Day trips can be planned at no cost
Spending a day out with the family can result in some pricey adventures, especially if you’re doling out admission fees for museums or amusement parks. But, with all the natural beauty we’re surrounded by and some attractions that don’t cost a dime, you can plan on some pretty fun outings that won’t cost you any more than gas (and maybe parking) and a sack lunch.
Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory
This is a two-for-one free day in Chicago. With 15 animal habitats, you can check out lions and tigers and bears and many other species. The nonprofit institution is supported by donations and is free and open every day. Some of its newest residents include a baby crowned lemur, two baby Japanese macaques and a Diana monkey family. Some of the exhibits include the Kovler Lion House, the Regenstein Small Mammal Reptile House and the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo. Visit lpzoo.org for more information.
Pair with it a stop at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, where you can see tropical palms, ancient ferns and other exotic plants in its four display houses. The Lincoln Park Commission constructed the Lincoln Park Conservatory in phases over a five-year period ending in 1895, which replaced a greenhouse that had sat on the same space since 1870. Learn more at chicagoparkdistrict.com.
Millenium, Grant and Maggie Daley Parks
One of Chicago’s biggest tourist attractions is The Bean, a massive steel sculpture situated at Millennium Park. On any given day, rain or shine, you’ll see gobs of people from all around the world striking a pose with selfie sticks in front of this shiny spectacle that sits beneath a beautiful backdrop of Chicago skyscrapers.
Walk on a bit to Grant Park, where you can take in the stunning Buckingham Fountain and also get a nice glance at Lake Michigan across Lake Shore Drive — and snap a fabulous family photo.
Maggie Daley Park is another lakefront park that is a nice free place to enjoy with the family. The massive three-acre playground will keep kids busy for hours. One of the areas has water play features for the younger ones to cool off.
Check out details of free fares for kids on weekends and holidays on Metra and the South Shore Lines. Once you come up the stairs from the Millennium Park station, you’ll see the Chicago Cultural Center, where you can sit for a bit to enjoy the architecture and log into the free wi-fi.
New Buffalo/Three Oaks, Michigan
Entrance to the New Buffalo Public Beach is free, but there is a parking fee of $10 assessed between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. However, if you’re spending the day in the area, visiting after 8 p.m. allows for you to take in a lovely sunset and park for no charge. Fees don’t start until Memorial Day, so if you visit before then parking is also free. The 800-feet of beachfront is manned by lifeguards from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There are also play structures, a boardwalk and nature trail along the dune line. Bring a kite on a breezy day and watch it soar above the sand.
There are some nearby state and county parks offering plenty of free recreational fun, but one definitely worth a stop is the Galien River County Park, where you can walk out on a 600-foot-long marsh boardwalk or get a great view from a 300-foot canopy walkway leading to a 60-foot-high marsh overlook tower. Visit berriencounty.org for more information.
In nearby Three Oaks, you can peruse a beautiful community garden or take a peek at the public library that is housed in a unique historic building featuring a vault with marble stairs. Dewey Cannon Park is a nice open space for enjoying a picnic and Watkins Park has a large playground with bridges and structures for kids to enjoy. If you have a bike rack on your car, this is a lovely area for a small town or country ride.
If you’re looking for a full day of fun for free, look to Wisconsin. Kenosha has some great free beachfront with free parking to take advantage of. You could even hit more than one beach if you want to build lots of sandcastles! Also, bring a fishing pole to drop in the water as there are several spots to do so. And reserve a few minutes for a drive through the historic areas along the lake in the downtown area.
Among the free attractions are the Southport Lighthouse Station Museum, the Kenosha Public Museum and the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. You can also take a warehouse tour at the Jelly Belly Center in nearby Pleasant Prairie at no cost. For more on the Kenosha area, visit Kenosha.org.