Next Exit! America's Most Epic Roadside Attractions
With all due respect to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, one-off stunts like that have been left off this roundup of the most epic roadside attractions in the United States. Instead, we’ve sought out those seemingly boundless highway diversions that encompass numerous sights and services at one sprawling complex—the types of places that have not only a multistory statue of some beast or historical figure towering over a filling station, but also maybe a petting zoo over here, an alien conspiracy museum over there, and almost certainly at least one dinosaur sculpture somewhere on the premises. Try checking behind the souvenir store.
These phantasmagorias off the interstate stand as exemplars of small-town entrepreneurship and the effectiveness of persistent billboard advertising. They also demonstrate the heartland’s enduring, though often overlooked, capacity to get weird. (And sometimes such sites showcase the country’s worst characteristics, as at South Carolina’s South of the Border, a fiesta of patronizing Mexican stereotypes we’ve decided to drive past without stopping.)
When you’re on a long road trip and in need of a pit stop, these are some of the USA’s strangest, most astonishing, most delightfully cheesy places to stretch your legs, empty your bladder, and fill your head with questions.
Pictured above: the obligatory dinosaur statue at Wall Drug Store in South Dakota
A pharmacy near Badlands National Park in western South Dakota turned its middle-of-nowhere location into an asset during the Great Depression. At scores of locations across hundreds of miles, Wall Drug’s owners began installing hand-painted signs advertising free ice water. Thanks to those relentless billboards and a lack of competition, Wall Drug has grown over the decades into America’s preeminent roadside attraction—a vast hub of kitsch and commerce where motorists taking a break from Interstate 90 can shop for Western wear, dine on buffalo burgers and homemade donuts, behold a roaring T. rex, pray in a chapel, get a prescription filled, and snap a selfie from the back of a giant jackalope. We’d say that pretty much covers every aspect of the American experience. Plus, the water’s still free.
Rock City on Lookout Mountain in northern Georgia (about 6 miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee) is another Depression-era advertising success story. Starting in the 1930s, husband-and-wife founders Garnet and Frieda Carter paid for “See Rock City” to be painted on the sides of hundreds of barns across the South and Midwest. Over the years, that vague directive has brought in millions of visitors to the site, underselling what is in fact a fever dream populated with garden-dwelling gnomes, black light–illumined fairy tale characters grinning from cavern walls, and nursery rhyme dioramas in psychedelic neon. The site’s Enchanted Trail leads through Frieda’s surreal storybook vision (some of it left over from when this was the world’s first mini golf course) as well as genuinely impressive natural scenery involving rock formations, caves, and clifftop views that supposedly take in seven states.
Far more than a place to fill up on gas and Slim Jims, the world’s largest truck stop occupies more than 200 acres off Interstate 80’s exit 284 in Walcott, Iowa. At this 18-wheeler’s Shangri-La, you’ll find not only restaurants (with sit-down as well as fast food service) and stores selling snacks and souvenirs, but also a barber shop, chiropractor, dental office, pet-washing station, laundromat, and movie theater. Some small towns have fewer amenities. (Fair warning: Some businesses may not be open when you visit, so don't pin all your hopes on getting a truck stop spinal adjustment.) At the free-admission trucking museum onsite, you can learn all about the history of interstate commercial transport and check out several generations’ worth of antique vehicles, from delivery vans to big rigs.
When it comes to noteworthy signs of human habitation in caves, surely a deep fat fryer built into stone ranks up there in significance with the prehistoric wall scribblings at Lascaux. The sandstone fryer is a stop on the tour inside Hole n” the Rock, a 5,000-square-foot, 14-room home carved into a huge cliff face along Highway 191 in Moab, Utah, between Canyonlands and Arches national parks. Husband-and-wife Albert and Gladys Christensen excavated the place in the 1940s. They lived among sturdy pillars, built-in rock shelving, Albert’s taxidermy efforts, Gladys’s doll collection, and a fireplace with a chimney that stretches 65 feet to reach daylight. Uninhabited since the 1970s, the Hole is now open to visitors, who can see the chambers (for a small admission fee) frozen in their mid-century, natural-light-free glory. Also onsite: a petting zoo, a collection of metal sculptures, and lots of Southwestern souvenirs for sale.
Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody lived in North Platte, Nebraska, for a big chunk of his life. Among the sites in town commemorating that chapter are his preserved homestead—now part of a state historical park—and, just off I-80, a 30-foot-tall cutout of Buffalo Bill standing like a giant paper doll in front of a souvenir store designed to resemble an old-timey frontier outpost. Behind the stockade, Fort Cody sells all manner of western goods: cowboy hats, boots, moccasins, Native American jewelry, plush bison, and so on. In the back, there’s a free museum showcasing memorabilia, a stuffed two-headed calf, and the pièce de résistance, a miniature replica of Buffalo Bill’s famous traveling show that has 20,000 wooden pieces. Every bucking bronco and eagle-eyed sharpshooter in the display was carved by hand.
Like a pre-internet version of clickbait, a parade of billboards mercilessly manipulates road trippers’ curiosity on an otherwise uneventful segment of Interstate 10 between El Paso, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona. The eye-catching yellow signs tout “The Thing” without defining it, except as the “Mystery of the Desert.” Housed for decades behind Plexiglas in a dusty shed next to a filling station at exit 322 east of Benson, Arizona, the titular attraction got upgraded digs in 2018. For a small entrance fee, visitors work their way through a charmingly bonkers museum that uses dioramas (including the one pictured above), questionable historical artifacts, and some all-American paranoid conjecture to build a case for aliens as the root cause of the dinosaurs’ extinction, JFK’s assassination, and everything else that has ever happened—a tale that culminates, of course, in the revelation of the long-awaited Thing. And if you think we’re going to give away what, exactly, this crumbling sideshow relic actually is, you’ve got another Thing coming. Adjoining the museum are a Shell station, a gift-and-fireworks shop, and a Dairy Queen.
The Bavarian-flavored town of Frankenmuth, Michigan (accessible from Interstate 75), takes a supersized approach to re-creating Germany’s beloved Christmas markets. Established in 1945, the Bronner family’s year-round Christmas store covers more than 2 acres and is stuffed to the rafters with ornaments, trees, lights, and Nativity scenes. Outside, the grounds are decorated with three 17-foot-tall Santas, a 15-foot-tall snowman, and a light display every evening. A small chapel at the southern end of the 27-acre complex is a replica of the church in Austria where “Silent Night” was first sung. Signage throughout Bronner’s proclaims the store motto: “Enjoy CHRISTmas, it's HIS Birthday; Enjoy LIFE, it's HIS Way.” In other words, don’t you dare say “happy holidays.”
The youngest attraction on this list can be found on the storied Route 66 in Arcadia, Oklahoma, north of Oklahoma City as you head to Tulsa. Pops—a restaurant, gas station, and “soda ranch”—opened in 2007 in a sleek, glass-and-steel building with a futuristic cantilever roof and a 66-foot-tall pop bottle statue ringed with LEDs that light up and change colors at night. Inside Pops, the café serves burgers and shakes, and floor-to-ceiling shelves display 700 different kinds of soda, grouped by color rather than brand and backlit by slanting windows. Some have compared the effect to that of stained glass (if only the builders of Europe’s cathedrals had access to fizz and food dye). You can select sugary beverages to buy from the multihued wall or enormous fridge; options range from old standbys like root beer and ginger ale to bolder carbonated experiments in flavors such as peanut butter, ranch dressing, and fresh-cut grass. The truly brave can pop open a bottle of something called Gross Gus Dinosaur Dung.
Motorists who develop cravings for meatloaf or postwar pop culture during the desert drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas are in luck when they pull into Yermo, California, right on Interstate 15. At Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner, waitstaff in retro pink-and-blue uniforms serve stick-to-your-ribs comfort fare amid a big collection of movie posters, rock-and-roll mementos, old costumes, statues, and dead-eyed mannequins representing Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, and other stars of the Eisenhower years. Icons from an even earlier age are stationed out back (with the duck ponds) in the Diner-saur Park, home to a cluster of 10-foot-tall metal reptiles that you can see for free. King Kong is there, too. We know he’s not a dinosaur. Just go with it.