Whether the phrase came from Ken Burns or a storyteller from another generation, it’s been said that the National Parks are America’s best idea. And while there’s certainly no argument against that statement, it would truly be selling this country’s roadside attractions short to describe them as anything less than a close second.
Make no mistake, these obscure American originals took a backseat for some time, but in recent years, they’ve re-emerged as premiere vacation “destinations.” With gas prices starting to plateau, and people becoming more and more disenfranchised by the inconveniences of air travel, this country’s amazing roadside treasures are primed for more visits than ever before.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of stops from which to choose. So, starting on the Pacific and heading east, check out part one of our state-to-state guide to America’s roadside attractions!
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The creators of Igloo City originally intended on running a hotel of sorts. But this ominous-looking, Shining-esque structure never opened for business. Instead, the icy white building now merely serves as the backdrop for a really unforgettable photo op.
Duke Kahanamoku Statue
It really doesn’t matter if visitors to the island of Oahu try to pronounce the Duke’s last name, or even bungle it in the process. The only thing that matters is whether or not people come and pay tribute to this statue of the “Father of International Surfing.”
Trees of Mystery
Thousands upon thousands of sights deserve to be soaked up from the Golden State, including the Trees of Mystery at the top of California’s Redwood Exploitation Zone. If nothing else, it’s the first of many Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox fixes to be found on the map.
The Goonies House
Oregon is jam-packed with miles of natural beauty and its own unique human charm, something most adults these days would have never realized had they not grown up watching the gang from The Goonies. Anyone stopping by Astoria owes their childhood this favor.
Giant Shoe Museum
Displays of dinosaur bones can be found in almost every natural history museum, and yet, how often does society take time to commemorate human giants of the modern era? Celebrate them and the shoes they wore with a visit to the Giant Shoe Museum.
Little Bighorn (Credit: Thinkstock)
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Big Horn, Montana
Pay homage to the men and horses that gave their lives in the worst military defeat in US history, dubbed “Custer’s Last Stand.” Unlike most other war monuments, Little Bighorn actually gives a fair and unbiased look at both sides and perspectives of the battle.
World’s Largest Jackalope
Is a jackalope a real thing? Don’t ask that in Douglas, Wyoming, where the furry freak was created and is celebrated citywide. From statues to signs to park benches throughout the town, there’s just no escaping the reality of this mythical creature.
Shoshone Ice Caves
A total lack of trees may make it seem as though there’s no attractions in sight, and that’s certainly half right. For a cool Idaho treat, there’s the underground Shoshone Ice Caves, which remain frozen at all times, even when it’s a scorcher up above.
- Bingham Canyon Mine (Credit: Thinkstock)
Bingham Canyon Mine
Salt Lake City, Utah
Only a half-hour drive outside of Salt Lake City exists the biggest pit in the world. Still being dug to this day, the Bingham Canyon Mine only stands to get bigger with each visit. Or, for something a little more Mormon, go check out the Gilgal Garden.
National Atomic Testing Museum
Las Vegas, Nevada
Forget the Black Mailbox of Area 51. Instead, take a simulated trip into yesteryear, and have some fun experiencing the world that almost came to be by visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum. After all, who couldn’t use a little whimsy with their nuclear winter?
Believe it or not, Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and all of his brothers were in fact real people. Likewise, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral wasn’t just a cool scene from the movies; it was real life. For the non-romanticized story of how it all went down, stop on by Tombstone.
Sociopathic behavior aside, everyone deserves to let out their inner Eric Cartman every now and then. Luckily, Casa Bonita offers that chance, complete with flame jugglers, mariachis, cliff divers, puppet shows and, of course, Black Bart’s Cave.
Roswell Crash Site
Roswell, New Mexico
Cliches be damned, taking a trip to the Roswell Crash Site in New Mexico will never get old… that is, not until the “visitors” return elsewhere. See this soon before its unique kitsch evolves into standard vintage, at which point no one will be able to afford it anymore.
Clay Henry: The Beer-Drinking Goat
Only in Texas can a beer-drinking goat get elected as mayor. Case in point: Clay Henry, a booze-swilling mountain goat who won the office in 1986. And while he’s since passed on, his son Clay Henry Jr. continues to live on and entertain passing tourists to this day.
Geographical Center of North America
Rugby, North Dakota
Sure, it might not sound as grand as setting foot on the North and South Poles, but taking a picture right at the specific geographical center of the continent is still a pretty special thing. Not only that, but it’s an actual reason to take a tour of North Dakota too!
Mitchell, South Dakota
There’s no better place for “corny” puns like “ear-chitecture” to find a home than the Corn Palace. Muralized by grains, grasses and, of course, corn, this South Dakota landmark also stakes claim to being the world’s largest bird feeder later in the year.
Why visit the world’s largest time capsule or the birthplace of Kool-Aid when there’s a clunker-infused turn on Stonehenge living in the same state? Surprisingly (or perhaps not so much), Carhenge is but the first of many Stonehenge tributes within the US.
Yet another homage to Stonehenge, Truckhenge is a bit more yokel-ized than Nebraska’s take, but still definitely worth a visit. Kansas also stakes claim to the “largest ball of twine,” though their hold on that title is debatable (see Minnesota).
OK County 66
For a time, Route 66 laid across the land as the foremost path for Americana at its finest. And while times have changed, as has the US infrastructure, OK County 66 still celebrates the past and the quirky visuals that once dominated the Main Street of America.
World’s Largest Twine Ball
Of all ideas that a state could find pride in, it’s baffling that “world’s largest twine ball” is one of them. In Minnesota’s mind, such a claim can only be made if the ball were rolled by one man. Pay an ironic visit to the town of Darwin to take a gander.
Credit: HIEU PHAM/AFP/Getty Images
Future Birthplace of James T. Kirk
If Star Trek were real, then some “unstoppable” force should have arrived from the future to destroy this pop cultural landmark. And perhaps they have already, but were forced to get menial jobs after losing their starship to the Riverside Casino…
Precious Moments Inspirational Park
For those seeking inspiration, or perhaps just nightmares for the rest of their lives, visit Carthage. This town has turned their zest for dead baby angels into a life-sized rendition of Precious Moments, the number-one collectible in the United States.
Birthplace of Wal-Mart
Eventually, the search for America’s best roadside attractions will begin and end with the piece of Americana that killed it altogether: Walton’s, aka the first Wal-Mart. The small department store has since turned into a museum, since it otherwise would have been destroyed by the monster it helped create.
Tiger Truck Stop
Gross Tete, Louisiana
Cartoon mascots from cereal boxes and sports teams can’t hold a candle to the real-life Tony, a living, breathing tiger raised by the owners of the Tiger Truck Stop. Stop for a pic before animal rights activists inevitably place Tony into a more natural environment.
Ready to continue the journey through America’s roadside attractions? Be sure to check out part two! Also, if there’s a roadside attraction we missed, let us know in the comment section below.
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When he’s not pumping out pieces for CBS Local, Elijah Bates provides creative direction for a social media company in Venice Beach. Otherwise, you’ll find him surfing up and down the California coast, evading stingrays like trips to the dentist.