The classic road trip is one of America’s quintessential summer activities. It calls for curated music, a well-stocked snack supply, and of course, ample stops at the wacky roadside attractions that decorate our nation's highways. No summer road trip would be complete without a visit to these intriguing—and in some cases, downright odd—places that are just an interstate exit away.
Where to see it: Alliance, Nebraska
Who needs a trip to the U.K. to see Stonehenge when Alliance, Nebraska, has something even better? This wacky monument is an homage to vintage American vehicles, all painted gray to look like the stones of the famous ancient site. The artist, Jim Reinders, enjoys experimenting with unusual and interesting concepts within his art installations. He wanted to copy Stonehenge after living in England for some time, and with that, Carhenge was born. Using 39 vehicles that assume the same proportions of Stonehenge, Carhenge is approximately 96 feet wide. Located off Highway 87, Carhenge attracts plenty of summer tourists each year. There is a gift shop in case you want a commemorative magnet or postcard to mark your visit to this wacky roadside attraction.
The Tree of Utah
Where to see it: Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah
Created by Swedish artist Karl Momen in the 1980s, you can find this large-scale art installation in the Great Salt Lake Desert of Utah, just off Interstate 80. About 25 miles north of the town of Wendover and halfway between the now abandoned railroad communities of Arinosa and Varro, the artists created the sculpture as an ode to life. The Tree of Utah is over 80 feet tall and can withstand desert winds up to 130 mph, tornados, or earthquakes. It is one of the most resilient art structures in the world.
Local highway patrol estimates that 2 million cars travel past the Tree of Utah annually. On average, five cars an hour stop to gaze at Momen’s construction and ponder the meaning of life. The Tree of Utah is made mainly of concrete but has six spheres coated with natural rock and minerals native to Utah. It’s said that Momen had a vision of it while driving across the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Where to see it: Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah
If you are up near Wendover, Utah, it’s worth the trip to head over to Nancy Holt’s tunnel art installation as well. These four large concrete tubes, completed in 1986, form an open-X shape on the dried Great Salt Lake bed. The 18-foot long concrete tunnels are tall enough that you will not need to duck when you go inside. These tunnels have holes of varying sizes drilled into them that replicate constellations and allow visitors to gaze at the heavens.
Holt’s focus on the changing degrees of light show different shadow forms inside the tunnels. This enables visitors to “bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale.” During the summer and winter solstices, check out the sunset on the horizon, centered through the tunnels. Holt’s work is considered one of the most defining installations of “land-art” and has largely defined her career.
Where to see it: Southwestern North Dakota
A collection of large art installations dot the landscape of North Dakota, making the Enchanted Highway an ideal roadside attraction to add to your list. This stretch of highway features metal sculptures of local prairie animals. There are also nods to the local indigenous culture and history of the region. Visitors to this wacky roadside attraction can even enjoy an entire collection featuring Teddy Roosevelt, which has a horse-drawn carriage. Alternatively, check out the World’s Largest Tin Family made completely from empty oil drums. Head over to Highway 94 at Gladstone and enjoy over 30 miles of very unusual art.
Where to see it: Southern California
This unusual roadside attraction is in the remote desert of Southern California and located less than 100 miles from Palm Springs. Salvation Mountain is the life’s work of local resident Leonard Knight. Knight wanted to illustrate his love and devotion to his faith and wanted to make sure the world could see it. Murals, messages, and imagery that depict Christian Bible verses cover the mountain in colorful paint. Make sure you avoid visiting Salvation Mountain in the summertime, as temperatures in the region can exceed 100F. This attraction took Knight almost three decades to complete and has used over half a million gallons of paint.
With more than 4 million miles of roads and highways that crisscross the country, you are sure to be within driving distance of these quirky and unusual roadside attractions. So the next time you’re feeling a little worn or need something extraordinary to spark your imagination, stop by for a visit.