One of the best ways to do that is to camp and, at the same time, take advantage of one of the best bargains offered to American citizens, our national park system.
The national parks of the United States contain a nearly infinite array of natural beauty, from the northern landscapes of Denali to the gorgeous vistas of Glacier, from the stunning forestry of Acadia to the unbelievable hot springs of Yellowstone. Yosemite. Grand Canyon. Joshua Tree. Shenandoah. Suffice it to say, there is more stunning beauty to be found in our national parks than you can possibly explore in a lifetime . Even more amazing is the fact that you can see all of this beauty on what amounts to a shoestring budget. A vacation centered around a national park can actually be very inexpensive!
Plan Way Ahead
The problem here is that many of the campgrounds in national parks and around national parks tend to fill up several months in advance, particularly at the most popular parks in the national parks system like Yellowstone.
If You Have a Fourth Grader, Get in For Free
The National Park Service currently offers the "Every Kid in a Park" program, which gives every fourth grader in the United States a free year-long national parks pass for their family.
Do It at Your Own Pace
Most of the trails and majestic sights that you're going to see in a national park will be there tomorrow or the day after. Most parks feature amazing sights that require almost no trail walking and there are trails and hikes available in most parks with a huge variety of different lengths and different difficulties.
For example, on our upcoming Yellowstone trip, we're planning on spending most of two days in Badlands National Park on our way to Yellowstone from Iowa, then spending a day at Devil's Tower National Monument . If we so choose, we can also stop at Mount Rushmore and at Custer State Park on the way (all but Custer are free thanks to our free pass, as described above).
Use the Library as a Great Planning Resource
I think that using a travel guide is still the best tool for planning a vacation, simply because it takes pieces of information that are spread out all over the place online and puts them all in one single volume where you can find everything you need.
Eat Simple... But Tasty
Go far beyond simply making sandwiches for every meal (though sandwiches should be a staple-a simple sandwich is practically designed for camping).
Strategize Your Camping Gear
The biggest cost that people bring up when it comes to a camping trip is the cost of gear. Here's the thing, though: if you camp regularly and make camping part of your family's activities (particularly during the summer), the cost per trip for a family tent and sleeping bags and other materials goes way down. If you're going on a typical tent camping family vacation, all you need is a tent that comfortably houses your family, sleeping bags (and that's even kind of a maybe, as you can use blankets), something with which to start a fire, and a flashlight or two (which you probably already have).
If I include the prorated cost of our camping gear and all of the cost of driving, eating, campground fees, and everything else, our family's summer national park vacation will cost us substantially less than $100 a day.