Cheap summer getaways
No money, no problem: Here are 35 great vacations that cost $125 or less.
© Beth Gauper
The Willard Munger State Trail starts in West Duluth.
In summer, it’s not as hard as you’d think to take a trip for $125 or less.
Many of the great travel experiences in the Upper Midwest can’t be bought, anyway — bicycling amid old-growth white pines, paddling in the sloughs of the Mississippi, volunteering in a lighthouse.
It's not Six Flags, but a family of six can play in Lake Superior waterfalls and learn to camp for $40. Women can spend a
weekend kayaking on the Rum River for $75, and a couple can stay in a rustic national-forest cabin for $40, if not at a lake
resort . . . wait, they can stay at a lake resort.
Here's our list of best cheap trips in 2013.
Most give you a roof over your head; the trips that require tent camping also include guides, meals and/or fun things to do.
If you're really frugal, you can travel for almost nothing by staying in county parks and state forests and seeing the sights
on a bike. To travel for free, join work trips on trails and in parks.
As always, reserve as soon as possible.
Women in the outdoors
Minnesota's Becoming an Outdoors Woman program offers weekends at excellent prices. In 2013, the Fly Fishing Weekend at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro June 14-16 is $110.
A Birds and Bogs Weekend June 21-22 in the northern Twin Cities suburb of East Bethel is $50 with dorm lodgings. A
Women's Kayak Overnight June 28-29 on the Rum River in the Twin Cities suburb of Anoka is $75.
A Biking & Camping Weekend in Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth Aug. 2-4 is $60 with camper-cabin lodgings.
Bicycling, bismarcks and a bed
One of Minnesota's oldest bicycle rides is the Tour of Saints, July 7 this year. It starts in St. Joseph and goes through St. John's Abbey and University, and you can stay in the dorms of the College of St. Benedict.
Cost for the overnight is $46.17 for one, $59.06 for two or $176.10 for two to four people in an apartment. The $30 early tour registration includes pastries, fruit, candy bars, watermelon and other treats.
The 18-mile tour is on the Lake Wobegon Trail. For more, see Bicycling to Lake Wobegon.
© Beth Gauper
At Ruttger's, inexpensive lodge rooms face the resort's long sand beach on Lake Bemidji.
Learn to camp in Minnesota state parks
Sign up for one of the I Can Camp! programs in Minnesota state parks, and the cost is just $40 for up to six people, $60 for two-night programs. Everything is included except food.
The 26 programs start June 8 at Fort Snelling State Park in the Twin Cities and end Aug. 31 at Myre-Big Island State Park near Albert Lea. Two-night programs are at Forestville-Mystery Cave, Scenic, Whitewater, St. Croix and Lake Bemidji state parks.
The parks also offer I Can Paddle! I Can Fish! and I Can
Cabin camping in a Minneapolis suburb
At the Baker Park Reserve Near-Wilderness Settlement in the western
Minneapolis suburb of Maple Plain, groups of up to eight family or friends can rent one of eight rustic log cabins, $115 per
The cabins have wood stoves, and firewood and cooking/eating utensils are provided. A nearby log lodge has modern restrooms and an institutional kitchen.
Or, come for a Family Camp weekend. In 2013, they're July 12-14 and 26-28 and Aug. 2-4 and 16-18 and include canoeing, archery, scavenger hunts and arts and crafts. Cost is $189 per cabin for two nights and includes one breakfast and some beverages. Reserve at 763-694-7724.
For more about cabin camping, see Camping near the Twin Cities.
For more about camper cabins and yurts in state parks, see A roof in the woods.
© Beth Gauper
The yurts in McIntosh Woods State Park have their own dock on Clear Lake.
A classic Minnesota lake resort
In the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, there's only one cottage resort left on the shores of Lake Bemidji.
It's Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge, run by the Ruttger family since 1937. The small rooms in its 1921 lodge overlook the lake and beach and are the region's best lake deal: $55-$68 weekdays and $73-$117 weekends for one person, $63-$117 for two people.
Rates include a large breakfast buffet and use of the facilities, which include an indoor pool. Lake Bemidji State Park and the Paul Bunyan State Trail are just around the corner.
Becoming an outdoor family
To combat the rise of nature-deficit disorder, many state DNRs and nature centers are sponsoring Becoming an Outdoor Family weekends, where families can try all kinds of fun things: archery, fishing, shooting, orienteering, hiking, rock climbing and geocaching.
In the scenic bluffs of southeast Minnesota, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro is offering a weekend June 7-9 in 2013. Cost is $80 per person for groups of 3 or less, $300 for a family of four and $75 for each additional person, and includes meals and lodgings.
In northern Minnesota's Jay Cooke State Park, a Family Outdoor Skills Weekend is July 13-14, $60 per family for a stay in a camper cabin. Activities include archery, geocaching, fishing and a geology hike.
© Beth Gauper
Eight family cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps sit on the bluff above Backbone Lake.
Hike and bike from West Duluth
In Duluth, Canal Park gets all the tourist love, but there’s actually more to do in West Duluth – paddling the St. Louis River, bicycling the Willard Munger State Trail, walking and birding on the Western Waterfront Trail and hiking the Duluth sections of the Superior Hiking Trail.
You can avoid the high rates of Canal Park hotels by staying at the Willard Munger Inn, where guests get shuttles to trailheads in Duluth, free use of canoes and bicycles and a free pass to the Lake Superior Zoo, across the street.
In peak summer, weekday rates start at $66 for two. To save even more, camp at the nearby Indian Point Campground.
For more, see Duluth's other waterfront.
Paddling or tubing the Root River
In Minnesota's bluff country, Lanesboro is the hub of the popular Root River State Trail.
It's got lots of B&Bs, but tourists on a budget can camp in Sylvan Park, right in the middle of everything, or
in the Riverview campground, above the dam.
There are showers in the Community Center, and on Saturday mornings, there's a farmers market where you can buy Amish pastries for breakfast. Camping is first-come, first-served, $10 for tent sites, and $25 for RVs.
Rent a tube from Root River Outfitters for $8 if you want to
walk back along the bicycle trail or $12 if you want a longer trip with return by shuttle. Bicycling is free.
For more, see Lodgings in Lanesboro.
© Beth Gauper
The rustic cabins at Point Beach each have a boardwalk to Lake Michigan.
Playing on Lake Winona
In the southeast Minnesota town of Winona, you can check out kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards from Lake Lodge Recreation Center on the east end of Lake Winona. You just need a $5 yearly membership.
In summer, it's open 4-8 p.m. Monday through Friday (until 9 a.m. Wednesdays, when the Municipal Band plays) and 1-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
For more, see Afloat in Winona.
Camping and a water park in the Twin Cities
You can camp for $17-$25 and play in the water park for $11-$14; it includes six water slides, a lazy river and the state's
largest wave pool. Or stay in a camper cabin for $45.
For more, see Camping in the Twin Cities.
A dorm in Duluth
As summer heats up, the price of hotel rooms rockets in this port city, cooled by the breezes of Lake Superior and frequented by crowds of tourists.
The college is in the hills above downtown, west of Chester Park and right off Skyline Parkway, which is a destination in
BWCA from a bunkhouse
Two resorts on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area allow guests to stay for $16-$20 per person in bunkhouses while taking day trips into the wilderness or just relaxing on a lake.
At the end of the Gunflint Trail, Tuscarora Lodge on Round Lake rents nine bunkhouses in the woods, each sleeping four to nine people, that share a shower house. Cost is $16 per person, including towels, and an all-you-can-eat French toast breakfast is $7. Each bunkhouse is rented to only one party at a time, 800-544-3843.
Twenty-two miles east of Ely, Kawishiwi Lodge and Outfitters is on
Lake One, an entry point into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The resort has two bunkhouses, each with full
kitchen and bath and one with screened porch, where beds go for $25 per person, with a $100 minimum.
One bunkhouse sleeps nine and one sleeps eight, and each is rented to only one party at a time. 218-365-5487.
© Beth Gauper
In the northwest Wisconsin village of Solon Springs, camp and see a concert in the same place.
Paddling on the Namekagon
This pristine river in northwest Wisconsin is on the St. Croix National Scenic
Riverway, part of the national park system.
Southwest Community Education in Minneapolis is offering a two-night trip June 21-23 for $125, including meals, canoes and gear, camping fees and transportation. To register, call 612-668-3100.
Or go on your own, and bring snorkel gear, because the river's waters are spring-fed and as clear as glass.
When I paddled and snorkeled there, I found a $20 bill snagged on a branch. It would have paid for my trip expenses, if I'd had any: Camping is free and first-come, first-served.
Try the quiet section between Trego and the St. Croix River. If you need an outfitter, contact Pardun's Canoe Rental and Shuttle Service in Danbury.
Learn whitewater paddling
From the northern Wisconsin town of Rhinelander, Nicolet College offers an Outdoor Adventure Series that includes lots of fun day trips and a few overnight trips.
In 2013, they include "Northeast Wisconsin Rivers: Moving Water Technique'' June 8-9 on the Wolf, Peshtigo or Pike. Cost is $95, $125 with canoe rental. Students can either camp or stay in a nearby motel.
© Beth Gauper
In Ludington, Mich., volunteers work as keepers of the Big Sable Lighthouse.
Park and ride on the edge of Madison
If you’re unfamiliar with the one-way streets around Madison’s Capitol Square (and the towing rules), you can camp for cheap on the edge of town, surrounded by trees and flowers, and ride your bike into town.
From there, you can ride west all the way to Dodgeville; the Military Ridge State Trail starts where the Capital City ends.
On the west side of town, near Governor Nelson State Park, you
can camp on the shores of Lake Mendota at the county-run Mendota Park. All of the sites are electric, and there's a shower
house and swimming area.
For more, see Summer in Madison.
Music and sweet corn in the coulees
Camping at a music festival is a time-honored way to have fun on a budget, although some of the bigger fests can get pretty rowdy.
That’s not a problem at Larryfest, sponsored by the Kickapoo Valley Acoustic Music Association on a maple-syrup farm in the gorgeous coulees of southwest Wisconsin, between Ontario and La Farge.
It’s Aug. 16-17 in 2013, and cost of $65 ($75 after July 1) includes more than 20 performances, camping, sweet corn, firewood and shuttle bus. Food and soda, but no alcoholic beverages, are sold on the grounds.
For more about the area, see Valleys of Vernon County.
Cabin camping in the forest
Wisconsin state parks don't have camper cabins by state statute, but national forests can have them.
The cabins sleep six in three bunk beds, and bathrooms and showers are in two central buildings. They rent for $40 weekdays, $45 weekends, and they're open from mid-May to mid-October. Reserve at Recreation.Gov.
Cabins for the physically disabled
If you're physically disabled, Wisconsin charges just $30 per night for accessible cabins in nine state parks. Of course, they’re very
Modern cabins are in Buckhorn, High Cliff, Mirror Lake, Kohler-Andrae and Potawatomi state parks and at Ottawa Lake in the Southern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest and in Richard Bong Recreation Area.
Rustic cabins are at Copper Falls and Blue Mounds state parks. Reservations can be made starting Jan. 10 and are taken by individual parks; for information, call 608-266-2181.
© Beth Gauper
From campgrounds, bicyclists can ride all around Madison.
Walking around Geneva Lake
In the tony Lake Geneva area of southeast Wisconsin, you can't put a roof over your head for less than $100. But you can have
one of the best locations if you camp at Big Foot Beach State
It's right on Geneva Lake in Fontana, with a quarter-mile sand beach. The campground has showers; 38 sites can be reserved
and 37 are first-come, first-served, 262-248-2528.
You can swim, but the thing to do is walk around the lake on a unusual footpath that goes right through the front yards of the big mansions. It's 20 miles, but you also can walk to the town of Lake Geneva and get a ride back to Fontana on a Lake Geneva Cruise Line boat.
For more, see Gawking in Lake Geneva.
Camping and a lakeside concert in Wisconsin
If you're paddling on the Bois Brule River in northwest Wisconsin, there's more to do just to the south on the shores of Upper St. Croix Lake, headwaters of the St. Croix River.
In Solon Springs, the Lucius Woods Performing Arts Center offers Music in the Park on Saturday evenings at its massive log bandshell.
© Beth Gauper
On Wisconsin's crystal-clear Namekagon River, it's free to stay at national-park campsites.
It's on the lake in Lucius Woods County Park, which has 24 wooded sites, a nice sand beach, a playground and a modern bathhouse. Camping costs $13-$14 and is first-come, first-served. 715-378-2219.
The music season runs from late June to mid-August and includes folk, blues, big-band, bluegrass, Dixieland jazz, Celtic and
'50s music. Tickets are $14, $16 at the gate; $7-$8 for students.
Brats and beer are sold on site. There's also a Dairy Queen, grocery store and restaurant a block from the park.
The North Country National Scenic Trail runs through the park, and on the north end of Upper St. Croix Lake, a historic
two-mile portage trail connects it to the start of the Bois Brule.
Camping on Lake Superior
I found Saxon Harbor County Park on Lake Superior while seeking out nearby Superior Falls, on the Montreal River between Wisconsin and Michigan. It has everything anyone wants in summer — a sand beach for swimming, showers, a protected bay for kayaking and a bar that serves burgers and pizza on days when it’s too hot to cook.
Sites cost $13, $19 with electricity. Reserve with Iron County, 715-561-2697, or Harbor Lights bar, 715-893-2242.
For more, see 30 great campsites.
© Beth Gauper
In the tony Lake Geneva area, stay cheap at Big Foot Beach State Park.
A Wisconsin beach cabin
Do you have a really large family and hardly any money but would like a nice beach vacation? Here's the place for you.
Just north of Two Rivers, Wis., Point Beach State Forest rents
two rustic cabins, each with a boardwalk to white-sand beach on Lake Michigan. They're in their own part of the park, south
of the lighthouse and main beach, so they're very quiet.
Guests should bring bicycles and ride the beautiful Rawley Point Trail through the park to the lighthouse and south to Two Rivers, where they can connect to the paved Mariners Trail, which follows the Lake Michigan shoreline to Manitowoc.
For more, see Two trails from Two
One cabin sleeps 14 in bunks and the other sleeps 16, but they're all in one room, so beware of snorers. Each has a fire pit
and latrine, and they share a covered pavilion for eating and a water pump. There's no electricity, so campers should bring
lanterns. Shower houses are in the main part of the park. Cost is $60.
They can be reserved 11 months in advance, 800-372-3607. The park is at 920-794-7480.
© Beth Gauper
Just outside Thunder Bay, Fort William Historical Park is a reconstructed fur post.
Mountain biking in the Kettle Moraine
The trails in Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit, just west of Milwaukee, often are called the best in Wisconsin.
Stay at the Eagle Home Hostel, on the edge of the forest, and you can ride right
onto them; the Emma Carlin mountain-biking trail is just a mile away. If you want to hike, the house adjoins the Ice Age
National Scenic Trail.
The 1890s brick farmhouse has three bedrooms with eight beds, $25 or $22 for members of Hostelling International. Guests can use the large living room, dining room and kitchen. To make a reservation, call 262-495-8794.
There's also a hostel in Madison and one north of Milwaukee in Newburg. For more, see At home in a hostel.
Party in Milwaukee
Summer is one big party in Milwaukee, whose lakefront festival grounds host the huge Summerfest and eight big heritage festivals.
Ignore the expensive hotel rooms and bunk at Marquette University's Straz Tower, three blocks from the special bus that takes summer visitors to the lakefront Henry Maier Festival Park and right on the Wisconsin Avenue route that takes baseball fans to Miller Park on game days.
Or ride your bike; it's a college dorm, so you're free to take your bike up to your room in the elevator. Milwaukee is a great place to bicycle; see Bicycling along Lake Michigan.
You also can stay a mile farther along Wisconsin Avenue at the seven-story Mashuda Hall, a former hotel where the Beatles stayed after their Milwaukee gig in 1964. It's next to the Pabst Mansion.
The air-conditioned rooms, all with WiFi, are available from late May to mid-August, but only if a conference also has booked rooms in one of the dorms. That's most days but usually doesn't include holiday weekends.
© Beth Gauper
At Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, rides cost 25 cents or 50 cents.
At Straz, a room for one is $46, and for two, $64. A triple is $75, and a quad is $80. At Mashuda, a single is $43 and a
double $60. Triples are $75. At both dorms, add $10 per room for microwave, refrigerator and cable TV. Call 414-288-7208 to
Many other colleges have dorms that are open to the public in summer. For more, see Cheap stays.
A great amusement park in Green Bay
Want to take the kids to an amusement park, but don't want to pay $40 for a pass to Six Flags?
Spend a day at the wonderfully old-fashioned Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay,
where $40 will buy you 160 rides on the giant slide, 80 rides on a Tilt-A-Whirl or Ferris wheel or 40 rides on the brand-new
Zippin Pippin roller coaster, a replica of Elvis' favorite ride in Memphis.
The leafy, 45-acre park on the shores of Lake Michigan has been owned by the city since 1920 and has 17 mechanical rides, pony rides and a playground, picnic area and dance hall. Ride tickets are 25 cents each.
Green Bay still has many inexpensive mom-and-pop motels. In adjoining DePere, the Apple Creek Campground rents yurts and sleeping cabins for $72 per family.
You'll probably want to visit the Packer Hall of Fame and tour Lambeau Field, too. For more, see Packer country.
© David Kenyon/DNR
In Michigan's J.W. Wells State Park, near the Wisconsin border on Lake Michigan, a rustic cabin rents for $50.
A yurt on Iowa's Clear Lake
Rent both yurts on the shores of Clear Lake in north-central Iowa, and you've got your own dock, shower house and oak-shaded
corner of McIntosh
Woods State Park.
Each yurt has a full-size futon and bunk beds and costs $35, or $210 per week. It's connected by bike trail to Clear Lake, a laid-back beach town with a 1950s vibe and music every weekend. There's a
sand beach in the park and a lakeside supper club next door. It's camping, but just barely.
The bathhouse is disabled-accessible, as is one yurt. Guests can bring a boat or raft to use off the dock. Reserve up to a year in advance at Iowa state parks, 877-427-2757, which also rent many camper cabins and family cabins, $25-$100.
Stay on a boat in Dubuque
In Dubuque, Iowa, you can stay on the Mississippi River and in a museum at the same time.
During the day, the 1934 steam-powered dredge boat William M. Black is part of the National Mississippi River Museum, but at night, it's a guesthouse with 55 bunks.
Cost is $50 per bunk; bring three friends and pay $37.50 apiece to rent two state rooms or $43.75 apiece to rent the Itasca State Room, which has a private bathroom. Rates include admission to the museum and breakfast in its Depot Cafe. It's open April through October. 800-226-3369, Ext. 213.
For more, see Destination Dubuque.
© Kirt Livernois
The Michigander bike tour uses trails along lakes Michigan and Huron.
Cabins in Iowa state parks
In hilly northeast Iowa, a family of four can spend a week in a cabin at Backbone State Park for $300. The lovely sand beach on Backbone Lake is nearby, there's great hiking, and the cabins, built in the 1930s by the CCC, have bathrooms and kitchens.
Other parks rent cabins, too; in Palisades-Kepler State Park near Cedar Rapids, four cabins with bathrooms, $50, have their own blufftop corner of the park.
In summer, they rent only by the week; the rest of the year, the minimum is two days. For more, see A cabin in Iowa.
Camp in a tipi
In Lowden State park in northern Illinois, near the town of Oregon, families can camp in a painted tipi during Oregon Trail Days, July 20-21 in 2013. The tipis sleep three to four and rent for $79 per night, half-price Thursday and Sunday nights.
The entertainment is free. There's a Native American encampment with drumming and dancing, covered wagon rides, a horse parade, a river float, vintage baseball and such cowboy arts as gun slinging and rope tricks.
© Beth Gauper
A five-mile trail circles Lake Winona.
Some state parks also rent tipis, including Upper Sioux State Park in western Minnesota, $30 per night, and Michigan's Baraga, Cheboygan, Interlochen and Wilson state parks, $30.
Take the family on a bike tour
In the western suburbs of Chicago, Trails for Illinois offers a "bite-size'' bike tour for beginners, GITy Up! on July 20-21. It's named for the longer tour on the Grand Illinois Trail.
Ride 50 miles over two days on the Illinois Prairie Path and Fox River Trail, or just 17 miles. It's $85 for food, camping
and gear shuttle, and children 5 and younger ride free (though you have to tote them).
A cheap stay in Chicago
Chicago is so much fun in summer that everyone wants to be there — bad news for people on a budget. But you can beat high hotel rates by staying at the Hostelling International Family Hostel in the South Loop at Congress and Wabash, two blocks from Grant Park, which hosts free festivals and concerts all summer.
It's quite posh, with pancake happy hours, an Internet room, WiFi and a carpeted great room with foosball, ping-pong and a
pool table. There's a kitchen where guests can cook for themselves.
In 2009, 2007 and 2006, it was voted Best Large Hostel Worldwide by travelers on Hostelworld.com. Beds cost $29-$38 per
person, including a breakfast buffet of bagels, muffins, cereal, fruit and juice. Call 312-360-0300.
Volunteers takes guests on forays around town, to festivals and blues clubs. And speaking of volunteers, the official city Greeters will show you around city for free.
For more tips, see Cheap Chicago.
© Beth Gauper
Mountain bikers love the John Muir trails in Kettle Moraine State Forest near La Grange, Wis.
Stay at a fur post
Even if you’re sleeping in an RV or high-tech tent, you can’t get any closer to 1815 than the campground of Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay, nine miles upstream from Lake Superior on the shores of the Kaministiquia River.
It's the continent's largest reconstructed fur post, with a legion of costumed living-history players enacting non-stop tableaux amid 42 buildings on 20 acres.
It's like staying on the grounds of a fur-trade Disneyland. Sites cost $25-$35.
Michigan's many cabins
Michigan state parks have hundreds of mini-cabins, rustic cabins, camper cabins and even yurts, $45-$80. Many are in prime locations on Lake Superior or in Lake Michigan beach parks.
For more, see Michigan's great lake cabins.
LAKES MICHIGAN AND SUPERIOR
© Beth Gauper
Minnesota's Becoming an Outdoors Woman program offers kayaking, fishing, biking and birding weekends.
Living in a lighthouse
Many lighthouses on the Great Lakes give free housing to volunteer keepers in return for help with tours and light
At Pottawatomie Light on Wisconsin's Rock Island, Au Sable Light in Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
and Devils islands in the Apostles and Big Sable Light near Ludington, Mich., volunteers stay at former keepers’
quarters. Others stay in former state-park manager houses or in cabins.
For more, see Living in a lighthouse.
Seeing the sights on a bike
An organized bicycle tour is the best and cheapest way to see the countryside and make a lot of friends along the way.
One of them is the Michigander, sponsored by the
Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance July 13-19. It starts with a two-day loop tour and costs $95, including
breakfast and dinner.
In Minnesota, you can ride and camp for a whole week on the family-friendly MS Society TRAM for a registration fee of as little as $30 (each person also has to raise at least $300 in pledges). It's July 14-19 in 2013.
© Beth Gauper
Campsites at Sibley State Park are near the beach.
Outdoors with a club
Traveling with an outdoors club is one of the best deals you can get. You need to be a member to go on overnight trips, but you don’t need to live in the town where the club is based; you can meet the group at the destination.
One club known for its penny-pinching ways is the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club, based in the Twin Cities. It offers camping trips to Minnesota’s North Shore for as little as $15; you bring your own food, but you can borrow gear from the club.
It also offers beginner’s trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for around $85-$100.
For more about traveling with outdoors clubs, see Join the club.
Travel by bike and stay for free
If your travels are fueled by your own muscles, you’re welcome to stay with hosts in the Warmshowers worldwide network.
It’s free, but even better, you’ll meet interesting people, most of them touring bicyclists themselves.
Couchsurfing is a similar social network, without the bicycling requirement. If
you’re adventurous and flexible and you like to meet people, it’s a great way to travel on a budget.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.