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20 Free & Low-Cost Summer Fun for Families on Public Lands


Summer is just around the corner, and many families are looking for fun outdoor activities that are free or low-cost. The following are 20 ideas we recommend adding to your summer fun to-do list. Of course, all of them are available via our public lands!

  1. Picnic – most local, state and national parks offer a place for everyone to picnic – whether it’s on a blanket under a tree or at a picnic shelter. Pack up a meal and enjoy a little fresh air together as a family!
  2. Fly a kite – practice your kite flying skills in the open skies at your local park, or check out some of the kite festivals like these at a beach in Oregon, on the Hudson in NYC, at a state park in Massachusetts or at a local park in California.
  3. Fishing – enjoy a day fishing and feast on your catch for dinner! Just make sure to possess the right permits.
  4. Go for a hike – our nation’s parks offer thousands of miles of hiking trails! Some are well-maintained and flat, others are more wild and challenging. Find a hiking trail near you!
  5. Rafting or tubing – whether you want to enjoy a leisurely afternoon floating down a quiet river or you’re looking for something more adventurous, our nation’s parks offer a variety of fun on the water. Check out these opportunities in Indiana, Arkansas and Michigan.
  6. Go to the beach – Many public beaches are free to visit.
  7. Go horseback riding – parks across the country, from New York City to Alabama to Texas offer horseback riding opportunities.
  8. Rollerblading – Check your local entertainment book for equipment rental coupons if you don’t own your own blades. Some parks also offer rentals (including safety helmets and pads).
  9. Visit a nature center or botanical garden – Local, state and national parks maintain nature centers and botanical gardens where residents and visitors can explore and learn.
  10. Geocaching – it’s an outdoor treasure hunt with a smartphone!
  11. Look for wildlife – One of the exciting parts of spending a day at a park is spotting wildlife that calls the park home. Look for birds and butterflies to deer and rabbits.
  12. Garden and harvest – Many local parks now offer community gardens where you can plant and harvest your own vegetables and flowers all summer. Check with your local parks to see what programs they offer (note that because of the popularity of these programs, there are often waiting lists for garden plots). Here’s a great example of a community garden program from Montgomery Parks in Maryland!
  13. Go for a swim at a public pool or lake – Is there a better way to enjoy a summer afternoon?
  14. Camping – Use to help locate camp grounds and make reservations on our federal lands. (This website is also a great resource to explore all kinds of recreational opportunities in our national park system!)
  15. Stargazing – Whether you just want to check out the night sky with limited light pollution, you have your own telescope, or you're looking for a guided program, parks across the country offer stargazing opportunities. Check out what sort of nighttime stargazing programs are offered by your local and state parks. Here’s a great example from one of our national parks: Badlands National Park Night Sky programs.
  16. Visit a petting zoo – many city and state parks run petting zoos. Check with your local park systems to see what is offered, like these petting zoos in Seattle.
  17. See a movie – Some local park offers “Screen on the Green” events (names vary by city) where you can bring the family and watch a movie under the stars. Some examples inlcude Chicago—Movies in the Parks; Atlanta—Screen on the Green; Austin—Movies in the Park.
  18. Go biking – Bring your own or rent a bike and enjoy the trails maintained by your local parks!
  19. Go mountain biking – If you are up for a more challenging ride, check out the mountain biking trails maintained by parks across the country!
  20. Attend an interpretive program or ranger-led hike – Park rangers are experts on local wildlife, plant life, geology, climate and more. Learn from them during their educational programs and ranger-led hikes. Something special to check out: Yosemite has free photography walks, year-round.