Budget-Friendly Day Trips Around Los Angeles and Beyond

Explore a world-class museum with views of the Pacific Ocean, spend a day at a 1,200-acre historic park and discover more budget-friendly adventures from Los Angeles.

Balboa Park. Credit: camknows via Flickr
Balboa Park. Credit: camknows via Flickr

Written by Danielle Directo Meston 

Whether you're looking for a cool new spot to explore with your significant other or searching for a family-friendly adventure, Southern California has much to offer fun-seekers of all ages. From San Diego's expansive Balboa Park to a world-class museum boasting ocean views, here are four budget-friendly California day trips that are just a gas tank away (or less!) from Los Angeles.


Descanso Gardens

1418 Descanso Dr. 

La Cañada Flintridge

(818) 949-4200

Why Go? Take advantage of Southern California’s (mostly) sunny year-round weather at this beautiful 150-acre botanical garden. A 20-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles, it’s home to North America’s largest collection of camellias, a serene Japanese tea garden, a bird observation deck and much more.

Must Do: Families with young children will want to hop aboard the Enchanted Railroad, which takes passengers on a fun ride around the gardens in a diesel train replica. Architecture enthusiasts and history buffs should take the free tour (Saturdays and Sundays at noon) of the Boddy House, a 22-room Hollywood Regency mansion built by the gardens’ founder, publishing magnate E. Manchester Boddy.

Insider Tip: The garden welcomes photography but has a number of guidelines. Shutterbugs should check the policy on equipment and permits. And if you’re hoping to see a specific bloom, check the garden’s calendar to see what’s in season.

The Fine Print: Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry, 4:30 p.m.) every day but Christmas. Tickets for adults are $9; seniors and students with ID, $6; children 5 to 12, $5; and members and kids under 5, free. Enchanted Railroad tickets are $3 and riders must be at least 30 inches tall; call (818) 949-4200 to confirm the train’s schedule.


Switzer Falls Hiking Trail at Angeles National Forest

34-14 Angeles Crest Hwy.

La Cañada-Flintridge

(626) 821-6764

Why Go? Gorgeous views, an array of wildlife and a beautiful waterfall make this moderate five-mile round-trip hike in the San Gabriel Mountains the perfect escape for active nature lovers. Monarch butterflies, frogs and lizards are just a few inhabitants you’ll spot on this mostly shaded trail.

Must Do: Yelpers suggest taking the Lower Switzer Falls Trail for a less-strenuous hike, but those seeking a view from the top will want to try the Upper Switzer Falls Trail; both options offer relaxing pools of water. If the weather (and the water temperature) permits, bring along a swimsuit and jump in.

Insider Tip: Arrive at the Switzer Falls Picnic Area by 9 a.m. to enjoy ample parking; otherwise, expect a packed parking lot by noon. In addition to wearing comfy hiking shoes, remember to bring a hat, sun block and plenty of water.

The Fine Print: An Adventure Pass ($5) is required to park at the Switzer Falls picnic area. Stop by the Clear Creek Visitor Center off Angeles Crest Highway (9.5 miles north of Foothill Boulevard), Sport Chalet in La Cañada (2 Chalet Dr.) or any Big 5 Sports store to pick one up.


Balboa Park

1549 El Prado

San Diego

(619) 239-0512

Why Go? Whether you’re into museums, botanical gardens, the arts or nature trails, this historic, 1,200-acre park in San Diego offers no shortage of options to pack your schedule. Check out the San Diego Museum of Man, or stroll through the Desert Garden (where Dr. Seuss supposedly found inspiration).

Must Do: Take a spin on the 1910-built Balboa Park Carousel.

Insider Tip: Arrive early to nab a spot at the Reuben H. Fleet museum parking lot. Otherwise, park at the Inspiration Point lot (off Park Boulevard between the Balboa Park Activity Center and Presidents Way) and take the free trolley to the Visitor's Center.

The Fine Print: The Visitor’s Center is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; hours vary at museums and attractions, so be sure to call and confirm each location’s schedule. Parking is free, and valet is also available for a fee.


The Getty Center

1200 Getty Center Dr.

Los Angeles

(310) 440-7300

Why Go? This haven for art lovers, architecture enthusiasts and botany buffs is the perfect place to enjoy well-known works amidst panoramic views of Los Angeles. Boasting Renaissance works, post-Impressionist paintings, modern sculpture and everything in between, the complex’s buildings and gardens are as worthy of admiration as the art that lives here. The museum also offers plenty of kid-friendly activities, too.

Must Do: If your schedule permits, plan a same-day visit to theGetty Villa (reservations required), a re-creation of a 1st century Italian country home that houses Greek and Roman antiquities in a picturesque Pacific Palisades setting.

Insider Tip: Take advantage of the Getty’s gorgeous views and pack a picnic basket and blanket, then enjoy lunch on the grassy green lawn.

The Fine Print: Hours are Tuesdays to Fridays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is free, but there is a parking fee of $15 ($10 after 5 p.m.).


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