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.