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July 17 2024 / 01:48 PM
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Visit California
The Golden State offers plenty of bucket-list experiences, and you don’t have to spend a lot–or, sometimes, anything–to do many of them

dszc/Getty Images
 

California has plenty of awe-inspiring, star-studded, and unforgettable experiences, and many of them are completely free to enjoy. There are countless attractions all over the Golden State without an admission price (or perhaps only require a one-time parking fee). Here are just a few to consider on your next California getaway.

 

1. Bask in the big trees, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties

The four parks that belong to the network of the Redwood National and State Parks all offer free admission: Redwood National Park, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (expect to pay small parking fees at the state parks). Stop at any of the different visitor centers where you can learn more about these gorgeous behemoths.

 

2. Drive the Avenue of Giants, Humboldt County

Cruise this 31-mile stretch, which runs parallel to Highway 101 and is flanked by the enormous trees of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

 

3. Find Bigfoot, Willow Creek

Drive Highway 96—including the “Bigfoot Scenic Byway”—for signs of Sasquatch, then stop at the Willow Creek China-Flat Museum. The gift shop has a collection of footprint casts, photos, and other local artifacts.

 

4. Cross the Sundial Bridge, Redding

Walk across the Sacramento River on Santiago Calatrava’s 700-foot architectural marvel at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding. Be sure to note the time when you do: The bridge’s tower and suspension cables create an actual sundial.

 

5. Play at Bidwell Park, Chico

Butte County’s expansive, 3,670-acre wonder offers every outdoor pursuit you can imagine, including hiking and mountain biking trails, disc golf courses, the colossal Sycamore Pool as well as other, smaller swimming holes, and an observatory.

 

6. Tour the California State Capitol, Sacramento

Sign up at the rotunda’s information desk for weekday tours of the capitol in Sacramento. Or take one of the daily tours of the 40-acre Capitol Park, with its array of historic monuments and gardens, including the World Peace Rose Garden.

 

7. Step back to gold rush times, Columbia

Explore the beautifully preserved Columbia State Historic Park, populated by costumed docents, then browse such working on-site operations as a candy kitchen, blacksmith shop, and saloon.

 

8. Find natural bliss along the seashore, Marin County

Walk on the beach, peer at tide pools, or hike through pine forests at the 70,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore, which is home to more than 1,500 animal and plant species. Don’t miss the 1870 lighthouse, a nice place to spot whales from January until April.

 

9. See cable cars up close, San Francisco

Check out three antique cars from the 1870s at the Nob Hill Cable Car Museum in San Francisco. Then watch the giant mechanisms that still power the system today, including the giant cable that runs from the building to underneath the street outside.

 

2023 California Visitor's Guide, Free Things, DeYoung Museum Observation Deck

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

 

10. Take in an observation tower, San Francisco

You don’t have to pay admission to the de Young Museum to experience the majestic, sweeping views of the city, the bay, and the Marin Headlands from its nine-story tower— just take the elevator in the lobby. Consider visiting the rest of this fine museum too—the first Tuesday of each month is free.

 

11. Take a city guides tour, San Francisco

Embark on one of this acclaimed organization’s 80 walking tours, all led by local volunteers—indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle has called these tours something that “should be embraced by locals as much as tourists.” Choose from guided walks over the Golden Gate Bridge, through Chinatown, or past the mansions of the Gold Coast.

 

12. Snack on fortune cookie samples, San Francisco

The small but bustling Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco has been hand-rolling fortunes into cookies since 1942. Enjoy a freebie—often a warm, not-yet-folded cookie—then browse the shop where you can get cookies with your own written fortunes.

 

13. Mountain bike at an epic park, Truckee

Ride the pump tracks, flow lines, and more at the acclaimed Truckee Bike Park in Truckee, near North Lake Tahoe, suitable for a wide range of skill levels. Just bring your own bike or rental, plus a helmet. Summers only.

 

14. Hug Trees at the UC Davis Arboretum, Davis

This 100-acre public garden at the University of California, Davis, offers year-round appeal. Don’t miss the redbuds, which bloom hot pink in early spring, and the Peter J. Shields Oak Grove, which boasts more than 80 kinds of oak trees.

 

15. Meditate at a Buddhist temple, Stockton

Stroll the grounds of Stockton’s working Wat Dhammararam Buddhist Temple, which has more than 90 vividly painted Buddha statues, including one fabulously large lounging Buddha.

 

16. Drive through blossoming flowers, Fresno

Lasting for a few weeks in late winter, the Fresno County Blossom Trail is festooned in rosy sprays of peach and nectarine petals and white blazes of almonds, plums, and apples. Revel in the flowery glory on this 62-mile loop in Fresno County.

 

17. See Endangered Species, Bakersfield

Hike or camp for free at Kern County’s 30-square-mile Wind Wolves Preserve. See endangered flora and fauna including San Joaquin kit foxes, Bakersfield cactus, and the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew—one of the most endangered mammals in the nation.

 

18. Witness thousands of butterflies, Pacific Grove

The Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Monterey County is open year-round, but November through March is the prime time to see monarchs coating the trees and shrubs (just don’t touch). Download the audio tour—also free—while you’re there.

 

19. Meet the magnificent elephant seals, San Simeon

Behold the largest pinnipeds on the West Coast—some weighing up to 4,000 pounds— as they sunbathe and bark on the rocky beach of the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, seven miles north of Hearst Castle and right alongside Highway 1. Peak season is December through May.

 

20. See the stars at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Enjoy the public telescope, free films, and sweeping views of Los Angeles from this art deco landmark atop Griffith Park, which made cameos in the films Rebel Without a Cause and La La Land.

 

21. Amble among A-listers, Los Angeles

Stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame to see more than 2,700 stars, then stop outside the TCL Chinese Theatre to see celebrity handprints. One mile away, pay your respects at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, home to legends including Judy Garland and Johnny Ramone.

 

22. Visit three don’t-miss museums, Los Angeles

At three top museums in L.A., all you need is an online reservation: The Getty Center, The Broad, and the Museum of Contemporary Art/MOCA. (Some parking fees do apply.)

 

23. Watch a live TV show taping, Los Angeles

Reserve your seats online for shows like Jeopardy, Dancing with the Stars, and Jimmy Kimmel Live, using sites such as On Camera Audiences or 1Iota.com. Choose from talk shows like The Kelly Clarkson Show, reality shows including America’s Got Talent, and sitcoms such as Lopez vs. Lopez. Try to book at least 30 days ahead of time.

 

24. Skate at Vans Off The Wall Skatepark, Huntington Beach

The park adjacent to this Huntington Beach Vans store offers 35,000 square feet of bowls, rails, stair sets, and more. Most days are for skateboarding, while Wednesdays are just for BMX bikes.

 

25. Spend an evening at an art museum, Palm Springs

Some museums only offer a free day once a month, but the Palm Springs Art Museum, with a modern and contemporary-art focus—including a whole house that’s a masterpiece—is free every Thursday evening from 5–7 p.m.

 

26. Attend a star party in the desert, Palm Desert

The Astronomical Society of the Desert hosts monthly stargazing parties, held at big sky– friendly locations in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

 

27. Tour a plush desert state, Rancho Mirage

Explore the mesmerizing gardens and lush grounds of the famed mid-century modern Sunnylands mansion in Greater Palm Springs while listening to the free downloadable audio tour.

 

28. Try olive oil pairings, Temecula

Expand your idea of pairings at Temecula Olive Oil Company—which also has locations in San Diego and Orange counties. Enjoy free samples of the cold-pressed extra virgin olive oils and small-batch balsamic vinegars, such as the D’Luscious Lemon Olive Oil and Vanilla & Fig Balsamico Vinegar.

 

29. Visit San Diego’s original Old Town, San Diego

The Spanish settlement where San Diego was born in 1769 is now a free-access living history state park, interspersed with crowd-pleasing shops and restaurants. Admire Old Town’s adobe homes and a schoolhouse from the 19th century and enjoy mariachi bands performing at the Old Town Plaza.

 

30. Experience museums, music, and more, San Diego

Many of the best museums and attractions within San Diego’s Balboa Park are free, such as the Old Masters at the Timken Museum, the Model Railroad Museum, concerts at the outdoor Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden.

 

31. Experience the Mission Trail, Multiple Locations

Get a glimpse of the California missions’ rich history at these five free-admission properties along the 650-mile trail from San Diego to Sonoma: San Rafael Arcángel, Santa Clara de Asís, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

 

32. Enjoy wine tasting, Multiple Locations

While most California wineries charge at least a small fee for tastings, many will refund the fee if you buy a bottle afterward. Some wineries, though, totally waive the fees (just remember to tip your server). In Napa, you can enjoy free tastings at Buehler Vineyards (St. Helena) and Vincent Arroyo (Calistoga) while Sonoma County offers options such as Frick Winery (Geyserville) and cave tours at Alexander Valley Winery in Healdsburg. Along the North Coast, go to Navarro Vineyards (Mendocino County) or head to the Central Coast’s Eberle Winery and Glunz Family Winery (both in Paso Robles). Free tastings are a great way to try hidden-gem vineyards, too, like Hungry Hawk Vineyards in Escondido, or Jeff Runquist Wines in Amador County.

 

33. Hike a stretch of an iconic trail, Multiple Locations

Much of the Pacific Crest Trail is free to day hikers, spanning 1,691 miles of deserts, forests, and volcanic peaks. Just keep in mind that some stretches within state or national parks may require entrance fees or (often free) camping permits. A few great hikes: The Crags Trail in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Carson Pass to Lake Winnemucca near South Lake Tahoe, and the Eagle Rock hike near Julian in San Diego County.

 

Order or download your free copy of the California Visitor’s Guide here to learn more about all the amazing activities, sights, and natural wonders California has to offer.

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