Scenic places in California make for cheap vacations

Alex Grotewohl

It can be easy to associate a great vacation with spending a staggering sum of money. Unless one is already equipped with the necessary tools, even camping can add up quicker than expected. But there are plenty of places in Northern California where fun can be had or cheap or even for free.

As the price of gasoline goes through the roof, driving even moderate distances can be a pain. Sarah Hill of American River Raft Rentals said this could be a great opportunity to just sit back and let the river do the work.

On any summer weekend, especially on holidays like Memorial Day, the six-mile stretch of the American River between Sunrise Boulevard and Riverbend Park is packed with people trying to stay cool. Hill’s company rents four-person raft for $60, or a larger crowd of 10 people can fit in one for $150. Hill said a bus is even provided for customers for $4.25, that takes them from the end of the route back to the store.

Still sound pricey? Buy an inner tube at Wal-Mart for less than $20 and save some cash. Spend the money saved on beer and snacks.

Hill said there is even a surprising amount of wildlife to be seen along the way. She said sightings of deer are common, as well as of hawks and other predatory birds.

“‘Stay-cations’ are becoming more popular,” Hill said. “It is something you can do with your family outside, and I think that is a big deal.”

For those who can afford to escape Sacramento, though, there are plenty of cheap attractions a short drive from home, some of which some may not have heard.

Bodega Bay is a popular destination just north of the Bay Area, notable for its views of wildlife and proximity both to beaches and nature areas. UC Davis operates the Bodega Marine Laboratory here, where free guided tours are given of the many aquariums containing coastal critters.

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “The Birds” was also filmed in this area, and free tours are given of the sets.

Laurie Wilson of the Sonoma Coast Visitor’s Center said summer is the perfect time to see gray whales heading north with their newborn young. She said the lookout at Bodega Head is the ideal spot for spotting them because the whales try to keep their calves close to the shore.

Just 10 miles north of Bodega Bay is a historic grove of redwood trees, providing even more free entertainment. A hike in another direction leads to a pygmy forest, where trees more than 100 years old only reach up to an adult’s knees.

“People just drive in here to get away from the heat,” Wilson said. “And it is beautiful. It is at the coast. You (have) the beach, the sand, and everybody needs a dose of the ocean.”

Jenna Palacio is the associate director of communications at the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said when it comes to lesser-known vacation spots to see on the cheap, Pacific Grove is the way to go.

“It is a great place to feel like you are in the heart of things in Monterey County,” Palacio said, “but still feel like you are off the beaten path.”

Pacific Grove is another great spot for seeing wild animals. Palacio described the tidal pools along the coast as “really cool” and said it is one of the best places to see sea lions in California.

Pacific Grove is also among the top destinations in the world for golfers. It is home to Pebble Beach Golf Links, which is anything but cheap. For those with a serious golf craving, however, the Pacific Grove Golf Links is a public course that features landscaping and geographic features similar to those which make Pebble Beach so notable. With green fees under $40, the game can be played for a fraction of the price.

Also great to do without spending much is North Lake Tahoe’s Incline Village. Pettit Gilwee of the North Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau said the area is near unparalleled when it comes to experiencing the outdoors.

Gilwee said Incline Village is home to many miles of dirtbike trails of varying difficulty. The most popular is the flume trail, used to transport timber to the mines in Virginia City, Nev., in the 1850s and 1860s.

“Really, when you look at Tahoe (and) at the natural environment,” she said, “it is really conducive to college students who are craving an outdoor lifestyle (and who are) looking to go out and have adventures.”

Gilwee also said North Lake Tahoe has a lot of happy hours at local bars and restaurants, which she said college students should appreciate. This is because it is such a big tourist destination.

No matter where Sacramento State students decide to go for a break over the summer, there are plenty of things to do without surrendering an arm and a leg. The outdoors are always free.

“When you have this beautiful place,” Gilwee said, “why be inside?”