Ah, the open road. In many ways, taking a trip across the country is like stepping back in time, with strange relics of decades past providing some of the most memorable sights.
America’s top roadside attractions all have two things in common: They’re downright strange, and they won’t cost you a dime.
Click through to find out which free U.S. tourist attractions are worth seeing.
Carhenge in Alliance, Neb.
Looming like a mirage over the stark Nebraska sandhills, Carhenge is exactly what it sounds like: a replica of Stonehenge made of cars. Classic American cars from the 1950s and ’60s, to be more precise — there are 38 of them, all painted stone-grey and arranged in a circle to imitate the famous English monument.
Local farmer and engineer Jim Reinders oversaw the construction of Carhenge, envisioning it as a memorial to his father. The cars used to make the monument were salvaged from local farms and scrapyards, and Carhenge was officially dedicated on the summer solstice in 1987. Public opinion was mixed, at first.
Some locals wanted to tear it down. The Nebraska Department of Highways intended to label it a junkyard. But somewhere along the line, attitudes toward Carhenge softened, and it’s become Alliance’s biggest claim to fame. You can stop by and see it anytime for free, three miles north of town on the east side of Highway 87, though the neighboring gift shop is only open during the summer months.
Salvation Mountain in Niland, Calif.
Salvation Mountain was a labor of love for its creator, Leonard Knight, who dedicated 30 years and countless gallons of acrylic paint to this masterpiece in the Southern California desert. He passed away in 2014, leaving behind one of America’s all-time great roadside attractions.
Standing 50 feet high and 150 feet across, Salvation Mountain is a cure for cynicism if ever there was one. “God Is Love,” it proclaims in bold, hand-painted letters, alongside suns, flowers, rainbows and other images painted in resplendent colors. Believe what you will, but it’s hard not to be moved by one person’s lifelong dedication to creating something beautiful.
Look for Salvation Mountain about three miles east of Niland, Calif., near the desert community known as Slab City — both Salvation Mountain and Slab City were prominently featured in the film “Into the Wild.” You’ll spot the mountain from Beal Road, which is an extension of Niland’s Main Street.
The World’s Largest Pistachio in Alamogordo, N.M.
If there’s a simple distillation of the American dream, it’s this: If you build something giant, people will come to see it. So if you want to see the world’s largest anything, chances are you’ll find it alongside a lonesome highway somewhere in America.
And if that something happens to be a giant pistachio, you’ll find it at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch in Alamogordo, N.M. Granted, it’s not a real pistachio, but it’s a pretty lifelike 30-foot facsimile, and at the very least, it makes for a great photo op.
Tim McGinn, owner of the pistachio ranch, had the giant pistachio built as a tribute to his father, Tom McGinn, who originally founded the pistachio farm and the adjoining winery. Check it out on your way down U.S. Highway 70 just north of Alamogordo.
Iowa’s Largest Frying Pan in Brandon, Iowa
The world’s largest frying pan is a surprisingly hard thing to pin down — six different frying pans across the U.S. all lay claim to the title, The Village Voice reports — but this one, in Brandon, Iowa, is the most often photographed of the bunch. At the very least, it’s the biggest frying pan in its home state, which is nothing to scoff at.
Built in 2004 to promote the town’s annual Cowboy Breakfast Festival, Brandon’s giant frying pan weighs in at 1,020 pounds, and measures just over 14 feet from the tip of the handle to the far end of the skillet. If you were to somehow get your hands on 44 dozen eggs, this would be the place to fry them all at once.
You’ll find Iowa’s largest frying pan and its neighboring souvenir store at the west edge of town, near the intersection of Main and West Street. Take Exit 49 from I-380 and head west toward Brandon.
The Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas
No road trip through Texas is complete without a stop at the legendary Cadillac Ranch. It’s not actually a ranch so much as a bizarre art installation, with 10 Cadillacs lined up and half-buried, noses in the ground, tail fins in the air, like they fell from space in a neat row.
The Caddies date from 1949 to 1963, and they were put in the ground by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, members of the art group Ant Farm, in 1974. They’ve been spray-painted untold times since then, and countless graffiti artists stop by every year to make their mark. Visit the Cadillac Ranch today, and chances are it will look completely different tomorrow. This free attraction is definitely worth checking out on your next summer road trip.
You’ll find the cars on your road trip along Historic U.S. Route 66, just west of Amarillo. Bring a can of spray paint to leave your mark, but be sure to bring a camera as well, because anything you paint is sure to get covered up before long.
Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.
They grow a lot of corn in South Dakota, and the folks in Mitchell don’t want you to forget it. The Mitchell Corn Palace makes this abundantly clear.
The building itself isn’t actually made out of corn. It’s made of reinforced concrete, bricks and other traditional building materials, but every spring the outside is adorned with thousands of bushels of local South Dakota corn, wheat and grasses. It’s actually a pretty stunning thing to see.
The Corn Palace was first built in 1892 and subsequently rebuilt in 1905 and 1921. Look for it on the corner of Main Street and Sixth Avenue in downtown Mitchell, and don’t be afraid to make a return visit; the palace is decorated with a different theme every year.
Giant Gorilla in Leicester, Vt.
This is one of those weird roadside attractions that seems to defy all logic and reason. All you need to know is that there’s a giant gorilla statue along U.S. Route 7 about a mile south of Leicester, Vt., holding up a Volkswagen Beetle because, well, why not?
Sculptor T.J. Neil built the giant gorilla in 1987 on the property of Pioneer Auto Sales, and the sheer oddity of the thing might be its main attraction.
Sometimes called “Queen Connie,” the gorilla holds up an actual VW beetle in one hand, while its other hand reaches down to provide a seat for tourists to get their pictures taken in. That hand is pretty far off the ground, so you’ll have to be fairly agile to get up into it, but it’s worth the effort.
World’s Tallest Santa in North Pole, Ala.
Some roadside attractions take you by surprise, but in a town called North Pole, it would probably be more surprising not to see the world’s tallest Santa Claus statue. And although this sleepy Alaska town isn’t the actual North Pole, it has certainly embraced the Christmas spirit. If you ever wrote a letter to Santa as a kid and addressed it to the North Pole, chances are this is where it ended up.
As it turns out, the town actually used to be called Davis, but it changed its name back in 1953, hoping to attract toy manufacturers who could then claim that their toys were “made in the North Pole.” That plan didn’t really pan out, but North Pole has been America’s northernmost Santa-themed attraction ever since.
North Pole’s most famous resident is its 42-foot statue of old Saint Nick, standing alongside the Richardson Highway, where it is essentially an advertisement for a Christmas-themed store called the Santa Claus House.
The Peachoid in Gaffney, S.C.
If you’re heading down I-85 between Charlotte and Greenville, you can’t miss it. The water tower known as The Peachoid in Gaffney, S.C., has loomed over the highway in the shape of a giant peach since it was built back in 1981, and it’s caused many a driver to do a double-take. It’s definitely one of South Carolina’s most recognizable structures if you’re at all familiar with it.
Of course, it doesn’t always strike the viewer as a peach at first glance. Let’s just say it’s been the butt of a lot of jokes. Even so, it’s a beloved local landmark, and it caused an uproar in 2015 when a lot of locals thought it was about to be torn down. Turns out, it was just being given a fresh coat of paint, so there was no need to panic.
The Peachoid gained nationwide exposure — no pun intended — when it was featured in a 2013 episode of “House of Cards,” and has become one of the top roadside attractions in the South. It’s on the north side of I-85 between exits 90 and 92. A service road runs between the two exits, with a small parking lot near the base of the water tower.
America’s Largest Cherry Pie Pan in Traverse City, Mich.
The history of the world’s largest cherry pie pan is a long and sordid one. It all started in Charlevoix, Mich., in 1976, when the town built a giant oven and a giant pie pan to bake an equally giant cherry pie for its annual cherry festival. The resulting pie tipped the scales at 17,420 pounds — a world record at the time.
Meanwhile, somebody in the nearby town of Traverse City got wind of this and said, “Not so fast.” You see, Traverse City had their own cherry festival, so they made an even bigger pie pan and baked an even bigger pie. Take that, Charlevoix.
Fast forward to present day, and if you find yourself driving along U.S. Route 31 in Michigan, you can stop in either town to see a giant pie pan. They’re both impressive, but Traverse City’s is the champ, measuring over 17 feet across and capable of baking a 28,350-pound cherry pie.
Technically, neither is the biggest in the world anymore. A cherry pie weighing 37,740 pounds was baked in Canada in 1992. So it goes.
Jimmy Carter Peanut in Plains, Ga.
There are strange roadside attractions, and then there’s the Jimmy Carter Peanut. It’s a head-scratcher if ever there was one. Standing 13 feet tall and bearing a toothy grin that could accurately be described as “unsettling,” the giant goober was built to accompany the soon-to-be president on a political tour in 1976.
After his victory, the statue made its way to Carter’s hometown of Plains, Ga., where it greets visitors to this day. It stood on the steps of the Plains train depot for many years but was moved after years of damage and neglect to the lawn in front of Davis E-Z Shop.
As monuments to former presidents go, it’s not exactly the Lincoln Memorial, but the Jimmy Carter Peanut has an undeniable kitschy charm. Fun fact: There’s a hole in the back of the statue, which the Secret Service drilled back in 1976 to make sure there wasn’t a bomb or an assassin hiding inside.
Blue Whale in Catoosa, Okla.
Arguably one of the most recognizable roadside attractions along U.S. Route 66, the Blue Whale in Catoosa, Okla., has that particular blend of charm and melancholy that comes from classic, fading Americana. Looking at the giant, cartoonish whale sculpture, one can’t help but be amazed — and grateful — that things like this exist.
Hugh Davis built the whale in 1972, an anniversary gift for his wife Zelta, at the edge of a pond on the couple’s property. Painted bright blue, the 80-foot whale had a toothy smile, a diving platform on its tail and a water slide in its head. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The Blue Whale was originally intended just for family use, but it quickly caught on with the public, and Davis built a little park around it, complete with a sandy beach and picnic tables. The Davis family eventually got too old to manage the park, and it fell into disrepair in the ’80s. Luckily, the whale had become so popular that the Catoosa Chamber of Commerce, along with countless volunteers, began refurbishing and maintaining the Blue Whale beginning in the late ’90s, and continue to do so.
World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kan.
Back in 1953, a fellow by the name of Frank Stoeber started making a ball of twine. It was a big one. Within four years, the ball weighed 5,000 pounds and stood 8 feet high, and it was just getting started. Stoeber donated the ball of twine to his hometown of Cawker City, Kan., in 1961, and it hasn’t stopped growing.
Cawker City ensured the ball of twine’s continued growth by establishing Twine-A-Thon, an annual event in which visitors from all over can add their own twine to the ball every August. So far, at least 7 million feet of twine have been used.
The world’s largest ball of twine has faced challenges — humidity, gravity, stiff competition from another giant ball of twine in Minnesota — but it remains on the state’s bucket list of things to see. Be sure to do your part next time you’re passing through Cawker City; the ball of twine sits on the south side of Wisconsin Street, half a block west of Lake Drive.
Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, S.D.
Dinosaurs were the undisputed kings of South Dakota’s Black Hills 65 million years ago, and on one rugged sandstone ridge overlooking Rapid City, they still are. Dinosaur Park is a tourist attraction from another era, first opened to the public in 1936 and still worth the detour today.
The five massive dinosaurs in the park were built on the government’s dime during the Great Depression as a way to create jobs and drive tourism to the struggling Rapid City area. Designed by sculptor Emmit A. Sullivan and built using concrete over an iron pipe framework, they’ve withstood decades of weathering and still offer an impressive — if somewhat cartoonish — glimpse into the prehistoric past.
You’ll find the bright green, life-size replicas of Apatosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and, most imposing of all, an 80-foot Brontosaurus at Dinosaur Park. Look for them just west of I-90 Exit 57.
Big Things in a Small Town in Casey, Ill.
When your small town lands on hard economic times, what do you do? Naturally, you build a massive roadside attraction — you know, the world’s largest something — to bring in a few tourists and get your town featured on lists like this one. But if you’re Jim Bolin from Casey, Ill., building just one might not be enough.
It seems Bolin caught the bug, and after he and his team unveiled the world’s largest wind chime in 2011, he just couldn’t stop. To date, Bolin’s creations have secured the town of Casey a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records several times over, setting records for the world’s largest mailbox, golf tee, pitchfork and rocking chair, among others.
You’ll find these giant landmarks all over Casey, which is just off I-70 between St. Louis and Terre Haute. You can even take a free tour of the Big Things in a Small Town Workshop, where Bolin’s team is probably working on their next big thing right now.
About the Author
Richard Corrigan has been a New York-based freelance writer since 2009, whose work has covered a broad range of topics. He currently focuses his writing on travel, recreation and the outdoors, and his work has been published by the National Parks Foundation, AZCentral, USA Today, Yahoo! and LiveStrong.com.