn't a budget motel, the Paso Robles Inn is a good bet since rooms start at around $169 a night. There’s a heated outdoor pool, a jacuzzi, a garden area with babbling brooks, and gorgeous views. It even has pet-friendly rooms if you want to bring your pup along.
Eat and Drink: Head to Pappy McGregor’s, a laid-back pub in downtown Paso with legit food and cocktails, during happy hour (Monday–Friday 3–6 pm) for discounted drinks and bites.
Do: Kick back at the BarrelHouse Brewing Company and sample some very drinkable beers, play tons of free games in the magical yard (including human beer pong!), and enjoy some live music.

James Kirkikis/Shutterstock

Santa Cruz, CA

Distance from SF: 73 miles; 90-minute drive
Santa Cruz is the Northern California surfer’s paradise. But even if you don’t surf, there’s plenty to eat, drink, and do.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: Santa Cruz has some sweet boutique hotels, but why throw away your cash when you can stay at Casablanca on the Beach starting at $160/night. Still too pricey? Check out the plentiful campgrounds nearby.
Eat and Drink: Jury Room has super cheap drinks, plus free pool and darts. If that’s a little too divey for you, Hula’s Island Grill has a Hawaii-influenced food menu, plus Tiki drinks for $7 during happy hour (4 pm to 6 pm, seven days a week).
Do: You already know what we’re going to say. Go to the boardwalk where the only thing you have to pay for is the rides.

Flickr/Damian Gadal

Santa Barbara, CA

Distance from SF: 325 miles; five-hour drive
Santa Barbara’s nickname is “The American Riviera,” and the area has emerged as a worthwhile wine destination, as well as a hub for innovative restaurant concepts, with gorgeous scenery to boot.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: It’s very easy to spend upwards of $1,000 a night for a hotel in Santa Barbara. Don’t do that. Instead, stay at The Cabrillo Inn at the Beach, a modest oceanfront hotel with a continental breakfast and heated pool (with views). Rooms start at $139 per night.
Eat and Drink: You’re going to Santa Barbara at least in part for the beach, so instead of finding a dive bar for happy hour, go to The Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach which has amazing ocean views that are even more amazing when you can tuck into their fresh-caught seafood menu and add a shot and a beer for $6.
Do: Walk the Funk Zone part of the Urban Wine Trail. The Funk Zone neighborhood is—well, a lot like what it sounds like: a “funkier” part of town with an eclectic mix of restaurants, wineries, breweries, bars, and shopping. There are ten tasting rooms in this area, all within very close proximity to each other. Tastings start at $15.

Flickr/Brent De Vries

Point Reyes, CA

Distance from SF: 34 miles; 90-minute drive
This part of West Marin is not only strikingly beautiful, there’s also plenty to do. Whether you’re into hiking, kayaking, or just doing a lot of eating, you’ll be glad you visited.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: If you’re the outdoorsy type, Point Reyes has some great camping (that books up far in advance). But if you require a bed, check out the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore. Cottages start at $189 a night and include private patios or decks, mini-kitchens, and on-site activities like tennis, horseshoes, swimming, and hot tubbing.
Eat and Drink: Visit Cowgirl Creamery’s Barn Shop & Cantina, where the first creamery is still in operation and get one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches you’ll ever eat for $12.
Do: Sorry to be obvious, but you’ve got to visit the lighthouse. It’s free and the 300 steps down and back up are great exercise and Instagram-friendly.

La Jolla

La Jolla, CA

Distance from SF: 493 miles; seven-hour drive (or 1.5-hour flight)
La Jolla is basically sunny 365 days a year, has gorgeous beaches, dramatic coastlines, and a slew of notable restaurants and beachside dives.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: If the idea of staying in a hostel doesn’t make you hostile, book a room at the California Dreams Hostel in Pacific Beach, which is steps away from the beach, restaurants, and bars. You’ll have the option between a shared dorm room (starts at $42 per night) and a private room ($125 per night), and they have equipment for every activity from surfing to skateboarding.
Drink: There’s basically always some kind of drink special going on at Jose’s Courtroom Mexican Cantina. Pair a Caddy Margarita with a sizzling Fajita and enjoy them on the bustling patio.
Do: Pay $10 to check out Sunny Jim’s Cave, one of the few sea caves that’s accessible by land via a tunnel that was hand-dug by Chinese laborers in 1902-1903.

Half Moon Bay
Duilio Farina/Shutterstock

Half Moon Bay, CA

Distance from SF: 30 miles; 40-minute drive
This laid-back town is perfect for people who enjoy being active. It can get foggy in the summer, but it’s still a gorgeous spot to visit year-round.

How to do it on the cheap:
Stay: The Zaballa House is a bed and breakfast located on Main Street with lots of antiques and a 5-7 pm wine and cheese reception every evening. Rooms start at $134.
Eat: All aboard for Dad’s Luncheonette, a historic caboose that serves roadside classics that just so happen to be made by a former three-Michelin-star chef de cuisine. An over-the-top Hamburger Sandwich made with grass-fed beef and topped with a soft egg and melty cheese is $12. Add the $3.75 homemade potato chips. You’ve earned ‘em. Whet your whistle at local dive Old Princeton Landing, which has a selection of shot specials under $10, including a $6 shot of Jack Daniels.
Do: Half Moon Bay has gorgeous beaches. There’s also Harley Farms, which is just a short drive and a must for anyone who loves goats. Take a tour or just buy some cheese and hang out with the 200 alpine goats that live there.

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Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer from SF who loves nothing more than that first beer after a long car ride. And by long car ride, she means anything over 15 minutes. Follow her on Twitter @daisy.