We recently got back from a 2-week tour of the Dakotas and the Midwest in our quest to visit all 50 states and capitals (people: we are up to 29 now!). I have been mulling over how to share some of the highlights of our trip with you, and I had to come back to the fact that this is a frugal living website. So I decided to share with you some of the free and inexpensive things we did during our travels. Not headed to these states? I’ve worked to provide some tips by each so you can find similar activities no matter where you’re traveling in the US.
#1: We Visited State Capitol Buildings.
We toured 9 (yes, 9!!) state capitol buildings during our trip and these are free, free, free! Pretty nearly all capitol buildings offer free tours, some of which take you to cool spaces in the buildings that you might not get to see otherwise (such as observatory decks and domes). Others, such as the North Dakota capitol building grounds, also offer on-site museums that can be pretty amazing. During our self-guided tour through the Iowa capitol building, we happened on the Secretary of State’s office. One of the helpful office staff took us into the capitol’s 3-story vault where all the files are stored! We saw the senate floor were President Obama once served as Illinois senator, and we walked through the Kansas Supreme Court where they decided to outlaw the KKK in the ’20s. We’ve seen rallies and protests and government officials working hard for our country. Want to get your kids excited about history and really get to know a place? Head to a state capitol building. (And if you’d like to join our family in visiting all 50, please make sure to read this post about how to collect free passport stamps in the process. It’s super fun!)
#2: We Visited National Monuments.
During our trip, we visited a few National Monuments including Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (the first designated national monument), Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, Gateway Arch in Missouri, and Lincoln’s Tomb in Illinois. Now, some of these do charge for parking (we were able to park for free at Devil’s Tower with our Annual Parks Pass), but others are totally free. For instance, you can drive right up to the cemetery that Lincoln is buried in and park right next to it. No cost. While you might already know that the National Parks offers Junior Ranger programs for kids, you might be surprised to learn that kids can also earn Junior Ranger badges for most National Monuments, too! My kids earned their badge for the Jefferson Expansion (Gateway Arch), and we found it to be among the easiest ones they’ve earned yet.
#3: We Visited National Parks (Badlands).
Now, it’s not usually free to visit the National Parks, but there are a couple ways around this. First, if you have a child entering the 4th grade this year, you can score a FREE Annual Parks pass for your family under the Every Kid in a Park program. Second, there are several fee-free days and weekends each year. There are usually a number of recreational things you can do for free once you’re in such as hike, swim, explore. Again, we almost always have our kids do the Junior Ranger program. (Sometimes, we’ll print out the booklet in advance of visiting so they can get a jump start.) On our trip, we were able to visit the Badlands, which was super neat to see We stopped in at the visitor center and spied many animals including rabbits, gophers, bison, and bighorn sheep!
#4: We took the Anheuser-Busch Tour (St. Louis, Missouri).
OK, this post just took a turn from being sort of vague to ultra-specific! But this brewery tour is absolutely worth mentioning because it was free. And the parking is free. And the best part? You get free beer at the end! In case you’re wondering, yes, you can bring your kids (they’ll get free soda at the end). They have tours that run continuously throughout the day and the best part was seeing the Budweiser Clydesdales! Incidentally, I recall that our tour of the Jack Daniels distillery tour we did in Lynchberg, Tennessee was also free.
#5: We stopped at the Field of Dreams (Dyersville, Iowa).
One night while pouring over the road atlas, one small notation caught my eye… it read “Field of Dreams.” Turns out, it was the spot where the movie was filmed! We drove way out into the corn fields in southeast Iowa and got to see it! The kids and I even ran the bases, just for fun. And, it was completely free. Now, we were too late for a tour, but I looked it up and it turns out those are free too. (See their website for more information.) How you can apply this to your own trip: before you travel (or as you travel), make sure to check out your map or consult a site like roadtrippers to see what’s free and worth seeing along the route.
#6: We went to the Lakota Museum (Chamberlain, South Dakota).
This fabulous museum was entirely free to visit! We learned a lot about the Native American culture in the region and also had a wonderful conversation with a Lakota gentleman who works in the gift shop (truly, some of our best vacation memories are the people we meet). It was interesting to see a museum that was assembled by Native Americans, where they could control the narrative and artifacts presented. Of all the museums we visited during our trip, this one skims to the top. How you can apply this to your own trip: consider searching for “things to do for free” in a site such as Yelp.
#7: We Ran!
The kids and I made a goal to run at least a mile in every state we stayed in the night in – we made it 8! It was a good way to explore a bit, as well as get the wiggles out before sitting hours in the car. If running’s not your thing, maybe you could make some other fun goal to stay active or make your trip a bit more adventurous?
#8: We took a dip in the Missouri River. One of the joys of a road trip is the sheer freedom to pull over wherever, whenever the mood arises. My husband had this idea of wanting to set foot in the Missouri. We finally found a park to do just that and the water was fantastic! The idea was to just dip in our feet, but of course the temptation was too great and before we knew it, my son was dog paddling. On your trip: stop and read the historical markers. Pull over and snap a photo of that sunflower field. Turn off the main highway and take the scenic loop just because you can.
Our quest to visit all 50 states has meant going to places I wouldn’t have necessarily been drawn to otherwise. But I can say I’ve truly found wonderful and surprising things about every state we’ve visited. No matter where your next US vacation or road trip takes you, I hope my post has given you some ideas and inspiration for some fun and inexpensive things you can do along the way.
Here are links to the posts I’ve referenced for further reading. Take a look:
- How to Request Free US State Travel Guides
- Collecting US Capitol Building Passport Stamps
- Free Junior Ranger Programs for Kids
- Fee-Free National Parks Days
- Every Kid in a Park Program
What else is a must see in the Midwest? How do you find free and low-cost things to do on a road trip? What did you do on your road trip this year and where did you go?