Three SoCal Adventures Plus Budget-Friendly Travel Tips

For a while now, friends have been asking us to visit them in Southern California.  Something always seemed to get in the way, but recently I had a chance, at last, to plan the trip.  Since neither I nor my husband Chris had ever spent much time in SoCal, we decided take in a few sights while we were there.  We allowed ourselves a week for both visiting and exploring.

Even with our tight timeframe, we returned home feeling relaxed – and like we’d seen and done a lot.  So today I’m sharing the three unique little adventures that made up the highlights of our trip.

I will also be sharing some of the budget-friendly travel tips that I used to keep this trip affordable.

But first, let’s talk about . . .

The Home Base:  Newport Beach

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We’d reserved a small studio apartment near one of our friends.  It was on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach.  After picking up the rental car at the airport, we stopped by a grocery store for all the essentials we would need for our five days in that rental (we would be staying somewhere else on the last two days).

Budget-Friendly Tip:  This small studio apartment, which I’d found on VRBO after a ridiculous amount of searching and obsessing, was more reasonably priced than most mid-level hotels in the area.  It was a block from the beach, it had a cute outdoor patio for alfresco dining, and there was free street parking.  And, because it had a full kitchen, we didn’t need to dine in restaurants for every meal, which went a long way towards keeping this trip on budget.

With the vast golden sand beach only a block away, we did a lot of walking, relaxing, and people watching.

Newport Beach, California

We were located right between the Newport Beach Pier and the Balboa Pier. Both offered spectacular sunsets.

Sunset behind the Newport Beach Pier


Almost sunset at the Balboa Pier Beach


But now that we were settled in, it was time for a little adventure.


Catalina Island

Ferries to Catalina Island run from the mainland from several locations.  One of those locations was only about a mile from where we were staying.  The crossing took about an hour and half – including a brief impromptu stop to watch dolphins.

Catalina Island is one of California’s Channel Islands, and it is said to have a Mediterranean climate.  Arriving in its port city of Avalon on a sunny day, I almost felt like I was entering a small village on the French Riviera (not that I’ve actually been to the French Riviera). There were a few cars there, but mostly folks were getting around via golf cart or e-bike.  So, although the town was bustling, there wasn’t much traffic noise.

Avalon is very charming and walkable, and it has many shops and restaurants – probably enough to keep almost anyone entertained for the day. But we’d rented e-bikes, and we picked them up immediately upon arrival.

Our first destination was the Wrigley Botanical Garden And Memorial. It was built in the early 1930s to honor chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who  played a major role in the development and conservation of Catalina Island.

This arid garden has some show-stopping mature plants.

A dragon tree at Wrigley Memorial Garden

And quiet beauty everywhere.


The garden leads up to the Wrigley Memorial.

We wandered through the bronze door.

Wrigley Memorial bronze doors

To the top of the memorial.

Wrigley Memorial

Back on the road, we found a well-marked scenic route up into the hills north of downtown Avalon.


Tooling around these steep, scenic hills on an e-bike was glorious – and definitely the highlight of my day.


Boats in the harbor and the Catalina Casino on the left


Biking Catalina Island

Back in town, we stopped to marvel at the art deco architecture of the Catalina Casino.

Catalina Casino

And then enjoyed waterfront refreshments at a nearby beach club before returning our bikes and boarding the ferry back.

I left feeling slightly envious of the travelers who had brought luggage and were planning to stay on the island longer.


Budget-Friendly Tips:

      • Before we left for our trip, I found a Groupon discount on our ferry tickets.  It saved us about $20 per person.
      • We’d also researched e-bike vendors on Catalina Island in advance of our trip. Because we reserved the bikes online and in advance from a specific vendor, we paid about half of what some other folks were paying for their e-bike rentals. The vendor we used does not allow their e-bikes out in the rain so, before reserving our bikes, we did make sure to check the weather forecast for the day we wanted to rent.


Mission San Juan Capistrano

The following day, a short drive took us to a place of history, architecture, and a stunning walled garden:  Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Mission San Juan Capistrano


Mission San Juan Capistrano


Mission San Juan Capistrano

It is also a place of returning swallows and monarch butterflies.  Neither were apparent in numbers while we were there, but we did catch sight of a few swallows and one monarch.

Monarch Butterfly at Mission San Juan Capistrano

The mission was founded in 1776.  But its great stone church collapsed in an 1812 earthquake that occurred during mass.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

The stone church was never rebuilt.  Its ruins stand today as a monument to the 40 people who perished there in the quake.

Mission San Juan Capistrano


Mission San Juan Capistrano

Today, the mission is a peaceful and scenic place to learn about the history of the area.  Most of the history is tragic, to say the least, but I was grateful for the information and for the way it was presented.

Historic buildings surrounding the central courtyard housed interesting museum rooms.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Central courtyard architecture

The mission is actually a large complex of courtyards, historic buildings, sacred sites, and gardens.  Soaking it all in takes some time.

Budget-friendly tip:  Tucked away in the back, behind the west garden, there is a picturesque and serene picnic area – the perfect spot to enjoy the lunch we’d packed along.

After our time in the mission, we went for afternoon coffee and browsed the stops in San Juan Capistrano’s historic Los Rios district.


Joshua Tree National Park

So we’d had our marine adventure and our stroll through history.  Now it was time for the desert.  We pulled up stakes at Newport Beach and drove a couple of hours inland to Joshua Tree.

We’d rented a cabin with huge windows and a sweeping desert view close to the town of Joshua Tree.  After the urban density of Newport Beach, it was a treat to feel fully immersed in our vast desert surroundings.

We even spotted a small desert coyote on the dirt road leading to the cabin.


Joshua Tree National Park is more rustic than some other national parks.  You won’t find running water or flush toilets.  Visitors are encouraged to bring their own water – and lots of it.

Needless to say, there are also no grand historic lodges.  But in this park, Mother Nature is the architect.

Joshua Tree National Park

And fun photos ops are everywhere.

Joshua Tree National Park


The park’s namesake Joshua Trees dot the landscape.  Some are quite tall.

Joshua Tree National Park

But, the closer I looked at them, the more  I began to wonder if these zany trees were really trees at all – or something else.  As it turns out, they are actually succulents.  They are in the agave family.

And they bloom, although the blossoms are said to have an odd smell.

Joshua Tree blossoms
Joshua tree blossoms

A unique and impressive “tree” for sure.

Joshua Tree National Park
Note the balancing rock on the top left and the raven in the Joshua tree. Also note the pit toilet. It is as fancy as facilities get in the park.

Beauty thrives in this harsh desert landscape.

Desert blooms


desert blooms


Budget-Friendly and Time-Friendly Tip:  Joshua Tree National Park can get very crowded.  We wanted to go out for a hardy breakfast before exploring it, but that would have put us at the park during peak hours.  Instead, we got up early and had a quick bite before we left the cabin.  This got us to the park ahead of the crowds.

It’s funny how a place with so few man-made features drew us in so completely. We were living the moment, fully immersed in the beauty of our desert surroundings. All the troubles of the world and the noise of social media were momentarily forgotten.

I’ll leave you with just a few more travel tips we employed on this trip.

Time-Friendly Tip:  For our flights, we planned what is called an “open jaw itinerary.”  We flew into Santa Ana, but we flew back home out of Palm Springs.  Our rental car company charged a small fee for us to drop the car off at a different airport than the one in which we’d picked it up, but the time saved not having to drive all the way back to Santa Ana from Joshua Tree was well worth it.

Budget-Friendly Tip:  I can’t remember the last time we paid the rack price for a flight.  I belong to an airline mileage club.  For this trip, I used miles, so our flights were almost free.  This particular airline also offers an annual companion ticket at a heavy discount.

Budget Friendly Tip:  We like to check out the happy hours offered by local restaurants.  It’s a great way to get acquainted with the atmosphere and the quality of the cuisine without having to commit to a full dinner.  If we’re impressed, we can still stay for dinner, although sometimes happy hour offerings are hardy enough to satisfy us.

Budget-Friendly Tip:  I brought a soft-sided cooler with a strap as one of my carry-on luggage pieces.  I packed it with things I’d need for the trip but, once we arrived, I emptied it.  With an added ice pack, we had a nice little cooler for packing lunches and snacks along on our excursions.

Bringing the cooler as carry-on luggage got me thinking about other well-designed coolers that could serve as carry-on luggage.  Of course, different airlines have different size limitations for carry-on luggage, but these coolers look like possibilities.


Canway Cooler


Jumbo insulated cooler bag



Coleman backpack cooler


If you are planning a trip to the Sedona area, check out my post Three Small Towns Near Sedona.  At the end of that post, I include my tips for traveling with carry-on luggage only.

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