The best things in 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 50 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 new Edmonds spray park at 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. (Find the South Sound spray park guide here.)
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), Point No Point Lighthouse is the oldest on Puget Sound.
4. The University of Washington Water 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.
5. From July 5 through Sept. 4, you can catch the free foot ferry (5 minutes!) 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. This summer kids 18 and under with an Orca ride for only 50 cents on King County Metro; 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 (south of Olympia), complete with a high dive, wading pool and natural waterfall. Warning: The water is cold, so save for a very hot day.
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. Starting in mid-July, Seattle Art Museum offers its free Summer at SAM program, with live music and art activities; and themed nights.
16. Bellevue Youth Theatre, an inclusive 25-year-old theater program, offers affordable family-friendly theater all summer (look for $5 ticket nights).
19. Seattle Public Theater’s student productions, held year-round at the Bathhouse Theater at Green Lake, are always free to everyone (though donations are welcome).
20. 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).
21. 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.
22. 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.
23. 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.
24. Teen alert! Gage Academy runs two awesome Teen Art Studios programs — a free, weekly drop-in studio art program — in Bellevue and Seattle.
25. Speaking of Gage Academy, they are hosting free all-ages art-in-the-park classes all summer long, at parks, festivals and more. Mark a date on your calendar!
26. 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 Visitor Center is essentially a free small museum on global health and development. On the west side, find KEXP's home, with a stunning cafe/gathering place, free tours and DJ booth that invites sneak peeks.
Science and nature
27. 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 2017 schedule.
28. 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.
29. Last we checked, hiking was one of the best cheap thrills around. Mark free state park days on your calendar (June 10, Aug. 25, Sept. 30), when you don’t need a Discover Pass to hike. On Aug. 25 and Sept. 30, 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.
30. Explore Bellevue’s wildlife-rich 320-acre wetland park, Mercer Slough Nature Park, via a three-hour guided canoe tour from Enatai Beach Park for only $16–$18; keep an eye out for otter, heron and turtles.
31. 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.
32. Tacoma Nature Center, a 70-acre wetland habitat in the heart of the city, has a natural play area ripe for adventure.
33. Puget Sound's playgrounds are getting increasingly more adventurous and imaginative. Check out Big Rock Park, with its naturescape and imaginative play features, and the new, accessible playground at Lake Sammamish State Park.
34. 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.
35. 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.
36. Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center offers low-cost classes, owl prowls and family programs all summer.
38. Local nonprofit group Bats Northwest hosts bat nights on several evenings during the summer at Green Lake in Seattle, usually beginning around sunset.
40. 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.
41. 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.
42. 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 Mercer Slough for nearby blueberry picking.
43. 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.
44. 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.
45. Skate Like a Girl offers free drop-in skateboarding instruction programs around Seattle over the summer for wanna-be shredders ages 12 and under.
47. Forest Park in Everett offers loads of free family fun: animal farm, park, horseshoes, tennis court, water playground and more
48. 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
50. All summer, Regal movie theaters show family movies for only $1 on select weekday mornings — its Summer Movie Express program.
51. Beat the heat (or the rain) with free bowling time through KidsBowlFree.com.
52. For the last hour of the day (4–5 p.m.), The Children's Museum at Seattle Center is donation only. 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 canned food donation).
53. Speaking of indoor adventures, KidsQuest Children's Museum has a fantastic new location in downtown Bellevue that welcomes you with an indoor climbing sculpture, and lots of fun STEM-focused activities.
54. Many local restaurants have a “Kids Eat Free” night of the week; check out ParentMap's Kids Eat Free guide.
55. 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.
57. Your kids can learn to code for free through local CoderDojo meet-up programs, where coders volunteer to mentor kids.
58. One of those rare stuck-inside days? Find many, many more inspired indoor-fun ideas at parentmap.com/rain.