Free tourist attractions in every state

Written by:
August 13, 2018
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Free tourist attractions in every state

Nothing is sweeter than "free," especially for budget-conscious tourists traveling the United States.

Each state sweetens the pot with a plethora of no-cost tourist attractions. From the iconic to the unique and bizarre, there are numerous opportunities for free activities. Some of these attractions may involve hiking or riding, while others offer a glimpse into the history that made these states what they are today. These stops include parks, wildlife preserves, museums and much more. 

Stacker dug into each state's no-cost offerings via news and magazine accounts, travel websites and official state and federal government sites to provide tantalizing options for travelers visiting new states and for people who haven't explored everything in their own.

Some of these opportunities require nothing more than showing up, while others may require visitors to bring a bike, boat, binoculars or a backpack. Some may run an hour or more, while others can become multi-day excursions. All of the attractions on this list are free, but many venues welcome donations to help defray operating costs.

Read on to discover each state's finest free fun.

Alabama: Hurricane Creek Park

With names like Twilight Tunnel and Dead Man's Squeeze, the trails in Hurricane Creek Park are perfect for hikers and bikers. Situated on 60 acres in a 500-foot-deep canyon near Cullman, the park offers large rock formations and cliff faces that are largely unexplored and ideal for new climbers.

Alaska: Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Designed for year-round family fun, the 11-mile paved path known as the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is ideal for walking, biking, rollerblading, and cross-country skiing. The trail can be accessed by numerous points in and around Anchorage. A hike along the trail that passes through Kincaid Park (also free) may offer glimpses of moose in the winter. In the summer, beluga whales can be seen in Cook Inlet.

Arizona: Scottsdale Pavilions Car Show

Visit the longest running weekly car show in the nation at the Scottsdale Pavilions Car Show at The Pavilions at Talking Stick. The show is also known as the McDonald's Rock 'n Roll Classic Car Show for its location. The weekly free event includes up to 500 classic cars and 150 motorcycles, with 1950s-era DJs spinning tunes every Saturday.

Arkansas: Museum of Native American History

The Natural State is resplendent with gardens, arboretums, parks, natural springs and more idyllic attractions. For a blast into the past, head to the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville. Exhibits include more than 10,000 artifacts covering the Paleo, Archaic, Woodlands, Mississippian, Historian and Pre-Columbian periods.

California: The Gardens at Lake Merritt

Sometimes staying away from the big tourist draws is best. Case in point: the Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland. With several themed gardens, the seven-acre site offers glimpses into natural garden systems like bay-friendly gardening. Check out the edible and sensory gardens in this hidden gem.

Colorado: The Garden of the Gods

Folks wandering through the red rock features of The Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs may find geologic formations resembling kissing camels, sleeping giants and other fantastic shapes. There are free trail maps, guided nature walks, a free weekly 5K Fun Run known as Gallop in the Garden and opportunities to shoot some amazing photographs.

Connecticut: Submarine Force Library and Museum

Situated on the Thames River in Groton, the Submarine Force Library and Museum is home to the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine and the first to circumnavigate the North Pole. Visitors can tour the sub’s lower deck, see the changing displays of the museum's 33,000 artifacts and 30,000 photographs and pore through a 6,000-volume reference and research library on the history of U.S. submarines.

Delaware: DuPont Environmental Education Center

The four-story DuPont Environmental Education Center, situated where the city of Wilmington meets the Christina River and marshlands, offers interactive exhibits and hands-on activities. Visitors can also walk around the 212-acre Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. Several free drop-in programs are offered as well. A seven-mile bike and hike trail is due to be completed in summer of 2018.

Florida: Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge

Replete with free wildlife tours and no charge for admission or parking, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge became the first national wildlife refuge in the United States in 1903. Visitors can observe wildlife from hiking trails and observation platforms. There are also other outdoor activities like kayaking and fishing.

Georgia: The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change

Housing the largest collection of primary source materials related to the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta is the hub of a 23-acre national historic site offering self-guided tours. Tourists can visit the civil rights leader's birth home, the crypt of King and his wife, The Eternal Flame and Freedom Hall. The grounds also house the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church Heritage Sanctuary.

Hawaii: Waikiki Beach

A trip to Hawaii may be a budget-buster for many, but a free visit to Oahu's Waikiki Beach could ease the financial stress of getting and staying there. With its beautiful clean water and sand, the beach offers opportunities for relaxing while viewing the Diamond Head State Monument in the distance. Bring your surfboard and snorkeling gear for Beach Boy-esque experiences and underwater views of sea turtles and colorful fish.

Idaho: Boise River Greenbelt

Linking Boise with many of its most beautiful parks and Boise State University, the tree-lined Boise River Greenbelt follows its namesake for 25 miles. The greenbelt stretches from Lucky Peak Dam to Eagle, with access along the banks both east and west of the river. Activities include fishing, biking, skating, floating and hiking.

Illinois: Chicago Cultural Center

Home to the world's largest Louis Comfort Tiffany dome, which is 38 feet in diameter and comprises of 30,000 stained-glass pieces, the Chicago Cultural Center is one of the most visited attractions in the state. The 1897 former library was built with rare imported marbles, polished brass, fine hardwoods and other sumptuous materials. The center presents hundreds of free international, national, regional and local artists of all genres each year.

Indiana: Whitewater Gorge Park Trail

Take a 3.5-mile stroll through downtown Richmond to Thistlethwaite Falls. The man-made waterfall features a bird sanctuary, virtually vertical cliffs, a dam, and an old flour mill. The two-hour round trip offers 20 acres of bird sanctuary and views of the monumental Wayne County Courthouse. The cliffs contain some of the world's best fossil records of animals that lived 450 million years ago.

Iowa: The Capitol Building

Take a tour of the magnificent Capitol Building in Des Moines. Two famous figurines that once held gas lanterns grace the building's impressive marble and granite staircase. Guides provide tours of the Capitol year round as well as information about the legislative process and Capitol grounds. Visitors can also admire the property's many murals and mosaics.

Kansas: Lake Shawnee

Walking paths and arboretums highlight beautiful Lake Shawnee near Topeka. The 1,100-acre park surrounding the lake offers hiking trails, and visitors can wander through the world-class Ted Ensley Gardens. The gardens are located on the west side of the lake and feature 1,200 varieties of perennials and 300 varieties of annuals. Other activities include golf, tennis and camping.

Kentucky: Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History

For whiskey-lovers, Kentucky and bourbon are synonymous. For those looking for some background on their favorite beverage, the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown might just fill their curiosity cup. From pre-Colonial to post-Prohibition, the museum features collections of old bottles and jugs, old moonshine stills and Abraham Lincoln's liquor license. It is housed in Spalding Hall, along with the Bardstown Historical Museum.  

Louisiana: Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

With six sites scattered across southern Louisiana (admission and most programs are free), the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve includes the Chalmette Battlefield. Visitors can also go to the neighboring Chalmette National Cemetery, the final resting place of Union soldiers who died in the 1812 Battle of New Orleans. The Barataria Preserve, near Marrero, offers 23,000 acres of bayous, swamps, marshes and forests.

Maine: University art museums

Get a good taste of Maine-style art at any of its seven college art galleries. Each of these on-campus galleries offers free admission, with varying business hours. The galleries include the U of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor, Bates College MOA in Lewiston, Colby College MOA in Waterville, Bowdoin College MOA in Brunswick, The Art Gallery at University of New England in Portland and the USM Art Galleries in Gorham and Portland.

Maryland: Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

With more than 7,000 works, including sculptures, paintings and objets d'art, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown is considered one of the finest small museums in the U.S. Established in 1931, the museum's neo-Georgian architecture is considered a work of art unto itself. Beyond its permanent works, the museum features rotating, traveling and juried exhibitions.

Massachusetts: Woods Hole Science Aquarium

The Woods Hole Science Aquarium in Woods Hole features 140 species of marine critters found in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic waters. Visitors can take self-guided tours of the main exhibits and get a behind-the-scenes look at how the aquarium operates.

Michigan: Campus Martius Park

Complete with an urban beach and a beautiful green space, Campus Martius Park, located in the heart of downtown Detroit, was the first to win the international Urban Land Institute Open Space Award. Besides the amenities that make it "Detroit's Gathering Place," the park also offers a wide variety of free events, programs, classes and other activities.

Minnesota: Como Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory

St. Paul’s Como Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, which features an exotic garden, offers both indoor and outdoor exhibits. Check out the big cats, primates, polar bears and aquatic animals in the zoo. The conservatory features permanent tropical plant exhibits, a new Japanese garden and various seasonal plants. Numerous free events and exhibits are available.

Mississippi: Biloxi Fire Museum

Having recently undergone an $80,000 restoration to repair storm damage, the Biloxi Fire Museum showcases antique fire equipment and follows the Biloxi Fire Department's 120-year history. The museum features a 1908 American LaFrance steam fire engine and 1923 chain-driven fire engine. Other antiques include helmets, trumpets and fire bells.

Missouri: Forest Park

Larger than Central Park in New York, Forest Park in St. Louis is packed with free activities. There are multiple walking and hiking trails, picnic areas, festivals and events available at the 1,300-acre park. Major destinations in the park include Saint Louis Science Center, Missouri Historical Society Museum, Saint Louis Zoo and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Montana: Virgelle Mercantile and Ferry

There’s plenty of things to browse at Virgelle Mercantile in Virgelle. Besides serving as a bed and breakfast, the "Merc" has a massive display of antiques and collectibles. From there, visitors can hop on the historic Virgelle Ferry, which crosses the Missouri River on a 50-foot-long steel frame and deck pulled by a power cable.

Nebraska: Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

Situated in north-central Nebraska along its namesake river, Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge stretches more than 19,000 acres. The Niobrara River provides habitats for richly diverse and unusual wildlife and plants. Visitors will find deep canyons and waterfalls among its varied landscapes. Access is free; however, boat launch, camping and other amenities require minimal fees.

Nevada: Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park near Baker is perhaps the least-known national park in the Southwest. Created in 1986, the park offers wilderness solitude among ancient bristlecone pines. The park has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park and its astronomy programs are free. 

New Hampshire: Horatio Colony House Museum

The graceful and magnificent 1806 Horatio Colony House Museum and its companion, the Horatio Colony Nature Preserve, keep history alive in Keene. The museum exhibits unusual items kept by the Colony family, which include sacred Buddhist and Hindu images, silver-plated napkin rings and transferware platters. Exhibits and events change regularly. The preserve offers five miles of hiking trails with numbered stops to point out historic sites, plant communities and geology.

New Jersey: Cape May County Park and Zoo

From Amur tigers to bald eagles and ringtail lemurs, Cape May County Park and Zoo offers exhibits of more than 550 animals. The landmark boasts lush country gardens and has an extensive natural environment. Located in Cape May Court House, the zoo features numerous animal encounters and tours. Admission to the park and zoo is free. The park offers forested areas left in their natural state, and there are picnic areas, walking and bike paths, fishing ponds and playgrounds.

New Mexico: Old Town Music Series

Summer weekends come alive in historic Old Town Albuquerque with the Summertime in Old Town Music Series. Live concerts covering a wide variety of music are held at the gazebo Fridays to Sundays from May to August. Many performances reflect the cultural heritage of New Mexico, including Mariachi and Latin jazz, Spanish guitar and Western Swing. Special performances are scheduled in October in Old Town for Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta week.

New York: Central Park

For a true sensory overload, visit Times Square with its towering neon signs and cacophony of sounds. However, if you're visiting New York City with family or a romantic partner, nothing tops the legendary Central Park. With 800 acres of green space in the middle of Manhattan, visitors can sightsee, exercise or relax in peace. Great Lawn or Sheep Meadow are great places to enjoy the park's diverse plant (and people) life.

North Carolina: North Carolina Museum of Art

Free becomes an extra bonus when visiting the permanent collection of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Museum of Art. Museum admissions include access to the surrounding 164-acre Museum Park. Expanded in 2015, the park features wave gardens, sustainability features and new permanent and temporary art installations. The permanent museum collection features growing collections of art from around the world.

North Dakota: North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

Travel through more than 600 million years of North Dakota's history, from its geologic formation to today, at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck. Four museum galleries trace the state's history, with exhibits including geologic time, early peoples, yesterday and today and the state's connection with World War II. Other exhibits include Native Impressions and the Native American Hall of Honor.

Ohio: The Topiary Park

The Topiary Park in Columbus is a seven-acre landscape of a painting of a landscape. The grounds, bushes and shrubs are a recreation of George Seurat's painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte. There are living sculpted bushes of people and animals in various poses. The park includes landscaped walks, picnic areas and a visitors' center.

Oklahoma: Keystone Ancient Forest

With numerous trails of varying difficulty, the Keystone Ancient Forest in Sand Springs features 500-year-old cedars and 300-year-old post-oak trees. The 1,360-acre nature reserve includes trails leading to views of the Arkansas River basin. The reserve also includes an easy children's hike, with deer, mountain lions, eagles, migratory birds and more than 80 species of butterflies.

Oregon: Hood River Fruit Loop

With Mt. Adams to the west and Mt. Hood to the east, the Hood River Fruit Loop is a 35-mile scenic drive through farm and wine country. The route, located in Hood River County, takes you past numerous fruit stands, working farms, orchards, and vineyards. In spring, the fruit trees blossom and fall foliage begins to color in September. Visitors might well be tempted to take advantage of U-pick fruit.

Pennsylvania: John Heinz at Tinicum

America's first urban national wildlife refuge is just outside Philadelphia. Visitors at the John Heinz at Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge can learn about the environment while walking trails through a freshwater tidal marsh. With 300 species of birds living or passing through it, the refuge is great for bird watchers and photographers. The refuge includes more than 10 miles of hiking trails on site.

Rhode Island: Gallery Night

As many as 27 art venues open their doors for free every third Thursday from March to November at Gallery Night Providence. Visitors can hop on an art bus and tour the venues. Many of the galleries offer rotating special exhibits and events and feature local artists. Visitors can also watch artists, such as glass blowers, create works of art.

South Carolina: Carolina Children's Garden

Carolina Children's Garden is a two-acre oasis with 12 themed gardens. The park, located in Columbia, gives kids a chance to explore, play and learn. It's a natural environment with birds and butterflies, and storybook characters like Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit visit often. Visitors can bring a picnic, take part in a scavenger hunt and learn about plants.

South Dakota: Black Hills National Forest

Overlapping western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, the Black Hills National Forest covers 1.2 million acres. Diverse wildlife and plants thrive here, and there are opportunities for hiking and wildlife viewing. The forest also has many rock formations, canyons, lakes and gulches to explore.

Tennessee: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Take a 5.5-mile, one-way driving loop along the Roaring Fork mountain stream in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The nature trail is near Gatlinburg on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The landmark boasts rushing mountain streams, old growth forest, log cabins, grist mills and other preserved sites. There's also a self-guided nature trail through a mountain farmstead and hardwood forest, and visitors can hike to Rainbow Falls.

Texas: Dallas Museum of Art

With more than 24,000 works of art covering 5,000 years, the Dallas Museum of Art is packed with American, international and historical works. There are collections of Indonesian textiles, African sculptures and ancient gold jewelry.

Utah: Temple Square

Free tours of Temple Square in Salt Lake City include access to the Tabernacle, home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Rehearsals can be viewed Thursday evenings. The 35-acre historical venue includes several sites, such as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the Family History Library and plenty of activities for kids. Self-guided tours are also available.

Vermont: Green Mountain Audubon Center

Trails, trees and bird-watching opportunities are plentiful at the 250-acre Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington. With forests, fields and wetlands along the Huntington River, the center is ideal for birders and outdoor sports enthusiasts alike. The center also boasts five miles of hiking trails through wildlife habitats. Stop at the Education Barn for maps and information.

Virginia: Elizabeth River Trail

Hop on your bikes and ride the 10.5-mile Elizabeth River Trail along Norfolk's waterfront. En route, you'll discover the community's best views and historic sites including Harbor Park, the downtown waterfront, Fort Norfolk and Lochhaven. Visitors can also visit the Hermitage Museum and Gardens and points of interest on the trail.

Washington: Pike Place Market

Although the temptation to buy things at Pike Place Market can be powerful, a walk through this iconic public market and waterfront in Seattle is a free must-do. With farmers and crafters showing off their wares, it's an exciting visual and olfactory experience. The recently opened MarketFront section hosts several food events highlighting local producers. The public plaza offers views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.

West Virginia: Blenko Glass Factory Tour

In business since 1893, Blenko Glass Company offers free tours of its glass factory in Milton. Glassblowing demonstrations and free self-guided tours allow visitors to watch production from an observation deck. Besides specialty pieces, the firm also produces sheet glass from mouth-blown cylinders of glass, a process that can be viewed on the tour.

Wisconsin: Henry Villas Zoo

Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison is one of the only few community-supported zoos in the United States. The zoo features numerous attractions, including the Tropical Rainforest Aviary with a free-flight area to watch the birds. Just outside, otters swim in their waterfall. The zoo features a big cat exhibit, a children's zoo, a herpetarium (exhibit of reptiles and amphibians) and a discovery center.

Wyoming: Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site

Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site, located about 45 miles east of Riverton, is a treasure of Native American rock art known as petroglyphs. The site gets its name from outcroppings of sandstone eroded into shapes that resemble the turrets and towers of castles. The landmark includes a gravel walking trail, footbridges and a new parking area.

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