In an era when a movie ticket routinely costs $11 or more, finding any kind of thrill for less than $10 gets harder and harder. So let's thank our stars for national and state parks. If you assume two travelers per car, plenty of parks fit our frugal-travel purposes just fine.
Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite National Park: This is more stroll than hike — half a mile, round-trip, on a paved path from a busy parking lot in Yosemite Valley — but this year-round fall is a fine place to begin any exploration of Yosemite's grandeur. You'll want to roam the valley and maybe drive up to Glacier Point (if it isn't closed for the winter). The park's seven-day admission fee is $20 a car or $10 per adult on foot, horseback or bike. Info: (209) 372-0200; http://www.nps.gov/yose.
Drive-Thru Tree Park, Leggett, Calif.: The title attraction, a towering redwood known as the Chandelier Tree, was cut in the 1930s, leaving a passage 6 feet wide and almost 7 feet high — plenty of room for most cars. This is the heart of redwood country, between Ft. Bragg and Eureka, just a few miles south of the U.S. 101-hugging, 31-mile Avenue of the Giants. It's $5 a car (plus whatever gewgaws you pick up in the abundantly stocked gift shop), and the tree is neighbored by a creek, a meadow, a duck pond, ferns and moss. Info: (707) 925-6363; http://www.drivethrutree.com or http://www.avenueofthegiants.net.
Getty Center, Los Angeles: Nineteenth century Impressionists, modern gardens, contemporary photography, views to the Pacific, illuminated manuscripts — the Getty has a lot. The hilltop museum and grounds are free, but parking is $15 a car. No reservations necessary. (The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is great too but admission is $15 per adult.) Info: (310) 440-7300, http://www.getty.edu.
Golden Gate Ferry, San Francisco: It's a bracing 30-minute ride to Sausalito (adult one-way: $8.25), with views of the Golden Gate Bridge across the water. (Some people rent bikes, ride across the bridge, then catch the ferry back.) On weekends, there are six daily departures from the San Francisco Ferry building; on weekdays, nine. Info: (415) 455-2000, http://www.goldengateferry.org.
Hidden Valley Nature Walk, Joshua Tree National Park: This easy one-mile loop is surrounded by amazing rock formations and, most days, dangling and scrambling rock climbers. Best when the sun is low. The park's seven-day admission fee is $15 a car, or $5 an adult on foot, bike or horse. Info: (760) 367-5500, http://www.nps.gov/jotr.
Food "pods," Portland, Ore.: While other cities fawn over food trucks that offer increasingly ambitious options and change locations regularly, Portland swoons for food carts, which are basically the same thing but often stay put on otherwise empty lots. The spots where these carts congregate are called "pods," and there are many, with cuisine as diverse as tamales or noodles or curry, with prices less than $10. Two busy scenes: Southwest Alder Street between 9th and 11th avenues, and Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard at 12th Avenue. Info: http://www.foodcartsportland.com, http://www.portlandneighborhood.com/portland-food-carts.html.
Rocky Point Restaurant, Big Sur: Since the 1940s, this eatery has crouched low, ever under assault from waves and winds, its indoor and outdoor tables offering staggering vistas of the cliffs to the south. Order a breakfast mimosa or Boston clam chowder for lunch (both are $9). Of course, you'll want to sample Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns state parks ($10) and the high-up Nepenthe Restaurant. All these Big Sur favorites can be found farther south as Highway 1 makes its winding way toward San Simeon. Info: (831) 624-2933, http://www.rocky-point.com.
San Luis Obispo Farmers' Market: Every Thursday night (except Thanksgiving and rainy days) from 6 to 9, more than 120 vendors take over Higuera Street (between Osos and Nipomo streets) in downtown SLO to peddle seasonal produce, cook tri-tip and generally do business alfresco. Arrive on two wheels and use the bicycle valet. Info: (805) 541-0286, http://www.downtownslo.com/farmers.html.
Ellen Browning Scripps Park, La Jolla: First, pack a picnic (or grab breakfast or lunch at nearby Brockton Villa at 1235 Coast Blvd.) and bring a Frisbee or kite to this grassy expanse, which is fringed by inviting La Jolla Cove (swimming, kayaking, snorkeling) and dramatic sandstone cliffs. For $4 (adults), you can step into the Sunny Jim Cave Store, a.k.a. the Cave Store (1325 Coast Blvd.) and clamber down a 109-year-old, 145-step manmade tunnel through the sandstone to tide-splashed Sunny Jim Cave. Info: http://www.sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/parks/shoreline/ebscripps.shtml, http://www.sandiego.gov/lifeguards/beaches/cove.shtml and http://www.cavestore.com.
Sonoma Town Plaza, Sonoma: Not only does this grassy town center (about midway between Napa and Santa Rosa) offer a respite from winery-hopping and easy access to upscale shops and eateries, but it also gives you a window into California's origins. This is where California's bear flag was designed in 1846, and the plaza-adjacent mission (now part of Sonoma State Historic Park; admission is $3 an adult) was the northernmost and last of the 21 Franciscan missions, all of which are represented by oil paintings inside. Info: (707) 938-9560, http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=479.
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