7 Affordable Destinations for Nature Lovers


If you love the great outdoors, you don't want to look back on this brief, beautiful summer as a time spent inside crowded movie theaters or waiting in long lines at amusement parks. But maybe this isn't the year that you can afford to take that naturalist-guided Galapagos Islands excursion, either.

No worries! There are many affordable places stateside where you can get off the grid without spending extravagantly. Some of these destinations have cushy lodging available, if that's your jam, but you also have the option to rough-it on a more modest budget.

1. California's Sierra country, other than Tahoe

If you visit Lake Tahoe in the summer, you'll love the crystalline waters, but hate the traffic and the brunch prices. Smart Californians know that you can enjoy the Sierra's fresh, piney breezes more affordably (and peacefully) from the shores of any number of less famous alpine lakes.

Stay at the Montecito Sequoia Lodge & Family Camp, where a room that sleeps four or more is under $300 a night including meals and activities such as guided hikes through giant sequoias, bouldering, and stand-up paddleboarding in their private lake.

2. Kodachrome State Park, Utah

Many a dreamed-of National Park vacation has been spoiled by the reality that lodging books up really, really early. A great workaround — and often a money saver — is checking out state and county parks in the same region.

Located just outside Bryce Canyon National Park (one of Utah's Big Five) much-smaller Kodachrome gets its name from its 67 flashily-pigmented stone spires. You can camp in the park ($17-$30 per night) and take a trail ride through the red canyon past the gaudy spires, then take day trips into neighboring Bryce, famous for its hoodoo rock formations, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, known for the series of colorful plateaus, and the Wave, an undulating expanse of pulled-taffy-like sandstone that you have to win a daily lottery to hike.

3. Anchorage, Alaska

The largest city in the state for a nature lover's getaway? Well, yes, when the state is Alaska and that largest metropolis has just over 300,000 people. Right in town, 1,400-acre Kincaid Park is home to moose, porcupines, lynx, and eagles. Chugach State Park, one of the largest in the United States, begins just seven miles from downtown, and contains mountains, ferns, wildflowers, forests, ptarmigan, and brown and black bears.

Modestly-priced hotels in Anchorage include the $140-a-night Ski Inn. Anchorage is pretty far from the rest of the United States, but getting there need not be a bank-breaker. Alaska Airlines offers flights from San Francisco and other lower-48 cities for under $400 round-trip, depending on dates.

4. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Would you like to camp under a palm tree on a white sand beach, under a star-studded sky 70 miles from the mainland? What if I told you it only costs $15 a night? It really does, at one of the most isolated national parks in the lower 48.

Activities include snorkeling coral reefs among young barracuda, lobsters, and tropical fish; birding; and watching for the adorable sea turtles that give the park its name.

The campground fee isn't the only expense of a Dry Tortuga getaway. The ferry from the mainland will set you back $195 round-trip — but it includes breakfast, lunch, and the use of snorkeling equipment.

5. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Including sand dunes 400 feet above Lake Michigan and offshore islands, this lovely area is home to pine forests, abandoned farms reverting back to meadowland, the occasional bobcat, and wildflowers such as cowslips and St. John's Wort.

Stay at a rural inn like the Duneswood Resort for $100-$200 a night, or in one of the many hotels in Traverse City, where you can stroll the charming downtown. In early July, the city holds its Cherry Festival, with an air show, concerts, and foodie events.

6. Cannon Beach, Oregon

From a single platform at Ecola State Park on this Oregon Coast spot, you can view gray whales, bald eagles, and brown pelicans. At dusk, moose emerge to graze in the park. On the beach, tide pools teem with life that the ocean left behind, including sea stars, hermit crabs, and sometimes even spiny little sea urchins. The best pools are around Haystack Rock, a 235-foot-tall arrowhead-shaped rock sticking out of the ocean that you can walk to at low tide.

Nearby hotels range from $100-$200 or so per night.

7. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Don't be fooled into thinking there's nothing to see in the desert — or that all desert nature is the same. In fact, this Southern California national park sits at the confluence of two distinct desert ecosystems, the low Colorado and the high Mojave. Admire the Seussian trees the park is named for; explore boulder piles, desert washes, and strange rock formations; and gaze at some of the most spectacular night skies you'll see anywhere.

You can camp in the park, or stay at the Campbell House bed and breakfast outside the gate for about $150 a night, which gives you the ability to cool off in a swimming pool after hikes.

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