The best things around Puget Sound are free — at least in the summer: beaches, spray parks, wading pools, wildflowers, natural water slides, lighthouses, skateboard lessons, bowling (if you’re a kid). And then there’s the almost free: kayak rentals, owl prowls, museum exhibits. What else do you need? Here are more than 60 of our favorite cheap thrills for summer.
Splash! Water thrills
1. Hike to a lake this summer. What's better than combining a heart-pumping hike with some splashing time? Try one of these relatively close hikes, where kids will also enjoy noshing on berries along the way. Also try one of these hikes with a prize at the end, from a great view to a ghost town.
2. A local spray park is one of the cheapest thrills around and many are worthy of a day trip, including the newish spray park at Edmonds' shady City Park; Jefferson Park’s spray pad (and steep slides) in south Seattle; the awesome Willis Tucker Park in Snohomish; or Point Ruston sprayground in Tacoma. (Check out our full South Sound spray park guide.)
3. Lighthouses are magical for kids. Try Browns Point Lighthouse in Tacoma, with free tours on Saturdays; Point Robinson Lighthouse, on a 10-acre shoreline park on eastern Maury Island; or Mukilteo Lighthouse Park, near the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry landing. Over on the Kitsap Peninsula (which abounds with many other affordable adventures), the delightfully named Point No Point Lighthouse is the oldest on Puget Sound.
4. The University of Washington Waterfront Activities Center offers some of the cheapest canoe and rowboat rentals around. It’s always first-come, first served, and kids need to be 25 pounds or more to ride. Other boat rental spots include Green Lake, Foss Harbor in Tacoma and Issaquah Paddle Sports at Lake Sammamish.
5. From July 5–Sept. 3, you can catch the free foot ferry (a 5-minute ride!) to one of Puget Sound's best beaches. Jetty Island, a two-mile oasis of sand and mud flats, driftwood and marshland grasses, and — best of all — shallow warm water. Tip: Gather a posse of 8 people or more and you can book your spots ahead.
7. Try a new-to-you outdoor pool, such as Tacoma’s Kandle Park wave pool, with zero-depth entry; Renton's Henry Moses Aquatic Center, with 3.5-hour sessions, or — for a day trip — the affordable Surf ‘n Slide Water Park in Moses Lake, (kids 4 and under free).
8. You want to hike, they want to water slide. Combine ’em with a ramble down the trail to Denny Creek’s natural slides (exit 47 off I-90), where families can whoop it up on hot days.
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9. Low-tide exploration costs nothing but teaches a lot. Get on-beach tutoring in starfish and moon snails at many local beaches through programs such as Seattle Aquarium’s beach naturalist program and Metro Parks Tacoma’s Tiptoe Through the Tidepools program at Titlow Beach, or the Explore the Shore program at Tacoma's Owen Beach.
10. If you’re headed to Whatcom County or beyond, make a splash stop at Birch Bay Waterslides, a water park in Bellingham with seven slides, family-friendly size and affordable prices.
11. In Olympia, it's free to wade in at the unique reclaimed-water stream on the East Bay Public Plaza in front of Hands On Children’s Museum, with stepping stones to climb on and much more (and the museum is free on first Friday evenings).
12. Transit rules. Kids only pay $1.50 for King County Metro bus fare (ages 5 and under are free); get tips on where to go here. The King County Water Taxi is also high on the thrill-per-dollar charts.
13. Shake up your outdoor swimming escapades with a trip to Tenino’s stunning natural rock quarry pool (opening June 30), complete with a high dive, wading pool and natural waterfall. Warning: The water is chilly.
Arts, education and culture
14. Summer reading programs at libraries are still the best deal in town, planning not only reading programs, but all kinds of performances, hands-on workshops and more. Beyond local libraries, bookstores such as Barnes & Noble also have fun programs.
15. Check for discounts that come with an AAA card or Microsoft Prime card. Chinook Book and the Seattle Entertainment Book have many “experience” discounts. PTA membership also earns you discounts, including to Great Wolf Lodge!
16. Ask your local Buy Nothing group for coupons and passes that others aren't using (and offer your unused coupons, too).
17. Starting in mid-July, Seattle Art Museum offers its free Summer at SAM program, with live music and art activities.
18. Bellevue Youth Theatre, an inclusive 25-year-old theater program, offers affordable family-friendly theater all year (look for $10 ticket nights). StoryBook Theater is a great pick for a first play for preschoolers, with its 45-minute comic adaptations of fairy tales. In the summer, Kitsap Forest Theater and Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theater stage outdoor musicals in the woods at affordable ticket prices.
19. Many local library systems allow patrons to check out museum passes online, including Seattle Public Library (passes for 30 days ahead are released each night at 9 p.m.) and the King County Library System.
20. Student productions at Seattle Public Theater, held year-round at the Bathhouse Theater at Green Lake, are always free to everyone (though donations are appreciated).
21. Every Thursday, Seattle's Central Cinema has Cartoon Happy Hour from 5–7 p.m., two hours of classic cartoons plus food and drink special. Admission is free.
23. Rock out at a free family concert series such as the Kirkland Summer Concert series at Juanita Beach Park (Tuesdays), or Kids SummerStage at Les Gove Park in Auburn (Wednesdays; combine it with a trip to the spray park).
24. Shakespeare in the park is a Seattle summer staple. A good family-friendly option is GreenStage’s Backyard Bard program, featuring four actors in 45-minute versions of the Bard's best.
25. Visit museums on their free days, often the first or third Thursday or Friday of the month. Many museums, such as SAM and MOHAI, always offer free admission to kids.
26. Lasso the kids for a visit to the free Western Heritage Center at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe to learn firsthand about farm life and machinery; open Friday through Sunday. Group tours and visits available by appointment Monday-Thursday.
27. Teen alert! Gage Academy runs two awesome Teen Art Studios programs — a free, weekly drop-in studio art program — in Bellevue and Seattle.
28. You know this, right? Just show up at Seattle Center for dozens of free and fun activities, from the skate park to cultural festivals at the Armory to the awesome International Fountain and the thrilling Artists at Play play area. Next door to Seattle Center, the Gates Foundation Discovery Center is essentially a free small museum on global health and development.
29. More affordable Seattle Center fun: On the west side, find KEXP's home, with a stunning cafe/gathering place, free tours and DJ booth that invites sneak peeks. And use this list of hidden-gem Seattle Center spots as a summer scavenger hunt.
Science and nature
30. If you have fourth-grader in your house, you can get a FREE pass to national parks and historic sites, through the Every Kid in a Park program. Yep, free.
31. Saint Edward State Park's Environmental Learning Center hosts "Wild Wednesdays," free nature programs every Wednesday morning from early July through August on topics such as sun art, nature journaling, name that tree and nature games. Note: Check their website for the updated 2018 schedule.
32. Learn about the stars for free at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s monthly star parties at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. The Tacoma Astronomical Society also hosts free star parties at Pierce College.
33. Last we checked, hiking was one of the best cheap thrills around. Mark free state park days on your calendar (Aug. 25 and Sept. 30), when you don’t need a Discover Pass to hike. On Sept. 22, national parks are free, too. Where to go? See our round-ups of great spring hikes, awesome nearby hikes and secret urban hikes in the Seattle area.
34. Explore Bellevue’s wildlife-rich 320-acre wetland park, Mercer Slough Nature Park either on foot, or by renting a kayak or canoe and exploring on water; keep an eye out for otter, heron and turtles. Note: Due to East Link light rail construction, there has been some disruption in accessing Mercer Slough. Look for updates online.
35. Take your critter-loving kids to Kelsey Creek Farm in Bellevue or Farrel-McWhirter Farm Park in Redmond for free-admission up-close time with farm animals; they also have playgrounds, trails and more.
37. Puget Sound's playgrounds are getting increasingly more adventurous and imaginative. Check out Georgetown Playfield's awesome new playground, Big Rock Park, with its naturescape and imaginative play features, and the accessible playground at Lake Sammamish State Park (combine it with swimming!).
38. Seattle Children’s PlayGarden is one of the most special parks in Seattle, an innovative public playground designed to let kids of all abilities take risks and explore, with a garden, chicken coop, tree fort, musical sculpture and more.
39. Take your plumbing-obsessed preschooler (or older kid) to Brightwater Center in Woodinville, a wastewater treatment plant that’s also an environmental education and art center, with nature trails, too.
40. Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center offers low-cost classes, owl prowls and family programs all summer.
42. Local nonprofit group Bats Northwest hosts bat nights on several evenings during the summer at Green Lake in Seattle, usually beginning around sunset.
43. For biking, mark the schedule for Seattle's Bicycle Sunday program, where Lake Washington Blvd. gets closed to cars on select Sundays. See also best paths for beginning bikers around Seattle/Eastside, and in the South Sound.
44. Who needs the San Juans? Head to Kitsap Peninsula for all kinds of adventures, from marine museums to paddling to seeing Chief Seattle's grave.
45. Get kids hooked on fishing at Jim’s U Fish in Spanaway, where any fish caught is $6, no matter what the size; there’s also a petting zoo.
46. Berry picking is a crowd-pleasing, all-summer-long adventure. Try Bolles Organic Farm in Monroe; Biringer Farm in Arlington, which has a small petting zoo and a “Jolly Trolley” to the fields; or Bellevue’s Larsen Lake farm for nearby blueberry picking.
47. The Adventure Playground program at Deane’s Children’s Park on Mercer Island lets kids build forts and other epic structures several afternoons a week. It’s free, but a donation is suggested.
48. A number of local cities offer free drop-in activities programs at playgrounds in the summer, usually with a meal, such as Tacoma’s summer playground program. Seattle also offers free lunches at many parks and other sites.
51. No budget for Mariners tickets? Cheer on the Everett AquaSox at its open-air stadium instead, or for South Sounders, the Tacoma Rainiers, with its playground and Wiffle ball field, and family four-pack deals.
52. Forest Park in Everett offers loads of free family fun: animal farm, park, horseshoes, tennis court, water playground and more
53. Local farmers markets offer some of the cheapest entertainment around, with live music, kids' activities, smoothie pedaling stations and access to affordable produce.
The great indoors
55. All summer, Regal movie theaters show family movies for only $1 on select weekday mornings — its Summer Movie Express program.
56. Beat the heat (or the rain) with free bowling time through free bowling for kids program.
57. Kids' museums offer cool educational fun and are less crowded in the summer. And they've got deals. For the last hour of the day (4–5 p.m.), The Children's Museum at Seattle Center is only $5. Imagine Children's Museum is half-price from 3–5 p.m. on Thursdays. Hands on Children's Museum in Olympia is free the first Friday evening of every month from 5–9 p.m. PlayDate SEA, a large indoor play space in downtown Seattle is half-price on weekdays through the end of the summer and free the last Wednesday of the month (with a 2-item canned food donation).
58. Speaking of indoor adventures, KidsQuest Children's Museum has a fantastic newish location in downtown Bellevue that welcomes you with an indoor climbing sculpture, and lots of fun STEM-focused activities. To save, get a membership or book a free pass through the KCLS museum pass program.
59. Many local restaurants have a “Kids Eat Free” night of the week; check out ParentMap's Kids Eat Free guide.
60. Crossroads Bellevue is a trove of fun on the cheap, from the free dance and music series at the mall (try second Saturdays) to a farmers market and wonderful spray park by the community center/park. Redmond Town Center also boasts plenty of indoor (game shop, restaurants) and outdoor fun (fountains, play area).
61. Kids can roller skate for free during select evening sessions at Lynnwood Bowl and Skate through the Kids Skate Free program; they'll get two free skate passes a week for (currently) Wednesday and Sunday evenings.
62. One of those rare stuck-inside days? Find many, many more inspired indoor-fun ideas in our giant list of indoor play options.
Editor's note: This article is updated and added-to every year, most recently in June 2018.