15 Best Free Things to do in California

The lure of the Golden State is legendary. The siren song of the Gold Rush, Hollywood, Disneyland, Mt. Whitney, Death Valley, and the Pacific Ocean brought settlers who basked in the luster of this sun-drenched state. Visitors can partake too! Apart from the iconic tourist destinations that the state is famous for, you'll find many free things to do that might inspire you to shout, Eureka!

Cable Car Museum, San Francisco, CA

Get up-close-and-personal to the classic mode of transpiration for the City by the Bay… a cable car. The museum, established in 1974, houses three antique cable cars from the 1870s, plus an array of the various mechanical devices that keep the vehicles moving along city streets. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 10 am to 4 pm, and Friday through Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, CA

The most visited globally, this observatory sits high above the Los Angeles Basin on Mt. Hollywood. The views of the city are spectacular. Even more magnificent are the night skies brought to life by peering through the lens of the Zeiss refracting telescope, accessible every night the observatory is open. While there, explore the exhibits, scope out the Hollywood Sign, or wander through Griffith Park. The observatory is open Friday, Noon to 10 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 10 pm.

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, CA

It's hard to imagine that the watery grave of this city's trash could turn into a beachcomber's delight. Yet, bits and pieces of glass, tumbled by the ocean's waves, cover the rocky stretch of shore, part of MacKerricher State Park. So take a walk on this beach and experience a kaleidoscope of sea glass colors. Shoes suggested. Open year-round.

Manzanar National Historic Site, Independence, CA

A visit to this site, situated on the sparse, rugged eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, is solemn and enlightening. During World War II, this military-style camp was where those of Japanese ancestry were detained for the duration of the war. Time here is a moment t to touch and feel the history. Open daily from sunrise to sunset.

The Monarch Butterfly Groves of Pismo Beach, Pismo Beach, CA

From November through February, the fluttering of orange-winged Monarch butterflies fill the air, and clusters hang on the limbs of Eucalyptus trees at this migration stopover. This overwintering site provides a warm respite from the cold Canadian winter they're getting away from. Sit a while and enjoy the quiet.

Balboa Park, San Diego, CA

Dubbed "America's Finest City," this town may be known for its temperate climate and spectacular beaches. Still, there's so much more to experience here, especially at this park, the city's cultural crown jewel. Explore the lush gardens, 17 in all, and trails covering more than 1,000 acres; visit a variety of museums and exhibits, playgrounds, and dog parks; listen to a free concert performed on the Spreckels Organ, the largest fully-outdoor organ in the world; or sit on the lawn and watch the passing parade of visitors. Open year-round.

The Capitol Museum, Sacramento, CA

At the heart of this Neo-classical building is the rotunda, the most advantageous starting point for a walk-through of this historic,150-year old structure. It is the home office of both the governor and state legislature, numerous exhibits relevant to its history. The 40-acre Capitol park is a collection of memorials and monuments interspersed throughout various native plants, beautiful gardens, and tree-lined paths. Grounds are accessible year-round; the museum is open weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm.

Surfing Museum, Santa Cruz, CA

Surf's up! This city is known for its surf culture. Through photographs and memorabilia, the museum chronicles the more than 100 years of history that's taken place on this surfing mecca. Hawaiian princes surfed here, the wetsuit made its debut, and some say the sport was born here. Open Noon to 4 pm, from Thursday to Monday.

Avenue of the Giants, Garberville, CA

Take a drive on a 31-mile serpentine road past some of the tallest trees in the world, towering coastal redwoods, some reaching heights of 360 feet. These trees, located in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, are some of the oldest in the state. The drive itself takes about two hours, but there is plenty of opportunities to hike, picnic, camp, so spend some time exploring this remarkable park.

Sundial Bridge, Redding, CA

Time does not stand still, and neither will you as you walk across this glass-decked cable-stayed cantilever suspension bridge. The 700-foot span connects the north and south shores of the Sacramento River. One of the largest globally, the working sundial was designed by Spanish Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava. While a walk across only takes about 15 minutes, take time to enjoy the surrounding scenery. In addition, the bridge is a gateway to local trails.

Wine Tasting, Sonoma County, CA

Raise a glass in one of the preeminent wine regions in the world. Taste the difference between a merlot and pinot noir, or chardonnay and Chenin blanc at various wineries offering free tastings. The area's spectacular environs, fertile valleys, redwood forest, Pacific coast make for not only exceptional wine growing but also a picturesque adventure.

California Citrus State Historic Park, Riverside, CA

At one point in the state's history, "Citrus was King," when orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees dominated the landscape and Citrus Barons were born. This 300-acre park preserves a small part of that history, showcasing the citrus industry's role in developing Southern California's economy. There's an exhibit-filled museum, antique farm equipment scattered around the grounds, and one of the few remaining citrus groves in the area. The aroma of oranges blossoms is intoxicating.

Hollywood Forever, Los Angeles, CA

Full disclosure here, this is a cemetery. Still, it's also a world-famous landmark and the final resting place of some of Hollywood's most famous stars. A map and walking guide book, available at the on-site flower shop, point out where you'll find the gravesite of Hollywood icons like Judy Garland, Cecil B. DeMille, Rudolph Valentino, Mickey Rooney, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, and hundreds of others. A quiet place to step out of the LA hustle and bustle and walk among the legendary.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA

California is in the enviable situation of being home to the highest point in the contiguous U.S., Mt. Whitney. Badwater Basin is the lowest point, a whopping 280-plus feet below sea level. The salt flats cover more than 200 acres and surprisingly have living organisms thriving throughout. Take the boardwalk out to a still viable spring-fed pool and look around to see the sign across high above the highway indicating where sea level is. Fortunately, the area is out of tsunami range.

Downtown Disney District, Anaheim, CA

During any discussion of a trip to California, the elephant in the room is, "What about Disneyland?" Well, you can experience the Disney magic, on a much different scale, at this outdoor center filled with shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and maybe even a glimpse of Mickey in the crowd. So, no Matterhorn, but be sure to wander through the Magic of Disney store for that perfect souvenir.

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