Some of the best things in life really are free, including plenty of art displays, museums, and outdoor activities across the West. All you have to do is get there. Here are ideas for things to do this winter that are both affordable and fun, from Arizona to Alaska.
Experience neon history by night.
As the sun goes down, the lights turn up at Casa Grande Neon Sign Park. This free outdoor museum features 14 signs, each one salvaged and restored from sites in and around Casa Grande, which sits about 48 miles south of Phoenix. There’s one from the city’s Horseshoe Motel—a 1940s roadside motel that was demolished in 2004—and another from Arizona Edison (a former electrical utility), with its distinctive State of Arizona outline and central cactus. Bronze story plaques share details of each sign, which brighten the skies from dusk until 11 p.m. nightly.
See dozens of public art works.
Public art abounds in the city of Scottsdale, with more than 100 works dotting the local landscape. Some of the pieces are interactive, such as Horseshoe Falls—a series of tall horseshoe-stacked pillars, a seat wall, and periodic fog that cools the space for passersby—while others such as One-Eyed Jack, an enormous 26-foot-tall painted steel sculpture of a jackrabbit, are simply impressive. ScottsdalePublicArt.org features an interactive map detailing each piece and its location. Or you can just wander the streets, happening upon them as you go.
Peruse “junk art.”
Spend an afternoon experiencing Sebastopol’s Florence Avenue and its incredible world of “junk art” sculptures. Artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent are responsible for this three-block stretch of quirky characters, which range from a towering Godzilla made out of old car parts to a surfing girl riding an ironing board. Amiot utilizes recycled and raw materials—such as aluminum trash cans and discarded water heaters—to assemble each piece, before Laurent paints them in a myriad of bright, bold colors. The result is a menagerie of unique yard art that’s extremely photogenic.
Illuminate SF’s annual light art festival brightens up winter evenings with dozens of brilliant artworks—some permanent, others temporary—enlivening the cityscape November through the end of January. These public installations include standout showpieces such as Chinatown’sLantern Stories—29 illustrated and glowing lanterns that hang above Grant Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s busiest streets—and Golden Gate Park’sEntwined, a temporary interactive “forest” of sculptural trees and flowering bushes made out of thousands of pixel-like LED lights, which change color throughout the night.
Explore living history.
Embark on a docent-led public tour of California's State Capitol Building in Sacramento. Tours start in the towering Rotunda of this Neoclassical-style beauty, and include a visit to its legislative offices, a walk among its portrait gallery of California governors, and an opportunity to snap a selfie with the life-size golden bear statue, a gift from former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. These free, hour-long tours are offered multiple times a day on weekdays throughout the year, except on holidays when the building is closed.
Bask in the beauty of a desert sculpture garden and its neighboring ghost town.
Just outside the borders of Death Valley National Park (and close to the town of Beatty) lies one of the Mojave Desert’s most unique finds. The Goldwell Open Air Museum is a 24/7 open-air sculpture park that’s spread across 15 acres and home to some incredible, oversized artworks. These include The Last Supper, 12 life-sized ghostly figures crafted out of plaster-soaked fabric and weatherproof fiberglass that rise out of the barren landscape like apparitions, and the Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada, a towering pixelated figure comprised of pink cinder blocks. Right up the road are the incredible remnants of Rhyolite, an early 20th century gold mining town that went bust as quickly as it boomed. See the remnants of the 3-story bank building and the still-standing train depot.
Stroll through a Vegas oasis.
Although the iconic Flamingo casino hotel sits in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, its free Flamingo Wildlife Habitat provides a peaceful escape from the city’s bright lights and slot machines. Slip into a four-acre oasis of waterfalls, ponds, and gardens that’s brimming with koi fish, Australian black swans, and other birds, fish, and reptiles. A flock of Chilean flamingos are the habitat’s real stars, and they have been welcoming visitors since the outdoor space first opened in 1995.
Hit the hiking trails.
When the temperatures drop and snow falls, Montana transforms into a winter wonderland—one that’s welcoming for both trekkers and snowshoers alike. The season’s top pathways include the Whitefish Trail, an extensive 47-mile trail system in and around Whitefish that offers wonderful mountain vistas. Further south, there’s the nearly 6-mile out-and-back Lava Lake Trail outside Bozeman. Although the climb is somewhat strenuous and may require proper grip for hardpack snow or ice, it results in a spectacular lakeside view—one right out of a holiday postcard.
Spend a day learning.
The University of Wyoming in Laramie is home to a bevy of museums that are open to the public. Whether it’s admiring works from the American West at the University of Wyoming Art Museum; marveling at “Big Al,” a display of one of the most complete Allosaurus skeletons ever discovered, at the University of Wyoming Geological Museum; or following human evolution at the University of Wyoming Anthropological Museum, the ways to exercise your brain here are endless.
Tour Santa’s village.
Every year from the Saturday following Thanksgiving through January 1, Ogden’s Municipal Gardens transforms into an elaborate Christmas Village. Walk among hundreds of thousands of holiday lights, and see more than 50 cozy cottages modeled after St. Nick’s North Pole environs. Meet-and-greets with Santa are also free, and take place Monday through Saturday evenings from November 26 through December 23.
Experience the Olympics.
Park City’s Olympic Park (home base for the 2002 Winter Olympics) museums showcase the history of skiing in all forms—from downhill to giant slalom—through interactive exhibits such as touch screen displays and a virtual reality ski theater.
Explore Hollywood sets.
In southern Utah, Kanab’s Little Hollywood Movie Museum sports a collection of movie sets from the greater area’s long-running reign as a Hollywood outpost. More than 100 films and TV shows have been filmed here, including 1942’s “Arabian Nights” and the "Lone Ranger" television series. Although free, a $5 donation is suggested.
Celebrate first Fridays.
Downtown Anchorage springs to life on the first Friday of each month, with a rotating selection of art galleries and shops that invite guests in for the evening. You might find yourself enjoying light refreshments at an exhibit on outdoor photography one hour, then perusing trunk show offerings while a guitarist plays live tunes the next. Some businesses may charge a small fee to participate in a special activity, but many—including the Anchorage Museum, which offers after-hours access to its galleries—remain free.