Budget Travel

Best Budget Destinations in America, Part II: The West

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH

A hipster neighborhood in the shadows of Utah's Mount Nebo.

Mention Salt Lake City to most people and they probably think skiing. But the mountains aren’t the only stunning natural wonders to gawk at here. Antelope Island State Park, the newest dark-sky park certified by the International Dark Sky Association, offers blockbuster views of the cosmos. And for daytime activities, Sugar House Park is 110-acres of rolling hills featuring bike trails, lakes, and forest. That park is the heart of the Sugar House neighborhood, which is a bustling area of cool. A radical renaissance over the past few years has given rise to a business district filled with indie shops, galleries, and bookstores. Plus spots like the southwestern-accented Black Sheep Café and Wasatch Brewery are just a few of the dining options that won’t break the bank. And for when you want to see the iconic Salt Lake City sites, the Connect Pass gives you access to 13 attractions, from a ride on the iconic Snowbird Tram to the Natural History Museum of Utah. And what's more, rooms at chill hotels like Little America start around $129.

ASTORIA, OREGON

A blockbuster of a small town.

Astoria, Oregon, a port city founded 200 years ago on the Columbia River just a few miles from the great Pacific, has earned the nickname “little San Francisco." A fun bit of cultural history looms large here, too, what with the Oregon Film Museum, located in an old county jail, chronicling the history of movie-making in the state. Not hard to understand why this town inspired so many movie-making types once you check out Astoria Column, a monument with a lookout tower that offers astonishing views of the river and the ocean. The park, which sits 600 feet above sea level, is among Oregon’s most-visited parks. Astonishing views is sort of the modus operandi in Astoria, actually. Buoy Beer, located on a pier, serves up excellent brews and front row views of seals through the glass floors. Hotels here will leave with plenty of cash in your pocket for stops at local restaurants and cafes. The hip and centrally located Norblad Hotel, for one, has cabins from $79 and suites from $119, as well as hostel-style shared room options.  

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, NEW MEXICO

On native soil.

It’s easy to think that Rome or Jerusalem or the Scottish isles have the winning hand on ancient architecture, but in the very center of New Mexico is a UNESCO heritage site that’s testament to the ingenious building capabilities of the Pueblo peoples. Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Nageezi, New Mexico, features massive structures they constructed between 850 and 1250AD. Six major sites sit along Canyon Loop Drive, a 9-mile stretch. You can pick up guidebooks at the visitor center bookstore to help navigate you through the landscape. Ranger-led tours, available year-round, are another option. Or lace up and hit one of the four back country hiking trails that lead through all kinds of neat ancient roads and stairways as well as overlooks with awe-inspiring views to remote Chacoan sites. (Permits are required, but they’re free.) Camping is available at Gallow Campground. The old-timey Hotel Chaco is a fun option because hotel hosts day tours of Chaco Canyon that depart from the property. And note: the park is somewhat isolated in Northwestern New Mexico, so staying in Farmington, Gallup, Santa Fe or Taos is also an option.

LARAMIE, WYOMING

A college town with plenty of history lessons.

How’s this for a fun-fact: The University of Wyoming is home to the highest-elevation collegiate football and basketball stadiums. Also up at that elevation is the school’s world-class art museum, which houses a permanent collection of over 800 works, and the Geology Museum which is noted for its display of a mighty allosaurus, affectionately known as “Big Al,” which was unearthed just outside of the city in Como Bluffs. Those are just a handful of the attractions on the stunning campus at the base of the Snowy Range in Laramie. The laid back eateries, from Coal Creek Coffee & Tap, locally minded brewpub/café, to Sweet Melissa Café and Front Street Tavern, an adjoining vegetarian restaurant and bar, solidify the college charm. Add to that the lingering classic cowboy style that once defined the land, several attractions, including a museum, that chronicles the area’s history of locomotives, plus quick access to fishing, climbing, and hiking sites, and you have a formula for a perfect weekend getaway. Lodging options: Hilton Garden Inn, Holiday Inn, Mountain View Historic Hotel or check out the stunning camping sites

WALLACE, IDAHO

A golden experience in Silver City.

How’s this for living history: 42 commercial buildings in downtown Wallace, Idaho are on the National Historic Register. Long known as the Silver Capital of the World, this gorgeous small town sits an hour from Spokane, Washington in Idaho’s Silver Valley, between two ski areas and beneath Interstate 90. (Funny story: in 1991 when the federal government was completing the Interstate Highway system, it had to construct the freeway over the town instead of through it because of its historic value.) That leaves plenty of room for the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a paved bike path that follows the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene river, to pass through town. But biking isn’t the only activity worth visiting for. Ziplining, hiking, a sassy bordello museum and tours through the Crystal Copper Gold Mine are just a few other must-do’s in town. Top it off with the one of the seasonal dishes at Fainting Goat Wine Bar and Eatery and a few pints at City Limits Brew Pub and it seems almost certain that this experience will shine like the over-1.2 billion ounces of silver that have been mined in this county since 1884. Rooms in cute historic hotels like the Wallace Inn start at $80.

KAIMUKI NEIGHBORHOOD, HONOLULU, HAWAII

A culinary treasure trove far from the city's beach crowd.

If you go to Honolulu to lie on the beach all day, you’re missing out. Beyond the resorts and shorelines, there are local scenes throughout the island of Oahu, mostly in residential areas. Kaimuki, for one, is located on the mountain side of Diamond Head, barely a 15-minute drive from festive, bustling Waikiki, and offers an embarrassment of riches where locally owned restaurants and cafes are concerned. The options range from Okato Bento, a no-frills institution that’s been serving cooked-to-order Japanese dishes as well as killer burgers for over 30 years, to newcomers like BREW’d Craft Pub a hip and inviting gastropub; Via Gelato, a resource for homemade gelato and sorbet; and Kaimuki Suprette, a retro-minded deli with fresh salads and other fare. The Crack Seed Center, which has been specializing regional dried fruits and other snacks for over 70 years, is not to be missed. Novelty art shops, a comic book store and all kids of fashion boutiques are among the stops for when you’re strolling around. Take note: This being a residential neighborhood, there aren’t many hotels around, but with its proximity to Waikiki you can stay amid the action and escape here to chill out. 

FORT COLLINS, COLORADO

Boating and biking and breweries galore. 

Adrenalin junkies, craft beer lovers, hikers, foodies, history buffs, and families all rub elbows in Fort Collins, Colorado, which offers jaw-dropping views from the foothills of the Rockies. First, about those adventure-seekers. The Cache La Poudre River, which carries nationally designation “Wild and Scenic,” is a world-class destination for whitewater rafting. But landlubbers, rest assured. There are seemingly endless trails for hiking and biking. In fact, the League of American Bicyclists honored it as one of the nation’s five platinum-level bike-friendly cities, what with its flat terrain and wide bike lanes. And all that’s to say nothing of the abundant fishing and camping sites. When you’re ready for some down time, take note that Fort Collins is Colorado’s Craft Beer Capital, boasting 20 small breweries (and counting), all operating a bottlecap’s throw from one of the planet’s largest breweries, Anheuser-Busch. Add to that Old Town, a national and local-historic district that features nearly 30 old buildings restored to their setters’ era glory. You can tour Old Town in an original trolley car (the only one left west of the Mississippi), but plan to spend a day or two roaming. There’s over 80 restaurants, not to mention plenty of boutiques and antique shops, charming cafes, and beer bars.

MCCARTHY, ALASKA

America's mining history on display. 

The Wrangle-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is so gigantic—the 13.2-million-acres kind of gigantic—that the vast diversity of sights to see and things to do within its bounds is hardly surprising. But a full-on work-a-day town? Yes, that too. McCarthy, one of the last remaining towns inside a national park, was a thriving metropolis during the copper rush of the early 1900s, when miners would venture journey there from the nearby Kennicot “mining camp.” Today, McCarthy is a pedestrian-only township with a main thoroughfare flanked by an array of local businesses. Kennecott, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, became a ghost town in the late 1930s, but now it’s a destination for history buffs (tour the copper mill) and outdoorsy types (hike the glaciers and raft the surrounding national park) and there’s even a foodie attraction at this relatively remote locale. The cozy bistro at McCarthy Lodge offers a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings.  

PHILIPSBURG, MONTANA

Gems, candy, and craft beer en route to Yellowstone.

We love the welcoming little town of Philipsburg, a short drive south of Interstate 90 in Montana’s Granite County and a fun place to stop on the way to Yellowstone National Park. Kids and grownups will appreciate the opportunity to pan for gems like Philipsburg’s founders did and chow down at “The World’s Greatest Candy Store.” The Sapphire Gallery teaches visitors how to find beautiful raw sapphires hidden in a pile of local dirt and gravel. (You purchase a bag of gravel mined from the nearby mountains, and the encouraging shop staff is on hand to help, and you can then take your favorite sapphires to be analyzed to determine which ones are good candidates for heat-treating, which gives sapphires their shine and their color. Next door to the Sapphire Gallery, The Sweet Palace makes the provocative claim to being “The World’s Greatest Candy Store.” Your initial response may be “prove it,” and as you walk in the door, the thick, intoxicating aroma of taffy, fudge, and other delights does just that. You can browse rows and rows of candy jars, ranging from well-known favorites to unusual regional treats, and forgive yourself for overindulging “just this once.” Tommyknockers restaurant serves up comfort food like burgers and lemonade, plus pints of a refreshingly light craft beer (especially refreshing if you’re visiting in summer), brewed just down the street at Philipsburg Brewing Company. The Broadway Hotel looks like an Old West lodging, but each room is unique and delightful, decorated in the style of a particular travel destination from around the world. They serve up a hearty breakfast of home-baked quiches, pastry, and more, and boast one of the most welcoming, generous pet-friendly policies you’ll find in any hotel. Ask the friendly staff to tell you about Philispurg’s mining history and its “coolest comeback” over the past few years.

VENTURA COUNTY COAST, CALIFORNIA

A wild and beautiful adventure just a few miles outside Tinseltown.

An easy road trip up the iconic Highway 101 from Los Angeles, the Ventura County Coast feels like a world away from the big city. The farm-to-table restaurants, charming waterfront communities, and a lesser-known National Park make this a great Southern California escape minus the sticker shock. You’ll want to visit the cities of Camarillo, Oxnard, Hueneme, and Ventura, where you’ll enjoy super-fresh seafood at Brophy Bros. Restaurant & Clam Bar or The Greek Mediterranean Steak & Seafood at Ventura Harbor, and you can even get out on the water in a rented kayak. Channel Islands National Park is perhaps the Ventura County coast’s “marquee” attraction, but you can start your exploration of the islands without leaving the mainland, at the park’s visitors center in Ventura. Channel Islands National Park is just 11 miles offshore, but its five distinct islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara) have been isolated from the mainland for so many thousands of years (even today the islands are accessible only by ferry, small plane, or a forbiddingly challenging kayak paddle) that they are host to unique species of animals and plants, and even the source of archeological discoveries like nowhere else in the world. Each island offers the opportunity to literally “get away from it all,” with hiking, camping, snorkeling, kayaking, and incredible birdwatching. Two things you can’t do here, though, are ride public transportation (there isn’t any) or ride your bike (they are not allowed on any of the five islands). Book a trip from Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor with Island Packers or Channel Islands Outfitters.

DOWNTOWN LAS VEGAS, NEVADA

A brand-new experience in vintage Vegas. 

The Strip is Las Vegas what Times Square is to Manhattan. That’s just to say it’s where the tourists flock, while locals know there are better places to eat, hang out, and relax without the mayhem. The downtown area is a perfect example, and a prime destination for anyone who wants a sure bet that rewards for money spent will not be left to chance. Also known as “Old Vegas,” the area has seen a massive renaissance, a boon largely credited to Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos who opened the company’s HQ there in 2013. Since then, small businesses and cultural destinations have sprung up, like the Neon Museum which, quite literally, tells the town’s history in lights, the Freemont Street Experience, an entertainment district with light shows, a zip line and lots of other lively activities, and the Mob Museum, an American chronicle of organized crime and crime-fighting. A new old-fashioned speakeasy and distillery opened at the museum in 2017. With hotels starting at under $40, it’s a crime to overlook this neighborhood.

PORT TOWNSEND, WASHINGTON

Everything the Pacific Northwest offers, in one cool small town.

Washington state is certainly not lacking in astonishing ocean vistas, wineries, local fare, state parks, and inspiring hiking and biking trails. But to experience it all in one fell swoop, Port Townsend, a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, is easily the best choice. In addition to all those signature Washington elements, there’s a cidery trail and the historic Fort Warden, which is located in a state park of the same name and features bunkers and other centuries-old buildings, including an officer’s house that’s available as accommodation. (It’s so picture-perfect that it’s little wonder "An Officer and a Gentleman" was filmed here.) When it comes to trails, Port Townsend stands out for being the starting point of the brand new Olympic Discovery Trail. At the moment, 79 out of the planned 135 miles are complete. On top of that, it’s home to well-preserved Victorian homes in the downtown area and an extremely artistic community. Events like Shakespeare in the Park and the Wooden Boat Festival take place throughout the year.

MESA, ARIZONA

A culinary feast just outside Phoenix.

Arizona is home to Queen Creek Olive Mill, which is inspired by old-world Italian traditions; Schnepf Farms, a fourth-generation-owned farm with a country store that sells homemade jams, pies, honey, and more (not to mention a packed schedule of festivals); True Garden Urban Farm, a 5,000 square-foot vertical farm; and Hayden Flour Mills, which produces snacks and more made with hand-cultivated heritage grains. All those places, in fact, are in Mesa, a small town just outside Phoenix with a bounty of culinary businesses that would put the hipsters in Brooklyn to shame. With the establishment of Mesa’s Fresh Foodie Trail, Arizona’s agritourism has become a major attraction. And with a vast selection of no-frills hotels in the area that can be booked for under $100/night, there’s no reason not to feast. 

We're tracking down the 51 coolest affordable hot spots in the U.S. (one in each state, plus Washington, DC). Here, the second installment in our series, with uniquely awesome destinations in the West that won't break the bank.

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