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Finding Quirky Roadside Attractions Across America

Hello, all!  Colin here, from Dare To Everywhere. As a couple, my girlfriend and I are on a mission to see the world.  We focus specifically on America’s National Parks while we travel. We’ve visited 20 National Parks so far, and have been to many more of the other types of NPS sites.  My most recent road trip, however, was a little different:  This time I was focused on finding quirky roadside attractions!

The author Colin and his wife from Dare to Everywhere swimming & snorkeling

I was heading out alone and meeting a friend. He completed a training program in Salt Lake City, and I drove from Detroit to meet him. I bypassed all NPS sites, to save them for us to visit together. I always plan our road trips around the National Parks, so I needed to find new ways to keep me entertained.  Something that would break up the long hauls of the drive.

I planned on dispersed camping for 3 nights before arriving in Salt Lake City. Once he joined me on the road, we knew we wanted to take our time coming home.  We would take a different route than I took on the way out west. So as I began planning my trip, I had to do some adjusting and extra research. Here’s what I came up with…

How to Find Roadside Attractions on a Road Trip

First things first – I always pull up Google Maps and enter my stating location and destination. From there, I compare the different routes and cities that I might want to see. Once I have a preliminary route, I start to look for lodging. For this trip, since I was focused on free camping, I used both The Dyrt and Campendium apps. These apps show camping all across the country, and you are able to filter it by price and type of equipment. These was a huge resource when planning where I would sleep.

Next, I traded in the National Park Service site for RoadsideAmerica.com.  Once I have a general plan based on my camping locations, I plug each campsite into Google Maps.  Normally I compare NPS sites for each state that I’d be traveling through.  This time, however, I pulled up Roadside America to compare side-by-side. Through this site, I was able to select a state, zoom to my route and then decide on which pins (attractions) were interesting to me.

There were a surprising number of quirky stops along my fairly desolate route. I chose things that were closest and narrowed down a more specific list from there. With NPS sites, I’m willing to detour further away.  There are a lot fewer National Parks, and our goal is to visit them all, so we don’t mind going out of our way. For this trip, however, I was focused on a straight shot.  Roadside America was a great resource for finding interesting places all along the way!

Finding Quirky Roadside Attractions

My goal was to make it to Des Moines, Iowa the first night. I then planned on staying just past Cheyenne, Wyoming, with my final solo night in the mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah. My first day of travel got off to a very rough start, with some issues picking up my rental car. I wanted to pick it up the night before so that I could wake up early and be off, but no places near me were open on Sundays. I had to wait until 8AM to pickup, but with all the paperwork, I didn’t hit the road until 10:30. I was discouraged, but couldn’t wait to get rolling.

Aside from the obstacles I faced, I knew day one would be the least exciting of the trip. I had a few small stops on the way to Iowa, but really couldn’t wait to get through Illinois and head straight west. Gary, Indiana houses the birth home of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. It looked like this would be a fun drive-by, but there happened to be a bunch of street construction and the corner lot was surrounded by one-ways and a dead end. I chalked it up as a loss and moved on to stop number 2.

Day One – Cultural Icons in Iowa

Fans of A Christmas Story can find a tribute to the classic ‘Triple Dog Dare’ scene at a visitor center in Hammond, Indiana. Although the movie was filmed in Cleveland, Ohio (and you can tour the restored home it was filmed in), Hammond is the town where the events actually took place. It’s nothing too exciting, just a small, bronze statue with Flick’s tongue stuck to a pole, but it doubled as a bathroom break and is a fun photo-op.

Christmas Story Flagpole statue Iowa
I TRIPLE dog dare you!

Apart from my strong desire to travel, craft beer is also a huge hobby of mine. It works out well, because I work-in visits to different breweries across the country while I’m traveling. When road-tripping, I tend to pack breakfast, lunch and snacks to keep me moving throughout the day. However, I like to have one good meal to end the day, wherever that may be. This is where I typically research breweries that also serve food. So as I took off from Hammond, I was headed toward Third Base Brewing in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

As I left dinner for my campsite in Iowa Falls, it clicked that I was going out of my way. This route was about an hour and a half north, and then back south in the morning, before I continued west. I decided to pull off the highway and find a new dispersed site. Already behind schedule, I knew I would be getting in late, but I also wanted to save the time in the morning. I found a county park nearby in Swan, Iowa.

The sun was already set as I was making my way around to the entrance and it was pretty dark. I pulled in and the information board said “No Camping”. I was confused and frazzled, because at this point, I was in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and I just wanted to sleep. I called my better half to see if she could help lookup somewhere nearby and while she was doing that, I pulled up the county site again. I just wanted to confirm for myself, that it did in-fact say 10 campsites. It absolutely did and I decided to turn back around and take the dirt road further into the park. I came out the other end to a second info board and a “Site 5” stake. *Exhales*. I made it.

Tent under night sky at Iowa Falls campsite

I wasn’t a huge fan of setting up in complete darkness, with all the nature sounds surrounding me, but I pitched the tent and passed out. Day 1 was a rocky start, but I knew it would only get better from here.

Day Two:  Driving Across the Fly-Over States

Downtown Des Moines features the ‘Landmark Bridge’ with a glass bottom. Sort of. It was a beautiful bridge and walk across, however the “glass bottom” was blocked off. I thought, “Uh oh, is day two going to follow in day one’s footprints”? It was really nice out and it was cool to see the downtown area, so I wasn’t too bummed out. My next stop – ‘Cemetery in a Traffic Circle’. It’s essentially an old, 19 headstone cemetery dating back to 1847, in a roundabout. Apparently, cars keep crashing into it and in 2019, the road was moved away from the cemetery. Now sitting southwest from the intersection, construction kept me away from this quirky site once again. Day two and I’m 0 for 2.

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I’ve always been a huge fan of movies and cinema, and the older I got, the more interested I became in westerns and the Wild West. When I came across a ‘Monument to the First Train Robbery in the West’, I was ecstatic to add this to my route. A very short drive off of the highway, I pulled in to find nothing. I was apparently sitting in Jesse James Historical Park, but it seemed to be gone. I later realized that Apple Maps sent me to the wrong location, and that I turned the wrong way off the highway. 0 for 3.

At this point, I was frustrated and sick of driving around to dead ends. So, while I was driving the back roads of Brayton, Iowa, I’ve never been so excited to see a tree. After winding through a couple miles of farm roads, I pulled up to ‘Tree in the Middle of the Road’.

A full size tree grows in the middle of a dirt road in rural Iowa

Kind of what I expected to see from ‘Cemetery in a Traffic Circle’, this giant tree sits in the middle of a 4-way intersection. It was honestly pretty interesting. Not that there is much traffic back in those roads, but the fact that they made the road and just left the tree, is pretty cool!

Close up shot of a large tree growing in the middle of a dirt road in rural Iowa

I was relieved to finally have enjoyed one of my stops, poured some more coffee, and kicked up some dirt! It was time to get out of Iowa and onto Nebraska. This was going to be a long haul. I had two quick stops along the 450+ mile trek through the corn. First up, ‘15ft tall Fork with Pasta’. A nod to the heritage of Little Italy of Omaha, the statue’s actual name is “Stile di Famigia”. Meaning “Family Style”, this pasta dish could feed the entire neighborhood!

A giant metal fork twists up oversized pasta in this Omaha statue

Along an alternative route of I-80, you can visit the ‘Lighthouse in Landlocked Nebraska’, between Omaha and Lincoln on U.S. 6. There is a small lake, but no large ships or need for a lighthouse at this unique spot. Built in the 30’s, a gas station used to operate out of the base and the novelty tower was added a year later.

Lighthouse in Linoma Nebraska

With an almost 7 hour drive and a time change ahead of me, I was quickly en route to dinner and brewery number two! Accomplice Beer Company in Cheyenne was my first stop in Wyoming. It looked like a fun town to explore, but after arriving so late to camp the night before, I was trying to stay far ahead of the sunset.

Not far from Cheyenne, is ‘Tiny Buford: Population 1’. The smallest zip code in the nation sits just off of I-80 on the way to Laramie.

Buford Wyoming sign population 1

My last stop before calling it a night was literally in the middle of the highway – ‘Tree in the Rock’. When Union Pacific railroad men found this unusual site, they actually laid the tracks further south, as to go around this interesting feat. A fence has since been erected to protect the tree and the wayside rest area makes it very easy to stop and see.

A large tree grows in a rock in Wyoming

My dispersed camping site for the night was the first spot I found when I began to plan this trip, and I was very much looking forward to it. Within Medicine Bow National Forest is Vedauwoo Recreation Area. There is a first-come, first-serve campground and then the pavement ends. Taking the dirt road leads you to plenty of dispersed campsites and even some group sites. The main road is quite bumpy, but the side roads are a little more smooth, although they have bigger potholes. I took the turn toward the E sites and found site E2 to be perfect!

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I was able to setup and start a fire all before the sun went down. It was a much-needed relaxing evening, along with some pretty awesome views!

Entrance sign to Vedauwoo National Recreation Area

Day Three:  A Quick Drive to Utah

The next morning, I took my time getting around. I had the shortest drive yet, and was in no rush to get back behind the wheel. I knew that I would be camping along UT-150 within the Uinta-Wasatch National Forest, I just didn’t have an exact location nailed down yet. I only had two small stops on the way to Utah and was excited to have a more relaxing day.

In downtown Laramie, there is a statue of Louisa Ann Swain. Louisa was the first woman to vote in the United States…decades before women were given the right to vote. I didn’t realize that the statue was part of a museum, so I had to snag a pic through the fence. It was good to see that Louisa was staying safe by being masked up!

The Louisa Ann Swain statue in Laramie Wyoming wears a mask

My last stop in Wyoming was another quickie – the ‘Car With Two Front Ends’. This 1950’s Cadillac is “always moving ahead”!

A white Cadillac car with two front ends and no trunk sits under a Perkins gas station sign

I had almost a 4 hour drive from here to the start of Route 150 in Utah. This was a quick stop, so I took the time to figure out my “real meal” spot for the day. Rock Springs, Wyoming had a couple breweries to choose from, so I plugged it into the GPS and hit the road!

I fueled up with a sandwich and a cold one, and then had a short drive to the Utah state line. I researched a couple areas along 150 that had decent dispersed sites, but ended up choosing a spot that was about 28 miles down the route. I randomly turned off the main road onto 464 and found a great spot in the woods!

Distant Utah mountains loom over a two lane back road under blue skies

Although I could see and even hear neighbors at times, it was completely private. I was really starting to love this whole dispersed camping thing. I was once again able to setup at a decent time and had a fire going and beer cracked before the sun came down. I was even lucky enough to have a neighbor sing and play some songs. It was a beautiful evening with tons of stars and one of the most silent places I have ever been.

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When I woke up, it was finally Thursday! My buddy would be done around 10am and I had a 2 hour drive down into the city. I loaded up, grabbed a Pop-Tart, and was on my way…the wrong way. I had lost service the moment I entered Utah and couldn’t plug Salt Lake into my phone. I went about 5 miles the way I came from the previous day, before realizing that things looked familiar. I got back on track and eventually made my way down the mountain.

Distant mountains and lake rest under a brilliant blue sky

I picked him up from the hotel, we grabbed lunch and I was excited to start the second part of this adventure! We hit some breweries, met another friend for dinner and I was able to sleep in a real bed, thanks to our Airbnb.

Roadside attractions in Utah

We only planned for one night in the city before heading south. After that, we didn’t have much of an itinerary. We had previoulsy talked about Moab and Lake Powell, and just headed that way. We made it to Moab in the afternoon, and I was excited to show him some of my favorite parts of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. After a fill-up at Moab Brewery, we pitched our tent. We decided on Horsethief Campground near Canyonlands, instead of the free camping that we found on our way in.

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At lunch, we planned the rest of our afternoon. We decided on a night hike to Delicate Arch to end the day. We arrived at the parking lot just as the sun set and pretty much did the entire hike in the dark. Once we made it to the arch, we were lucky enough to take in comet NEOWISE! The stars were stunning and we could see the Milky Way, but the comet was pretty spectacular.

I’m no professional photographer, so the pictures below are the best I have to show for our trek to Delicate and the comet. We hung out at the arch for quite awhile before making our way down sometime after midnight. It was an incredible experience and the excitement continued when we returned to our campsite. The Big Dipper was sitting just above our tent!

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As quick as it was, we had a fantastic experience in Moab. But, with any road trip, it was on the road again! Our destination for the day – Lake Powell. We had no idea where we were going to stay, so I spent most of the drive researching campsites. We found an amazing little spot across the street from Lone Rock Beach Campground. The road into the dispersed area was in Utah, but where we pitched, ended up being back in Arizona. It was funny going back and forth across the border, especially with Arizona being an hour behind.

Dropping into Arizona:  more camping and natural beauty on Lake Powell

We loved the spot we found and could see the lake and even Lone Rock itself from our site. With little time to enjoy the surrounding area, we decided to stay a second night. We were worried about taking our car into the sands of Lone Rock Campground, but we scoped it out and decided to give it a shot.

Utah border sign with rock formations in the background

We ended up setting up camp further from the water, with downward momentum for the car. This spot was also great, because we were completely alone and didn’t have to worry about being too close to others during COVID.

A see through tent sits on the beach at Lone Rock Beach by Lake Powell

Our second day in Lake Powell included our main reason for the stop – kayaking. We walked down to the beach to put-in and enjoyed most of the day in the water. I loved that there was every type of water sport going on and yet everyone could still enjoy their own activity.

We packed up the kayaks in the late afternoon to head back to camp and cook up some dinner. When we returned, we had an unexpected guest. We accidentally left a little crack in our tent door and a lizard had decided it wanted to join us. It was a process getting it out, but we eventually managed its escape. After dinner and the excitement of our lizard friend, we enjoyed another relaxing evening of cold beer and a warm summer sunset.

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Back in 2018, I spent most of the year working in Phoenix. I did tons of exploring of the state and always tried to go somewhere new. My friend loves scary movies and ghost towns, so I knew I wanted him to experience the town of Jerome. We drove through the forest and beautiful Sedona, before grabbing lunch at Haunted Hamburger.

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During my time in Phoenix, I also traveled to Albuquerque for work. They have a decent craft beer scene and we decided that’s where we would end up for the evening. We found a beautiful free spot in the mountains and were very excited for the evening ahead. However, as we made our way toward Flagstaff, I came up with the idea of grabbing a hotel for the evening. I pulled up HotelTonight and found a great deal. A shower and real bed were just what we needed. We were disappointed that much of downtown was closing early, but we were able to recoup and plan for the following day. 

Roadside Attractions on Route 66

The plan – Route 66 site-seeing, while en-route to Albuquerque! Two Guns, Winslow, Wigwam Motel and Petrified Forest were all spots we hit throughout the rest of Arizona.

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One very interesting thing about this trip was seeing how different areas were handling the COVID crisis. The areas we visited in Arizona took very mild precautions and then we crossed into New Mexico… About a mile passed the state line, signs started announcing a 14-day quarantine for all incoming travelers. We quickly realized the state was pretty much in a stay-at-home order. We sadly had to toss our Albuquerque plans and Amarillo was now the destination.

US Route 66 road marker painted onto the street

We were excited to get some Mexican food in Gallup, but didn’t end up eating dinner until Amarillo. We grabbed some burgers and agreed that we would just drive through the night. We were facing our least-planned part of the trip yet. The Ozarks came up multiple times and we focused on driving in that direction. We hit a rest stop for a few hours and then he decided to start driving. I slept for a couple more hours and then we swapped, just past Oklahoma City. After a long night and day of driving, we made it to the Longshoal Campground in the Ozarks.

This ended up being our last stop of the trip. We finally got our Mexican food, although I don’t think the Missouri version compares to New Mexico. After setting up camp, I hit the showers and we finished off the beers we collected along our way. A fire by the lake, while we reminisced on our adventure and almost 20-year friendship was the perfect way to end this getaway.

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I hope my story can be informative for a future trip and I would love to answer any questions. There are so many different things to see and experience across this country, and these little roadside quirks are a great way to break-up a long drive. This was an incredible and unique journey for me. I had done some solo traveling in the past, but never in this way. It was difficult at times, but always a thrill. Having the ability to change plans on the fly, have no absolute destination or timeline, and seeing America in a different way, was truly a treasure.

Happy Travels!

-Colin

#DareToEverywhere

 

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