Everybody knows that the best part of any vacation is the stuff that you do on the way there. With gas prices thankfully lower now than in recent months, more people will likely venture onto the open road again this summer. Lucky for them, America is peppered with strange, unusual, historical, and fantastical roadside attractions that are a welcome diversion from mindless miles of highway.
Wall Drug: Wall, South Dakota
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Hundreds of miles’ worth of billboards advertises the undisputed king of American roadside tourist spots. In 1931, the original owners promised free ice water to motorists who stopped to make a purchase at their drug store, and the complex now sees up to 20,000 people per day. Wall Drug has grown into 76,000 square feet of attractions such as mining and panning demonstrations and a giant roaring T-Rex. The gift store sells western souvenirs such as stuffed “jackelopes” and gold jewelry, and there are riding spurs to suit every member of the family. If you desperately need mustache wax but can’t make it to the Badlands, you can even order online.
Carhenge: Western Nebraska
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Carhenge is a re-creation of the famous Druid rock formation made entirely out of old beater cars. The attraction, created in 1987, claims to draw over 80,000 visitors per year to western Nebraska. Not to be confused with Truckhenge, Carhenge is made out of thirty-eight cars—American ones at that. The original arrangement included two from Japan, but those were eventually replaced by good ol’ domestic models because nobody does giant junked cars like the U.S.A.
Cockroach Hall of Fame: Plano, Texas
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If you like your vermin with a little flash and panache, then stop in at the Cockroach Hall Of Fame. It’s located within the pest control shop of Michael Boudan, who lovingly displays real dead cockroaches as “roach art.” They’re dressed up as entertainers (Liberoachi) and politicians (Ross Peroach), as well as enjoying beach scenes and historical re-enactments. If you prefer live roaches, Boudan also has Madagascar hissing roaches for guests to hold. Admission is free, and the hall of fame has a gift shop with roach-themed merchandise alongside pest control devices. Because even if they’re wearing a cape and sitting at a piano, cockroaches are still gross.
South of the Border: Dillon, South Carolina
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Straddling the border of North and South Carolina sits this massive tourist trap, known for selling faux-Mexican knick-knacks to folks en route to Myrtle Beach. The gift shop, which started as a beer stand in 1950, sells everything from beach towels to backscratchers, and the entire staff answers to the name “Pedro.” Need fireworks? There’s a store selling them. Getting married? The South of the Border wedding package includes free breakfast for only $99, plus you get to stay in a room with a waterbed. They also have a special Mexican-themed selection of marital aids in the “Dirty Old Man” store.
The Thing: Dragoon, Arizona
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What is The Thing? It’s in Dragoon, Arizona, and it’s marked by hundreds of roadside signs which claim that The Thing is “The Mystery of the Desert.” For only a dollar, tourists can check out the complex, which also includes Hitler’s Rolls Royce, a torture exhibition, and an assortment of strange and creepy folk art. What is The Thing? We’ll leave it as a mystery, since we wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. Also, we’re not entirely sure.
Creation Museum: Petersburg, Kentucky
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Looking for a family vacation that combines the fun of Bible School and the excitement of Jurassic Park? The Answers in Genesis Creation Museum is the place for evolution deniers. It includes creationist explanations for the origins of the universe, sprinkled with lovely tales of vegetarian dinosaurs traipsing peacefully through the Garden of Eden. This is all until The Fall, of course, which is symbolized by the museum’s giant Wall of Sin. Along with animatronic Adam and Eve frolicking with dinosaurs, the museum tries to put a scientific spin on creationism by offering exhibits that show humans dying in the flood, and the terrible sacrilegious consequences of rock music and video games.
Billie Swamp Safari: Broward County, Florida
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If you happen to be driving on I-75’s Alligator Alley between Naples and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, your trip won’t be complete until you’ve stopped at the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation and the Billie Swamp Safari. Situated in the Everglades, the Safari offers airboat rides, buggy tours, and a zoo showcasing native Floridian wildlife. Of course, seeing the critically endangered Florida panther might be more exciting if the beautiful creature wasn’t confined to a cage under a tree. For those less sensitive to the plight of nature, there’s also alligator wrestling.
The Home of White Squirrels
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Five different cities claim that they’re the “original” home of albino squirrels. All the towns claim that their colony of critters is the oldest, biggest, or most authentic and all have built their towns around this claim to fame. For White Squirrel Mini-Golf, go to Olney, IL. The White Squirrel Bed and Breakfast is in Marionville, MO and Brevard, NC holds a White Squirrel Festival each Memorial Day weekend. If you go, though, be careful—these towns impose stiff penalties for killing, injuring, or pestering their most famous residents.
Mystery Spot, Upper Peninsula, MI
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Near Mackinaw City, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, lies the Mystery Spot. According to local legend, gravity doesn’t always work and people in the area often feel light-headed and queasy. The Spot was discovered by brothers in the 1930s, who found that their surveying equipment didn’t function properly due to strange magnetic fields in the area, and a roadside attraction was born. If the Mystery Spot doesn’t satisfy your paranormal desires, there’s also a mini-golf course, or you could visit our country’s numerous other mystery spots, including the Oregon Vortex, Wisconsin’s Wonder Spot, or Pennsylvania’s Gravity Hill. Apparently gravity-free zones aren’t so tough to come by, after all.
When traveling by car, roadside attractions and tourist traps offer more than just the chance to stretch your legs and use the restroom. These odd little slices of America are what make road tripping so fun and unexpected. I can’t remember much about my family’s Christmas in Miami, but we still talk about our side trip to Billie’s Swamp Safari. The only college road trip that was memorable was the one where we stopped at South of the Border. These fun pit stops make the journey just as fun as the destination.