Best Budget Destinations in America 2018, Part IV: The West

We’re rounding up value trips across the U.S. (one in each state, plus DC) to inspire Budget Travelers to see more of America for less money. Here, the best of the West.

There are destinations that you spend a lifetime dreaming about. Then there are destinations that you hear about out of the blue that spark your interest and send you into planning mode—and those are the ones that get top billing for our annual Best Budget Destinations. From emerging neighborhoods on the fringes of familiar cities to easily missed small towns and lesser-known national parks, adventure destinations, and beaches, there are countless ways to see more of America at a price that won’t break the bank. But first, an explanation: We define a “Budget Destination” as somewhere you can be guaranteed excellent food and drink, cultural options, a helping of American history, unusual attractions, breathtaking natural beauty, or all of the above. More than anything, though, it's a value proposition, with lodging well under $200 per night. Budget Travel editors spent much of the past year exploring and talking to locals to select our 51 Budget Destinations of 2018—one in each state, plus the District of Columbia. In hopes of inspiring new bucket-list journeys, whether you're committed road-trippers, weekend warriors, or travel junkies, here are the 13 Best Budget Destinations in the West. 

GIRDWOOD, ALASKA

Alaska-Girdwood-Tram.JPG?mtime=20180424154851#asset:101587(Courtesy of Visit Anchorage/Ken Graham)

People go to great heights for cocktails in Girdwood—literally. The Bore Tide Bar, located at the top of a summit, is well worth the tram ride for epic views of this modest resort town. It may be a small community, but its unbeatable hospitality delivers big, from quaint inns and B&Bs to restaurants like the Double Musky Inn and the new Froth & Forage, which showcases the local seafood and other ingredients sourced nearby. Long known as “Glacier City” because of the surrounding ice mounds, it is, of course, a major destination for snow bunnies, what with its ski and snowboarding slopes and trails for snowmobiling and fat-tire biking. But it’s also a town with myriad activities and attractions that make for a knockout summer holiday, with hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and rafting all on offer for outdoorsy types. Plus, summer brings festivals like the Girdwood Forest Fair, a celebration of local culture (July), and the Blueberry Festival (August). But perhaps the best way to learn about the spirit of the place is to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where you can make eye contact with native moose, bears, bison, eagles, and more.

AGRITOPIA, ARIZONA

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Most cities these days at least attempt to cultivate a locavore culture where food growers, producers, and providers work closely with restaurants, stores, and other businesses to promote one another, but the village of Agritopia takes that lifestyle to the extreme. Located 20 miles outside of Phoenix in the town of Gilbert, Agritopia consists of 11 acres of urban farmland growing everything from kale to pumpkins to dates, plus a restaurant, a coffee shop, and a marketplace—stylishly retrofitted into an old grain-storage facility—where everyone from woodworkers to winemakers to letterpress printmakers sell their wares. Looking to take home some of the seasonal bounty? Check out the honesty market, where you take your fruit and veggies, ring them up, and leave the money yourself. The land was a homestead property almost a century ago, and today the village is overseen by Joe Johnston, a descendant of the same family. He lends his name to Joe’s Farm Grill, an popular eatery that spotlights produce grown on the property, and can point out who's who (including himself) in the vintage photos that adorn the restaurant's dining space, which was once his childhood home.   

MORRO BAY, CALIFORNIA

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California’s central coast is one of the most inviting places on the planet, with no shortage of charming little towns, Pacific beaches, and welcoming locals. What sets Morro Bay apart is the sense of discovering a fantastic vacation destination that has somehow remained under the radar for non-Californians, which can translate into reasonable lodging, great seafood that doesn’t break the bank, and a cool array of shops stocked with unique finds. You can choose to do literally nothing by simply spending your day on the beach, or get a little more adventurous by taking a surfing lesson (upper-body strength is the only prerequisite, by the way). You must hike in Morro Bay State Park, kayak the bay, and go exploring in a rented surrey powered by pedaling. Morro Bay also offers the option of eating your weight in fresh seafood and other delights at places like Bayside Cafe (tell them Budget Travel recommended the crab cakes!), Frankie & Lola’s (where the breakfast burritos are so big they can serve as breakfast and lunch), and the incredible Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant, along the town’s Embarcadero, which gets its fresh daily catches right from the outdoor seafood market on the marina—an Instagram-worthy stop even if you’re not hungry yet. To rest your head in mid-century-modern style, try the Landing at Morro Bay and other reasonable motel-style properties, where the bay and the iconic Morro Rock are just outside your window.

SALIDA, COLORADO

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P.T. Wood is the mayor of Salida, Colorado. He is also the founder and owner of Wood’s High Mountain Distillery, which produces small-batch whiskeys, gin, and liqueurs, and the president of the Colorado Distillers’ Guild. (No minor responsibility, given that there are more than 90 distilleries in the Centennial State.) If that doesn’t set the tone of this hip little central-Colorado enclave, about 150 miles southwest of Denver, nothing can. It certainly hints at how much locals value food and drink, not to mention an appreciation for creativity—to whit, the various new boutique hotels popping up in old buildings. Also notable: Howl Mercantile and Café, a popular coffee shop that doubles as specialty shop for locally made accessories and home goods, and the Biker and the Baker, which has drawn a crowd of locals who kick back on vintage furniture and linger over wine, desserts, beer, cheese, and charcuterie since its opening last year. For further evidence of Salida's creative energy, look no further than its recently bestowed designation as a Certified Colorado Creative District, due in large part to its many artist studios and galleries. But this being Colorado and all, its natural beauty cannot go unmentioned. The Arkansas River, which runs right through downtown, is a utopia for anyone with a kayak, tube, or raft. Head to the hills to trek one of the many hiking trails, which offer access to four national forests, and don’t miss the indulgent hot springs.

PAIA, HAWAII

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Different beaches on Maui have different claims to fame, but Paia, located on the northern coast of the island, declares itself the World Capital of Windsurfing, thanks to its proximity to prime spots known to windsurfers around the globe. The sport makes for a grand spectacle even if you're not out on the water yourself, but those who prefer entertainment of the indoor variety will find plenty to do as well. The Art Project Paia, which opened in 2013 and hosts receptions and an assortment of other events, has a shop and a gallery showcasing multi-disciplinary art with Hawaiian themes. Most restaurants feature local seafood in the menu’s starring role, and adorable spots like Paia Bay Coffee and Bar, complete with garden seating, offer house-made baked goods and organic, sustainable meals. Happy hour is a lively event here as well. But if you're looking to rest up in a grand resort after a day in the sun, look elsewhere—charming inns and B&Bs are where you’ll be staying.

LAVA HOT SPRINGS, IDAHO

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The main draw of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, is no mystery. This small town (and we do mean small: population 412) boasts hot springs that invite hours of soaking in naturally mineral-rich waters. For those looking to get in a workout, there are indoor and seasonal outdoor swimming pools, plus thousand feet of zip lines that provide awe-inspiring views of the canyons below, and the nearby Pebble Creek Ski Area is a go-to for snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and cross country trails. But the lodgings in Lava Hot Springs are half the fun of a visit. There’s everything from romantic B&Bs to cottages for families and bigger groups, and with rates around town starting around $79 in the off-season, there’s no reason not to treat yourself to an extra day. The best part? This being such a small town, no hotel is too far from the outdoor springs.

FORT BENTON, MONTANA

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Established in 1846, Fort Benton is the oldest town in Montana. The one-time American fur-trading post and “deadliest town in the west” now enjoys National Historic Landmark status, and its history and the history of the region are on display at the Museum of the Upper Missouri and Old Fort Park, which focuses on the steamboat passages, and the Museum of the Great Northern Plains, a chronicle of 100 years of agricultural-based life on the plains. There's also the ruins of Historic Fort Benton, currently under reconstruction. Truth is, though, you can find history around every corner here. Walk along the Missouri River Levee (aka Steamboat Levee), for instance, and you’re following in the literal footsteps of Lewis and Clark. The local accommodations offer that old-timey feel as well, from the family-owned Pioneer Lodge (starting at $65), situated in a circa-1916 store, to the state’s oldest operating hotel, Grand Union Hotel (starting at $108), set in a historic building recently restored to its late 1800s grandeur. Then there’s the nature, which transcends history, with fishing, canoeing and kayaking on the Missouri River and hiking at the Upper Missouri River Breaks. Small though the town may be, it knows how to throw a big party. Plan your visit around one of its annual festivals, like the Summer Celebration in June or the Chouteau County Country Christmas, a shopping extravaganza featuring local businesses, during the holidays.

GREAT BASIN, NEVADA

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Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Zion are like the chart-toppers of American national parks, but there’s a whole roster of stunning, destination-worthy parks— less marquee names and but no less marquee-worthy—that rank high on the indie hit-list. Great Basin, in east-central Nevada, near the Utah border, is the perfect example. Established in 1986, it’s one of the newest national parks in the country. The 77,180-acre open space encompasses 13,063-foot-tall Wheeler Peak, alpine plants, diverse wildlife, lakes, streams, and vast expanses of sagebrush, to say nothing of South Snake range, an example of the geological phenomenon known as a “desert mountain island.” Arguably its greatest claim to fame, however, is Lehman Caves, a tapestry of stalagmites, stalactites, and a medley of other formations dating to five million years ago. Though it’s only one of the numerous limestone caverns in the park, it’s easily the most prominent, established as a national monument by the Forest Service back in 1922 before being transferred to the Park Service in 1933. For those looking for the full experience, there are three campsites and trails for backpackers, most of which follow along ridge lines or valley bottoms.

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

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Visitors returning from Albuquerque tend to mention the sunshine. (How does 310 sunny days per year sound to you?) They also mention the food, and if you haven’t gotten to know New Mexican cuisine yet, it will be a revelation, reflecting hundreds of years of tradition that blend not only traditional Mexican and Native American traditions but also the melange of settlers and passers-through that have made the area a meeting place and, yes, a melting pot, for so long. Albuquerque is currently home to more than 70 different ethnic groups from around the world, and although the city’s culinary culture is often defined by the delicious local chiles, there is a multitude of BBQ, Asian fusion, comfort foods, and more on every corner. Visitors also tend to rave about the museums here, perhaps because we don’t expect a place so loaded with natural beauty to also boast collections dedicated to Georgia O’Keeffe, Indian Pueblo Culture, hot-air balloons, and even rattlesnakes. (If you don’t believe us, check out the American International Rattlesnake Museum.) Speaking of balloons, if you’re looking for a different point of view, you can easily take to the sky: The mild climate, gorgeous scenery, and adventurous spirit have made Albuquerque the hot-air balloon capital of America, if not the world. Depending on the time of year, you can choose between skiing, golf, or sun worship, or even combine all three in just a few hours, thanks to the impressive Sandia Mountains.

ASHLAND, OREGON

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For anyone who has visited America’s jaw-droppingly beautiful Pacific Northwest and mused, “hmm, the only thing missing is a world-class Shakespearean theater company,” Ashland is the pinch-me answer. As if four seasons of outdoor activities (think: hiking, cycling, and kayaking, not to mention whitewater adventures for adrenaline junkies), cultural sites such as ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, an incredible array of fresh, locally sourced meat, fish, and produce, one of America’s finest wine scenes, and an abundance of craft beer weren't enough, the town is also home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which puts on a series of live theatrical productions from February through October each year. Founded in the 1930s, the festival focuses not only on the works of the Bard but also on contemporary pieces and classics, with much of the season (roughly June through October) including outdoor productions. It's one of the most highly regarded Shakespeare programs in the U.S., and has served as a training ground for young actors as well as a home-base for theater professionals who prize not only excellence in the arts but also a community spirit and a gorgeous natural environment.

ST. GEORGE, UTAH

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There are so many reasons that so many people could use a visit to St. George. Known as the gateway to Zion National Park, surrounded by state parks, the town is a veritable paradise for athletes. It hosts the St. George Marathon, the fifth-largest in the US; the Huntsman World Senior Games draw more than 10,000 tough grandparents to town each October, and 2,500-plus competitors descend here for the Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Championships each May. Nature lovers will appreciate abundant opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, climbing, and canoeing, while those in search of lower-impact activities will find plenty of golf, a slew of galleries, and lots of learning to be done. The Zion Human History Museum chronicles the American Indian and pioneer history, while the Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum showcases more than 300 species in detailed diorama settings. Top it all off with new hotels and a new regional airport, and there’s every reason to book a journey to this world-class city ASAP.

CASPER, WYOMING

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Casper has long been a city that’s seen lots and lots of travelers. The Oregon Trail, the Pony Express Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail all run through here. But against this historic backdrop and astonishing natural beauty, a renaissance is happening, and Wyoming’s second-largest city is once again seeing a spike in travelers. The anchor of this revival is the David Street Station, an event area connecting downtown with Old Yellowstone District, featuring an outdoor stage and lawn seating in the warmer months and an ice skating rink in the winter. Frontier Brewing Company, Backwards Distilling Company, and a bevy of renovated or recently opened eateries, like the Branding Iron, a creative, modern burger joint, all lend the area a sense of big-city vibrancy. These newer hip hangouts, however, do not overshadow the storybook Western legacy, which still looms large. The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, perched on a hill overlooking the city, chronicles the people and periods of the region. More ancient history gets the spotlight at Casper College’s Tate Geological Museum, home to 11,600-year-old Dee the Mammoth. And the nature in and around the city delivers timeless beauty. The North Platte River is a blue-ribbon trout stream that snakes through town, drawing fishing folks from far and wide. Anglers can also hit the gorgeous Fremont Canyon for a slow-paced afternoon.

COLUMBIA CITY, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

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There’s a veritable World’s Fair happening in Seattle’s Columbia Park, a compact neighborhood in the Rainier Valley area of southeast Seattle, nestled between the interstate and Lake Washington. It claims to be one of the most diverse zip codes in the country, and that’s evidenced in the sweeping variety of globally minded restaurants, from several Caribbean eateries to the Vietnamese-inspired raw bar Salted Sea to the British-accented Hummingbird Saloon, as well as institutions like local favorite Geraldine’s Counter, a classic-style diner. All this is offered against a historic Pacific Northwest backdrop. Dotted with green spaces, this exceedingly walkable waterside neighborhood is a historic landmark district, home to a circa-1914 branch of the public library funded by Andrew Carnegie and more turn-of-the-century houses than sleek new town houses—a rare sight as construction booms throughout Seattle. Other businesses, such as the Ark Lodge Cinemas, located in a Masonic Lodge that dates to 1921, and a selection of independent retailers and vintage shops, keep the small-town vibe going strong. 

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