The Top Ten U.S. Roadside Attractions

Make “getting there” part of the fun by dropping in (or re-routing to) one of these ten fantastic, weird, wonderful, and surprising roadside attractions.

Roadside attractions are as American as apple pie. Be it a vacation, a long-distance school trip, or a Sunday drive, the uniquely American tradition of roadside attractions provides countless opportunities to stretch your legs, take funny photos, and even learn something about history, biology, or geography. And yes, many roadside attractions are a bit tacky—but that’s part of the charm.

The phenomenon of these oddities began soon after the first roads were built. “How do you get people to stop?” was the first question. The second, of course, was: “How do I turn a profit?” Entrepreneurs, thinkers, inventors, and champions of the unusual built big, odd, and often flashy monuments: towers, men, animals, and other whimsical creatures. Some roadside attractions are celebrations of the wonders of nature, but all are testaments of the human imagination.

Roadside Attractions
Route 66 Roadside Attraction by bradleygee

The next time you plan on hitting the open road, remember that every stop doesn’t need to be the “main event.” While kids love destinations like the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, or Washington, D.C., don’t forget that it’s all about the journey. A lot of fun can be had on a much smaller scale, with very little expense.

From the giant beagles at Dog Bark Park along northern Idaho’s U.S.Highway 95 to the graves of gunslingers, to shrunken heads and jumbo-sized elephants, a little research into odd, historic, or scenic roadside attractions can add laughter and spice to any trip.

Some attractions are historical oddities, like General Santa Anna’s wooden leg, while others involve live creatures, like Snakeworld in Berryville, AR, or impossibly kitschy collectibles. If shopping is a priority, don’t miss the chance to rummage through other people’s lost luggage in search of treasure at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama.

There are plenty of online and published resources that describe thousands of roadside attractions; many websites even compile an itinerary when you enter a specific route. Fun sites to browse include Unusual Museums, The World’s Largest Roadside Attractions, Legends of America, and Roadside America. The New Roadside America by Doug Kirby, Ken Smith, and Mike Wilkins (Fireside Press, 1992) is also a good resource. With a little research, family car trips can become much more than DVDs, iPods, Game Boys, and “stop teasing your sister”. Really—from toddler to teen to Mom and Dad, who can resist the mummified skeleton of Big Foot?

To get you started here are our ten favorites. Check them out—and be sure to let us know the ones you find in your next foray on the country’s wild, black asphalt.

10. South of the Border and Pedroland Park

Dillon, South Carolina

Not a tortilla’s toss from I-95 and the North Carolina border is a very weird tribute to Mexican culture that most adults consider the pinnacle of theme-park tackiness. But it’s easy to see why most kids love it. There are two championship miniature golf courses, a 200-foot-tall Sombrero Tower with a glass elevator, and a firework stand that provides year-round bang for your buck. South of the Border was originally a beer stand, circa 1950.

A lot of Tecate must have been consumed, leading to a steady expansion of Mexican trinkets and Latino kitsch. Despite the flash and glitter, the Sombrero Room Restaurant is known for its tasty Mexican food (AKA the best Mexican food in northern South Carolina). Admission is free to the South of the Border complex with its 14 shops, six restaurants, an amusement park, and an arcade. There are also 300 hotel rooms and two pools. Rides at Pedroland Park cost about $2 each. Open 365 days a year. (800.845.6011).

9. Hole’n the Rock


If you’re cruising through Utah on the way to Bryce, Zion, or Arches national parks, chances are you’ll see billboards advertising Hole n’ the Rock. It’s not the hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (that’s Hole in the Wall, Wyoming), but outlaws would have loved this place. The 5,000-square-foot home was dug out of the huge sandstone monolith and features 14 uniquely decorated rooms.

The sandstone French fryer and bathtub are perennial favorites. Outside is an impressive cactus garden, a petting zoo with odd animals, and a giant rock painting and sculpture of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The attraction is on U.S. Highway 191 in southeastern Utah. Hours: Memorial to Labor Day from 9 to 9; off-season from 9 to 6; closed Christmas and Thanksgiving

8. Roswell UFO Museum

Roswell, New Mexico

In the 1980s, some very vocal researchers began to investigate possible UFO sightings near Roswell, NM, that occurred during a thunderstorm in 1947. Bolstered by movies like Ghost Busters, ET, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the U.S. public was ready to believe that the military had covered up an alien invasion. The small community near Roswell Army Air Field quickly became famous.

Was it a flying saucer that people had seen? Or, as the military attested, simply a weather balloon? And why did the military bother to cloak the entire proceeding in secrecy? In 1992, a man who’d been an Air Force officer during the alleged cover-up of 1947 started the museum. Since then, Roswell has become the epicenter of the UFO universe. There’s plenty of fodder to keep conspiracy theorists and alien aficionados happy, with exhibits on the Roswell Incident, alien abductions, crop circles, ancient astronauts, and Area 51. Roswell is just off Highway 285 in southeastern New Mexico (575.625.9495).

7. Wonder View Tower

Genoa, Colorado

Wanna see an eight-footed pig? A two-headed calf? Wonder Tower, 100 miles east of Denver on I-70 just west of the Kansas border, promises even more. Built in 1926, the Wonder Tower is like a flea market on steroids. Odd collections and curiosities like Mastodon tusks will provide sufficient fuel for conversation to get you through the Great Plains.

From the top of the 60-foot tower, the legend is that you can see six states—which might be true, considering the pancake-flat landscape. After making the ascent, you’re rewarded with a terrific view of the Rocky Mountains to the west. Hours are 8 to 8 daily (719.763.2309).

6. Wall Drug

South Dakota

Sixty miles east of Mt. Rushmore is perhaps the most advertised store in history. It has also been a family-run business since 1931. Roadside billboards advertised Wall Drug in every state of the Union until 1965 when Lady Bird Johnson championed the Highway Beautification Act. The massive signage disappeared—until Bill Husted (the founder’s son) got himself appointed to the South Dakota State Dept. of Transportation. Wall Drug gained fame (and loyal customers) by offering free water.

The water’s still free, as are bumper stickers. A cup of coffee is five cents—and almost anyone with a good story gets a free donut. In addition to the sprawling interior shops, there is a fantasy land for kids in the Back Yard, with the Branding Iron Arcade, an 80-foot-tall brontosaurus, a six-foot-tall rabbit, and an Indian village. For a great photo op, stand next to the miniature Mt. Rushmore and add your mug to the line-up. The store is open 6:30 to 6 during winter and 6:30 to 9:30 in the summer. Admission is free (605.279.2175).

5. Territorial Prison

Yuma, Arizona

It’s like walking onto the set of Jesse James’ Old West. The prison was first occupied in 1876 and eventually housed some 3,000 desperados—mostly murderers, polygamists, revolutionaries, and robbers, plus a couple of dozen outlaw women. Over 100 inmates died there, mainly of tuberculosis, while 26 prisoners escaped (either by going over or under the wall), and eight later died of gunshot wounds sustained during re-capture.

Old walls and a cell block remain, with strap-iron cages built by the prison work crews. Photo ops include putting on a striped suit and having a mug shot taken, complete with the prisoner’s I.D. number. From I-8 follow the signs to Yuma. The park is open daily 8:00 to 5:00 and closed on Christmas Day. Admission is free for 13 and under, and $4 for adults (928.783.4771).

4. Jungle Adventures

Christmas, Florida

What first grabs your attention is the 200-foot-long alligator. It’s not real, of course, but it makes for fantastically silly photos. The monster-sized reptile serves as the ticket booth and gift shop for Jungle Adventures, a classic old Florida roadside attraction. Just eight miles west of I-95, near Orlando, the small nature park features a Jungle Swamp Cruise through alligator-infested waters.

They also have Florida panthers, native bears, and other exotic pets that need a good home. There’s plenty of excitement during alligator feeding time, and when Jungle Jim wrestles the giant reptiles into submission. Open year-round. Adults are $20, and children from 3 to 11 cost $11 (877.424.2867).

3. Trees of Mystery

Klamath, California

In the heart of the mighty Redwoods lives a nearly 50-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan and his 35-foot sidekick, Blue Ox. But Bunyan hasn’t been busy swinging his axe; rather, he and Blue stand guard over Trees of Mystery, one of the best places to see some of the biggest trees in the world.

The park, on California Highway 101, 36 miles from the Oregon border, features a gondola that sweeps you more than 1,500 feet above the canopy. A paved trail winds through the forest, past remarkable old-growth trees that resemble candelabras and cathedrals. Don’t miss the giant, 2,000-year-old Sequoia. Trees of Mystery is open every day except Christmas; Adults are $13.50, and kids 4 to 10 are $6.50 (800.638.3389).

2. Secret Caverns

Cobleskill, New York

Strict caving buffs might prefer the more traditional spelunking experience of nearby Howe Caverns, but in terms of a glitzy roadside attraction, it’s hard to match Secret Caverns. Advertising fanfare aside, the limestone caves really are an underground wonder, with a colorful 100-foot waterfall and prehistoric fossils. Tours at Secret Caverns are all about fun and fantasy with guides spinning wild tales to amuse tourists.

Above ground, there’s a collection of folk art that rivals a Grateful Dead festival. Just down the road, Howe Caverns has an elevator and boat rides in a fantastic underground lake, plus a hotel, restaurant, and candy shop. Both Secret Caverns and Howe Caverns are off I-88, a half dozen miles east of Cobleskill. Secret Caverns is open daily from mid-April through November; adult admission is $16, and kids 6 to 15 are $8; (518.296.8558; Howe Caverns: 518.296.8900).

1. Maryhill Museum and Stonehenge

Goldendale, Washington

This windswept expanse of the Columbia River George, just off I-84 about 100 miles east of Portland, promises scenery, history, and one of the best car-free biking/hiking roads in the country. The 600-acre ranch belonged to turn-of-the-century entrepreneur Sam Hill. He built the museum on a bluff high above the river. Peacocks roam the sculpture gardens (and kids love exploring the grounds in search of feathers).

Among the exhibits, you’ll discover a roomful of Rodin sculptures, a collection of ornate chess sets, and objets d’art from the Queen of Romania’s castle. The property includes Loop Road, a 3.6-mile paved road with dizzying switchbacks that are closed to cars, and the magnificent Stonehenge, a life-size replica of the original archeological wonder in England. Admission to Stonehenge, the sculpture gardens, and Loop Road is free; the museum is open daily from March 15 through November 15, and the cost is $7 for adults and $2 for kids 6 to 16 (509.773.3733).

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