Pull off the highway, stretch your legs, and uncover something wonderfully wacky at these roadside attractions.

By Erica Sloan
October 29, 2020
Kids riding the Jackalope statue at Wall Drug in South Dakota
Credit: Jason Ray Photography / Getty Images

America's quirkiest, most eccentric attractions are often hiding in plain sight—on the side of a well-traveled road or just off a highway exit in what might appear to be no-man's land. But if you know just where to look for these one-of-a-kind shops, secret gardens, and the like, you'll find that their charm and novelty is just the thing to punctuate miles of driving.

To rev up your next road trip, take a delightful detour at these spots.

Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota

The lure of free ice-cold water first drew weary travelers to Wall Drug in the 1930s—a simple rest stop and drugstore in a city nicknamed "the geographical center of nowhere." Decades later, now a sprawling roadside oasis equipped with a shopping mall, restaurant, water park, arcade, western-art museum, and more, it is a worthy destination unto itself.

Though Wall is a very tiny town (with a population of 876), about 2 million visitors pull off 1-90 and into Wall Drug every year on their way to nearby hits like Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore, or just to peruse the old-school apothecary, pose with an animatronic T-Rex, or pick up a pair of classic cowboy boots. Don't leave without a bumper sticker ("Where the heck is Wall Drug?") and a homemade doughnut to wash down with a cup of 5-cent coffee.

Pink Elephant Antique Mall in Livingston, Illinois

Route 66 may be a relic of the past, but its spirit lives on in iconic landmarks along its former path, like the Pink Elephant Antique Mall off 1-55. When you spot its namesake statue looming large on the side of the highway, you'll know it's time to pull over. Step inside the gymnasium of the old Livingston High School, and you'll be greeted by aisles upon aisles of vintage kitsch, from oddly shaped vessels to colorful lampshades and cheeky posters. For thrift-store regulars and antique fanatics, sifting through this veritable treasure trove could fill an afternoon.

When you inevitably shop up an appetite, pop into the next-door Twistee Treat Diner, a retro 50's-style spot frying up hamburgers, and, despite its midwestern locale, a much-loved Philly cheesesteak. Before getting back on the road, stop by the candy shoppe for fudge samples, or order ice cream from the window at the parlor shaped like a giant soft-serve cone.

SculptureTour Salina in Salina, Kansas

This small grain-milling town near the midpoint of the cross-country I-70 highway has a charming secret: It's home to a thriving arts and culture scene, perhaps best exemplified in SculptureTour Salina. This annual juried competition draws impressive 3-D works from artists nationwide and across genres; past years' submissions have included everything from abstract shapes to bucking horses and detailed figurines. About 20 are selected each year to be displayed throughout the downtown region, where locals and visitors alike can pick up a self-guided tour brochure and wander through the full collection. While you're there, check your pamphlet for a ballot: Everyone is invited to vote on their favorite sculpture (drop it off with any downtown business). The winner is purchased by the city of Salina and made a part of a permanent public-art exhibit.

The Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma

Oklahoma may be far from any ocean, but that doesn't stop one big blue whale from making a splash in Catoosa. This 80-foot-long sculpture on the edge of a pond beside historic Route 66 was the vision of a local zoologist, who created it by hand, designing the metal framework and mixing its cement coating. Little ones will love climbing on top of it, while the most intrepid of the bunch will be thrilled to discover a ladder leading to a compartment inside its head with a view through one of its blowholes. If you have the gear on-hand, you can fish on the whale's tail, or just take a load off at one of the nearby picnic tables before hitting the road again.

The Fantastic Umbrella Factory in Charlestown, Rhode Island

Rain or shine, peel into the five-acre bohemian paradise that is the Fantastic Umbrella Factory, off U.S. 1, and find your Zen. A sprawling bamboo garden and a greenhouse brimming with tropical foliage offer a blissful respite in nature, and ample space to stretch your legs. If you're in search of a souvenir, you're in luck: The shops on site overflow with handcrafted items—"treasures for the funky soul"—from glassware to jewelry (but, go figure, not a single parasol). Stop by the South County Artisans Loft to meet up-and-coming makers and purchase their wares or refuel with a sandwich packed with local produce at the Small Axe Café.


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