Affordable & Convenient Outdoor Vacation Destinations
1. Acadia National Park – Maine
Acadia National Park is the only national park in New England. It covers much of Mount Desert Island, a massive, rocky island that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Maine. Acadia is known for beautiful inland lakes, thick forests that turn glorious hues in fall, and stunning ocean and mountain views from its rocky outcrops.
Cadillac Mountain, the tallest peak on the U.S. Atlantic coast, is a must-visit. The quaint town of Bar Harbor sits just outside the park and features an impressive collection of 19th century architecture. Despite being an easy day’s drive from Boston, Acadia is much less crowded and more affordable than other coastal New England destinations, such as Cape Cod and the New Hampshire coast.
- Entrance Fee: $25 for a seven-day vehicle pass, $12 for a seven-day bike/hike pass.
- Best Time to Visit: Winter lasts from November to April in this part of the world, and spring is a muddy, often raw season that can last into June. With the year’s best weather, July and August are Acadia’s busiest and most expensive months. Early to mid-October is peak foliage season, another busy and expensive time. The sweet spot is mid- to late September, when crisp temperatures thin the crowds, but there’s no snow or ice and the leaves haven’t yet peaked. Acadia is significantly cheaper and roomier during this time.
- How to Get There: Without traffic, Acadia is about four and a half hours by car from central Boston, and roughly half that from Portland, Maine. If you’re coming from outside New England, fly into Boston’s Logan Airport, a major hub. You can then fly directly into Bar Harbor, Maine, from Logan, with flights taking about an hour and starting at $250 per seat. However, the drive up the rocky, rugged Maine coast is hard to beat, and Portland – with its quaint cobblestone streets and unpretentious, affordable foodie joints – is a great overnight stop if you have an extra night to spare.
- Where to Stay: There are tons of cute bed and breakfasts in Bar Harbor and nearby communities, but they can be pricey – $150 and up per night, even during the offseason. If you’re set on staying in a warm bed, try the lodgings at Primrose Place (formerly Aurora Inn), just outside Bar Harbor. Posted room rates start near $100 per night in mid-September. For those with tighter budgets, camping is the most cost-effective option during the warm season. Acadia’s two best campgrounds are Blackwoods (drive-up and walk-in, $30 per night) and Seawall ($22 walk-in, $30 drive-up), both of which recommend reservations. Campground availability is extremely limited in winter.
- What to Do: Acadia is a DIY kind of park, which is great news for frugal travelers. If you don’t bring your own bike, stop at Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop and rent one (starting at $19 for four hours and $25 for a full day), then take it out on the park’s dense network of carriage roads. If you’re bike-less, choose from easy hikes, such as the two-mile Great Meadow Loop, or strenuous ascents, like the seven-mile Cadillac South Ridge Trail, which takes you from sea level to Cadillac’s peak. If you have a car and want the view without the walking, you can just drive up Park Loop Road to the top of Cadillac Mountain.
- Special Events and Attractions: If you visit Acadia in late September, don’t miss the Acadia Night Sky Festival, a celebration of the region’s astronomical assets.
You Might Also Like: Prefer the West Coast to the East Coast? Check out our guide to the best cheap things to do in Portland, Oregon – the United States’ “other” Portland.
2. The Badlands and Black Hills – North Dakota, South Dakota & Wyoming
The western Dakotas don’t usually get much attention, but this vast, sparsely populated region is home to three national parks: Badlands and Wind Cave in South Dakota, and Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota. Interspersed among them are Black Hills National Forest and several national grasslands.
Badlands is so stark and otherworldly that the park convincingly served as an alien planet in “Starship Troopers.” Theodore Roosevelt also harbors the rocky, arid terrain commonly known as badlands, though it’s also known for majestic grasslands and thriving bison herds.
Meanwhile, the heavily forested Black Hills occupy the most rugged patch of ground between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. Iconic Mount Rushmore lurks deep within them, while even larger Crazy Horse Memorial is slowly emerging nearby (though it won’t be completed for decades). South of the heart of the Black Hills lies Wind Cave National Park, which contains one of the world’s longest cave systems – and more bison.
- Entrance Fee: At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a seven-day vehicle pass is $25 and a seven-day bike/hike pass is $12. At Badlands, a seven-day vehicle pass is $20 and a seven-day bike/hike pass is $10. It costs $10 to park at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, so you should hike in if possible. Wind Cave National Park is free to enter, park in, and explore. Admission to the cave complex is by tour only. Fees range from $10 to $30 depending on the tour. Children between the ages of six and sixteen pay half-price admission, and those five and under are free. Crazy Horse Memorial charges $12 per person, with a maximum charge per car of $30 – so carpool if at all possible.
- Best Time to Visit: The western Dakotas’ climate is pretty extreme, with very short spring and fall seasons. May and October – the shoulder seasons – generally have the ideal combination of low prices and good weather, though unseasonable cold snaps and heat waves (or snowstorms) are possible. The more popular formations and attractions, such as Wind Cave and Mount Rushmore, are extremely crowded during the summer months, especially around holidays and fee-free days like August 25th, the National Park Service’s birthday. Summer crowds are less of a problem in the wide-open spaces of Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt, but temperatures that routinely peak near 100 degrees can be a problem. If you visit during summer, get most of your activity out of the way in the morning or evening – which are also the best time to photograph the Badlands’ spires. And unless you’re an avid motorcyclist, avoid early August, when thousands of bikers descend on the Black Hills town of Sturgis for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
- How to Get There: The Badlands and Black Hills cover a huge territory, spanning nearly 200 miles east to west and at least 300 miles north to south. The closest airport to Badlands, Wind Cave, and the Black Hills is outside Rapid City, South Dakota (nonstops to Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Minneapolis start at about $200). From there, all the major South Dakota attractions are less than an hour and a half by car. Theodore Roosevelt is roughly five hours north of Rapid City, a long but beautiful drive. If you want to focus on that area, fly into Bismarck, North Dakota (nonstops to Minneapolis, Denver, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, and Orlando start at about $150, but vary by season) and rent a car. From there, it’s a two- to three-hour drive to the park entrance. Expect to pay at least $30 per day for economy rentals in Bismarck and Rapid City, and more during peak tourist periods.
- Where to Stay: If you’re looking for a proper hotel or motel near Badlands, the towns of Interior and Wall (home of the always-weird, but always free, Wall Drug) have plenty. Local Days Inn rates start near $60 in May and October. For camping, the primitive Sage Creek Campground is free and the more comfortable Cedar Pass Campground is $18 per night. In the Black Hills, cheap rustic cabins and campgrounds abound in the shoulder seasons, with many open year-round. About half are free; most of the rest cost less than $10 per night. Theodore Roosevelt has two campgrounds: Cottonwood and Juniper. Each cost $10 per night. There’s also a campground called Roundup Group Horse ($40 per group, per night), but it’s very difficult to reserve.
- What to Do: Both Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt have looping drives that offer great opportunities for photographing rock formations – and, if you’re lucky, bison herds. These can typically be done in the course of a leisurely morning. Also, Black Hills is a hiker’s paradise. Choose from gentle walks like the two-mile Dutchman Loop or strenuous climbs like five-mile Harney Peak North. Wind Cave has easy to moderate hiking too, but the cave is the real draw. It’s worth paying for a tour, which typically lasts one to two hours and features a moderate walk through tight passages, majestic caverns, and bizarre underground formations.
- Special Events and Attractions: Downtown Rapid City has a surprisingly rich street life. Notable attractions include Art Alley, a multi-block area covered with graffiti and murals, and City of Presidents, a series of bronze statues commemorating past U.S. presidents.
3. Mammoth Cave National Park – Kentucky
Wind Cave is pretty impressive, but the continent’s largest cavern system actually lies deep underneath the rugged hills of south-central Kentucky. Mammoth Cave National Park encompasses the most tourist-friendly portion of the sprawling complex. There are more than 400 miles of explored caverns here, though visitors are only allowed in a small fraction of them.
Unlike many cave systems, Mammoth is known for vast caverns, some several stories high. Due to the difficulty and danger of exploring caves on one’s own, you may need to sign up for a tour to get the full measure of the cave’s beauty. However, if you’re a fan of the hiking and climbing associated with traditional outdoors vacations, the rugged, forested landscape above the caverns is great for exploring and camping.
- Entrance Fee: There’s no park entrance fee, though cave tours cost between $7 and $55, depending on length and location.
- Best Time to Visit: Southern Kentucky has a four-season climate with chilly, sometimes snowy winters and muggy summers. The mild transitional seasons (April to May and September to November) are the most comfortable times to visit, though the late October foliage season can draw crowds. Lodging tends to be cheaper during these months as well. Tour reservations are recommended at any time of year, but particularly during the busy spring and summer periods.
- How to Get There: Mammoth Cave is about an hour and a half by car from both Nashville and Louisville. If you live in the states surrounding Kentucky, driving in might be the best bet. Otherwise, both Nashville and Louisville have international airports with nonstop or one-stop flights to many major U.S. cities, starting below $200 round-trip.
- Where to Stay: Lodging is cheap and plentiful near the entrance to Mammoth Cave. For cheap hotels and motels, check out the Sleep Inn or Super 8 ($55 to $65 per night and up) in Cave City. If you’re up for camping or seeing Mammoth as part of a long-distance hike, there are two major campgrounds for drive-up or walk-in campers: Mammoth Cave ($20 per night) and Houchin Ferry ($12 per night).
- What to Do: Unsurprisingly, the focus of Mammoth Cave National Park is the cave itself. The Mammoth Passage Tour ($7) offers a cursory look at this vast underground world, but the Domes and Dripstones Tour ($15) and the Great Onyx Lantern Tour ($18) offer a more comprehensive look for a reasonable price.
- Special Events and Attractions: Just outside the park, the American Cave Museum is a legitimate attraction that features Native American artifacts and exhibits showcasing subterranean wildlife and geology. It’s open year-round, though the warm season features more programming.
4. Keystone – Colorado
Though resorts in the heart of the Colorado Rockies rarely appear on lists of affordable vacation destinations, Keystone is a cost-effective getaway if your heart isn’t set on tasting its world-class powder. Slopes aside, Keystone arguably offers more to do in summer than in winter, from beautiful hikes in the surrounding high country, to affordable alpine tubing and biking in one of the country’s premier mountain biking parks. If you’re into water sports, great fly fishing and rafting (with affordable rentals on both counts) isn’t far away.
Keystone’s differentiator is its location on U.S. Forest Service lands, which limits the tourist development that afflicts other big mountain resorts. That makes for a hard-to-beat combination of affordability and beauty.
You Might Also Like: If you’re looking for affordable outdoor vacation options in the heart of the Rockies, two other Colorado destinations are worth checking out: Steamboat Springs and Grand Lake. Before you settle on a destination, check out our lists of things to do in Steamboat Springs, places to stay in Steamboat Springs, and places to stay in Grand Lake, too.
- Entrance Fee: There’s no entrance fee to access the town of Keystone or the surrounding lands.
- Best Time to Visit: Keystone is a top destination for snow lovers, but it’s hard to ski and board on the cheap. For a taste of warm-weather Keystone, visit from late August through early October, when the summer crowds have left but the snow hasn’t started flying. Lodging is more affordable this time of year. Foliage season peaks in late September, offering an added bonus. Just bring warm clothing, as lows routinely drop below freezing despite daytime highs in the 60s and 70s.
- How to Get There: In optimal traffic and weather conditions in early fall, Keystone is about an hour and a half from central Denver and roughly two hours from Denver International Airport. As a major hub, Denver has nonstop flights from dozens of U.S. cities, starting at around $100 round-trip.
- Where to Stay: You don’t have to stay in a pricey resort to enjoy Keystone. The Best Western in nearby Dillon ($60 per night and up in the offseason, $90 per night and up in the winter) is affordable and comfortable. U.S. 6, the main road leading into town, is lined with reasonably priced hotels. If you’re up for camping, White River National Forest(which surrounds Keystone) has two nearby campgrounds: Prospector and Lowry, open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Both cost $21 to $26 per night.
- What to Do: Keystone Resort has more than 100 miles of single track mountain biking trails. At $40, a day pass is a bit pricey, but definitely worthwhile if you spend all or most of the day on the trail. Nearby Lake Dillon has excellent fishing, with a three-day Colorado fishing license priced at $31. The Keystone area is crisscrossed with free hiking trails, including the moderate, seven-mile Schoolmarm Loop.
- Special Events and Attractions: Keystone has several noteworthy festivals during the warm season. The Bluegrass and Beer Festival, held every August, is particularly popular. One-day passes cost $40; two-days run $75. If you come earlier in the summer, keep an eye out for the Blue Ribbon Bacon Tour (late June, $25 to $50) and the Wine & Jazz Festival (mid-July, $60).
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting Keystone during the cold season, be sure to dress appropriately. Check out our roundup of the top ski and snowboard clothing and gear brands that blend style and affordability.
5. Coastal Georgia’s Wildlife Refuges – Georgia
The Southeast Atlantic coast is best known for well-preserved, culturally rich colonial cities such as Charleston and Savannah. Between these built-up areas, however, visitors are often shocked to find watery, thinly populated expanses of forest and marshland. Maybe that’s why coastal Georgia, between Savannah and Brunswick, is home to no fewer than five state and national wildlife refuges (Wolf Island, Blackbeard Island, Harris Neck, Wassaw, and Reynolds).
These spaces brim with wildlife, especially migratory birds and waterfowl that nest near the region’s wildlife-rich waters. An abundance of campgrounds and affordable, no-frills lodgings lowers the cost of any trip to this part of the world. Also, if you’re ready to trade the bird binoculars and waders for a cold beverage and bathing suit, there is an abundance of free beaches.
- Entrance Fee: None of these wildlife refuges have entrance fees, though you may have to pay for a fishing permit ($9 for residents and $45 for nonresidents).
- Best Time to Visit: Coastal Georgia is not a particularly pleasant place to be in summer. Unfortunately, summer may be the most affordable time to visit, with local hotels slashing prices to offset lower demand for rooms. Spring and fall are much more crowded and expensive. If you don’t mind bringing a jacket and pants, January and February are the most cost-effective months to visit, with few crowds and low prices. Spring break is extremely busy, particularly on Tybee Island.
- How to Get There: This is a roughly 100-mile stretch of coastline within easy access of Interstate 95, the Atlantic coast’s main thoroughfare. The region is about four driving hours from Atlanta, but the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport has a decent number of direct flights from East Coast cities like New York (starting around $200 round-trip from JFK).
- Where to Stay: Camping in the ecologically sensitive wildlife refuges isn’t allowed, but you can post up at two nearby state parks: Skidaway Island and Fort McAllister. Campsites with sewer and electrical hookups start at around $40 per night. It’s expensive to stay at a hotel in or near Savannah, but Darien and Brunswick – less than an hour down the coast – have plenty of cheap, clean lodgings.
- What to Do: These refuges are best seen by boat. For $95 for the first day and $25 for each additional day, you can rent a two-person kayak at Southeast Adventure in Brunswick or St. Simons Island. Once you’re on the water, you can paddle around and snap photos or fish to your heart’s content. (Specialized fishing kayaks cost $95 per day.) For a more novel experience, look into stand up paddleboard rentals. For dry land sightseeing, rent a bike at Monkey Wrench in St. Simons ($20 per day). For a beach break, head to Tybee Island and soak up the rays on a broad, family-friendly beach with a historic lighthouse.
- Special Events and Attractions: Organized events aren’t as common during the winter months, but spring and fall are lively. Savannah has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S. Taste of Savannah (early November, $70), Savannah Film Festival (pricing varies), and Savannah Jazz Festival (free). All take place between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
6. Monongahela, Jefferson, and George Washington National Forests – Virginia and West Virginia
The Appalachian Mountains’ spine runs right along the border between Virginia and West Virginia, harboring thousands of square miles of pristine, thinly populated forest land. Despite its natural beauty and ruggedness, this stretch of mountains is just a few hours from some of the eastern United States’ biggest cities, including Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.
If you come during the right season, you can avoid the big-city crowds because there are plenty of places to explore. The area’s three largest preserves are Monongahela and George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, but Shenandoah National Park isn’t far off, and numerous state parks and forests are nearby. If you love to hike and camp, it’s hard to beat this convenient, affordable expanse of forest.
You Might Also Like: These stunning national forests and parks aren’t the only things the central Appalachian region has going for it. The entire state of West Virginia is an outdoor gem. For activity ideas suitable for any budget, check out our list of fun things to do in West Virginia.
- Entrance Fee: The national forests don’t have entrance fees, though nearby Shenandoah National Park does ($25 for a seven-day vehicle pass, and $10 for a seven-day non-motorized pass).
- Best Time to Visit: Avoid the hot summer months (June through September) and treacherous cold season (December through mid-March). If you’re set on seeing fall color, mid-October is the best time to visit, but local hotels sometimes jack up prices for the peak season. It’s cheaper and just as mild in April or May.
- How to Get There: These forests cover a huge area of the Virginias, roughly 100 miles from north to south and 75 miles east to west. The northern edge is two to three hours by car from Baltimore, D.C., and Pittsburgh, depending on weather and traffic. If you live in the mid-Atlantic or Ohio Valley regions, it’s probably best to drive. However, the airports in Pittsburgh, D.C., and Baltimore all have affordable nonstop connections (starting at about $200 for Washington-Dulles, and $250 for Baltimore-Washington and Pittsburgh) to nationwide destinations.
- Where to Stay: Hotels and motels can actually be expensive in this remote area. On the western side, the Hampton Inn in Elkins, West Virginia, runs $100 per night or more during the low season. On the eastern side, the Sleep Inn in Staunton, Virginia, starts at about $80 per night. Camping is cost-effective, with dozens of campgrounds and thousands of individual campsites spread throughout the forests. Fees range from $5 to $30 per night, depending on location, amenities, and time of year.
- What to Do: During the warm months, this is a great place for hiking and backpacking. The Tea Creek area has a network of centrally located trails. You can also opt for a more challenging, day-long event with an ascent of Spruce Knob, West Virginia’s tallest peak. If you’re looking for a less strenuous adventure, spend a day on a driving circuit along U.S. Highways 33, 219, and 220, in the heart of the forests. A bit south and west, New River Gorge is the longest and deepest canyon in eastern North America. Thanks to the many bridges spanning it, you don’t even have to stop your car to get a sense of its scale.
- Special Events and Attractions: In Staunton, Virginia, don’t miss Oktoberfest, in early October, and the Staunton Music Festival in August. Near Elkins, in late September, the massive Mountain State Forest Festival features country music concerts, lumberjack competitions, art exhibitions, and much more.
7. The Ozark and Ouachita Mountains – Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma
If you love elevation, there’s not much for you in the flat expanse of the central U.S., but you can find exceptions to the rule in western Arkansas, southwestern Missouri, and a bit of eastern Oklahoma. Here, the Ozarks and Oauchitas – two rugged plateaus that pass for mountains in this part of the world – harbor some world-class driving roads, excellent hiking trails, and great rivers.
Despite the region’s popularity and proximity to larger cities such as St. Louis, Dallas, and Kansas City, it’s an incredibly affordable destination – particularly if you’re up for biking and camping. To get the true outdoorsy flavor of the Ozarks and Ouachitas, skip the kitschy tourist traps (Branson in particular) and focus on natural gems like Hot Springs National Park and Ouachita National Forest.
- Entrance Fee: The national forests and Hot Springs National Park are free.
- Best Time to Visit: Like the Appalachians, the Ozarks and Ouachitas are famous for fall foliage. The season can be a bit later here, typically late October to early November. Though campsite prices don’t increase much, it can be harder to find a spot at this time of year, and local hotels and motels do tend to raise rates. If you’re set on seeing color, you can make it work. If not, visit in April or May, when woodland flowers bloom and summer’s muggy heat hasn’t yet arrived.
- How to Get There: This is another spread-out region that’s best appreciated by car. The cities of Branson, Missouri, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Fort Smith, Arkansas are ideal arrival points for your trip. All three have regional airports with direct connections to central U.S. destinations ($150 and up, depending on location and season) and one-stop connections to coastal cities ($200 and up). If you just want to visit Hot Springs and Lake Catherine, fly into Little Rock, which is about an hour and a half by car.
- Where to Stay: Camping at Hot Springs National Park is $30 per night year-round. At Lake Catherine State Park, prices for modern campsites with sewer and electric hookups start at $29 per night. If a warm bed is a must, affordable ($50 per night and up) hotels and motels abound in the larger towns and cities in this area.
- What to Do: The Ozarks and Ouachitas have numerous large lakes, from Table Rock Lake near Branson, to Lake Catherine near Hot Springs, and about a dozen navigable rivers. As such, boating and fishing are popular pastimes here. Avoid pricey pontoon rentals and opt for kayaks and canoes, which rent for $30 to $35 per day at High Shoals on the Ouachita River. Arkansas fishing licenses are $16 for a three-day nonresident license, while Missouri’s run $7 for a day license and $42 for an annual nonresident license. Hiking is popular too, especially on the Missouri side, where the Ozark Trail Association keeps an extensive, well-maintained network.
- Special Events and Attractions: If you come in October, don’t miss the Ozark Folk Festival, an eclectic music festival in Eureka Springs, Missouri. Mountain biking enthusiasts can’t miss the Ouachita Challenge, a late-March race that covers 60 miles in two days. Space is limited, so reserve your spot early.
Pro Tip: Weather-wise, late March is an unpredictable time of year in the Ozarks and Ouachitas. If you’re planning to register for the Ouachita Challenge, you’d best be prepared. Check out our post on biking in the winter and cold weather.
8. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks – California
Everything’s bigger in Texas – usually. When it comes to trees, though, California takes the cake.
If you don’t mind roughing it a little, there’s no more affordable, accessible place to see the state’s monstrous trees than Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, two adjacent preserves that attract thousands of visitors each year. Sequoia contains the world’s most massive trees, while Kings Canyon features a long mountain stretch that includes the highest peak in the Lower 48. Whether you’re a fan of rugged hikes along alpine ridges or nose-to-the-ground interactions with the planet’s incredible biodiversity, this corner of California is a convenient playground that won’t empty your wallet.
You Might Also Like: The Pacific Crest Trail, which passes through this part of the Sierras on its way from southern California to the Canadian border, easily makes the cut for our comprehensive roundup of the top long-distance hiking trails to escape civilization. Have you hiked part or all of the PCT or any of the other trails on the list?
- Entrance Fee: $30 for a seven-day vehicle pass, $15 for a non-motorized pass.
- Best Time to Visit: Sequoia and Kings Canyon receive far fewer visitors than nearby Yosemite National Park, so you don’t need to structure your visit around a peak season. However, weather varies greatly by elevation in these parks, with the lower elevations baking in summer and the alpine areas frozen for much of the year. Even the sequoia groves can see snow as early as late September and as late as May. Mid-June through mid-September is probably the best season for weather.
- How to Get There: Depending on where you’re going in the parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are roughly an hour from Fresno and three and a half hours from both Los Angeles and San Francisco in ideal traffic conditions. Fresno Yosemite Airport has nonstop flights to Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, and other destinations, though fares can be pricey.
- Where to Stay: With few sizable settlements close by, finding affordable hotels and motels near Kings Canyon and Sequoia can be difficult. Lodging in or near the parks, at places like Cedar Grove Lodge, can cost well over $100 per night. Camping is definitely more cost-effective, with about a dozen campgrounds at varying elevations. Prices range from $12 to $40 per night, depending on location and amenities. Note that higher campgrounds may only be open during the summer.
- What to Do: Though Yosemite’s vertical assets get more attention, Sequoia and Kings Canyon are popular rock climbing destinations. If you’d prefer to keep both feet on the ground, popular day hikes abound. For an alpine experience, check out the Mineral King area. Prepare appropriately: You’ll need to go slower and pack more water and sun protection at these altitudes. To see more of the sequoia groves than you would from the road, use Grant Grove Village as a home base to explore mid-elevation canyons and crags.
- Special Events and Attractions: In Sequoia, the Giant Forest Museum is a great place to start if you or your kids are interested in the science behind this area’s unique ecosystem. And don’t leave without snapping selfies with General Sherman and General Grant.
9. Lake Tahoe – California and Nevada
Like Keystone, the Lake Tahoe area doesn’t often appear on lists of affordable vacation destinations. If you gravitate to the California side’s upscale resorts, you may head back to your hometown a little lighter in the wallet.
However, if you commit to camping or staying in cheap accommodations, this is a world-class place for an outdoorsy vacation – especially if you choose your hikes well. When you tire, you can find plenty to keep you busy on the lake, like affordable kayak rentals and a full festival schedule.
- Entrance Fee: The various state parks and beaches around Lake Tahoe may charge entrance or parking fees during the summer. These range from $2 to $15, depending on location. Prime beaches, such as Sand Harbor in Nevada’s Lake Tahoe State Park, are priciest.
- Best Time to Visit: Like Keystone, this is a high-altitude area that experiences rapid temperature changes and gets lots of snow during the winter (November to May). Avoid winter and the peak summer months (roughly late June through late August) and visit during the first couple of weeks of June or anytime during September. Both periods feature lower lodging prices and thinner crowds.
- How to Get There: Depending on the season and your exact destination, this area is about an hour’s drive from Reno, Nevada, and about three and a half hours from San Francisco. If you don’t live in northern California or Nevada, it’s probably best to fly into Reno-Tahoe International Airport, which has affordable nonstop flights (from $130 on up) to and from more than a dozen destinations (such as Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Seattle).
- Where to Stay: There are hundreds of hotels and motels within easy driving distance of Lake Tahoe, so finding a room isn’t a problem outside the peak winter and summer seasons. Lodging is fairly affordable: The Howard Johnson Express in South Lake Tahoe starts around $50 per night, while the more upscale Tahoe Resort Hotel runs $100 per night and up in the warm season. For camping, the Tahoe Basin features nearly two dozen campgrounds, with walk-in sites starting around $10 per night and drive-in sites starting at $25 per night.
- What to Do: Lake Tahoe is the continent’s largest alpine lake, so boating is a big deal here. Kayak Tahoe has daily kayak and paddleboard rentals from $65, which may be worth it for a full day of exploration on the lake. For a great view from one of the area’s highest peaks, try the Mount Tallac Trail, which gains more than 3,000 feet of elevation in about five miles.
- Special Events and Attractions: If you visit in summer, look into the Tahoe Rim Trail Challenge, a self-guided tour of the Tahoe Rim Trail. In July, the Lake Tahoe Music Festival features concerts (starting at $10) at multiple locations in late July.
10. Zion National Park, Utah
Barely 100 miles north of Grand Canyon National Park lies Zion National Park, one of the country’s best kept wilderness secrets. This compact preserve features stunning rock formations, beautiful vistas, and an abundance of hiking and camping assets.
Though its depths don’t approach those of its more popular cousin to the south, Zion has a host of singular canyons, valleys, and outcrops. For geology buffs and frugal wilderness lovers, Zion is hard to beat. Just remember to bring your camera.
- Entrance Fee: $30 for a seven-day vehicle pass, $15 for a seven-day non-motorized pass.
- Best Time to Visit: Zion sits in a high-elevation desert, so temperatures vary from day to night and season to season. With daytime temperatures routinely surpassing 100 degrees, summer can be brutal. However, it’s also the cheapest season to visit, with cut-rate lodging and super-affordable flight deals to Las Vegas. Spring tends to be mild and dry, whereas September and early October may be wetter due to thunderstorms. Winter is cool to cold and occasionally inclement, with rain more common on valley floors and snow or mixed precipitation at higher elevations.
- How to Get There: Zion National Park is about two and a half hours by car from Las Vegas, and a little over four hours by car from Salt Lake City. Both cities’ airports have nonstop flights to dozens of U.S. destinations, and flights to Vegas sometimes run less than $100 round-trip.
- Where to Stay: The main road to Zion’s southern entrance is lined with hotels and motels, such as the Zion Pioneer Lodge and Quality Inn. Rooms are surprisingly expensive during the high season – expect to pay more than $100 per night, even for basic two- and three-star options. The two main campgrounds inside the park, Watchman and South, are much more affordable. Tent-only sites start at $20 per night, with higher prices for riverside spots. For a change of scenery, check out Lava Point Campground, about an hour outside the entrance. At nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, it’s in a cool, leafy alpine forest with great views – but it doesn’t have running water. If you’re doing a multi-day hike, you can reserve dispersed, primitive back-country campsites (no more than five sites per campground) at similar prices.
- What to Do: The best way to see Zion is on foot. The Zion Canyon area has the highest density of trails, ranging from all-day climbs to short, gentle walks. If you’re feeling adventurous and have the proper equipment, canyoneeringand climbing are good options. The Narrows and The Subway are two of the easiest and most popular routes through Zion’s narrow, twisting waterways.
- Special Events and Attractions: During the warm season, the town of Springdale has an impressive farmer’s market on Saturdays and Sundays. Late September features the free Zion Canyon Music Festival ($10 per head), an eclectic, family-friendly event.
These destinations are all beautiful and great for any type of trip: a two-week retreat, a fitness vacation, a multi-destination driving tour, or just a quick weekend getaway. With a little planning and the right equipment, you can engineer a frugal vacation that doesn’t require you to make compromises or miss out on the highlights of a destination.
Don’t be afraid to share your plans and seek advice from those who have come before you. You may be surprised how many of your friends have a passion for the great outdoors.
What’s your favorite outdoor destination?