Photograph by Tyrone Turner, National Geographic
St. Louis Citygarden
St. Louis, Missouri
This completely free and open oasis in downtown St. Louis houses two dozen sculptures by internationally renowned artists, nestled amid garden plantings and water features that include a pool and a spray plaza. Self-guided audio tours to the site can be downloaded on iTunes or by calling a Citygarden tour phone.
Stars in the Park
San Diego, California
Turn your gaze to the skies above San Diego during Stars in the Park. On the first Wednesday of every month, members of the San Diego Astronomy Association set up telescopes outside Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park to offer the public a free star show and the benefit of their astronomy expertise.
Desert Botanical Garden
You've never seen the desert quite like this: With 50,000 plant displays, something is in bloom year-round in this Phoenix, Arizona, garden. Check out the beautiful cacti, agave, and other desert plants and learn how they thrive in an extreme environment. The DBG is free on the second Tuesday of each month, from 1 to 8 p.m.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The seashore is a marvelous string of barrier islands, a “ribbon of sand,” perfectly perched between the Atlantic and the mainland. Mother Nature is the one who effects change on these shifting islands, which are home to endangered species like piping plovers and sea turtles and ideal for fishing, swimming, and shell collecting.
The Staten Island Ferry
New York, New York
Very few daily commutes also rank as must-see tourist attractions. The Staten Island Ferry is one of them—and the fact that it's free is simply icing on the cake. The City of New York runs this ride, which delivers unsurpassed views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.
The Smithsonian Institution is famed for its museums but it also maintains an expanse of gardens on the National Mall. It takes about three hours to walk through them all at a leisurely pace. There is something worth seeing in every season, including rose gardens, butterfly habitat gardens, and even a World War II-era Victory Garden.
National Park Free Entrance Days
The national parks are often touted as “America's best idea.” Here's an even better idea—free admission. Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, the Everglades, Yellowstone, Acadia, and dozens of other national parks that typically charge entrance fees offer a number of free days each year. Plan to take advantage on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday weekend; April's National Park Week; the first day of summer; September's Public Lands Day; or Veterans Day weekend.
Franklin Canyon Park and Santa Monica Mountains
Los Angeles, California
Beverly Hills is known for shopping and stars, but not far off Rodeo Drive there are meandering nature trails among oaks and flowers, a small lake, and a duck pond. And Franklin Canyon Park is just one small part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the world's largest urban national park.
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
Stop at the National Park Service's free visitor center in downtown St. Paul to find out the best places to hike, bike, or boat—and even pick up free fishing equipment. Then get out and explore the 72 miles of Mississippi River flowing through this patchwork of state- and locally operated parks.
Biscayne National Park
There is a watery wilderness within sight of downtown Miami. Biscayne National Park includes the northernmost Florida Keys and part of one of the world's largest living coral reefs. Because 95 percent of the park is underwater, it's best to explore Biscayne by boat. The diving and snorkeling are excellent, too. Those with smaller canoes and kayaks can explore the mangrove-lined coastline.
The Algiers Ferry
New Orleans, Louisiana
Board the Algiers ferry and see how New Orleans got its nickname—the Crescent City—as you traverse the graceful arc of the Mississippi from the foot of Canal Street to historic Algiers Point on the West Bank. The ride offers great views of old New Orleans.
Trinity River Audubon Center
Looking for an urban escape in Dallas? Take flight for the Trinity River Audubon Center, where admission is free the third Thursday of every month. Here in Great Trinity Forest, a new and evolving attempt at urban ecological management, you can typically spot more than 50 bird species a day in hardwood forest, wetland, river, and prairie habitats.
Honolulu Botanical Gardens
The island of Oahu boasts five unique botanical gardens—and four of them offer free admission. Ho`omaluhia has geographically ogrouped tropical plants from around the world, Koko Crater focuses on desert-like species, Wahiawa features a tropical rain forest, and Lili`uokalani, in Honolulu, was a favorite spot of Hawaii’s last queen. She donated the park to the people.
Petit Jean State Park
This Arkansas state park is named for a young woman who died here 300 years ago, but modern visitors will fall for its woodlands and waterfalls, canyons, caves, and even the classic CCC-constructed Mather Lodge (closed for renovations until spring 2012). Perhaps best of all are the panoramic views from Petit Jean Mountain—especially at the resting place of the park's namesake.
Colorado State Parks
Run white water in the Arkansas River headwaters, see the sandstone cliffs of Eldorado Canyon, paddle the South Platte River reservoir at Eleven Mile Canyon Dam, or hike the trails of State Forest State Park (no second fiddle to neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park). Sound like fun? You can do all this and more for free, each August 1, when Colorado state parks celebrate statehood with free admission.
The Wildwoods Beaches
New Jersey has many beautiful beaches, and the favorite of tourists and residents is The Wildwoods—at least according to an annual contest run by the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium. The beaches are lively, enormous, and filled with fine sand. But their top appeal likely stems from something most other New Jersey beaches can't claim—they're absolutely free.
Some 5,100 acres of woods on the eastern slopes of northwest Portland's hills constitute the largest natural forest located inside a U.S. city. More than 70 miles of trails beckon hikers, runners, bikers, dog walkers, and silence-seekers who want to experience a bit of Oregon wilderness in the midst of its largest city.
Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden has 24 display gardens and four natural areas expertly landscaped on nine islands surrounded by lakes. Admission to all this is absolutely free. Parking isn't, so consider using public transportation.
Utah State Parks
Utah's state parks are teaming up with local libraries on a great deal for state residents: Use your library card to check out a free annual park pass and explore gems like Dead Horse Point, where stunning views of canyon country and Canyonlands National are well worth the normal price of admission.
Watch Hill, Rhode Island
Napatree Point boasts a half-mile-long beach. This graceful, sandy spit separates the Atlantic Ocean from Watch Hill's Little Narragansett Bay. It's a great place for a free stroll, swim, or picnic with views across to Connecticut and Fishers Island, New York. Bird watchers flock here year round to ogle a wide variety of species.
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