The air is getting colder, the wind is picking up, and your instincts are starting to tell you that it’s time to hunker down indoors.
Don’t do it.
Fall is the best time of year to get outside and enjoy the fresh air before winter’s chill numbs your fingers. It’s a great time to get your kids some exercise and make memories that will last a lifetime.
The good news is that budget-friendly activities are as plentiful as apples in the fall. Let’s take a look at what you can do to get your family outside without breaking the bank.
Getting Outdoors This Fall
I live in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. Autumn is intoxicating here, and not just because of the ample opportunities to indulge in locally made hard cider. The mountains are blanketed in a rich palette of red, orange, and yellow. Brown hickory nuts roll down into the creeks, where they’re scooped up by bears intent on fattening themselves up before snowfall. Even the waterfalls seem to take on an extra sense of urgency in the crisp weather; you can almost hear the forest preparing for winter.
I’m a bit biased toward the mountains, but regions across the United States become playgrounds in the fall. Whether you’re out raking leaves or building your first campfire, everything becomes more fun. Kids especially love to be outside exploring and trying new things as the weather cools down.
Here’s a list of the best fall activities to try with your family and friends for little to no cost.
1. Visit a U-Pick Farm
It would be sacrilege to write a fall activities list without including a visit to a U-Pick farm, which is why it’s first on the list. Fall is harvest season, which means there are plenty of opportunities to pick pumpkins, apples, pears, and blackberries, and to indulge in home-baked apple pies and homemade apple cider.
Taking your family to a U-Pick farm can make lasting memories. There’s something undeniably soul-stirring about walking through a sunlit orchard, heady with the scent of apples, harvesting your food. Your kids will have a blast, and they just might remember it for the rest of their lives.
Visiting a U-Pick farm can also help get your kids excited about eating fresh, local foods. After all, it’s one thing to buy a pear at the grocery store, but when your kids go out and pick that pear themselves, they’re far more likely to eat it. Many U-Pick farms also plan festivals and special activities around harvest time, including cookouts, corn mazes, campfires, and harvest baking classes. Some have petting zoos, playgrounds, and wagon rides.
Another advantage to visiting a U-Pick farm is that you can find affordable local produce for home canning. Making applesauce and blackberry jam is a frugal, self-sufficient skill, and you get a healthier, higher-quality product because you made it yourself.
Cost: Costs vary widely depending on your location, the farm’s pricing structure, and the type of fruit you’re picking. For example, many farms charge per pound for pick-your-own apples; at $1 per pound, this is cheaper than the grocery store. Others charge by the bucke, but a $15 bucket of blackberries is still much less expensive than buying the same amount of berries at a grocery store.
2. Take a Road Trip
One of the most popular and scenic ways to take in the stunning fall colors is to cruise the Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds through the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. The Parkway is 469 miles long and within a six-hour drive of major cities including Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, Knoxville, Roanoke, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.
In addition to magnificent open views, the Parkway offers plenty of stunning waterfalls, pristine lakes, meadows dotted with deer and caribou, mountain biking and hiking trails, Appalachian craft centers, and music festivals. The speed limit is only 45 miles per hour, which means you’ll drive slow enough to appreciate what nature has to offer. Entrance and exit ramps can be found every few miles if you need to stop for gas or a hotel.
If you can, try to visit the Parkway during the week. In mid- to late October, the traffic can be mind-numbing, and the sea of tail lights and mega campers drowns out any serenity you hoped to feel from the stunning views.
Average Cost: The Blue Ridge Parkway is a national park, however, there is no fee to travel along the road. If you want to camp, there is a $16 campsite fee per night, and you’ll need to register in advance at Recreation.gov.
If driving to the Parkway is out of reach, then pile your family into the car and head out to the country. Visit a local city, state, or national park and explore the nature. Fall is best experienced in person, in the thick of the woods, so that you can use all of your senses. Travel + Leisure has an excellent guide to fall road trips that span the country. So, take a drive, and then step outside.
3. Run a 5K, 10K, or Marathon
Fall is a great time to get in shape for a challenging race because it’s far easier to run in colder weather. You’re also more likely to stay in shape over the winter season and keep off those holiday pounds if you establish a fitness routine in the fall.
Cost: Most organized races raise money for a local charity. A typical race entry fee is between $30 and $40. For larger, more popular runs, entry fees can be several hundred dollars.
4. Plant Spring Bulbs
If you had a garden this summer, you’re probably ready to be done with planting. However, it’s easy to plant a few bulbs for spring, and when March comes and you see those tiny points of life growing out of the ground, you’ll be glad you did. Plus, planting bulbs is a fun way to be outside and enjoy the crisp fall afternoons. You can start planting bulbs as soon as evening temperatures are between 40 and 50 degrees, or six to eight weeks before the ground freezes.
Plant the following bulbs in fall for spring blooming:
- Grape hyacinths
Starting in late August, you can find bulbs for sale at most nurseries, bulk warehouses such as Sam’s Club and Costco, and large hardware stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot. You can also order bulbs online through nurseries such as American Meadows.
Cost: The cost of spring bulbs varies depending on the flower variety you choose, as well as where you buy them. For example, a 10-count bag of tulips can cost $8 to $15 or more. However, keep in mind that these plants are perennials, which means they’ll come back year after year, so it’s a good investment compared to annuals, which only last for one growing season.
5. Go Tailgating
There is no other sport like football, and I don’t mean the game itself. I’m talking about the enthusiasm of its fans, many of whom set up shop in the parking lot hours before kickoff begins. They unpack huge grills, unfold chairs in the colors of their home team, and set up party tents. The menu is often well-planned and elaborate, especially considering that it’s all served between the white lines of a parking space. There are flags, costumes, several rounds of adult drinks, and plenty of laughs.
Tailgating is a uniquely American phenomenon that you should experience in the fall. Other sports, such as hockey and baseball, don’t have as strong a tailgating culture as football does. Whether you’re a fan of college or professional football, tailgating is worth trying at least once this fall.
If you’re serving T-bone steaks on the grill, tailgating can get expensive; however, it doesn’t have to be. Many devoted fans create a football fund. One of the best ways to tailgate on a budget is to invite plenty of friends and ask them to bring drinks and a dish to share. Some of the essential supplies you’ll need to tailgate include:
- A small charcoal or propane grill
- Disposable plates, cups, and utensils
- Garbage bags
- A folding table and chairs
- A small table for food prep and serving
- A cooler
- Bottled water and soda
- Adult beverages
- Paper towels
- A tent or some type of shelter from sun and rain
- Portable music and speakers
- Tailgate food such as hamburgers, hot dogs, dips, and pie
If you’re tailgating with kids, keep in mind that they’ll need a few things to keep themselves entertained. Keep older kids occupied with games like cornhole or catch. Younger kids may need books, sidewalk chalk, bubbles, crayons, and toys to stay happy. Don’t forget to bring a change of clothes for each child in case they get dirty or spill ketchup all over their shirt. You’ll also need wet wipes, sunscreen, and a first aid kit. If your kids are younger, bring several blankets they can stretch out on and take a nap. And if you have a wagon, bring it to haul them around the parking lot and take in the sights.
Cost: There are plenty of ways to tailgate on a budget, but plan on spending at least $100 on food and supplies. Keep in mind that this amount will be less if family and friends chip in.
There are an endless number of chores to do in the fall to winterize your home: raking leaves, picking up fallen sticks, cleaning out gutters, caulking windows and doors, and trimming trees. While these chores might be easy for you to do, they’re much more challenging for seniors.
Many seniors don’t have family nearby to help with household chores, so they must either hire someone or go without. And with more and more seniors living in poverty, many will choose the latter. As a result, each year their neglected homes and yards worsen, increasing the likelihood that they will have to transfer to an assisted living facility.
Your family can help by volunteering time with these seniors, or your own elderly parents, to help with fall chores. You might already know someone in your neighborhood that could use a helping hand. If not, contact your local senior center or Meals on Wheels branch to see if they know someone who needs help.
7. Head to the Beach
Many people don’t think of the beach when fall arrives. However, fall is a great time to visit the ocean because the summer crowds are gone, overnight accommodations and restaurants are usually cheaper by 25% or more, and the temperatures are no longer sweltering. Another bonus is that fall storms frequently dredge up long-buried treasures like sea glass, which are easier to find when you’re the only person on the beach.
So, why not plan a late-fall vacation to the beach? Even a quick weekend trip can be budget-friendly, especially if you decide to camp. Check out the Travel Channel’s list of 10 beaches you can camp on to get some ideas.
Cost: Varies depending on how far you are from the beach and whether or not you choose to stay overnight. Camping, either on the beach or in a local park, is your most affordable option.
Additional Fall Activities
If you need even more ideas to get your family outdoors this fall, consider these:
- Visit a vineyard.
- Make S’mores.
- Visit a haunted house.
- Go stargazing.
- Cook a meal over a campfire.
- Jump in a leaf pile.
- Collect pine cones and twigs to make a fall centerpiece for Thanksgiving.
- Go for a walk around the neighborhood with your kids.
- Visit a local Oktoberfest.
- Host an outdoor Thanksgiving this year.
- Take your kids fishing.
- Exercise or do yoga outdoors.
- Visit your local zoo.
- Play hide and seek.
- Put on a raincoat and walk in the rain.
- Visit your local farmer’s market.
One of the most beautiful things about fall is the slowing down. The “go-go-go” mindset of summer is over, and the stillness of winter hasn’t yet arrived. The honking of geese as they fly south is melancholy and exciting at the same time. They’re leaving, and we’re staying put.
During this time of year, I make sure that my kids and I spend every available minute outdoors. We eat lunch and dinner on the deck or picnic on a blanket in the leaves. We go on hikes in the woods surrounding our house, picking up acorns and chestnuts along the way. We look for bird feathers and pine cones and collect the year’s last Black-Eyed Susans for the table. These are small things, sure, but these “insignificant” moments are what make great memories.
Autumn will come and go before you know it, which is why making an effort to get outside and enjoy it is so important. Soon, you’ll be holed up indoors kicking yourself for not going apple picking when you had the chance. So get out there.
What is your favorite part of fall? Do you have any favorite activities you enjoy doing with your family?