If you are filled with the need to explore and get the kids out of the house, but your bank account isn't padded, these are some of our favorite FREE ways to explore in the Madison-area. These fun destinations are within an hour drive Madison - but able to offer hours of free family-friendly entertainment. Of course, donations are accepted at many of these locations. I'm surprised at how many of my friends and clients didn't know about these locations when I've shared our adventures. Ready for some fun?! So, pack a picnic lunch and bring your stroller or a wagon (and maybe your library card) and you'll be ready for a full day of FREE family adventures.

  • MacKenzie Environmental Center. This education center is located 25 miles north of Madison. Explore nature trails, geocaching, and climb a look-out tour and several animals in the wildlife exhibit (wolfs, bison and badgers to name a few). There are also several smaller exhibits and structures to explore. Your visit to the center is free, but donations are accepted

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  • Henry Vilas Zoo. Pack a picnic and greet the animals throughout the free zoo. The children's zoo features a unique playground fille with climbing structures and slides, a petting zoo and a carousel and train ride (minimal admission for each rider). Your trip to the zoo is otherwise absolutely free, but donations are accepted throughout the exhibits and at each entrance. Explore the neighboring parks, beach and UW-Arboretum just outside of the zoo.
  • Parfey's Glen. This astounding, natural area is located just outside of Devil's Lake State Park. Bring an extra pair of shoes or sandals as you will surely get wet. You will start your adventure on trails and then continue through bridges, rocks, water, sand and small cliffs. Strollers won't be usable beyond the short hike to the water. Your visit to this natural area is free. No parking admission sticker is required if you park on the adjacent road. We also enjoy taking the free car ferry from Lodi to Merrimac before or after our hike.
  • Lakeview Park in Middleton. This park features something for kids of all ages. Having three children ranging from ages 3-15 years, this park is perfect for us. Lakeview Park includes Middleton's splash pad, an exercise park, a pond filled with koi fish, which is surrounded by a nice paved trail for a short family hike or walk with the stroller. We also enjoy the smaller playground nearby and the tennis courts, disc golf and playing in the sand on the volleyball courts.
  • State Street. Walk and explore all the way from Monona Terrace, around the Capital square and then down to the UW Memorial Union. Also make a stop at the Central Library, located on Mifflin Street. The library has a great children's section and unique reading areas downstairs. The library's also Bubbler offers tons of free events for children and teens.
  • Horicon Marsh and Dodge County Ledge Park. The Ledge Park is a short drive out into the country from Horicon and well worth the drive from the Madison-area. Children of all ages can climb the various rock formations and in smaller caves and crevices. Families can hike the trail down to the lower level and enjoy the small pond, playground area and paved trail. We could explore forever at these two locations. Admission to Horicon Marsh is free. Optional tours and events do require admission.  If you are interested in splurging on ice cream, there is a cute ice cream shop located in downtown Horicon with tons of outdoor seating.


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