While Disney World and the beach are fine vacations for some, I still prefer the great American roadtrip with all its quirky, unplanned side stops along the way. Click below for an interactive map version of the article, or read on to find out more on these classic roadside stops.
1. House on the Rock
5754 Hwy 23, Spring Green, WI
The Wisconsin Dells area is full of tourist traps, with an unusually high number of water parks for an area with cold winters and enough cheese shops to satisfy an army of hungry mice. But an hour outside of the main part of the Dells in Spring Green, WI, is The House on the Rock, a monument to a disgruntled architect and the crazy collections held inside its walls.
After being told by Frank Lloyd Wright he wasn't fit to "design a cheese crate or a chicken coop," Alex Jordan, Sr., vowed to "put up a Japanese house on one of those pinnacle rocks" to show Wright what he thought of his opinion. His son, Alex, Jr., started construction in 1945; by 1961, the house had already become a must-see attraction in the Midwest.
Nowadays, the focus is not so much about the house as the contents held within it, and the rest of the additions that have been made to the house since it first opened. Starting in 1968, the house began to display the unusual collections of Jordan, which grew from one room in the house to the whole complex, which was sold to a family friend in 1988. The museum now contains massive collections of dolls, a giant carousel, a 200-ft. model of a whale, and the Infinity Room, a window-filled room which juts out 218 feet from the rock without supports, providing spectacular views of the Wisconsin countryside around it. The collection continues to grow, and the tour of the entire facility takes over 4 hours. [Earlier this year, Stacy Conradt paid the House on a Rock a visit. Check out her Armchair Field Trip.]
2. Wall Drug
Another long-standing Midwest tourist stop, Wall Drug is famous for the ubiquitous wooden signs advertising its free ice water and the many different attractions that have made it more than just an average shopping mall. Ted Hustead, a pharmacist from Nebraska, started Wall Drug as a drugstore, and the small store experienced low business until Ted's wife suggested advertising free ice water outside of town. After the first sign advertising the water was placed, visitors started increasing, and they've been busy ever since.
The crazy attractions didn't start, however, until Ted's son, Bill Hustead, took over the family business. Embarrassed since high school that all the ads were for a "small town store," Bill set out to make things interesting. Wall Drug now features a giant Apatosaurus visible from the highway, a fiberglass jackalope, a miniature Mount Rushmore, numerous animatronic creatures and bands, a pharmacy museum with a replica of the original Wall Drug, and numerous other attractions that have expanded Wall Drug from a small store to a complex spanning a couple city blocks that employs a third of the town of Wall, SD.
3. The Thing?
This is what I think of when I picture a tourist trap--a place in the middle of nowhere, promising something you can't see anywhere else. 'The Thing?' has been showing visitors "The Mystery of the Desert" since 1950, and has remained in its current location just outside of X since 1965. The main building is your standard roadside "trading post" that sells jewelry and moccasins, but for a dollar's admission, you get to not only see The Thing?, but all that leads up to it. Three long, open-ended steel sheds are filled with a variety of odd displays and artifacts, and The Thing? awaits you at the third shed. It wouldn't be a tourist trap without a gift shop full of everything from Thing? t-shirts to Thing? bottled water. Whether The Thing? really contains a desert mystery or just a bunch of oddly-arranged junk is up to those to visit, but it still remains an interesting stop along the road.
4. Coral Castle
An unusual monument to unrequited love, this "castle" of sorts also serves as a mystery of how it was created. Jilted by his bride at the altar, Ed Leedskalnin began to build something he thought would impress her. How an open-air compound with rock tables, chairs, and beds built over 20 years was supposed to woo her back to him is anyone's guess, but the mystery that remains to this day is this: how Ed was able to move the 2.2 million pounds of coral rock required when he was only around 100 pounds? Ed was as reclusive as he was creative, and reportedly worked only at night by lantern. He died in 1951, and since 1953, the castle has withstood hurricanes and other disasters.
5. Cadillac Ranch
America seems to have no shortage of unusual stonehenge replicas, made of everything from limestone to refrigerators (perhaps that's another article--anyone interested in learning more?), but the Cadillac Ranch in Texas is a monument of a different sort. Ten Cadillacs are buried nose-first, facing in the direction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The cars were installed as an art installation in 1974, and remained there until the growth of the nearby city forced the installation to move two miles down the road to its current location. The cars showcase the evolution of the Cadillac's design, with both the birth and the death of the car's signature tail fin represented in the lineup. As the original color of the cars have faded, graffiti has been added, and even encouraged by the original group.
The cars also have inspired various movies and songs. The Pixar film Cars featured rock formations shaped like the standing cars, and the film's main setting, Radiator Springs, was set just outside of an area marked "Cadillac Range" on the map. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song titled "Cadillac Ranch" on his 1980 album The River. Clearly these cars are more than creatively-arranged junkers.
Interested in checking these landmarks out, but worried by high gas prices? There's sure to be one closer to your area listed at RoadsideAmerica, an internet directory of touristy landmarks past and present.
Ben Smith is a former mental_floss intern. He currently attends the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.