- On this page you will find a suggested two week California backpacking route travelling from San Francisco to San Diego, taking in several of the state’s travel highlights. It features stunning nature, the famous Pacific Coast Highway and the main cities. We also have some California budget travel tips which will help lower the cost of your trip to one of the most expensive parts of the world.
California Itinerary Overview
How long does it take to backpack California?
You could easily allow three to four weeks for this route and stop off at a few more coastal destinations or spend longer in the national parks. However because accommodation in California is so expensive, we’ve tried to squeeze as much in as possible without reaching the point where it is unnecessarily rushed. Therefore we’d suggest a minimum of two weeks for the California itinerary below, although those with a larger budget may be wise to allow for more time.
Cost of Travel in California
Possible Shoestring Budget for this California Itinerary: £800 €900 $1000
Shoestring travellers should be able to complete two weeks travel in California with a budget of around $1000. This is based on staying in hostels/budget accommodation. If you have your own vehicle or are willing to camp, you should be able to get by on considerably less. If you’re travelling as a couple or group of friends rather than as a solo backpacker, you may also be able to make savings on this by splitting some accommodation and transport costs.
April 2020 prices & exchange rates are used for these figures. There may be slight variations depending on when you visit and the figures above do not include the cost of getting to/from California or any other pre-trip expenses. It works out as around $70/day. Read our article on the cost of travel in USA for more info and sample prices for travel in the US as a whole.
Save on Travel in the US
Getting a Revolut Card before you travel is a good way to cut down on exchange and hidden banking fees which can really add up over a longer trip. Using their app you can top up your balance directly from your account and instantly exchange to the US Dollar. You will therefore be able to pay for things by card but in the local currency when you travel.
Backpacker Jobs in California
Use Worldpackers to search for short-term work placements in the USA (at the time of writing there are 77 opportunities in California including many temporary hostel and farm roles). These positions typically involve free accommodation and free meals which should help you make significant savings and extend your trip.
Travel Insurance for backpacking USA
If you’re from abroad, you want to make sure you have travel insurance before heading to the United States as there are many horror stories of travellers without insurance being left with massive medical bills or even worse being refused vital treatment. SafetyWing is one well-reviewed company that we’d recommend which offers affordable travel medical insurance for backpackers. They include COVID-19 coverage as standard.
Backpacking California – A 2 Week Itinerary
Our California backpacking route starts in San Francisco which is well served by both San Francisco and Oakland International Airports. The latter has many budget flight connections with Europe. After a few days in the Bay Area, you head inland and take in two of the state’s most incredible areas of nature – Lake Tahoe & Yosemite National Park. The second week sees you hug the Pacific Coast and visit iconic destinations such as Big Sur and Los Angeles before finishing off in San Diego, right on the border with Mexico.
Bay Area & Sierra Nevada
Suggested Time: 1 week
If you’re more interested in the famous Californian coastline, as well as the main cities – you could skip Lake Tahoe and Yosemite and just spend two weeks following the Pacific Coast Highway southwards, perhaps taking in another two or three stops on the way.
If nature is more your thing, then you may want to allow for more than a week for this section of the route and then after Yosemite, spend a bit more time in the Sierra Nevada before curling back around to finish your trip back in San Francisco or alternatively continue south and end it in Los Angeles without making the additional trip to San Diego.
1. San Francisco
San Francisco is often described as the most European city in the US and it’s easily one of the most interesting to visit with a number of weird and wonderful districts to explore. Highlights include Chinatown (the largest of its kind outside of Asia), Haight (the home of the Hippie movement) and the Castro (the centre of the city’s vibrant LGBTQ community).
The city also has two world famous tourist destinations in the shape of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz – the infamous island which used to be a maximum security prison for some of America’s most notorious criminals. Note that tickets to visit the latter regularly sell out well in advance, so you may need to book this even before you land on Californian soil.
San Francisco is also one of the few US cities that has a good public transportation system which makes life a lot simpler for budget travellers aiming to get around. A trip on one of the rickety old trams which go up and down the many steep hills that make up the city, is another essential San Francisco experience.
Search for Accommodation in San Francisco:
2. Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe lies just under 200 miles east of San Francisco on the California-Nevada state border. It is one of the clearest freshwater lakes in the entire world and unlike San Francisco (which has remarkably little seasonal variation), your experience will largely depend on when you visit.
During the summer months (roughly June until mid September), it’s a major water sports and hiking hub. During the winter months it is one of the best places in the US for skiing and snowboarding (the season starts in November with snow remaining on the slopes right through into April).
3. Yosemite National Park
California is home to a number of National Parks but if you only have time to visit one, Yosemite should probably be your first choice. While it does receive 4 million visitors per year (making it the 3rd most popular national park in the US), Yosemite is so huge that it’s not hard to escape the crowds and experience that magical sense of wilderness. As well as a huge number of hiking trails, its spectacular cliffs are perfect for rock climbing while the area is inhabited by an abundance of wildlife including mountain lions and black bears.
As of 2020, vehicles have to pay $35 to enter the park while it’s $15 on foot (or via bus in). In both cases you will receive a seven day permit. Assuming you won’t have your own vehicle, it’s worth noting that there are several free shuttle bus routes which makes getting around much easier while bicycles can also be rented.
Accommodation in the park is very expensive. Budget travellers would be best advised to either camp (there are many campsites but advanced booking may still be needed during the summer months) or stay in a nearby town such as El Portal, Mariposa, Groveland or Lee Vining.
Suggested Time: 1 week
The second week follows the Pacific Coast Highway (AKA California 1) all the way down to San Diego, just north of the Mexican border. If you have a larger budget (southern Cali is not cheap to travel in), you could easily double or treble the amount of time you spend on this section as there are loads of great potential stops along the way.
However if you are limited to a week, you may wish to tinker with this itinerary slightly. If you’re not a city lover, you could potentially skip San Diego in favour of one or two smaller destinations between Big Sur and LA. If you are, then you may want to just admire the views while you travel down the coast without staying overnight anywhere and just spend longer in Los Angeles.
4. Big Sur
Big Sur is one of the most stunning sections of California’s Pacific Coast and there are plenty to choose from. Lying roughly 150 miles south of San Francisco, it’s the perfect place to find a quiet spot to relax amongst the fresh ocean air for another day or two before heading on towards the more populated areas further south. Note that Big Sur isn’t specifically one place, it’s just the term used to cover a large rural area of coastline. There are cabins and campsites dotted along the coastline which are probably your best bets in terms of budget accommodation.
There are loads of places you could potentially spend an afternoon or just a few hours in between here and Santa Barbara although it may be difficult to time things right using public transport. McWay Falls is one highlight while If you have time, also consider stopping in at historic Hearst Castle, the wine region of Paso Robles or the town of San Luis Obispo on your way south.
5. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is another of those Californian place names that will ring a bell to people all over the world. It has something of a reputation as being the playground for the rich and famous but it is still a regular town and locals are proud of their history and heritage. Aside from the wide beaches and shores that are very popular with surfers, the town also has several interesting museums and one of the largest zoos in the state.
Due to the expensive nature of accommodation here, solo travellers may wish to skip Santa Barbara or just come here for the day and then head on to LA. Couples or groups of friends may just about be able to afford to share a room for a night. There are more potential stops between Santa Barbara and LA with historic Ventura and upscale Malibu among the best options for a short visit.
6. Los Angeles
Los Angeles is an enormous city with a dreadful public transport network which can make life very frustrating for visitors. It’s important to have that in mind before you visit and particularly when you plan the location of your accommodation as trips from the Hollywood area to the most popular beach districts can often take as much as two hours unless you have your own vehicle or can afford a cab.
There are some low quality but at least relatively affordable hostels (by American standards) on Hollywood Boulevard which is a major hub for visitors to the city with attractions such as the Hollywood Sign, the Chinese Theatre and Griffith Observatory all nearby. Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier are also high on the ‘to do’ lists for visitors.
If you have a higher budget than the one mentioned above (and more time), Disneyland and Universal Studios are also nearby if that’s your thing. Meanwhile it’s around 6 hours by bus from LA to Las Vegas.
If you’re heading south to San Diego, consider stopping in on Long Beach (20 miles south of downtown LA) on your way. Otherwise this may be a good ending point with LA home to one of the busiest airports in the US and indeed the world.
7. San Diego
As you head southwards along this California travel itinerary, you should notice that Spanish influences grow and grow. San Diego’s proximity to Mexico (it’s only 20 miles from San Diego to the Mexican city of Tijuana) gives it a real Latin feel. The city has plenty to see and do with a host of parks, beaches and museums but it is of a much more manageable size than LA and has a significantly more relaxed vibe.
If you’re ending your trip here, San Diego has connections to airports right across North America. It has a few inter-continental routes but you may need to backtrack to LA if you are going further afield. Another option is to cross into Mexico where Tijuana International Airport is located just metres from the border. From there you can take a domestic flight to Mexico City or other cities across Mexico.
Check out all our North & Central America backpacking routes!
California Budget Travel Tips & FAQs
Visa Requirements for USA
Prior to the 2020 global pandemic which led to the US stopping all immigration, the country operated a visa waiver program. This allowed citizens of 39 nations to obtain an ESTA (cost $14 – beware of unofficial sites charging more!) which can be done relatively simply online before your visit, allowing entry to the United States. Those 39 countries include the UK, most EU members, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Chile. Canadians do not need a visa or ESTA to enter the United States. Citizens from other countries need to apply for a visa before visiting via their local US embassy.
Budget Travel in California – Is it Possible?
Travelling in California on a budget or indeed the United States as a whole is a tricky business. The main stumbling block is the high cost of accommodation and the lack of backpacker style hostels that you find elsewhere in the world. While some popular cities in Europe have literally hundreds of hostels with dorm-style accommodation, there is a tiny percentage of that on offer in US cities and that lack of competition drives prices up and makes things tricky for solo travellers in particular.
In LA and San Francisco, there are a limited number of hostels but you can expect to pay at the very least $25/night for a dorm bed and that’s for the most basic of options. Many other destinations in California simply won’t have any ‘backpacker’ hostels. If you are travelling with at least one other person, you may be able to afford a basic private room and stick to the budget suggested above but solo travellers may find that more challenging.
Fortunately there are some options to get around this problem. Couchsurfing is one with nearly 400,000 registered hosts across the state of California at the time of writing. Another popular option in the more rural area is to camp and you may find investing in a tent and camping gear at the start of your trip will end up saving you money. If you are travelling as a group it may be better to rent a motor-home or even buy an old vehicle if you’re doing a considerably longer than two week trip.
On a more positive note, eating and drinking is relatively affordable providing you do a bit of research into finding cheap places to go to, although the heavy US tipping custom does need to be factored in when considering how much things will cost. 15% is considered standard in restaurants and tips are expected even if you’re just ordering a drink in a bar. Supermarkets tend to be pretty good value in the US, so if your hostel has a kitchen, you can save some money by cooking your own meals and having a few pre-drinks if you intend to go out.
The cost of getting around California is also pretty much in line with what you might expect to pay in any developed country in the world. If you are a bit flexible, you can often find great value bus tickets via Greyhound or Megabus.
Extending your Trip & getting off the beaten Track
California also has one of the most extensive rail networks in the USA which will help you get to some of the more off the beaten track locations:
The California route featured on this page doesn’t include the less-visited and less-populated northern part of the state. The North Coast has few obvious ‘destinations’ as such but for those looking to get away from the crowds, there are a number of quiet coastal towns that offer a very different Californian experience to the glamorous southern half of the state. The region is also full of redwood forests which have the tallest trees in the entire world!
In terms of other cities, you may wish to consider visiting bohemian Santa Cruz, which is an easy day-trip from San Francisco but has enough to warrant at least a one night stay with attractions including the Beach Amusement Park, Boardwalk and the Mystery Spot. If you have more time, you could also stop off in Sacramento, which is actually the state capitol. If following the above route, you will most likely pass through Sacramento anyway when travelling from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe.
Nature lovers may wish to spend more time visiting some of the other national parks in the state. Highlights include the Channel Islands National Park which consists of five islands off the coast near Santa Barbara. Meanwhile the southeastern part of California is made up of a desert which becomes scorching hot during the summer months and within it you will find the Joshua Tree National Park and the Death Valley National Park – the lowest point in all of North America.
The latter is located very close to the state of Nevada and the city of Las Vegas – which is the most obvious extension for anyone looking to head out of California, although again it’s not exactly a budget travel destination. California also borders the predominantly rural Oregon to the north which mirrors Northern California in many respects with dense forests and rugged coastlines while Washington State is just above that. From San Diego or LA, you can also easily reach Arizona which in complete contrast or Oregon and Washington is a hot, dry state, with the Grand Canyon its main draw for travellers.
Travelling from California to Mexico
Mexico is easily reached from California via the border crossing at Tijuana, the Mexican city which lies just 20 miles south of San Diego. Tijuana has grown into a bustling city of more than a million people and although it does have a dangerous reputation, it remains a popular destination for day-trippers from San Diego and budget travellers will certainly enjoy the reduction in the cost of just about everything.
The San Ysidro border crossing into the city is the busiest in the world and it is possible to cross it in a car, bus or on foot. For those extending your trip into other parts of Mexico, Tijuana Airport (which has a separate US border crossing) is well connected to the rest of the country. See our Mexico backpacking route for a bit of inspiration or simply follow the coast south from Tijuana and explore the Mexican state of Baja California.
This California backpacking itinerary was published in April 2020.
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