NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When it comes to traveling, there are endless ways to watch your money disappear. You can write a big check to go on a fancy cruise, spend a small fortune to pamper yourself at deluxe hotels and shell out hundreds of dollars to take the family to an amusement park such as Disneyland or Seaworld.
But when was the last time you had a travel experience that didn't cost a thing, or passed an entire day without opening your wallet?
Perhaps we're losing our sense of adventure, opting for easy, packaged vacations that allow for relaxation and mentally checking out on the details. (Which certainly has its value).
But there is much to be done for free in this country. From stunning hikes to quiet drives through nature or past rapidly disappearing, kitschy Americana, or stargazing amid the country's vast expanses, the only limit is your threshold for adventure.
"I don't think people take advantage enough of things that are low cost and free. They think, 'I have to go to Disney and spend a ton of money,'" says Andy Safnauer, a South Carolina resident and frequent traveler with his family of four. "America is so big and fascinating. Sometimes you have to look for things off the beaten path, or do things differently then what you usually do."
For the Safnauer family that involved a recent afternoon spent hiking in Vermont's picturesque Quechee Gorge, followed by splashing in the Ottauquechee River — an experience that didn't cost a dime but left the family with fond memories of their visit.
"We could have spent more time than we did enjoying the stop. And right up the street there was a store selling Cabot cheese with free samples. We ate more than we should have," Safnauer says. "When I was a kid, we did things differently then we do now. We used to go on adventures."
For those who still have a little Huckleberry Finn in them, here is a list of some of the coolest free travel experiences around the country. But these suggestions are merely a snapshot of the vast possibilities. Once you start looking for the free opportunities, it seems there's no end in sight.
The Quechee Gorge is explored by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The deepest gorge in Vermont, it was carved some 13,000 years ago by glaciers. The gorge and the Ottauquechee River are located along Route 4.
2. Route 66
One of the country's first transcontinental highways, Route 66 runs from Chicago to Los Angeles and is home to a colorful, quirky slice of America that's fading fast. Here is where you will find such things as Art Deco gas stations, old motor courts and a Cadillac Ranch featuring junked Cadillacs sticking up from the ground.
For readers of The Grapes of Wrath, the highway is noteworthy because it's the route farmers took when making their way from Oklahoma to California. After World War II, when road trips became more popular, Route 66 evolved into the home of bizarre roadside tourist attractions.
Driving Route 66 is free, as are many of the unusual tourist stops along its path.
Sriram Srinivasan, a travel blogger for UPGRD and the company's unofficial road trip expert, says two of the best free attractions along the route are Cadillac Ranch in Texas and Oatman Wild Burros in Arizona.
Cadillac Ranch is loosely referred to as a modern art installation. Located outside Amarillo, the site features several junked Cadillacs that have been colorfully spray painted over the years by travelers — an activity that's encouraged. It's public art that was originally created to baffle locals. And it's your chance to leave your mark along this historic highway.
Oatman Wild Burros, meanwhile, is a ghost town west of Kingman, where a pack of wild burros were abandoned and somehow became a tourist attraction.
Driving the entire length of Route 66 would take quite some time, so Srinivasan suggests picking manageable chunks to explore over a weekend.
"Just pick one stretch, like Albuquerque to Flagstaff," he says.
Also important to note: You can no longer cruise the entire original route.
"A fair portion of the road has been overlaid by Interstate 55, Interstate 44 and Interstate 40," Srinivasan says. "Most of it is still drivable ... but in Arizona there is some fairly long gaps ... I don't know that Route 66 will ever disappear entirely. It has attracted such a cult following among road trip people, even though most of highway has been decommissioned."
3. Stargazing in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Beautiful summer evenings lend themselves to staying out late and stargazing. And the crisp, clear Blue Ridge Mountain air in Shenandoah National Park makes everything brighter in the night sky. Stars sparkle with more intensity, and constellations come into clearer view.
This summer, the park's Big Meadows Lodge welcomes back Greg
Redfern, an adjunct professor of astronomy since 1984 and a NASA JPL solar system ambassador since 2003. Redfern will be giving free, weekly stargazing talks throughout the summer and fall. Topics include The Universe and You, New Horizons to Pluto, The Lives of Stars and more.
4. Creole Trail, Louisiana
Here's another free adventure that allows you to enjoy the great outdoors. Driving along on the Creole Trail there's opportunities for alligator adventures, shelling on unspoiled Gulf beaches and bird watching.
"It's 180 miles of some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable — vast marshlands, Gulf beaches, alligators, birds and wildflowers," says Elizabeth Eustis, public relations manager for the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The journey begins in Sulphur and winds through Calcasieu and Cameron parishes before reaching its end in Lake Charles. Photo opportunities are as abundant as the wildlife along the trail, which takes you through three wildlife refuges and into the heart of Cajun trapping and fishing country.
There's even a special app that's been developed to serve as a virtual tour guide for this drive. Just search for "Creole" in your app store.
Mark your calendar. All U.S. national parks — from Olympic to Acadia, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon — are free on a handful of summer and fall days, a huge savings considering admission costs at some of the parks. The parks are free Aug. 25, Sept. 26 and Nov. 11.
6. Free beach concerts, Santa Cruz, Calif.
Between the picturesque setting and the musical talent, it's the best free concert you'll likely ever attend. Each summer in Santa Cruz, there are free Friday night concerts on the beach featuring bands from the 1980s and 1990s. Past performers have included Eddie Money, Macy Gray, Blue Oyster Cult and Smash Mouth.
"It's kind of become a staple in Santa Cruz," says Karley Pope, director of promotions and entertainment for the concerts. "People travel from all over Northern California. They plan their trips around the concerts. Besides it being top-name bands, it's a very unique experience watching the concerts out on beach. Even the bands love performing here."
The concerts, which run June 9 through Sept. 4, are next to the oldest amusement park in California, for which admission is also free.
7. Pikes Peak, Barr Trail, Manitou Springs, Colo.
During the full moon take a midnight hike halfway up picturesque Pikes Peak to Barr Camp on the Barr Trail in Manitou Springs, Colo. Start your hike around 5 p.m. at the trailhead. You should make Barr Camp by 8 or 9 p.m., then return to the trailhead by midnight.
The 6.5-mile hike gains about 3,800 feet and offers stunning vistas of the city and plains below. As fan Roger Brinkley says of the trail: "You'll understand what Katharine Lee Bates meant about spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountains and fruited plains when she penned America the Beautiful."
One more tip: Bring a camera, because the moon, when it rises over the plains, is a giant, awe-inspiring sight, particularly in late summer and autumn.
No need to bring a flashlight, as the moon (which often appears orange at this time) will provide ample light. But do bring plenty of water.
8. Head of the Charles Regatta, Boston
The Head Of The Charles Regatta is the world's largest two-day rowing competition. It attracts 11,000 competitors from around the globe, and like everything else on this list, attending this fascinating boating spectacle doesn't cost a penny. It's an experience that captures the best of picturesque New England against the idyllic fall backdrop of the stately Harvard, MIT and Boston University boathouses and campuses on Boston's famed Charles River. More than 400,000 people come from all over the world to not only watch the races, but to check out the regatta's rowing and fitness expo, take in the action at the boisterous Reunion Village and indulge in some of New England's best fare from local chefs and restaurants.
This year will be even more special, as the regatta will be celebrating its 50th anniversary, says Fred Schoch, the event's executive director for the past quarter-century.
Schoch offers tips for prime viewing of the races amid such overwhelming crowds: "Most people gravitate toward the bridges [over the Charles River] so you can look down on the boating crews. Also, along the Cambridge shore, by the Harvard dorms, is a good spot to watch from."
The regatta will be Oct. 17-18 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
9. Staten Island Ferry, New York
For those planning to explore New York City on an upcoming vacation, here's one activity in the expensive metropolis that won't cost a small fortune: riding the Staten Island Ferry. What makes this free experience so special is the view. Riding from St. George on Staten Island to Whitehall in Manhattan, you will have the same view of America that greeted new immigrants who were processed on Ellis Island, including a fabulous view of the Statue of Liberty.
10. Plymouth, Mass.
While visiting Boston for the Head of the Charles Regatta, you may want to take a trip down to Plymouth.
Often referred to as "America's hometown," Plymouth offers a walking tour through streets, paths and byways once traversed by Wampanoag Indians and Pilgrims. The Waterfront Visitor Information Center provides maps for your tour, which will wind through the town, past monuments, historic plaques and other places of interest.
Consider packing a lunch to picnic at Pilgrim Memorial State Park or beside Jenney Pond. Afterward, you can climb Burial Hill for a panoramic view of Plymouth Harbor and Cape Cod bay.
— Written by Mia Taylor for MainStreet