15 Free Things To Do in South Florida and the Keys

Florida Keys Dry Tortugas National Park Fort Jefferson

We recently bought tickets to go to Dry Tortugas National Park, and those tickets are not cheap. Add to that a few days in the Keys, and your budget will definitely feel the pinch. However, as we discovered, there were plenty of free (and almost free) things to do in our two weeks between Fort Lauderdale and Key West. There was one card in our wallet that helped us out the most- our military ID. Read on to find over 15 free things to do in the area.

1. Alligator Alley (Tamiami Trail)

It is free to drive across parts of both the Everglades and Big Cypress along the Tamiami Trail. You will see quite a lot of wildlife as you drive. If you enter the Everglades National Park at one of its entrances, it will cost you $30 per car. However, if you have a national parks pass, a military ID (retired and active duty both get in free now, plus up to 4 accompanying occupants), or a 5th grader, you can visit inside the park for free.

2. The Ochopee Post Office

This small post office is the tiniest post office in the United States. It used to to be a storage shed! It’s just off the Tamiami Trail, before you reach Everglades City if you’re heading west. Stop by and take a picture, it’s really cute. Yes, it still sends mail! Thanks to Charles McCool for suggesting this one- find out why this post office is especially important to him.

3. Clyde Butcher Big Cypress Gallery

For some stunning nature photographs, visit the Big Cypress gallery of renowned artists Clyde and Niki Butcher. Their gallery also features art from other artists. Outside their shop is a short nature walk, and you can usually see a gator or two in the pond by their parking lot.

Florida Everglades Clyde Butcher photography

4. Museum of the Everglades

This small museum in Everglades City is really good. From their beautiful pine floor, to their extensive array of information about how the Tamiami Trail and Everglades City came to be, this museum is not to be missed. The museum is free, but you can always drop a few dollars in their donation jar, they do appreciate it.

Almost free: Smallwood Store

If you’re already as far west as Everglades City, you might as well continue down the road the last few miles and visit Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee. This old building, perched on pilings, is a real treasure. Built in 1906 as the first general store in the area, this is an actual “Indian trading post”, also post office, restaurant, shoe repair, bank, and apothecary. It does cost $5 to enter, but I found it well worth the price to go inside and look around. The breeze coming through there off the water can’t be beat.

5. Big Cypress National Preserve

Although national parks have entry fees, national preserves and national forests do not. Be sure to stop in at the HP Williams Roadside Park and check out their board walk- we saw tons of gators in the waters. We also saw manatees at the Kirby Storter Roadside Park a bit further down the Tamiami Trail.

6. Loop Road Scenic Drive

Taking this narrow dirt road will add some time to your Tamiami Trail drive, but we saw so much wildlife here that it was absolutely worth it. Recently graded, the road parallels cypress swamps and features gators, herons, cranes, turtles, and more. Keep an eye out for barred owls as well.

7. Betsy the lobster

As you head south into the Keys, you can’t miss Rain Barrel Village, which features a huge (40 foot) sculpture of a lobster out front. Rain Barrel Village might look like a t-shirt shop and bar, but if you walk through to the back yard, you’ll find some lovely art galleries, glass studios, and shady spots to sit.

8. National Key Deer Refuge

It’s only open three days a week, but you can stop in and learn about the Key deer at the refuge on Pine Key. Like a lot of wild animals that live on islands, this species is smaller than deer found on the mainland. If the refuge isn’t open, you can turn into one of the side streets near there and probably spot some if you drive slowly.

Almost or maybe free: Zachary Taylor State Park

This fort on Key West is a Florida state park, but if you have a Florida State Parks pass- or a military ID- you can enter for free. The fort, which is a sister fort to the one at Dry Tortuga, is really interesting in how it helped shorten the Civil War by as much as two years. Free guided ranger talk at 11 am daily. The park also has a nice, sandy beach, where you can picnic or buy concessions.

9. Books & Books @ The Studios

If you’re a literary fan, you probably already know that Key West was the home of Ernest Hemingway for nine years. But did you know that author Judy Blume lives here as well? Visit the bookstore she runs with her husband, and be sure to check out the Key West history section.

10. Visit the sister shop of Hemingway’s Pilar at the Bass Pro Shop in Marathon

In 1933, Hemingway went on a fishing trip in this boat. He liked it so much that he kept the brochure, and had another one made! He named it the Pilar, and you can see it today at his house in Cuba. The original ship can be seen at the Bass Pro Shop in Marathon on your way down the Keys. You can also see this boat feature in the movie “Key Largo” as the Santana boat that Bogart sails at the end of the movie.

11. Ride the Duval Loop bus in Key West.

This bus stops at 16 points around historic Key West and is absolutely free. You can see their live map at kwtransit.com. A bus arrives every 20-30 minutes. Bonus: use your military ID to get onto the base and park for free at Trumbo Point gate- saving you $5 an hour or $40 daily on downtown parking fees. Stop #1 on the Duval Loop route is just one block from Trumbo gate.

Not free, but half the price: stay at the Navy Lodge

If you are active duty or retired military, you can stay at the Navy Lodge on Dredger’s Key for $135 a night- a huge saving from Key West hotel prices. You can call for a reservation starting 30 days out from your intended stay. But call as soon as you can- they only have 26 rooms.

12. Cool off at Truman Waterfront Park

It’s pretty hot in Key West, but there are some places to cool off. If you have kids with you, one excellent place is the Truman Waterfront Park. They have a splash pad there, and in Thursdays you can visit the Farmer’s Market from 2-5 pm.

13. Visit the Southernmost Point(s)

Of course you can’t visit Key West without visiting the southernmost point. Just walk down Whitehead Street until you get to the very end, and you’ll see the famous painted monument. But if you REALLY want to get to the southern point, you’ll need to go into the nearby naval air station, which is built in a mile of reclaimed land.

14. Wander up and down Duval Street

I don’t think it’s possible to visit very many of the bars, restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries without opening your wallet often, but it’s free to try! Even just people watching and reading all the funny t-shirts is a pretty good time.

15. Grab a book (or drop one off) at the Green Parrot’s Little Free Library

I hate trying to read on my phone or e-reader when I’m at the beach- a paperback works much better! If you need one, or finished yours and want to drop it off, I spotted several Little Free Libraries around town. This one at the Green Parrot is particularly well-located.

Borrow free snorkel equipment at Fort Jefferson:

Okay, so really this one isn’t free. It’s pretty expensive to visit the Dry Tortugas National Park. The only ways to get there are to sail your own boat, take a seaplane, or take the Yankee Clipper ferry, which will run you $200 per person. Be sure to take your national parks pass with you to get $15 off per person. However, they will provide a free breakfast, free lunch, and free snorkel equipment at the beach, as well as a free guided tour of the fort. We really enjoyed our day and felt in the end, it was worth the cost!

I’m sure there are more free (and almost free) things to do in South Florida, but these were some of my favorites. If you’ve visited the area, let us know your favorite things to do!

Great Destinations from DC by Plane, Train, Bus, or Car

Do you live in the Washington DC area and are looking for a quick vacation spot that is close to home? Are you visiting DC soon and want to add in a day trip to somewhere outside the city? Do you wonder how how find direct flights from nearby airports? Do you need some packing tips? If so, check out this presentation:

Do you love Washington DC? What is your favorite place to visit outside the city itself? Let us know in the comments below.

From Hope to Hot Springs

Hot Springs Arkansas National Park Visitor Center

Anyone who has been to Texas can tell you that it’s hard to road-trip out of this state- in some directions you can drive for 10 hours and still be in Texas! For our long MLK weekend we were looking for a road trip to a place we hadn’t been to, out of Texas, and on the way to DC. Bonus points if we could tag a national park! We settled on Hot Springs, Arkansas.

After an overnight visit with friends in DFW (thanks Ken and Kristina for the hospitality!), we drove to Hope, Arkansas- which is the birthplace of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton. His childhood home, where he lived with his mother and grandparents for his early years, has been preserved by the National Park Service, and is open to visitors daily, with a tour every hour.

Birthplace of William Jefferson Clinton

From Hope, it was just a couple more hours driving to get to Hot Springs, Arkansas. A light snow was falling, and the visitor’s center was about to close, so we popped in quickly to get some info about the area (visitor’s centers staff always have great suggestions). We had dinner at Picante’s Mexican Grill and then checked into our motel for the night, Dame Fortune’s Cottages (yes, I picked it solely for the name).

Formerly Fordyce Bathhouse (est.1915), now the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center

The next morning, we were up early to get in line at the public bathhouse. As of January 2022, the only open bathhouse is the Quapaw, which dates back to 1922. Visitors can book for private baths, massages, and other spa services, or for $20, can access their four public thermal pools, each at a different temperature. The thermal waters that flow into the Hot Springs area have been carbon-dated back to 4000 years ago- meaning that, the waters we were bathing in there had fallen as rain in 2000 BC- as old as the pyramids in Egypt. The water is high in minerals such as silica, calcium, magnesium, free carbon dioxide, bicarbonate, and sulfate. For centuries, these waters have been famed for their healing properties. If you do visit the Quapaw, be sure to bring your own shower shoes, and get there early- they do not take reservations for the public pools- and they are closed on Tuesdays.

Chris and Deah, inside the Quapaw Bathhouse

After spending a couple of hours in the baths, we showered, dressed, and got ready to explore the rest of the town. First off, a fabulous lunch and craft beers at Superior Brewery, formerly Superior Bathhouse. The main street of the town of Hot Springs is also the national park- in fact, it is the first national lands set aside in the United States (not to be confused with Yellowstone, which sometimes claims that title). The waters and area around Hot Springs were designated national lands as far back as 1832, when President Andrew Jackson set aside the lands as a public reservation. It wasn’t until 1872 that the area really came under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, and by then, several families and businesses had settled and built structures there. After several fires in the wooden bathhouses, the row of Victorian, fire-resistant brick buildings that we see today were built between 1912 and 1932. In 1921, Hot Springs officially became our 18th National Park.

The Quapaw Bathhouse, est. 1922

The row of bathhouses thrived during the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1950s, many of the buildings were in decline. Every one of them except the Buckstaff (still in existence but temporarily closed due to Covid) had closed by 1985. A campaign started to revitalize the area, and various other businesses were allowed to purchase and marginally renovate the eight Victorian bathhouses along Bathtub Row. Now, the buildings have been repurposed into Superior Brewery, the Hale Hotel, the Maurice Bathhouse (currently vacant and available for leasing), the Fordyce, which is now the park’s official visitor’s center, the Quapaw Bathhouse, the Ozark, which houses the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center, and the Buckstaff. The last building on Bathtub Row, the Lamar Bathhouse, includes a small national parks store, as well as a research library and the park archives.

Buckstaff Baths (est 1912)
Superior Baths (1916)- now Superior Brewery

The National Park’s Visitor Center, housed in the old Fordyce Bathhouse, is definitely worth a visit. All three floors are open to visitors, and you can see the old changing rooms, gymnasium, baths, massage rooms, and resting rooms that the clients of the bathhouse using in the Roaring 20’s. If you go down to the basement, you can see where the hot spring actually comes out of the ground. Original Art Deco stained glass windows and other embellishments are still in most of the buildings along Bathtub Row.

The gymnasium at the Fordyce- available to male clients only when it was open
Fountains, marble dressing rooms, and stained glass windows added luxury to the services

After visiting the town of Hot Springs, and driving out into the park a little- the Hot Springs Mountain Tower has an observation deck from which you can view the surrounding valleys- we wended our way toward Little Rock. I needed to catch a flight back home, while Chris needed to keep driving to DC. We stopped at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and learned about the civil rights events of 1957. The school is still a functioning high school, and there is a Visitor’s Center across the street with videos, images, and articles about the turbulent fight to desegregate schools in the south. If you’re in Little Rock, I definitely suggest you spent a couple of hours here. It was the perfect way to end our 3-day weekend and think about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, and other civil rights activists.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock Central High School

Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain

Deah and Chris standing in front of Welcome to Oklahoma Border sign

Oklahoma is OK!

With school about to start just around the corner, Chris and I (Deah) wanted to get out of town for a few days and go camping and see some (socially distanced) sights. We packed up our car and headed north.

Broken Bow Lake

We stayed the first night at Broken Bow Lake, at the Beaver’s Bend State Park campground. At just $16 a spot, this campground was the perfect chance for us to get out into some nature. Since it was the end of July, it was plenty hot, but we cooled off in the Mountain Fork River, which was surprisingly cold. In the evening as we ate our dinner, we saw a fox stroll by, and with an early start the next morning, we saw families of deer and families of fishermen out enjoying the cool morning.

Beaver Bend State Park
Getting back to nature

Fort Smith Arkansas

Okay, to tell the truth, we had forgotten a crucial part of our camping gear, so we had to call it a night after just one night and head to a city. We weren’t too far from Fort Smith, Arkansas, so we drove that way to learn about this town which was once the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory. Between the hanging deaths of 86 men by “Hanging Judge” Parker, and the years the town legalized prostitution, Fort Smith has an interesting history. They also have some delicious craft beers.

The border between Arkansas and Indian Territory
Fort Smith National Historic Park

Tahlequah, OK

From Fort Smith, we headed back into Tahlequah to explore a little bit of the Cherokee history of the area. Although the Cherokee Supreme Court Museum and the Cherokee Prison Museum were both temporarily closed, we did a self-guided walking tour through town to learn about the founding of the town. Northeastern State University has a beautiful campus there and it’s just a beautiful area all around.

Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee Syllabary

Tulsa, OK

We arrived in Tulsa in a rain storm and had to sit out a bit before doing our sightseeing. Always happy to try some Mexican food, we chose El Rancho Grande, featured in this list of the 9 Best Restaurants in Tulsa (it was delicious). Later, we did enjoy the “Cathedral District” of the city with it’s massive churches, as well as the huge park called The Gathering Place along the Arkansas River. On the following day, we spent a few hours at the Gilcrease Museum, full of art and artifacts from the American West and Native Americans. Both their indoor spaces and their grounds (as well as the stunning views from some of their back areas) were a treat to walk around and take in.

Chris visiting The Golden Driller in Tulsa
Frederic Remington’s “The Bronco Buster”

Stillwater, OK

A trip to Oklahoma never seems complete without a stop at Stillwater’s Eskimo Joe’s Jumpin’ Jukejoint. We sat at the bar and had a chopped beef burger and tried a local beer. The bartender suggested we stop off at Pop’s in Arcadia on our way to the capital, so we did.

Not the best food, but great marketing

Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma City is a sprawling city with a vibrant downtown area. We headed first to the Centennial Land Run Monument, commemorating the date when over 50,000 people from all over the country came to claim their own corner of two million acres of land. We also visited the haunting memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, an event I remember all too well. The memorial, and the museum next to it, is worth visiting.

Centennial Land Run Monument
Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial

We also visited the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, a sprawling museum that would take days to properly see. Right now the entrants for the Prix de West art exhibition are on display, and wow, I don’t know how the judges can tell who’s winning. They are all stunning pieces of art. In addition, there are dozens of exhibits ranging from a full size rodeo, art of the American west, an entire western town named Prosperity Junction, and Native American art. And that’s just the inside! Outside the building, you can find and play in life-size replicas of a Kiowa tipi, a Pueblo cliff dwelling, a Chickasaw Council House, a train Depot, and more. There were simply not enough hours in the day to fully explore this museum (formerly known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame).

2002 Prix de West winner: Teller of Tales by Martin Grelle

Lake Texoma

To conclude our trip, I wanted one more night near a lake, but we had to settle for a cabin rather than camp. After a fantastic lunch at Bedlam BBQ, we headed to the lake that straddles the border between Texas and Oklahoma, and found Willow Springs Marina. They have cabins, cottages, and RV sites there, as well as a marina. We had just taken a dip in the lake when suddenly the temperature dropped 14 degrees, a wind blew in, and the skies opened. We made it back to our cabin and watched the storm for a few hours. By the next morning, the sun was out and the lake was calm again. A perfect end to our week away.

A summer storm blows in

Have you been to Oklahoma? There’s a surprising amount to see there- this list is by no means comprehensive! What’s your favorite thing to see in the state?

A Quick Trip through Houston and Galveston Island, Texas

Last week we visited Galveston Island for a couple of days, followed by a weekend in Houston. Whether you’re there for a week or just a few days, both cities have lots of fun and off-the-beaten-path things to do that won’t break your budget! Whether you’re a NASA fan or love lying on the beach, this area has you covered.

Johnson Space Center, Houston

Galveston Island

The Beach

Of course most people come to Galveston Island to have fun on the beach, and the good news is that most of Galveston’s beaches are free! Of the 32 miles of soft, sandy beaches, only Stewart Beach and East Beach charge a Continue reading “A Quick Trip through Houston and Galveston Island, Texas”