Free Things to Do in America

From Kentucky to Vermont and Utah, fun times don’t have to cost a lot

Just because the temperature has dropped a few degrees doesn’t mean you have to stay at home watching Netflix.

If the winter blues are making you stir crazy, fear not: There’s plenty of excitement to be had across America. From sampling maple syrup in Vermont to following the Freedom Trail in Massachusetts, you don’t have to leave the U.S.—or break your budget—to have an amazing adventure.

Check out these seven fun activities you can enjoy in these states for free. Note that, in 2020, it’s imperative to check websites and social media updates beforehand to ensure that your destination is open and accepting visitors at the time you arrive.

Morse Farms Maple Sugarworks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Vermont: Taste Maple Syrup

Don’t leave Vermont without sampling some authentic maple syrup. You’ll find plenty of maple farms in the Green Mountain State, and some of them offer free tastings. At Sugarbush Farm in Woodstock, for example, you can get free admission and try four grades of pure Vermont maple syrup.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Massachusetts: Follow the Freedom Trail

You can’t follow the yellow brick road in Boston, but you can follow a red line that guides you along the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail. Visit 16 official sites that are significant in the history of the American Revolution, from the Old Corner Bookstore to the site of the Boston Massacre.

And don’t forget about Faneuil Hall, which hosted America’s first town meeting. These days, you can shop, eat, and enjoy live musical performances in the market.

Buffalo Trace Distillery tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Kentucky: Drink Bourbon

Kentucky is known for its bourbon, so why not take a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort? All tours are complimentary, and the Trace Tour doesn’t require a reservation. You’ll see bourbon barrels and get to sample some of the best local liquor. Extend your travels on the Bourbon Trail.

Shiner beer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Texas: Tour a Brewery and Sample Beer in Shiner

Speaking of beloved American beverages… Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week, where visitors can see how every last drop of their popular brews get made. Tours and samples are free. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer to states across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Virginia: Wander Colonial Williamsburg 

Explore Colonial Williamsburg in the city of Williamsburg. Visitors typically drop a bit of cash to tour the 18th century buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, but if you keep your wanderings to commercial shops and the city streets, you don’t have to spend a dime.

You’ll be highly entertained as you explore the government buildings, shops, homes, gardens, and taverns of Williamsburg and viewing free outdoor entertainment like re-enactment actors firing cannons. Enter the residents’ homes or learn about their workplaces; see where they sleep, where they eat, and where they socialize.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Utah: Explore the Valley of the Gods

This little valley near Bluff, Utah is filled with sandstone formations and starry night skies. Located in the southeastern corner of Utah it is out of the way of the main national park loop.

To drive through the Valley of the Gods you will take a 17-mile, unpaved loop. Similar to Monument Valley, but only a quarter of the size, it remains quiet and peaceful.

Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Free Things to Do in Ohio: Experience the Past in the Present in Holmes County

The Amish have established themselves in the Holmes County area, and it is estimated that one in every six Amish in the world live in this area. The Amish choose to live a simple way of life, which is clearly evident by the presence of horses and buggies, handmade quilts, and lack of electricity in Amish homes.

Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the byway you will be treated to the typical, yet breathtaking sights of Amish Country: teams of huge, blonde Belgians pulling wagons of hay, farmers working in the fields and of course, beautiful views of lush, green farmland, large white houses, and red barns.

Worth Pondering…

America is laced with nooks and crannies, good places that go undiscovered by many mainstream travelers.

Amish Country Heritage Trail

Elkhart County is Amish country and is best experienced along its Heritage Trail, a four season scenic drive

Discover stunning views, historical sites, and Amish heritage along the scenic backroads. Explore country lanes dotted with Amish-owned shops showcasing handcrafted and homemade.

Many of the towns along the Amish Country Heritage Trail date back 150 years or more. Among these are Middlebury, tiny Shipshewana known for a enormous flea market where 1,000 vendors peddle their wares twice a week from May through September, and Goshen. There’s also lovely Nappanee, a bustling community of woodworking shops that has been dubbed one of America’s “Top 10 Small Towns”.

Amish Farm © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Due to the Amish lifestyle you can almost believe you’ve stepped back in time a century or more. No utility wires lace farmhouses to poles, women in old-fashioned bonnets and long skirts bend to their task of hoeing gardens, men in 19th-century attire trudge behind horse-drawn plows across wide fields, and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on country lanes fills the air with staccato rhythms.

Newmar Service Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Heritage Trail could easily be driven in a few hours, but there are way too many interesting stops for that. We spent a week exploring the area while the warranty issues on our 2019 Dutch Star were addressed at the new state-of-the-art Newmar Service Center in Nappanee.

Amish Acres © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Nappanee is home to numerous woodworking shops, restaurants, antique stores, and Amish Acres, a restored 80-acre Old Order Amish farmstead. The farmstead has been an Amish farm for nearly a century. The historic complex consists of 18 restored buildings including the quaint farmhouse, a pair of log cabins, a smokehouse, and an enormous barn-turned restaurant where meals are served family style with seating for 500.

Nappanee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But Amish Acres is probably best known for the 402-seat Round Barn Theatre. It occupies a barn built in 1911 that has been transformed into a state-of-the-art theater. The theater is the national home of the musical “Plain and Fancy”, and in rotation, five other musicals are performed here.

Olympia Candy Kitchen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Leaving Nappanee, we drove northeast to Goshen. Admire the classic courthouse in the heart of town. Peek into the bunker-like police booth on the Corner of Main and Lincoln dating back to the days when John Dillinger was the bane of bankers. Don’t miss the Olympic Candy Kitchen, “the sweetest little place in town,” for a soda at the old-fashioned fountain or some handmade chocolates.

The Old Bag Factory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Built in 1896 the Old Bag Factory is home to producing artists, antiques, specialty shops, and cafes. The historic character of the complex provides a unique and charming setting for the specialty shops it houses.

Das Dutchman Essenhaus © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Following Country Road 22 northeast took us to Middlebury. Our destination, Das Dutchman Essenhaus, is an enormous complex that includes a bakery and a handful of village shops. Leisurely stroll across the colorful campus; discover Indiana’s largest family restaurant which offers both family-style and buffet and menu dining options. 

Amish carriage with horse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

From Middlebury we headed east on Country Road 16 toward Shipshewana. We shared the road with dozens of black carriages drawn by spirited horses, many of which stop—as we did at Dutch Country Market, Rise ‘n Roll Bakery, and Heritage Ridge Creamery.

Rise ‘n Roll Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Rise ‘n Roll Bakery offered up display cases full of loaves of wheat bread, pies, cookies, and donuts.

Heritage Ridge Creamery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

We watched cheese being made at Heritage Ridge Creamery, then sampled and purchased it at the retail shop.

Shipshewana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Back on the asphalt, we continued southwest to Shipshewana. The small town hosts some million visitors a year for its auctions, theater, history, more than 100 shops offering fine Amish woodwork and food, and twice-a-week Shipshewana Flea Market, the largest of its kind in the Midwest.

Menno-Hof © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

To learn about Amish history, we toured Menno-Hof, also in Shipshewana. Through multi-image presentations, historical environments, and other displays, we traveled back 500 years to the origins of the Amish-Mennonite story.

Yoder’s Popcorn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

We continued 4 miles south along Indiana Highway 5, stopping at Yoder’s Popcorn, for popcorn the way you remember it. Try their renowned Tiny Tender Popcorn. Then it’s back to our condo-on-wheels at the Newmar Service Center in Nappanee.

Worth Pondering…

The Amish are islands of sanity in a whirlpool of change.

—Nancy Sleeth, Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life

The 6 Best Road Trips to Take in the Midwest

Hit the road and discover the Midwest

From Great Lakes and rivers to rolling hills, wide-open plains and lush forests, there’s plenty to discover in the Midwest. Whether you’re up for a summer vacation, week-long road trip, or a Sunday drive, set a course for the middle section of the United States and get out there to explore some of the most diverse scenic terrains in the country. Here are six Midwestern journeys of varying lengths and distances worth considering.

Remember to travel with caution, follow good health practices, and behave responsibly when outdoors or around other people. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio’s Amish Country Byway

Take a break from the fast-paced world of smart phones, computers, and demanding schedules and enjoy the “simple life” found on the Amish Country Byway in Ohio. At first, you may feel as if time is standing still, but you’ll soon discover that the Amish folk are highly enterprising and productive. They have simply chosen to maintain their traditional beliefs and customs, continuing a lifestyle uncomplicated by the ways of the modern-day world.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you travel the Amish Country Byway, sharing the road with horses and buggies, you will experience first-hand the Amish way of life. You will also take in plenty of beautiful scenery and have a wide variety of recreational opportunities to pursue.

McAllister Covered Bridge, Parke County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indiana’s Covered Bridge Tour

Explore Parke County (aka the Covered Bridge Capital of the World) on well-marked driving routes. Parke County has 31 historic bridges, many built in the 1800s and still in use. They’re especially charming nestled amid fall foliage and autumn is a great time to hike or go on a horseback ride at Turkey Run State Park.

Neet Covered Bridge, Parke County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Five well-marked driving routes, each about 30 miles long make finding the bridges and exploring easy. Each covered bridge comes with its own unique past.

Downtown Wapakoneta. Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio’s Neil Armstrong Scenic Byway

The Neil Armstrong Scenic Byway celebrates the early years of Neil Armstrong’s life with special emphasis on the time period in which he obtained his pilot’s license. In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. Prior to that, his early interest in flying was cultivated in his hometown of Wapakoneta. Armstrong was so determined to fly that he successfully attained his pilot’s license before his driver’s license.

Armstrong Air & Space Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The byway route through downtown Wapakoneta retraces the route of his homecoming parade after returning from the moon. Some of the storefronts have changed but several of the sights appear largely as they did during Armstrong’s boyhood.

Badlands Loop Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota’s Badlands Loop Scenic Byway

Anyone who’s ever made the patriotic pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore comes away impressed by the otherworldly Badlands geography, a scope of grassy stretches and startling rock buttes, mounds, and peaks. Throughout the 39-mile SD Highway 240 journey between Wall and Cactus Flat across Badlands National Park, 16 designated overlooks provide opportunities to stop and marvel at the surreal views.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you choose to stop and hike, keep your eyes peeled for appearances by the indigenous wildlife—buffalo, prairie dogs, mule deer, and antelope, to name just a few. The Minuteman Missile Visitor Center and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center are great spots to load up on helpful maps and advice. 

Along the Amish Heritage Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indiana’s Amish Heritage Trail

Traveling along lively Main Streets and scenic backroads you’ll find surprises at every turn and soon discover why it was voted the top USA Today Reader’s Choice and editors of LIFE consider it one of “America’s Most Scenic Drives.”

The Old Bag Factory, Goshen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This scenic winding loop takes you through the communities of Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury, Nappanee, Bristol, Wakarusa, and Shipshewana. Discover stunning views, historical sites, and Amish heritage along the scenic backroads. Explore country lanes dotted with inviting Amish-owned shops showcasing handcrafted and homemade.

Covered Bridges Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio’s Covered Bridges Byway

The Covered Bridges Byway in Ashtabula County (also known as the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Tour) is an especially beautiful way to take in some of Ohio’s back road scenery and discover some charming covered bridges along the way. You can drive through America’s shortest and longest covered bridge along this scenic route which features a total of 19 covered bridges in Ashtabula County. It’s perfect for a leisurely scenic drive or a weekend road trip in northeast Ohio.

Worth Pondering…

It’s not just a drive.

It’s an experience.

Best Summer Road Trips from Major American Cities

Escape to mountains, lakes, beach, and desert. You can also escape to small towns.

Looking to get away this summer? Travel is a popular pastime every summer, but with months of lockdowns and stay-home orders confining Americans to their homes due to the pandemic, many people are more ready than ever for a change of scenery.

Here are six great summer road trip destinations just a few hours outside the urban hustle and bustle.

Macon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Atlanta

Atlanta has so much to do, but sometimes you just want to get out of the city and explore what the surrounding areas have to offer! Or possibly, like us you’re an RVer and can’t locate a decent campground within 50 miles.

Ocmulgee National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Macon

Distance from Atlanta: 83 miles

Oh, Macon! Home to a downtown area that’s got so much to do! Visit Amerson River Park and walk the paths while watching the kayakers paddle by on the Ocmulgee River. A visit to the Ocmulgee National Monument is a must-do, take a hike or bike the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, or spend the day on Lake Tobesofkee.

Ashton Villa, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Houston

America’s fourth-largest city is a cosmopolitan destination filled with world-class dining, arts, entertainment, shopping, and outdoor recreation. Take a stroll through the historic Heights, spend the day exploring the Museum District, or head down to Space Center Houston.

Galveston State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston Island

Distance from Houston: 50 miles

Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge at Galveston Island State Park. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart!

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix

Begin your adventure in the capital city of the 48th state known for year-round sunny skies and reliably warm temperatures. Phoenix is the epicenter of a sprawling metro area (the country’s 5th most populated) known as the Valley of the Sun. You’ll find dozens of top-notch golf courses, scores of hiking and biking trails, and the well-regarded, family-friendly Papago Park and adjacent Desert Botanical Gardens.

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

Distance from Phoenix: 100 miles

A Western history lover’s sweet spot, mile-high Prescott is home to more than 700 homes and businesses listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as museums that tell their stories. Stroll along Whiskey Row where saloons thrive alongside shops, galleries, eateries, and antique venues.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is home to renowned museums, diverse experiences, 75 miles of sunny coastline, and hundreds of miles of bike and hiking trails. LA’s cultural attractions include the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Getty Center, and art galleries. No trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to Hollywood, the home of movie studios, many of L.A.’s most popular and historic tourist destinations, and its world-famous namesake boulevard.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park 

Distance from Los Angeles: 130 miles

Joshua Tree National Park is an amazingly diverse area of sand dunes, dry lakes, flat valleys, extraordinarily rugged mountains, granitic monoliths, and oases. Explore the desert scenery, granite monoliths (popular with rock climbers), petroglyphs from early Native Americans, old mines, and ranches. The park provides an introduction to the variety and complexity of the desert environment and a vivid contrast between the higher Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts that range in elevation from 900 feet to 5,185 feet at Keys View. 

Amish Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chicago

Chicago is a city unlike any other. There are a few things you need to do like eat a Chicago style hot dog, see “The Bean,” and take a river boat cruise. Located on the south bank of the Chicago River, the Riverwalk stretches 1.25 miles from Lake Shore Drive to Lake Street. Chicago’s nearly 600 parks and 26 miles of lakefront make it easy to enjoy the great outdoors in the middle of the city. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll find there’s no other place like Chicago.

Shipshewanna Outdoor Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amish Country

Distance from Chicago: 110 miles

Northern Indiana is home to nearly 20,000 Amish, a culture that remains true to centuries-old traditions. A few days in Amish country will introduce you to delicious made-from-scratch meals, amazing craftsmanship, delightful theater works, tons of shopping, and horse-drawn carriage rides. You can take in the amazing works as you drive the Quilt Gardens along the Heritage Trail. Shipshewanna is home to the Midwest’s largest outdoor seasonal flea market where 700 vendors cover 40 acres of land selling everything from home decor and clothing to plants and tools. Take care when driving—buggies travel well under the speed limit.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington, DC

Beyond the traditional D.C. attractions—the Smithsonian museums, the U.S. Capitol, the monuments—you’ll find fresh food and cultural events. You can peruse a farmers market and take in the scenery from the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Plan to spend some time along the Tidal Basin, a 2-mile-long pond that was once attached to the Potomac River and serves as the backdrop to some of D.C.’s best-loved sites.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park

Distance from Washington, DC: 75 miles

Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park is a land bursting with cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, fields of wildflowers, and quiet wooded hollows. With over 200,000 acres of protected lands that are haven to deer, songbirds, and black bear, there’s so much to explore. The Skyline Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the US at any time of the year but especially during autumn. The picturesque 105-mile road travels through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where 75 overlooks welcome visitors to take in panoramic views of the Shenandoah wilderness.

Worth Pondering…

I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.

—Steve McQueen, actor