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7 free and offbeat vacation attractions

July 7, 2014 at 9:01 AM ET

Located on I-40, outside of Amarillo, Texas, Cadillac Ranch is a wholly interactive exhibit. Visitors are encouraged to bring paint, markers, or whate...
Brian L. Romig
Cadillac Ranch, located on I-40 outside of Amarillo, Texas, is a wholly interactive exhibit. Visitors are encouraged to bring paint, markers, or whatever other medium they like to add to the graffiti.

The start of summer means the start of prime vacation and sightseeing season. Vacations need not be expensive, and some of the best — and unique — sites around the United States are completely free to visit. The key to spending an amazing summer full of free thrills is knowing where to look. 

Cheapism.com scoured the Internet and compiled a list of seven unusual sites that vacationing thrill seekers on a budget should check out.   

Cadillac Ranch: Texas. Cadillac Ranch was formed in 1974 when Stanley Marsh, an eccentric millionaire, planted 10 vintage Cadillacs, nose down, into a deserted stretch of dirt outside Amarillo, Texas. The ranch sits abreast I-40, between exits 60 and 62. The cars were planted, apparently, as a salute to Route 66 and what Marsh considered to be the golden age of car travel. Common practice is for visitors to bring spray paint and leave their own mark on the cars.

World's Largest Ball of Twine: Minnesota. Darwin, the unassuming home of the world's largest ball of twine built by a single person (that would be Francis A. Johnson), lies 62 miles west of Minneapolis. The massive ball weighs 17,400 pounds and is housed in the town gazebo. It took Johnson 29 years to complete this free thrill. In tribute, the museum beside the gazebo sells twine-ball starter kits in the gift shop.

Lucy the Elephant: New Jersey. Lucy the Elephant sits astride the New Jersey coast in Josephine Harron Park in the town of Margate. Built in 1881 as a scheme to attract land buyers to the area, Lucy towers over the surroundings in her full 65-foot glory. She is currently listed on the National Park Registry of Historical Landmarks. Over the course of Lucy's history she has been used as a hotel, private mansion, and a tavern; guided tours of this vacation site are available.

Meteor Crater: Arizona. Meteor Crater is just what its name suggests, and is minutes away from Winslow, in northern Arizona. The crater is one of the best preserved on the planet and is a truly spectacular (and free) vacation landing. It was formed approximately 50,000 years ago when a piece of an asteroid traveling 26,000 miles an hour struck the Earth. The crater is nearly one mile across and more than 600 feet deep.

Free Attraction Days: New York City. Although New York is an expensive city, there are a number of free thrills that are yours for the enjoying. Throughout the year, many museums and other sites host free or pay-what-you-wish days. Participating institutions include the American Folk Art Museum, the Cloisters, the Bronx Zoo, the Guggenheim, and more. There is definitely something for everyone among the long list of museums, parks and zoos that can be visited at no cost. Note that some vacation attractions are free or pay-what-you-wish only during certain times.

Haiku Stairs: Hawaii. The Haiku Stairs are not for the faint of heart. Also known as the stairway to heaven, they ascend along a series of mountain ridges to a final height of 2,800 feet. At the top of the hike is a former top-secret U.S. Navy Radio station that was built in 1942 to transmit signals to ships throughout the Pacific. It is illegal to hike along the Haiku Stairs, but you can sign up to be a volunteer and then work for the privilege of stepping on them. Be prepared to sit on a wait list and when your turn comes, expect to perform unskilled labor like picking up litter. The Friends of Haiku Stairs, a group dedicated to preserving the site, is in charge.

Dog Bark Park Inn: Idaho. Dog Bark Park Inn offers patrons a chance to stay in the belly of a 20-foot tall beagle — literally. The inn was built to resemble this canine species and is a fine example of chainsaw wood art. The London Times, a British newspaper, has declared it one of the wackiest of hotels. Although lodging costs $90 a night, it’s free for visits and gawking.  

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