Summer travel '09: Freebies across the USA

Even in hard times, everyone deserves fun in the sun. To kick off the summer travel season, USA TODAY's Travel staff tracked down free events and attractions in every state (and the District of Columbia).


Local luminaries show off their sweet home Alabama in 30-plus communities Saturdays in June via walking tours of historic districts. Convening at courthouse squares, public libraries, city halls and the like, the hour-long tours are punctuated with personal reminiscences. 800-252-2262;— Jayne Clark


Even if you aren't feeling flush, a visit to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway is especially rewarding this year, thanks to a new donation of memorabilia. A portion of the Rapuzzi Collection — an estimated 450,000 historical objects from the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 — are on display at the park's visitor center and museum. Ranger-led walks through town also are available. 907-983-2921,— Chris Gray Faust


The Sonoran Desert skies are among the best for stargazing — which is why the world's largest collection of optical research telescopes is housed at Kitt Peak National Observatory, 56 miles southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O'odham Reservation. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the visitor center has self-guided walking tours and downloadable audio tours. 520-318-8726,— Chris Gray Faust


Who knew Arkansas had its own wine country? For that matter, who knew Arkansas had a Paris? Both lie in the bucolic Arkansas River Valley, northwest of Little Rock, where four wineries on Highway 186 South — Mount Bethel, Post Familie Winery, Wiederkehr Wine Cellars and Chateau Aux Arc — offer free tours and tastings. Nearby in Paris, Cowie Wine Cellars harbors the Arkansas Historic Wine Museum. 800-628-8725,— Jayne Clark


Nothing says endless summer more than a concert on the beach. From June 19-Sept. 4, Santa Cruz will host Free Friday Night Bands on the Beach at the bandstand near the boardwalk. The lineup is heavy on the '80s, with acts such as The Fixx, Loverboy and Scandal on tap. Two shows nightly. 831-423-5590,— Chris Gray Faust


There's a real-life Jurassic Park at Dinosaur Ridge, where visitors can view fossils and bones from ancient creatures such as allosaurus, apatosaurus and stegosaurus. In Morrison, about 20 miles from Denver, the National Natural Landmark has a visitor center and free trail maps. 303-697-3466,— Chris Gray Faust


In New Haven, home to Yale University, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas features hundreds of performances and discussions on everything from civil liberties to Slavic Soul, a blend of "fiery Balkan brass and hip-grinding American soul." About 80% of the doings, which extend June 13-27, are free. 888-278-4332,—Laura Bly


Located in a restored World War II hangar, the Dover Air Mobility Command Museum on Dover Air Force Base is dedicated to airlift and air refueling history. It features a variety of artifacts and vintage aircraft, including a C-47A that flew during the 1944 D-Day invasion, and junior pilots age 10 and up can take the controls of a free flight simulator. 302-677-5938;— Laura Bly


Unleash your inner Top Gun at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. The world's largest naval aviation museum sports 150 restored military aircraft. Free options include guided museum tours, outdoor trolley tours and the chance to get your hands on the controls (via the cockpit trainers) of an F-14 Tomcat, A-6 Intruder and more. Plus, the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron rehearses here most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. 850-452-3604,— Jayne Clark


They may be turning 25 this year, but the Cabbage Patch Kids haven't aged a day since creating a frenzy at toy stores nationwide when they were first mass-marketed in 1983-84. About 120 million "adoptions" later, a new BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland, 1½ hours north of Atlanta, is due this fall. (Meanwhile, the original birthing center nearby remains open.) The tours may be free, but the kids aren't. Some of the original soft-sculpture babes have been "re-adopted" for up to $50,000. 706-865-2171,— Jayne Clark


Honolulu's revitalized Chinatown not only provides a glimpse into Oahu's multi-culti heritage, it's a hotbed of hip galleries, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Check out the scene at the neighborhood's First Friday, when artists open their doors from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and musicians often play.— Chris Gray Faust


There's something for both ski bums and literature lovers at the Ketchum Ski & Heritage Museum. One building is dedicated to ski history in Sun Valley, including ski fashion and a display on Gretchen Fraser, the first American skier to win an Olympic gold medal. The other has an exhibit on Ernest Hemingway, a frequent valley visitor who lived there permanently from 1958 until his 1961 suicide. The museum, which is closed most of May, reopens for the summer May 30. 208-726-8118,— Chris Gray Faust


Honest, visitors to Springfield can see the former home of Abraham Lincoln in the 200th year since his birth without spending a penny. The modest two-story structure is a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. Springfield is packed with Lincoln attractions, including a library and the late president's onetime law office. The Illinois capital plans a year of bicentennial celebration. 800-545-7300;— Kitty Bean Yancey


The Indianapolis Museum of Art, which once charged admission, has expanded and now is free (save for special touring exhibits). Among its many attractions: a permanent collection of more than 54,000 works including African, American, Asian and European pieces and Impressionist and contemporary art. Also gratis are rambles on its 152-acre grounds, including the former home of a member of the Lilly pharmaceutical family, which is also free.317-920-2660;— Kitty Bean Yancey


Folk in Butler County in north central Iowa near Allison have pieced together a self-guided quilt driving tour that passes by more than two dozen patterns painted on barns and farm buildings. 319-267-2858;— Kitty Bean Yancey


Through the last Sunday in October, park rangers give daily tours of a little ranch house on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills region and talk about its flora, fauna and Native American history. Visitors can cover six miles on a bus free, or hoof it on nature trails. 620-273-8494;— Kitty Bean Yancey


When the moon is full (and two days before and after) and conditions are right (no rain), a lunar rainbow, or moonbow, appears in the mist of an almost seven-story waterfall at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in southeastern Kentucky near Corbin. Park programs illuminate the phenomenon, plus a new astronomy center allows visitors to view the night sky at any time of the month. 800-325-0063,— Jayne Clark


On a windy day on Avery Island in the marshy heart of Cajun country, you can smell the Capsicum frutescens, the ingredient that gives Tabasco Pepper Sauce its signature kick. The tiny red pepper isn't native to this area, but the fiery condiment, manufactured on the 2,600-acre private island for 141 years, is its claim to fame. Factory tours include a short film and a look at bottling and packaging operations. 800-634-9599,— Jayne Clark


Even if the lousy economy puts a crimp on sales of L.L. Bean kayaks and sailing gear this summer, cash-strapped shoppers at the company's flagship store in Freeport can tune in to local and national artists at the 11th annual Summer Concert Series. This year's lineup includes Patty Loveless and Asleep at the Wheel; shows start at 7:30 on Saturday nights from June 27-Sept. 6. 877-755-2326;— Laura Bly


Family-friendlyOcean City courts kids and their parents with an array of free summer diversions, from movie nights, concerts and storytelling around a bonfire to shows and demonstrations at the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum and Tuesday evening "beach Olympics" (who knew sand castle building could be so competitive? 800-626-2326;— Laura Bly


Mentioned as fictional marine biologist Matt Hooper's former hangout in the blockbuster Jaws, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is the country's largest independent oceanographic research institution. Daily walking tours are offered during the summer, and visitors can watch a video that shows a day in the life of the deep submersible Alvin and highlights the 1985-86 discovery and exploration of the wreck of the Titanic. 508-289-2252;— Laura Bly


You don't have to join the Navy or take a cruise to see movies on the deck of a World War II-era tank carrier this summer. Most Friday nights at twilight from June 12-Sept. 18, the retired U.S LST 393, docked in Muskegon, will host family films on deck under the stars. Selections include the naval themed Up Periscope and Operation Petticoat. 800-250-9283;— Kitty Bean Yancey


If you believe in the mythical behemoth woodsman Paul Bunyan, lots of U.S. towns tout Bunyan connections. Tiny Akeley, about 3½ hours north of Minneapolis by car, is one that lays claim to being his birthplace. Visitors can pose in a large wooden cradle or sit in the palm of a 25-foot Paul Bunyan statue. Other Minnesota venues with Bunyan connections or attractions include Brainerd, Kelliher and Bemidji.— Kitty Bean Yancey


The Greek Revival beauty on Capital Street in Jackson has survived neglect, abandonment and, not least, Hurricane Katrina. Now, the building that housed the state legislature from 1839 to 1903 (and one of few in Jackson to survive the Civil War) has been reincarnated as the Old Capitol Museum. Reopened in February, it focuses on the state's early history. 601-576-6920;— Jayne Clark


Show me some history! The brick Main Street of Saint Charles, outside St. Louis, comes alive with weekend entertainment celebrating the city's 200th anniversary. That's just one of 200 events this year in the first Missouri state capital. You can even borrow an iPod from the tourism office and take a free audio/video tour. 800-366-2427;— Kitty Bean Yancey


For the second year, Butte is playing host to the National Folk Festival, which features performances and demonstrations from more than 250 musicians, dancers and craftspeople. The three-day event runs July 10-12 and is produced by the National Council for the Traditional Arts and local partners. 406-497-6464,— Chris Gray Faust


Imagine a replica of England's famed Stonehenge rocky pillars fashioned from … automobiles. That's the concept behind the wacky attraction Carhenge. Near Alliance in the western part of the state, the three-dozen-car sculpture was erected by an artist — who was impressed by Stonehenge while in England — as a tribute to his late father.— Kitty Bean Yancey


Tiny Lovelock (pop. 2,381), 93 miles east of Reno on I-80, has taken its name to heart. Since Valentine's Day 2006, the town has encouraged couples to place padlocks— some engraved with their names — on chains at stations behind the Pershing County Court House. You can write your love story on the town's website. 800-638-2328,— Chris Gray Faust

New Hampshire

The Clydesdale has been a symbol of Anheuser-Busch tradition since 1933, and the bred-for-hard-work equines are an integral part of the free brewery tours at the company's scenic Merrimack Valley location (tours are offered in four other states, as well). During Budweiser Clydesdale Camera Days the first Saturday of the month, guests can pose with one of the horses. 603-595-1202;— Laura Bly

New Jersey

Opened in 1857 and decommissioned in 1933, the Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City beckons visitors who want a break from the gambling mecca's buffets and one-armed bandits. It costs $7 for adults to climb the 228 steps to the top, but the history museum in a replicated lightkeeper's house is free. 609-449-1360,— Laura Bly

New Mexico

If alien abduction stories and space movies get your heart racing, then the quirky Roswell UFO Festival is for you. The annual event, which features everything from symposiums and book signings to concerts and costume contests to films and fireworks, will be July 2-5. The truth is out there. 888-767-3378,— Chris Gray Faust

New York

Located a half-mile off the southern tip of Manhattan in New York Harbor and accessible by ferry on summer weekends, Governors Island offers more than five miles of car-free biking. On "Free Bike Fridays," June 5-Oct. 9, visitors can borrow a bike for up to an hour at a time. 212-440-2202,— Laura Bly

North Carolina

Start your engines and race over to the Dale Trail in Kannapolis, where a 9-foot-tall, 900-pound bronze statue pays tribute to the town's favorite son, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. Other points of interest: his boyhood neighborhood of Car Town (really) and the traffic circle (known locally as Idiot Circle). The county tourist bureau has maps, plus a guide to area race shops that welcome visitors to watch NASCAR vehicles being prepped for competition. 800-848-3740, — Jayne Clark

North Dakota

Take a spin on The Enchanted Highway, lined with seven giant metal sculptures by North Dakotan Gary Greff. Whimsical eye candy includes a bronc-riding cowboy, geese in flight and the "Fisherman's Dream." Dreamed up by Greff to bring visitors to an economically disenchanted region, the 32-mile route runs from Exit 72 off Interstate 94 east of Dickinson south to the town of Regent. More sculptures — including the world's largest motorcycle — are in the works. Gift shop proceeds "are the only funding we get," Greff says. 701-563-6400;— Kitty Bean Yancey


There's lots to see in southeastern Ohio's Hocking Hills Region. Ash Cave. The Rock House sandstone formation. Cedar Falls. State parks. And if you stay at a Hocking Hills Tourism Association member lodging and are 21 or older, you now can borrow, free, a digital Flip Ultra video camera to record the sights and sounds. They're available at the Hocking Hills welcome center where Route 33 meets Route 664. 800-462-5464;— Kitty Bean Yancey


Who knew Frank Lloyd Wright designed a high-rise where the wind comes sweeping down the plain? Nineteen-story Price Toweris "the only skyscraper he ever designed, a building that's unlike any other in the world," says spokeswoman Jennifer Cordero. The tower in Bartlesville near Tulsa, was inspired by a tree and contains an arts center and hotel. But anyone can gawk at the soaring exterior and sculpture garden. Admission to the arts center is free on the third Sunday of every month.— Kitty Bean Yancey


Oregon is celebrating its 150th birthday this year — and Astoria, a city at the mouth of the Columbia River that dates to the Lewis & Clark expedition — is the state's oldest American settlement. Visitors to the city, which boasts Victorian homes on steep hills, as well as neighboring Warrenton, with its marine beaches, can download audio tours to their iPods or burn onto CDs. One tour, "The Reel Astoria," showcases locales where films such as Free Willy, Kindergarten Cop and The Goonies, were set. 800-875-6807,— Chris Gray Faust


Calorie counters, steer clear: In York County, the self-proclaimed Snack Food Capital of the World, freefactory tours dispense such mouth-watering munchies as potato chips, ice cream and pretzels (in Hanover, Snyder's celebrates its centennial this year). 888-858-9675;— Laura Bly

Rhode Island

Put some sparks in your summer vacation with a visit to the state capital during Waterfire Providence, a mesmerizing public art installation that draws thousands of spectators to the city's three rivers. One hundred wood-filled braziers are lit just after sunset and the revelry extends past midnight, starting Saturday and continuing May 29, June 13, July 25, Aug. 8 and 22, and Sept. 5. 401-273-1155,— Laura Bly

South Carolina

Stumphouse Tunnel and Issaqueena Falls in the Blue Ridge foothills an hour east of Greenville make a cool two-fer on hot summer days. The 1,600-foot tunnel, whose construction was cut short by the Civil War, was used in the '50s to cure blue cheese. Nearby, accessible Issaqueena Falls cascades 200 feet and comes with its own Indian maiden legend. 864-646-3782, — Jayne Clark

South Dakota

Walleye pike is a Midwest treat, and the second South Dakota Walleye Classic & Festival in Akaska Aug. 12-16 will lure top fishermen. It's also a place to have family fun, hook, line and sinker — viewing a chainsaw artist, watching Native American dancers, comedians and cowboys re-enacting a historic South Dakota shooting.— Kitty Bean Yancey


Nowhere in Music City can you hear more live tunes for free than along Nashville's Honky Tonk Highway, a stretch of bars along Lower Broadway. Performers at clubs such as Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Robert's Western Wear and Legends Corner play for free (though it's good form to tip). Many legends got their start in these clubs and occasionally, a star drops in to play a set. 800-657-6910;— Jayne Clark


The Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston's Herman Park has just undergone a $2.4 million renovation that improved seating, sound and sight lines. With a season that runs from late March to November, performances range from the Houston Symphony to Chinese acrobats. Tickets for the 1,708 covered seats are available on the day of the show on a first-come, first-served basis. There's also plenty of lawn seating. 281-373-3386, — Jayne Clark


There are two chances every week to catch the dulcet tones of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City. On Thursdays during the summer, the choir rehearses at 8 p.m. for 90 minutes at Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center. Then on Sundays, the choir performs at 9:30 a.m. on the church's weekly broadcast, Music and the Spoken Word. 801-240-3221,— Chris Gray Faust


Four centuries after Frenchman Samuel de Champlain first paddled Lake Champlain in 1609, modern explorers can peddle its shores — and celebrate the anniversary — with the help of Lake Champlain Bikeways. A network of routes covers more than 1,400 miles across Vermont, New York and Quebec, and lets bikers choose rides based on interests from wineries to sugar mapling. The principal route around Lake Champlain is 363 miles long, but more than 40 additional options range from six to more than 60 miles in length and include paved and gravel roads and shared use paths through urban areas. 802-652-2453;— Laura Bly


Chincoteague may best be known for the wild ponies that are rounded up every July, but there's plenty of other wildlife on the dunes, marshes and maritime forests of the 14,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, the refuge is a haven for birdwatchers, as well as kayakers, fishers and surfers. In winter, a big-game lottery allows hunters to take aim at white-tail deer and sika elk. 757-336-6122;— Jayne Clark


Walk across a one-of-a-kind work of art in Tacoma, where the 500-foot Chihuly Bridge of Glass, built by native glass artist Dale Chihuly in 2002, spans the Thea Foss Waterway. The blue pedestrian-only bridge connects the city's three museums —Washington State History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass; admission to all three is free every third Thursday. 800-272-2662,— Chris Gray Faust

Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian already draws more than 10 million visitors a year, but the National Air and Space Museum is bracing for extra crowds this summer, thanks to this weekend's opening of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. The movie sequel reprises Ben Stiller's role as a security guard, and much of the action is set at Air and Space — including a thrilling scene in which the Wright Brothers' 1903 flyer swoops through the museum. (The real thing is safely displayed in its own second-floor gallery.) 202-633-1000;— Laura Bly

West Virginia

The new West Virginia State Museum opens June 21, with bells and whistles like surround sound and theatrical lighting to embellish exhibits along a chronological path leading from a prehistoric forest through a dark coal mine and into the present. The 24,000-square-foot facility, in the cultural center at the state Capitol complex in Charleston, will showcase the state's art, music and industry. 304-558-0162,— Jayne Clark


The upcoming movie Public Enemies has a friend in Wisconsin. Many locales are film sites for the July Johnny Depp/Christian Bale movie based on the exploits of '30s mobster John Dillinger and his cronies. The free, self-drive Wisconsin Gangster Tour covers a dozen venues used in filming or frequented by Chicago mobsters looking to get out of town. On the tour: The Little Bohemia Lodge near Mercer, where Dillinger actually stayed to beat the G-men heat, and left abruptly when they closed in. Legend says he left a cache of money behind that never has been found. See bullet holes and Dillinger's traveling bag at the resort; the Wisconsin Department of Tourism has a guide to filming and real-life gangster-related places. 800-432-8747;— Kitty Bean Yancey


Chukkers in Cowboy Country? In Sheridan, where two Scottish brothers brought the game in the 1890s, polo matches are held every weekend. The Big Horn Polo Club — the oldest polo club west of the Mississippi — has matches on Sundays and the Flying H Polo Club has games on Saturdays, with some rehearsals during the week. 888-596-6787,— Chris Gray Faust