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Top five affordable outdoor vacation ideas

This summer, if you want a cheap getaway with your family, head out of doors. Families have many affordable options for short breaks and longer trips, some only a few hours drive from home. From traditional outdoor activities like camping to more unique alternatives such as staying at a working farm, we found five affordable ways to get outside that will keep the kids happy, too.

Our top five ideas for inexpensive outdoor vacations are: State park camping trips | Farmstays | YMCA family camps | Trips with nonprofit outdoors groups | Dude ranch vacations

State park camping trips

For a cheap and easy way to escape the hustle of city and suburban living, consider a camping trip in one of the more than 5,600 U.S. state parks. State parks offer access to free recreational activities such as hiking, swimming, and biking for a small entrance or parking fee (usually under $10) and some also offer museums, cultural and historic sites, and educational programming for little or no fee. And, in most parks, you can reserve a tent site with access to running water, toilets, and outdoor-cooking facilities for under $20 a night.

If you’d prefer to stay indoors, many state park campsites offer accommodations in cabins or yurts, some with electricity and running water. For example, Nickerson State Park in Cape Cod, MA, offers basic tent sites for $12 per night and yurts with electricity and water for only $25 to $30 per night.

ReserveAmerica, North America’s leading camp reservations provider, recently compiled a list of the top 100 family campgrounds in the U.S., most of which are inside state parks. You can find the list on and use it to link to information on the best family campgrounds by state. You’ll find information about each campground, including details on available camping facilities and amenities, fees, and how to make a reservation. For links to the official websites of all the state parks, visit the National Association of State Park Directors website and click on “The State Parks.”

Farmstay B&Bs

A unique alternative to regular B&Bs, farmstays give families the same benefits as regular B&BsÂ?a cozy atmosphere, warm hospitality, and full home-cooked breakfastsÂ?with the added bonus of experiencing life on a real working farm. And, with an emphasis on functionality rather than luxury, farmstay B&Bs tend to offer affordable rates, usually under $150 per night for a family of four.

Farmstays are a good choice for kids who like animals and getting dirty. On the farm, kids can learn about taking care of the animals, pitch in with chores such as feeding chickens or picking berries, and play outside. Depending upon the season in which you visit, guests might be able to witness the birth of a calf on a diary farm or help gather syrup from maple trees. Guests can also take advantage of the surrounding countryside for hiking, boating, snowshoeing, and more.

While farmstays are a relatively new concept to most Americans, this type of accommodations has long been a staple in Europe, so it’s no surprise that we had to go to an Italian website,, to find a directory of U.S. farmstays. The site, which you can access in English, allows you to search for farmstays by state using an interactive U.S. map. Surfing the site, we found rates for a family of four starting at $105 per night at a coffee farm in Hawaii, $140 per night at a diary farm in North Carolina, and $135 per night at a beefalo (a cross between a buffalo and a cow) and maple sugar farm in Vermont. Most B&Bs will charge $10 to $20 per night for extra kids, depending on the occupancy rate of the room you select.

YMCA family camps

YMCA camps located across the country offer adventurous families outdoor recreation havens at rock-bottom prices. Most YMCA camps operate as regular summer kids’ camps, but open up a few weeks or weekends per year to entire families. These camps are best for families who enjoy spending time getting to know other families.

Family camp rates usually include no-frills cabin or lodge accommodations, three meals a day, access to indoor and outdoor recreation facilities, and countless counselor-led programs and activities such as rock climbing, archery, canoeing, campfire sing-alongs, and more. If you are not already a YMCA member, some camps may require that you pay a modest membership fee in addition to the camp cost. To find a camp, visit the YMCA website, and click on “Find a YMCA Summer Camp” on the left-hand navigation bar to search for summer camps by state. Note that not all camps listed offer family programs.

Using this list, we found one camp in Boulder Creek, CA, the YMCA of the Redwoods Camp Campbell, that offers a special lower-priced, three-day camp for only $260 for a family of four from July 30 to August 1. Four-day camps on Memorial and Labor Day weekends are $510 for a family of four. In another example, YMCA Camp Pendalouan in Montague, MI, offers two four-day family camp sessions in July, starting at $540 for a family of four.

Trips with non-profit outdoors groups

Numerous organizations dedicated to protecting the environment and promoting outdoor stewardship offer affordable trips for active families with older kids. Two organizations in particularÂ?the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)Â?have trips designed especially for families with a focus on activities such as hiking, rock-climbing, boating, or service (trail maintenance, for example). Trips range from beginner weekend workshops to multiweek excursions for more experienced families. Rates usually include camping or cabin accommodations, all meals (which are often prepared as a group), the services of an experienced trip leader, and some of the necessary gear (you may be required to bring your own backpack, sleeping bag, etc.). Most trips have a minimum age requirement for kids, depending upon a trip’s activity level.

We searched the website of the Sierra Club, which offers trips throughout North America and around the world, and found 26 family trips scheduled from June through August. One example includes a six-day hiking and cultural exploration trip in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument for $745 per adult and $645 per child age eight to 17. All participants over age 18 must be Sierra Club members to go on a trip. The fee for introductory membership is $25 per person.

On the website for the AMC, which offers trips throughout the Northeast U.S., 15 family trips scheduled from June through August were listed. We found a three-day canoeing trip on New Hampshire’s Lake Umbagog for $245 per adult and $149 per child age eight to 12. Listed prices are for AMC members (a family membership is $56); nonmembers pay a slightly higher rate.

Dude ranches

If you’re willing to spend higher prices for an all-inclusive vacation, a visit to a dude ranch can be an exciting experience for kids and adults. Most dude ranch rates include ranch house or cabin accommodations, three home-cooked meals per day, horseback riding, and numerous other recreational activities and programs. With all-inclusive pricing (excluding transportation to and from the ranch) it’s easy to calculate your budget.

The price range for dude ranch vacations is fairly wide, depending upon the number of amenities and the amount of comfort or luxury you want. The Dude Ranchers’ Association (DRA), an organization made up of 120 select ranches that are held to high membership standards, groups ranches by their average per-person price for a week’s stay: under $1,000; $1,000 to $1,364; $1,365 to $1,699; and $1,700 or above. On the DRA site, we were able to find several ranches for well under $1,000 per week. For example, the Diamond Four Ranch in Lander, WY, charges $895 per adult and $695 per child age six to 18 for six nights, excluding taxes.

We found another website,, that lists other affordable choices. Through this site, we found the Pinegrove Dude Ranch in Kerhonkson, NY, which is offering discounted family rates for select weeks this summer. Six-day, five-night packages for a family of four start at $1,824 plus tax.

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