Exploring Southern California on a Budget
April 24, 2019
Just over 250 miles of coastline run from the Point Conception lighthouse, the nominal northern boundary of Southern California, to the border with Mexico. It’s a relatively short ride, but it encompasses some of the country’s most stunning Pacific Coast scenery, as well as two of the nation’s must-visit cities, Los Angeles and San Diego. Head east and the mountains and valleys of the Inland Empire take over around San Bernardino. Farther south lie the desert plains of the Mojave. There’s a huge amount to cover—possibly too much for a single trip—but here’s our guide on where to go and how to get there.
Exploring Los Angeles
For the first-time visitor, Los Angeles might be a city that you think you already know by heart from the movies alone. For those who live there, it’s a constant source of surprises. Budget travelers will find it the best starting point if flying in from out of state. Los Angeles International Airport is a major international and national hub well-served by budget airlines. Once you’re on the ground, the sheer enormity of LA is the challenge. The car is still king, but the cheap, revamped Metro runs from Santa Monica to the Financial District. Cycling is also becoming increasingly popular, so rent a bike to cruise the city’s iconic coastline and cycle network at your leisure.
Must-See Los Angeles Attractions
Take the Metro Red Line from Union Station and let the city reveal its most famous landmarks effortlessly along its length. The line will take you to Hollywood Boulevard, Studio City, Griffith Observatory, and Koreatown. It’s one of the easiest, cheapest ways to check off the signature Los Angeles bucket list. Having knocked off the sights, switch gear and savor Los Angeles where it meets the Pacific Coast. The Marvin Braude Beach Trail, also known as “The Strand,” runs 22 miles along the shoreline, taking you through Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Hermosa Beach, and more. From “Baywatch” to “La La Land,” you’ll realize that the famous TV and movie locations go right to the water’s edge in Los Angeles.
Visiting San Diego
At the southern tip of California, San Diego epitomizes the laid-back “SoCal” lifestyle that celebrates leisure, the outdoors, and Mission-era heritage. The Metropolitan Transit System’s distinctive red trolleys will whisk you around Downtown and Old Town at budget-friendly prices. You only need to choose what to tackle first. Balboa Park is essential. It’s the largest urban cultural park in the United States, with 17 museums—as well as cafes and gardens—to explore. You can climb the California Tower and take a peek into Mexico from the top deck. Next, head toward the coastline and wind down among the cliffs and coves of the beautiful La Jolla shoreline.
Head to the Surfing Coast
The strip of coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego is the spiritual home of American surf culture. The steady Pacific breakers roll into Santa Barbara, Malibu, Hermosa Beach, and the world-famous Huntington Beach—also known as “Surf City USA.” Surfing is one of the most budget-friendly activities you can undertake. Rent a board, protect yourself from the sun, and let nature do its thing. Even if you’re not a board master, there’s always plenty going on from the moment the early birds hit the first waves of the day to the time the last beach bonfires go out at night.
See the Southern California Desert
If you’re exploring Southern California at the height of summer, you’ll find it hard to pull yourself away from the beaches and coast. Outside of the hottest months, however, the enchanting landscapes of the desert should be added to your checklist. The magical Joshua Tree National Park lies 150 miles from Los Angeles and just 40 miles from Palm Springs. If your tour of Southern California’s cities has been an assault on the senses, a few days camping and hiking in the desert will bring them back into balance. Spending some time among the ancient rocks, cacti, and uninterrupted sunsets is a reminder of how this whole Southern California thing began.
Budget travelers can treat themselves to one of the great American rail journeys. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner runs from Santa Barbara to San Diego, hugging the coast throughout. It’s one of the best ways to explore the area, particularly for those with a bike or surfboard in tow. If you’re heading inland to San Bernardino, Metrolink is an option. To get out to the Mojave Desert or Joshua Tree National Park,you’ll need a car at some point. The remoteness comes at the expense of transport links and other distractions.
Southern California’s vast, yawning expanses demand exploration. These few ideas barely scratch the surface of what there is to do, but there’s no rush—and no reason—to blow a big budget on a trip. If you love the outdoors and respect a perfect wave or beautiful sunset, you’ll be glad you came.
Written by Nick Marshall for Knockaround.