When spring emerges after a long winter, getting out on the open road is just the thing to cure those seasonal doldrums. But for those of us who can’t spring for luxurious resorts or far-off locales, taking that long-anticipated spring break excursion can seem nearly impossible.
Fret not, frugal fun seekers! We’ve compiled a list of suggestions for destinations to deliver family fun all week long, without a massive financial commitment.
Take the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Great Smoky Mountains
Leaf peepers know it, hikers know it, and nature lovers know it. It’s about time spring breakers know it, too! The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway links Virginia's Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in western North Carolina and Tennessee, and there’s plenty of unforgettable (and inexpensive) things to see along the way. Begin by touring Monticello (kids 11 and under get in free!), Thomas Jefferson's home, in Charlottesville, and make your way to Asheville for some charming indie window shopping.
Explore a psychedelic mirror maze in San Francisco
It sounds a little like a carnival funhouse, but this one’s got way more adventure, laughs and visual thrills. Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze on Pier 39 in San Francisco “is possibly the most psychedelic place one can legally reach within the city limits,” according to San Francisco Weekly, and it’s totally worth building your getaway (or at least your day) around: Black lights set the whole place aglow, letting you immerse yourself in a labyrinth of colorful, winding walkways that’ll leave you tripping out in the best way. Despite its far-out objective, the Mirror Maze is suitable for all ages. And it’s only $5 admission (children 5 and younger are free).
Do a CityPASS in a major American city
Chicago offers a CityPASS with several fun attraction options. (Photo: Ben Sutherland/Flickr)
CityPASS is a really cool way to explore your favorite cities, whether you’re a newbie or a local. For an affordable fee, you can dive into the most iconic sites in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, San Francisco and more. New York and San Francisco offer C3 CityPASS tickets, which allow visitors to choose three attractions out of a list of many options and are intended for shorter visits. Denver and Philadelphia have C3, C4 and C5 options, where visitors can choose three, four or five attractions. Many CityPASS tickets are under $100.
Whichever way you use CityPASS, it’s clearly a great way to experience the most out of a big city without spending a fortune.
And while you’re there … drive the Pacific Coast Highway in California
If the aforementioned Mirror Maze sounds like a winner to you, consider making it part of a longer road trip up and down California’s Pacific Coast Highway. The stretch between Monterey and Big Sur offers opportunities to see sea lions, go whale watching and catch some breathtaking lookout points. Camping is a breeze there, too, so start looking for tent sites now (Big Sur Campground starts at $70 a night).
Chase waterfalls in Michigan’s Black River National Forest
The Black River National Forest Scenic Byway in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula winds you through several waterfalls and offers plenty of activities along the way, including ski resorts, swimming holes and hiking destinations. It’s also a stunning historical artifact, having once been used as a wagon trail. If it’s warm enough, you can camp there for practically nothing (sites at Black River Harbor Scenic Parkway & Campground start at $14 per night).
Journey through Boston’s Freedom Trail
The Freedom Trail is a 2.5-mile-long path that begins at the Massachusetts Statehouse and ends at the Bunker Hill Memorial, with more than a dozen attractions in between – and most of them are free (or donation-based). The marked, brick-lined trail offers a rich immersion through Revolutionary War history, including the Paul Revere House and Boston Common. Before you start, check out the visitor's center on the first floor of Faneuil Hall for tour information, books and free maps.
Sunbathe along Florida’s Emerald Coast
Panama City Beach has for years reigned as the quintessential spring break destination for young sunseekers, but there’s way more to the Emerald Coast of Florida (also known as the Panhandle) than bikini-clad coeds and boisterous bar crawlers. Not far from Panama City Beach is Navarre Beach, which boasts plenty of lodging bargains and picturesque seaside spots. Destin’s sugar-white sand and gorgeous Gulf views will leave you awash in zen without leaving you penniless. You can hit thrilling water slides and pools in the Big Kahuna water park near the Destin Harbor Boardwalk. And, don’t miss the tree-lined nature trails along the dunes of Henderson Beach State Park.
Sink your teeth into a Corn Palace in South Dakota
South Dakota is a majestic wonderland of history, nature, adventure and … corn? Yes, along with Mount Rushmore, the picturesque Black Hills and the mind-blowing Badlands, South Dakota is also home to the world’s only corn palace, in Mitchell (about a three-hour drive past Rapid City on I-90). There, you’ll find corn-based murals and designs covering the building, with a new design constructed each year. Inside, you’ll learn about the history of corn. Despite its remote location, it’s a popular tourist destination, with about 500,000 visitors each year. And, it’s totally free.
Stroll along the Riverwalk in San Antonio
This charming network of walkways along the San Antonio River in Texas is considered the crown jewel of San Antonio, attracting visitors with its varied selection of bars, shops, restaurants, nature, public artwork and five historic missions. The walk was extended a few years ago to allow access to the San Antonio Museum of Art, which houses more than 30,000 objects representing 5,000 years of history and culture from every region of the world. Admission to the museum is $20 for adults; kids 12 and under get in free.