Where to Go for a Budget-Friendly Summer Vacation in All 50 States
With 32 miles of sugar-white sand beaches and picturesque turquoise waters, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach attracts visitors of all ages year-round. Gulf State Park, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and the 15-mile Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail bring guests up close and personal with local flora and fauna. Orange Beach also has one of the largest charter fishing fleets on the Gulf, more than 17,000 artificial reefs for diving, and Gulf State Park Pier, the second-longest fishing pier on the Gulf of Mexico.
Alaska is known for easy access to vast expanses of wilderness, including Denali National Park, the state's No. 1 visitor destination. Instead of booking an expensive "flightseeing" tour (although landing on a glacier might be a once-in-a-lifetime use for a few hundred dollars) opt for a half- or full-day narrated bus tour. Denali also offers free sled dog demonstrations and evening campground programs with weekly topics that range from glaciers to grizzlies.
Travelers looking to renew mind, body, and spirit should head to Sedona, two hours' drive from Phoenix. There are lots of fancy resorts in the area, but a more affordable Airbnb rental would be a good home base for visits to Red Rock State Park, which alone is worth a trip -- many say it's better than the Grand Canyon. Be sure to also check out Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, Merry-Go-Round Rock, and the "Vortexes," where some believe spiritual energies swirl. Yoga, meditation, psychic readings, and crystal shops are abundant. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike, drive scenic tours, take horseback rides, or barrel around on ATVs.
For a restorative vacation, consider Hot Springs, named for the 47 natural thermal springs flowing from neighboring mountains. On Bathhouse Row, hotels offer a variety of thermal treatments using the 143-degree water from Hot Springs Creek. Hot Springs National Park, nicknamed "The American Spa," dates back to 1832 and is one of the smallest national parks in the United States. Visitors can opt for guided or self-guided tours of the 26-mile trail system and camp at Gulpha Gorge Campground.
Palm Desert, in the Coachella Valley, offers plenty of opportunities to explore, shop, dine, and relax. There are many miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Visitors of all ages will love the Living Desert Zoo Gardens, an attraction dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the desert in its natural state. It's $20 for adult admission, but at 1,200 acres, the zoo can provide a full day of entertainment (save money by bringing in food and seeking out picnic areas). For a different kind of Palm Desert experience, window shop the more than 300 shops and galleries of the mile-long El Paseo shopping district, and check out these free and cheap things to do in Palm Springs, while you're in the area.
Hikers and bikers can see the best vistas of Boulder's iconic flatirons from the 48 miles of multi-level trails that meander through the hilly meadows and forests of Chautauqua Park. On Monday nights from June to August, picnic-packing families descend on the landmark for kiddie hikes and the Meadow Music sing-along. Minutes from the city, Eldorado Canyon State Park is famed for its technical rock climbing, with more than 500 routes, but also attracts painters and photographers.
Located within an hour of New York City, Norwalk boasts many attractions perfect for family fun or a romantic getaway. It's a walkable place, so visitors should first stop at Mathews Park, where they'll find free parking and nearby attractions. The 62-room Lockwood Mathews Mansion, a National Historic Landmark, is free to tour, and the Stepping Stones Museum for Children immerses kids in interactive learning experiences. Although admission is $15 a person, the museum is big and can take up much of the day.
There's more to the "Small Wonder" than tax-free shopping. Sun and surf seekers flock to Delaware for its beaches. Take a step back in time and visit picturesque Lewes, a charming beachside community founded in 1631 that offers a mix of architecture, restaurants, quaint shops, and miles of nature trails and bird sanctuaries. Enjoy a day of surf fishing or take in the awesome view from atop the World War II observation tower at Cape Henlopen State Park. Later, head to Dewey Beach for nightly live music at the Starboard, where there's no cover charge.
There's more to Miami Beach than sun-kissed beaches, stunning views, and hot nightlife. See the ecosystems of Biscayne National Park, south of Miami, including Biscayne Bay and its offshore reefs; discover the historic Art Deco District; get active with beach volleyball, walking, and biking trails, a tennis center, and kiteboarding at Crandon Park; people-watch on Ocean Drive; and check out Miami's vibrant art scene with walks among its galleries. These are just a few of the many free and cheap things to enjoy in Miami.
LaGrange, just an hour south of Atlanta, is filled with rich history, beautiful architecture, tree-lined streets, a bustling downtown of restaurants, antique markets and boutiques, and museums and attractions. Nearby West Point Lake offers swimming, hiking trails, and good fishing. The historic, 35-acre Hills Dales Estate costs $20 to tour, but it's only $10 for the gardens. Perhaps one of the most unique offerings in LaGrange is the Biblical History Center, a nonprofit archaeological and educational park that recreates ancient Middle Eastern history and displays more than 250 Bible-era artifacts ($20 to visit).
The second-largest island in the Hawaiian chain, Maui boasts year-round bikini-friendly temperatures and an unparalleled lineup of attractions, from postcard-worthy beaches to waterfall hikes. One of Maui's top tourist attractions, the Hana Highway, is famous for the 600 hairpin curves and dozens of one-lane bridges encountered over the course of a 52-mile drive. Be sure to stop along the way to dip into roadside waterfalls, buy fresh local fruit, and snap selfies at the many gorgeous vistas. Another popular destination is Haleakala National Park, which sits atop the dormant volcano that is Maui's highest peak. For some of Hawaii's best cheap fun, travel up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the sunrise from above the clouds, hike around the lunar-like landscape, or ride a mountain bike down some of the 38-mile summit to the sea.
In addition to boasting the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, Idaho has some of the best whitewater, including the Salmon River -- one of America's first Wild and Scenic Rivers and one of its longest free-flowing rivers. With more than 100 miles of whitewater, and more than 100 rapids, the river beckons anyone who appreciates the great outdoors, hot springs, beautiful scenery, and abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mountain goats, river otters, elk, and black bears, not to mention osprey, owls, eagles, and an abundance of other birds. Whitewater rafters have it especially good, riding the rapids down the largest road-less area left in the country outside Alaska.
Chicago is an easy city to navigate on foot. Spend the day shopping along the Magnificent Mile, snap photos of your reflection in Cloud Gate, aka "The Bean," ride the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel at Pier Park or go to the beach on Lake Michigan. Chicago also stakes claim to two of the tallest buildings in the country -- Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and the John Hancock Building, where a drink at the 95th floor Signature Room comes with views similar to the $20-plus observation deck. During summer months, Millennium Park is home to many free concerts and festivals. Don't forget to grab a slice of deep-dish pizza or a Chicago-style hot dog. The Second City is full of tasty places to eat for cheap.
Fort Wayne offers lots of affordable, family-friendly attractions. The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo ($14 for adults, $10 for children) includes a sky safari through African veldt, Australian outback, and Indonesian rainforest environments. Explore science through hands-on exhibits and experiments at Science Central ($9). Attend a festival, such as Germanfest, Greekfest, Riverpalooza, or the Hobnobben film festival. Or just take in a Fort Wayne TinCaps baseball game (tickets start at just $5).
The Iowa State Fair in Des Moines is so classic it's been the setting for a novel, "State Fair," with four film versions and a Broadway musical adaptation. So what can travelers expect to see? This is one of the world's largest livestock shows and the state's largest arts show, with hundreds of events and wacky contests (rubber-chicken throwing and outhouse races, for example), about 900 competitions based around food, and more than 70 food items served up "on a stick." The fair is the state's largest tourism event, attracting more than 1 million visitors a year over its 11-day run each August ($8 for adults and $4 for children for tickets bought in advance).
Unlike the rest of Kansas, Chase County has hills -- the gently rolling Flint Hills, home of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the largest remaining swath of virgin tallgrass prairie in the country. "Cottonwood Falls is the main town, a pretty little town with a big spun-sugar courthouse, a few shops and restaurants," says Sophia Dembling, author of "100 Places in the USA Every Women Should Go," in an email. "It's a restful, meditative place."
For family vacations, Bowling Green rules. It's the only place on the planet where the Corvette is made, and home to the National Corvette Museum ($10 for adults, $5 for kids 6 to 16) as well as the Beech Bend Raceway ($10). There's lots of down-home fun, from craft breweries and Bowling Green Hot Rods baseball to family-owned favorites such as Chaney's ice cream and movie barn. Bowling Green is only a half-hour drive from Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world.
Louisiana boasts some of the most unique and striking landscapes in the country for action-packed vacations or a trip filled with leisurely strolls through historical state parks and creole nature trails. Kisatchie National Forest near Alexandra encompasses 604,000 acres of bald cypress groves, old growth pine, and recreational activities such as bird watching, photography, backpacking, canoeing, all-terrain vehicle trails, boating, camping, cycling, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, hunting, mountain biking, picnicking, and swimming. The forest has more than 40 developed recreation sites and more than 100 miles of trails.
The Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land contains blueberry barrens, woodlands, and peatlands in its 12,234 acres, along with 4.5 miles of headlands -- strips of land projecting dramatically into the sea. During summer months it's not all that uncommon to spy seals, porpoises, and whales, along with sightings of many species of birds among its pocket coves.
Head to Baltimore for top blue crab and other seafood. The historic Cross Street Market in the Federal Hill neighborhood has cheap beer and fresh catches and is less than 10 minutes' drive from Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. Tickets start at $15 to catch a game in this handsome, modern stadium in the heart of the city. The Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine -- where the 1814 Battle of Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- is $10 for visitors 16 and older, free for kids.
The Bay State's Plymouth County, site of the county founded by passengers from the Mayflower in 1620, offers travelers a boat ride through the Cape Cod Canal for $17. Stop at Cupcake Charlie's on the Plymouth Waterfront to splurge on a mid-afternoon snack (treats start at more than $3, and with quite a few calories) on the way to experience a Dead of Night Ghost Tour ($15 for adults, $10 for children).
Nestled on Lake Michigan, New Buffalo offers an attractive beach (where the biggest expense might be the $12 spent on parking for the day) and the free Galien River County Park, for hiking, fishing, and spectacular views from a 60-foot-high marsh overlook tower. Also free is the New Buffalo Railroad Museum, providing a look back at a time ruled by steam engines. Some might want to plan a trip around the Blue Moon Vintage Market. It's open only once a month, but the one-of-a-kind treasures and screaming deals are worth the wait.
It's hard to go wrong with a summer vacation in a state with more than 11,840 lakes, but people looking for a getaway might be particularly pleased with Lake Vermilion, also called "lake of the sunset glow" -- named one of the country's most scenic lakes in the 1940s by the National Geographic Society and still stunning as a fishing, hiking, and boating destination. The lake features 365 islands and 1,200 miles of shoreline and hosts Minnesota's newest state park, the 4,000-acre Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, which lets tourists explore the last-used level of a mine dug in 1892 ($15 for adults, $10 for children 6 to 12).
As the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Tupelo offers visitors a chance to explore the humble home where he was born (tours start at $8 for adults, $5 for kids ages 7 to 12), the hardware store where he bought his first guitar, and other sites that molded the boy who would be king. The full Elvis experience includes the city's many live music venues and, of course, Southern cuisine. Not an Elvis fan? Tupelo is also the headquarters of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the 444-mile scenic byway extending from Nashville, one of the top 10 most-visited national park sites in the country.
Lake of the Ozarks, with its natural beauty, is a top spot for summer travelers to the Show-Me State. Be sure to check out Ha Ha Tonka State Park, with its remnants of a circa-1904 stone castle and soaring bluffs offering scenic vistas. There are hiking and walking trails for the more athletically inclined.
Glacier National Park has something for any nature lover in its more than 1,500 square miles. Hikers of all levels can choose from more than 700 miles of Rocky Mountain trail. There's canoeing or paddle boarding on Lake McDonald and cycling on rental bikes. Take a scenic drive up Going-to-the-Sun Road, and keep your eyes open for wildlife ranging from mountain goats to grizzly bears. The summer rate for a seven-day park permit is $30.
Check out the fascinating little town of Red Cloud, childhood home of author Willa Cather, who immortalized the town and the people she knew there in such novels as "My Antonia" and "O Pioneers!" Visit Cather's childhood home (and see the attic room fans of her writing will recognize from "The Song of the Lark") and other locations mentioned in her books and now on the National Register of Historic Sites. Tours are $10 for adults and $5 for kids.
The 98-mile Nevada State Highway 375 is so close to the infamous Area 51, and so well-known for sightings of strange lights in the sky, that it has become known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. While there are only a few dozen residents in Rachel, a town along the highway, they do their best to point visitors to ghost towns and other nearby attractions. Whether those passing through are true believers or looking for alien kitsch, the area is picturesque and known for its dark night skies; the Milky Way tends to be extremely showy there.
For a festive Fourth of July, go to Wolfeboro on Lake Winnipesaukee, a vacation destination for everyone from Mitt Romney and the Marriott hotel family to Drew Barrymore and Kurt Vonnegut. (Jimmy Fallon even named his daughter "Winnie" after the lake.) The free parade features kids on unicycles, Elvis impersonators, classic wooden boats, costumes from the local summer theater, youth baseball teams, and military transport from the World War II Wright Museum. At other times during the summer, explore Wolfeboro's walkable downtown full of independently owned shops.
The Garden State boasts more than 120 miles of beach, and eight of the best can be found in Ocean City. Billed as "America's greatest family resort," this seaside spot offers a two-mile boardwalk full of amusements. Need some culture with your sun? Check out Ocean City Arts Center exhibits and the Ocean City Historical Museum.
The first city in the United States to be designated a UNESCO Creative City, the southern mountain town of Santa Fe -- known as "The City Different" for more than a century -- is a mecca of spas, retreats, hiking, biking, river rafting, skiing, fishing, and enough other endeavors to fill four or five days -- or four or five months. Travelers enjoy the Museum of International Folk Art ($6 to $12), Wiford Gallery Sculpture Garden, and Santa Fe Botanical Garden ($10 for adults, $7 for children), and there are free family art programs on many Saturdays at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
There's more to Cooperstown than the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Nestled on the shores of Lake Otsego, it's a place where history, art, romance, culture, golf, and baseball coexist in an unspoiled natural setting. Savvy opera lovers flock to Cooperstown each summer for its Glimmerglass Festival, where some shows have tickets as low as $26. There's also a handful of museums dedicated to the nation's history, including the Fenimore Art Museum ($12 for adults, free for kids 12 and under) and a Farmers' Museum that recreates local life in the 19th century ($12 for adults, $6 for kids 12 and under).
The iconic chain of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks is home to some of the largest tracts of undeveloped beach on the East Coast. Road trippers will enjoy the 138-mile Outer Banks National Scenic Byway along coastline preserved for recreation and wildlife, with access to fishing and surf. The four islands are home to national and state parks with stories dating back to the Wright brothers (at Kitty Hawk) and the first English colony in the New World (on Roanoke Island). The towns and coastal villages are well worth exploration.
History buffs get a hands-on perspective at North Dakota's 12-acre Bonanzaville in West Fargo ($12 for adults, $6 for children). From a church, courthouse, and country store to log cabins and a sod house, there are 43 historic buildings and a ton of memorabilia to explore -- more than 400,000 items, including airplanes, antique cars, and farm equipment. The Cass County Historical Society has been moving buildings from around the county to the Bonanzaville land since 1967.
Accessible only by boat or plane, the quaint village of Put-in-Bay on the banks of tiny South Bass Island has become legendary among Midwesterners, winning nicknames such as "the Key West of the Midwest" and the "closer-to-home Caribbean." The Miller Ferry, the easiest and most affordable way to get to the island, takes just under 20 minutes and costs $15 round-trip, delivering visitors to their choice of waterfront restaurants, taverns, and brewpubs (don't miss the Mojito Bay bar, complete with sand floor), as well as outdoor activities such as kayaking through limestone cliffs and camping. Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial offers a view over the western basin of Lake Erie to Canada and the longest undefended border in the world.
Grand Lake 'O the Cherokees is one of the Sooner State's most popular summer lake destinations. The result of the Pensacola Dam project completed in 1940, it touts 1,300 miles of shoreline hugged by five state parks. Outdoorsmen especially like the Grand Lake area. No matter where you land, expect an abundance of sunshine and scenic rolling green hills.
Considered among the "best small towns to visit" in 2013 by Smithsonian Magazine, Astoria is a draw for travelers for its food, beer, art, scenic beauty, and rich history -- it's the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. Drive across the Astoria Column for panoramic views of the region, which is on the Columbia River just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum or stop at Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark wintered more than 200 years ago. Fort Stevens State Park holds the remains of the shipwrecked vessel Peter Iredale, which was headed to Portland in 1906 and is now one of the most accessible ruins in the "Graveyard of the Pacific."
History buffs will love historic Philadelphia, where two of democracy's greatest documents were written and the Second Continental Congress was held. Visitors to Independence Hall can check out the assembly room where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were drafted and signed. Nearby, learn how a State House bell became the Liberty Bell, a symbol of independence for the entire country. Within walking distance is Elfreth's Alley, one of the oldest residential streets in the United States, where there are 32 buildings dating from the 1720s to the 1830s.
The coastal enclave of Newport was the playground of the country's elite during the Gilded Age and remains rich in world-class events, acclaimed restaurants, cultural attractions, alluring beaches, miles of trails, and diverse hotels and bed and breakfasts. At the International Tennis Hall of Fame Museum ($15 for adults, free for kids 16 and younger) there are more than 1,900 artifacts of tennis history. The Discover Colonial Newport walking tour ($15) delivers stories of entrepreneurship and religious diversity at the time of the nation's founding. Gawk at Newport's world-renowned mansions or explore the tunnels at Fort Adams, America's largest coastal fortification. Guided tours are $12 for adults, $6 for children, and $30 for families.
In the heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry, Beaufort offers a sweet escape for lovers of water, history, and adventure. Decades of Southern history are scattered about its surrounding sea islands and historic downtown. Hunting Island State Park includes an 1859 lighthouse that is open to the public -- the only one in the state. There's a $2 fee to enter and climb its 167 steps for a glimpse of what the lighthouse keepers saw every day. Later, catch a nightly double feature at Beaufort's Highway 21 Drive-In theater, only $7 for adults and $3 for kids.
Just 20 miles from Mount Rushmore, Rapid City is a good home base for a visit and offers its own presidential tourist attractions: Every downtown block is home to life-size bronze sculptures of the nation's past presidents. At Mount Rushmore, many visitors ogle those oversize presidential faces and hop back in the car. Spend a bit more time at the South Dakota site and experience the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail (Note: there are more than 400 stairs) to get an up-close experience -- and maybe even see some local wildlife.
The Peabody Memphis hotel may be too expensive for an overnight stay but there's no charge to see the renowned Peabody Ducks. Their twice-daily march to the lobby fountain from Royal Duck Palace, a $200,000 glass and marble structure on the hotel roof, is a 90-year tradition.
An hour's drive from Houston's two airports, Galveston offers a lot of bang for the travel buck. Home to 32 miles of beaches, restaurants galore, free art walks, the Galveston Railroad Museum ($10 for adults, $5 for kids), the 1877 tall ship Elissa, and hiking at Galveston National Park, the island is a fun, budget-friendly destination.
Spend a summer getaway giving back at the Best Friends Animal Society in southern Utah. After a free tour, opt to help with some of the 1,700 abused and abandoned cats, dogs, horses, potbellied pigs, rabbits, and parrots waiting to find their forever homes. The nation's largest no-kill companion animal sanctuary welcomes some 30,000 visitors and about 9,000 volunteers every year, and accepts monetary donations). It's also in Kanab, in red rock Canyon Country, less than a two-hour drive from three iconic national parks: Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
What it lacks in size this New England gem makes up for in natural beauty and quirky culture. In Middlebury, travelers find a mix of culture, shopping, and outdoor recreation. Swing by the independent Vermont Bookstore for local reads and jazz and classical recordings. Check out the University of Vermont's Morgan Horse Farm ($5 for adults, $4 for teens, $2 for children) or Middlebury College Museum of Art (free). The Town Hall Theater hosts productions, performances, and art exhibits, some for as little as $10 to enjoy.
Plan a summer vacation full of hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities in Prince William and Manassas, just 30 miles from the nation's capital. Manassas National Battlefield Park, site of two major Civil War battles, is a 5,000-acre park with walking, hiking, and horseback riding trails, and there's another 37 miles of hiking trails at Prince William Forest Park, where visitors can spend the night in a tent ($20 a night) or rent a cabin (prices start at $40 for a four-person cabin). Built in the 1930s, the cabins once housed spies being trained during World War II. Have a picnic and soak up the sun on the half-mile of sand beach at Leesylvania State Park, overlooking the Potomac River.
Lake Chelan is a beloved waterfront destination three hours east of Seattle. Generations of families flock every summer for crystal clear water, a sunny, semi-desert valley climate, and horizons sprinkled with orchards and vineyards. Spend the day on the water, go wine tasting at family-owned vineyards (some with free tours and tastings), or go shopping along a classic American Main Street.
Adventures on the Gorge, a resort serving the New River Gorge National River, Gauley River National Recreation Area, and Bluestone National Scenic River in southern West Virginia, has accommodations for any budget, with nightly campsites starting at $15 a person and prebuilt platform tents costing $49 for double occupancy.
Madison is a college town with plenty of culture and culinary chops (including a growing distillery movement and thriving craft beer scene). Nearly two dozen free entertainment ideas gathered by the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau include botanical gardens, rooftop concerts, mansion tours, museums, and family-focused shows at the Overture Center for the Arts.
Cody makes a good base for day trips to Yellowstone National Park, which is only a half-hour drive ($20 for adults arriving by foot or bike, $30 for cars). Yellowstone will have plenty of crowds, lines, and sold-out facilities over the summer, making it good strategy to stay somewhere outside the park that's interesting on its own. Cody's Buffalo Bill Center of the West is five museums in one and 14 miles away is the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, on the site of a camp that incarcerated more than 14,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. Cody is also an outdoor adventure mecca and hosts the Old Trail Town Museum of the Old West, a collection of frontier buildings showing what it was like to live on the frontier.
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