5 Budget-Friendly Adventures to Take This Summer
When you’re working full time, you get a few weeks each year to travel. That means you could splurge on those yearly trips because, hey, it’s vacation money. Once you retire, though, your calendar is free to explore to your heart’s content. Having all that time to travel is amazing, but your travel budget now has to work a lot harder. Never fear. Great experiences don’t have to cost a lot of money. In fact, some would argue that the best ones don’t.
Here you’ll find five budget-friendly adventures you can take this summer that won’t break the bank but will fuel your wanderlust.
1. Stargaze at Headlands International Dark Sky Park
You may not think of Michigan as the place to go for stargazing. But right at the northern tip of the state, where the strait of Mackinac separates Michigan proper from the Upper Peninsula, sits the Headlands International Dark Sky Park—a county park dedicated to celestial observation. Becoming an astrological hot-spot was intentional. The park, and the surrounding county, restrict light pollution so you always get the best possible views. Through their work, the park was designated as one of the world’s first International Dark Sky Parks in 2011.
For amatuer astronomical tourists, the highlight is an undeveloped two-mile stretch of beach. Visitors spread out on blankets, sleeping bags, and chairs to gaze through the wonders of the Milky Way. While you can’t camp in the park—no tents are allowed—you are welcome to stay all night staring into the heavens.
There’s much more to Headlands than the beach. In the 550-acre park you’ll find miles of marked walking trails through the woods, a waterfront visitor center, and several additional viewing points. Access to the park’s on-sight observatory is restricted to park staff and researchers, but you can see what they see on big screens in the visitor center. Experienced stargazers are on hand to explain what you’re looking at.
The park offers some really interesting programs at the visitor center as well. Special guests provide regular talks about the stars, space travel, comets, and more. There are even guided observation times using park-provided telescopes.
Here’s the best part for budget conscious travelers. Entrance to the park is free 365 days a year. There is a fee to attend most of the park’s programs, but it’s usually around $3 to $5.
Of course, you’ll need some rest after watching stars all night so luckily the Mackinaw City KOA Journey is just a few miles from the park.
2. Take in a Sunrise at Badlands
If you’re more of an early bird than a night owl, then catching the sunrise at Badlands National Park might be more your speed.
About 70 million years ago, an ancient sea deposited layers of sediment on the land that is now the South Dakota Badlands. The sea receded, the sediment turned to stone and, over time, it has eroded—leaving behind rugged stone spires. During mid-day, those rocky towers are a dusty brown color. But every morning, something magical happens there. As the sun crests the horizon, each of those sediment striations seems to change color, beginning with deep burgundy and dusky orange at dawn and shifting to shades of pink and taupe as the sun climbs higher.
The hike to the best sunrise viewing area at the park is an easy and flat half-mile stroll on the Door Trail. Which means the hardest part about seeing this natural phenomenon is getting up before the sun. You’ll find the trailhead at the parking lot about two miles north of the Reifel Visitor Center.
While there’s a charge to get into Badlands National Park, there are two ways you can do it economically. First, you can plan your visit for one of the fee-free entrance days and avoid the cost altogether. Or, if you plan to visit other national parks, you can purchase a yearly or lifetime pass at a discounted rate.
The Badlands / White River KOA Holiday awaits just south of the national park. There you’ll find a pool, breakfast, and plenty of shady spots to nap after your early morning adventure.
3. See the Rhododendrons Burst into Color on the Roan Mountain Highlands
About 1,500 miles southeast of the Badlands, right on the North Carolina/Tennessee line, Mother Nature puts on another spectacular color change every June. Once a year the rolling balds of the Roan Mountain Highlands burst into the bright pink/reds of Catawba Rhododendrons. For two weeks, the blooms stand in brilliant contrast to the multiple shades of green that dominate the 6,000-foot treeless balds for most of summer.
The Roan Mountain Rhododendron Garden is a perfect place to experience these beautiful bushes. The gardens are a magical meadow with a half-mile paved walkway and a raised platform for a commanding view.
There’s another way to see the blooms if you’re up for a little longer walk. The famous Appalachian Trail passes very near the gardens and there are clusters of rhododendrons along the trail. You’ll start your walk from Carvers Gap, the parking lot you passed on your way into the Gardens. From there it’s a steep walk up to crest the first of three consecutive balds—each with its own clusters of rhododendrons. The third bald is about three miles from the parking lot so you can choose how far you want to walk. All three offer incredible views of the low-lying valleys.
Of course, all of this fits nicely into the tightest of travel budgets. Hiking on the Appalachian Trail is free. The fee to access the gardens is only $3. And there’s no cost to get into the festival (there is a donation request for parking).
The Boone KOA is just 23 miles away, so you won’t have far to drive after a day of walking and festival visiting.
4. Bike an Old Railroad Bed in Oregon
The lumber business was a big deal in Northwest Oregon in the 1920s. So much so that they built a railroad to haul all those logs through the wilderness. Since they’re no longer needed, some of those old railroads have been repurposed into long-distance bike trails.
The Banks-Vernonia Trail(BVT) is a shining example of that transformation. For 22 miles, the tree-lined trail winds its way through the forest and over 13 historic bridges. Where powerful locomotives once pulled cargo, bike riders and walkers now enjoy a peaceful natural escape just 25 miles from Portland. The BVT is wide and smooth and the grade is gentle, making it perfect for even beginner cyclists. There are six entrances to the trail so you can choose where you jump on and how far you ride.
If you have your own bike you can enjoy a ride on the Banks-Vernonia Trail for free. If not, you can rent one at Vernonia Springs—a beautiful private park and events center.
Cascade Locks KOA Holiday is your basecamp for this adventure. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, this shady campground is a destination in itself.
5. Cap Off Summer with Some Apple Picking and Cider Tasting
Just because summer’s winding down doesn’t mean your adventures have to stop. There’s no better way to transition from summer’s heat to upcoming crisp fall air than picking your own apples. Bellewood Farms in northwest Washington State is the epicenter of all things apple. Of course, you can pick your own low-hanging fruit on the farm. They have 20 different varieties to choose from. But that’s just the beginning.
At the farm you’ll also find the first farm-to-glass apple distillery in Washington. From the rustic tasting room you can sample vodka, gin, and brandy distilled from the fruit grown right outside. Even if sipping spirits isn’t your thing, Bellewood Farms has plenty more to offer. The Bellawood Farm Store sells locally made meats, cheeses, and other sweet and savory treats. Plus, you can sample all of the available apple varieties while you roam the store.
With a commanding view of Mount Baker, the on-site cafe is worth a visit while you’re there. The menu includes breakfast and lunch favorites but the showstopper is, of course, the homemade apple pie.
If you can’t wait until September to visit, no problem. The farm’s attractions are open year-round and they even have outdoor music during summer.
There’s no cost to wander the orchard and take in the views of Mount Baker on foot. Or you can rent a golf cart for $10.
You can take your apple haul back to your spot at the Lynden / Bellingham KOA , just 10 miles away. Finish off your day with a paddle boat ride on one of the campgrounds three willow tree-lined fishing ponds.
Once you catch the adventure bug, it’s hard to stay home. In addition to these five great adventures, there are hundreds of others to experience as well. Since KOA has more than 500 locations across the country, finding accommodations at the end of your adventure shouldn’t be a problem. Go ahead, it’s time to start planning your next trip!
Written by Rob Glover for Matcha in partnership with Kampgrounds of America.