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18 Must-See Roadside Attractions for the Perfect American Road Trip

No matter where you’re driving, this is what you should be looking for.

Road trips are an unpredictable and intimate method of exploring a place. Foregoing the long-distance leaps of the plane, traveling via car presents an opportunity to view the world on a micro level by wedging yourself into the cracks and crevices to discover what is hidden inside.

Roadside attractions exist between the major cities as detours on the way to someplace more significant, and they can be highly entertaining, a waste of time, or just plain weird. Besides creating a more memorable road trip experience, roadside attractions provide a peek into the local flavor and mindset, bring exposure to differing perspectives, and present the chance to interact with people you would never come across otherwise. Here is a list of the types of roadside attractions that should make the cut on any comprehensive road trip itinerary.

INSIDER TIPFor the deepest dive, consider jumping off the interstate and taking local or back roads instead.

 

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PHOTO: Clay Gilliland(CC BY-SA 2.0)/WikimediaCommons
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Somewhere Haunted

Restless spirits have plenty of reasons to stalk the living, and regardless of personal beliefs in the validity of the afterlife, people out there are convinced they’ve seen these ghostly apparitions with their own eyes. No matter what your destination is, there’s bound to be someplace haunted along the way.

Sleep with a light on at Copper Queen Hotel located in the small, historic mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Not only is the Copper Queen Arizona’s oldest continuously operating hotel, but it is also believed to be inhabited by ghosts that perished during the hotel’s seedier past. It is said that a woman professed her love to a man who did not respond in kind, and apparently, that is good enough reason for her to torment everybody. She is occasionally spotted roaming the halls or dancing at the bottom of the stairs.

INSIDER TIPUtilize oddly placed light switches to freak out your travel companions!

 

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PHOTO: The Mothman Museum
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An Oddball Museum

Tons of tiny towns are scattered along the byways of the American landscape, and to an outsider, they are indistinguishable from one another–at least until the blessing of paranormal phenomena or an eccentric local with a penchant for collections manages to put their town on the map.

In Point Pleasant, WV, the Mothman Museum is a showcase to the unexplained Mothman encounter in the late 1960s and the 2002 thriller The Mothman Prophecies. Alongside news clippings and art inspired by the legend known as the Mothman, visitors can peruse memorabilia from the filming of the major motion picture, such as the cake stand that was used in the coffee shop scene featuring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. Outside the museum is an unmistakably shiny metal statue of the Mothman, red eyes aflame and ready for that selfie.

The Pencil Sharpener Museum in Ohio, comprised of one dedicated man’s collection of 3,479 pencil sharpeners, enlightens you to the fact that every object and cartoon character has been made into a pencil sharpener at some point.

Distortions in the energy field abound at the Montana Vortex and House of Mystery where the 45-minute guided tour will leave you with one eyebrow raised, wondering what is really going on here. It is perplexingly unclear as to how a person can seemingly shrink in size in front of your eyes, but alas, that is what appears to be happening and therein lies the mystery. Even if this place is a put-on, it sure is an impressive one. The supernatural doesn’t stop there—both Bigfoot and UFOs have been sighted nearby.

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PHOTO: Kenneth Sponsler/Shutterstock
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Something Unnecessarily Large

America likes big things. It comes as no surprise then that the obvious progression from horseshoe crab is an absurdly large horseshoe crab that you can walk around in. Found in Hillsboro, Ohio and known to admirers as “Crabby,” this larger-than-life crab can comfortably accommodate 60 people within its shell, making it the perfect location for an intimate nautical-themed wedding or a disturbing setting for a seafood buffet.

Not to be outdone by living creatures, inanimate objects are getting their moment in the spotlight too. The hand-woven gift basket craze that swept through Ohio in the late ’90s is one that we won’t soon forget, thanks to the incredible vision of the owner of the Longaberger Basket Company. When business was thriving, Longaberger constructed a brand new corporate headquarters, and that is how a seven-story building became an overwhelmingly large woven gift basket. Later, even more giant baskets were erected in nearby towns, bringing basket-enthusiasts from far and wide to bask in the glory of a giant apple basket, an Easter basket, and a picnic basket. At this time, the Longaberger basket building in Newark, Ohio remains the world’s largest.

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PHOTO: Jon Dawson(CC BY-ND 2.0)/Flickr
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Something out of Context

Each region in the US has its own particular culture and character, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few surprises here and there. 

Tucked away among the dense woods and hilly terrain of Appalachia is New Vrindaban, a tiny Hare Krishna community that inhabits 1,200 acres of West Virginia’s wild and wonderful woodlands. Founded in the late 1960s and built by a small community of devotees, New Vrindaban is home to the intricately designed Palace of Gold, situated at the top of the town and looking out over the surrounding Appalachian sprawl. The town and palace grounds attract religious pilgrims from all over the world, and since 2011, work has been underway to restore the crumbling building back to its former grandeur.

Along with religious shrines and a temple, there is a vegetarian restaurant, a rose garden, flocks of peacocks, manicured lawns and plants, and towering statues of worshipping women raising their arms toward the blindingly white light of the West Virginia sun.

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PHOTO: Christopher Rowland/Flickr
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Something Over-the-Top

In some instances, when a place inspires awe, it’s not because of its inherent magnificence—it’s because of sheer confusion as to why the heck it exists in the first place.

In 2003, a Kentucky man, affectionately called “Punky,” began building a tiny recreation of a small town that feels like you are stepping back into the mid-20th century. Known as “Punkyville,” the impetus to build the town was because Punky needed a place to display the items he had collected over the course of his life. Each building is its own museum, filled with a combination of interesting antiques, retro signage, historical artifacts, novelty items, and photographs. And of course, junk. The items are organized where they belong—old guns and typewriters are in the jailhouse and household goods and foodstuffs from 50 years ago are in the general store. There is also a bank, hotel, church, post office, water tower, and train caboose. If Punky is in town, he is happy to share the stories of his collection with visitors, and in his memory, he has filed away where he got what and when. It is a great opportunity to reflect back to that simpler time when you didn’t exist.

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A 'Famous' Food

Eateries that make bold or absolute claims about their food should pique the interest of any intrepid road-tripper. It is useful to remember that small-town America’s cuisine tends to demote the importance of healthful ingredients, high quality, and thoughtful presentation. Rather, it is focused on novelty, extravagant combinations, or a compelling narrative, often inspired by local history, a larger-than-life personality, or a local crop that instills pride in the community.

Set along the banks of the Ohio River in almost the middle of nowhere, Hillbilly Hot Dogs is run by a husband and wife team whose newlywed excitement has not yet abated—they have renewed their vows 30 times in the past 20 years, and there is a wedding chapel on-site at the restaurant for others to do the same. Patrons dive into designer weenies like the taco dog or the deep-fried dog with chili sauce, gobbling their grub at sunny picnic tables or inside graffitied school buses that have had seats removed to accommodate diners. Not to miss out on the lure of quantity, the Homewrecker is a 15-inch dog with 12 different toppings, and if you beat the record for how fast you can eat it, the dog is free!

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PHOTO: Roseohioresident(CC BY-SA 4.0)/WikimediaCommons
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Something to Spot

The tedium of the open road can wear on many travelers, so the game of spotting a recurring theme helps keep the eyes peeled, open and on the road.

Back in the early 20th century, it was common for companies to rent space from farmers on the sides of barns to place advertisements. Tobacco companies such as Mail Pouch Tobacco painted their logos barn-side for all to see, curiously forgetting to include that smoking is a bad choice. At the height of the campaign’s popularity, there were over 20,000 Mail Pouch barns scattered across 22 states. Few of these adverts remain today, but since their designation as historic landmarks, many have been rejuvenated and maintained, thanks to nostalgic farmers and avid smokers.

During the ’60s and ’70s, when road trips were starting to become fashionable and Route 66 was handing out kicks, towering fiberglass figures known as Muffler Men sprouted up along the highways, commanding attention from passers-by and flagging down drivers to stop and spend their money.

Paul Bunyan was the original Muffler Man, and although the identities changed, many aspects of the original remained. Muffler Men are all manly men, strong and muscular, exuding all of the masculine energy a cartoonish man statue can muster. Popular iterations included the namesake Muffler man, a clean-cut fellow who could be found outside of auto repair shops holding a muffler, cowboys holding guns, depictions of Native American men that embodied outdated stereotypes, golfers holding clubs, lumberjacks holding axes, and regular dudes cradling hot dogs. Although many of these Muffler Men have been taken down or have fallen into disrepair, plenty are still looming large in the streets, and remain a strong example Americana at its finest.

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PHOTO: Danita Delmont/Shutterstock
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A Historical Place

Making a point to stop at a historical site will not only enrich your road trip experience, but it will go a long way in creating some context for the landscape that is running past your window.

Modern American history may not go back that far, but Native American history sure does. There are many sacred grounds and ancient sites that can still be visited today, although there is, unfortunately, a lot we do not understand. The Serpent Mounds, a National Historic Landmark in Ohio, are Native American effigy mounds. Built by mound-building tribes, these earthworks represent the shape of an animal–in this case, a slithering serpent.

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PHOTO: C. G. P. Grey(CC BY 2.5)/WikimediaCommons
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A Live Performance

Take a seat in the stands or lay out a blanket in the grass, because people across the country are putting on a show. A live performance, whether it’s theater, music, or a sporting event, brings a little bit of excitement and reverie to any long-haul car trip.

The Rodeo Capital of the World is in Cody, Wyoming, and every night of the week, visitors can stomp on into the arena and get a dose of rodeo—cowboys wrastlin’ steers, clowns skittering across the mud, and the fired-up crowd that’s cheering them on, light beers in hand.

In Tombstone, Arizona, witness a gunfight reenactment starring infamous Wild West boys Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and friends shooting it out at the OK Corral. Before and after the performance, the actors remain solidly in character and can be seen walking in formation down the street looking exceptionally intimidating.

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PHOTO: Sreenath Kottapuzhackal / AOT
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A Natural Wonder

Interstate driving is efficient but has a tendency to bypass a lot of top-notch nature. Plan a detour to experience waterfalls, hot springs, caves, scenic views, or national parks. No matter where you are in the Western US, you are likely not far from stunning scenery. A particularly breathtaking and surprisingly convenient pit stop is Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona. A short walk from the parking lot reveals a spectacular scene—the Colorado River cutting a perfectly-curved canyon through deep red rock.

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PHOTO: Kitchen Kettle Village
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A Local Market

Every place has its own local specialties and treats that can’t be found anywhere else. Whether it’s a flea market, a farmers market, a small local grocer, an old-timey general store, there is likely to be something unique and delicious. 

In North Carolina, stop at the farmers’ market for chow or pick up fresh cheese and mustard in Pennsylvania Amish country at Kitchen Kettle Village in Lancaster.

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PHOTO: Minnesota State Fair
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Something Festive

During the summer months, it’s easy to stumble upon local festivities, usually with a focus on food. Eat waffle wraps and watch farm animals compete for prizes at the Minnesota State Fair, eat your fill at the Nugget Rib Cook-Off in Sparks, Nevada, or enjoy the sweet scent of green chiles roasting at the Hatch Chile Festival in New Mexico.

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PHOTO: Jeff Kubina(CC BY-SA 2.0)/WikimediaCommons
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A Last-Minute Motel

A proper freewheeling road trip is driven by spontaneity, but booking a last-minute motel room can be daunting. The US is not known for that stellar combination of cheap yet workable motels, especially the ones far out at the end of nowhere, and often times, you are paying a mint for depressing digs. The unpredictable nature of road trips will likely land you in one of these seedy motels at some point, so when selecting between a variety of duds, use your best judgment.

Preferable last-minute hotels should be reasonably priced, clean, and safe. If you manage to find all of that plus charm or style then you, my friend, have hit the jackpot. One such exceptional find is the Jean Bonnett Tavern, a welcome respite in the middle of Pennsylvania farm country, offering cozy rooms, a delightful restaurant, and maybe a ghost or two walking the halls.

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PHOTO: Silent O/Shutterstock
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Something Active

Sitting in a car for days can have the legs cramping and the back spasming, so getting some fresh air and physical activity is crucial. Take a kayak tour through South Carolina swampland to spot gators. In this terrain, it is not necessary to be an avid kayaker–the swamp is an easy place to paddle around, since the water is very still (yet filled with alligators).

Head far above ground level to explore those clear, spacious Western skies. Kitt Peak Observatory near Tuscon, Arizona offers nightly tours guided by one of their brilliant resident astronomers. Learn how to locate the space station as it glides overhead or look through high-powered telescopes to see faraway objects with your own eyeball.

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PHOTO: Cbaile19(CC0 1.0)/WikimediaCommons
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An Old School Diner

The diner is the lifeblood of any small town, and sometimes it’s the only place around to sit down for a meal, especially at odd hours. Finding the diner is easy—head to Main Street, and there it is. All diners worth their salt have the same basic features. There is the counter where the regulars sit every day in the same seats, at least one employee who has worked there for over 20 years who calls everyone “hun,” homemade pies displayed in a glass case, a milkshake machine, and king-size red plastic cups fizzing with drinks from the fountain. For the classic ’50s style concept, try the Summit Diner in Somerset, PA.

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PHOTO: Photo by Paul Kramer on Unsplash
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A Dive Bar

Walking into a dive bar in a small, unfamiliar town does have the potential to be awkward. It is the local watering hole where everybody knows everyone else, and enough off-kilter folks have passed through to make the regulars wary of strangers. If it seems like a laidback place and you are being a laidback person, everything should work out fine. Play the jukebox, order beers from the bottle, and tip the bartender well.

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PHOTO: Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash
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A Tourist Trap

A tourist trap is an unsavory place where patronage can be attributed primarily to the sentiment “I’m here, might as well.” Deeply unsatisfying to the point of infuriating, a tourist trap has no redeeming qualities besides the ability to say you went there in order to protect yourself from the disdain of decidedly uncreative people who will whine with disapproval, “You went all the way there and didn’t even see it!?”

One of (if not the) the most prominent of these traps has to be Mount Rushmore, which is an overpriced opportunity to stare at a distant yet overwhelmingly familiar line up of questionable men nestled within a soulless, traffic-snarled town where parking is expensive and it is easier to buy a keychain than a cup of coffee.

There are times when the allure of the tourist trap can be impossible to resist. A useful approach is to plan to visit some places nearby so you can offset any disappointment. If you must visit Mount Rushmore, be sure to also check out the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial. Similar to Mount Rushmore, it is a face carved into a mountain, but in this case, the face is one of a Lakota Sioux warrior.

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PHOTO: Mississippi Development Authority
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American Folklore

Infuse a little myth and magic into your road trip by visiting sites that tell a story about American culture and history. Deep in the Mississippi River Delta is the small but lively town of Clarksdale, where Robert Johnson, known as one of the greatest blues performers of all time, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in order to get a leg up on his guitar playing. The concept of the crossroads is one that is not only revisited in countless blues tunes, but goes back much farther than that. According to folklore from around the world, the crossroads is the place where our world collides with the supernatural.

The crossroads in Clarksdale are well-known and are located at the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 49. Stay in town to learn the history of blues and how it influenced prominent musicians at the Delta Blues Museum. Exceptional blues musicians travel from all over to play in Clarksdale, so find out what they are down and out about at Ground Zero Blues Club.