updated 12/22/2010 4:08:24 PM ET 2010-12-22T21:08:24

Giant dinosaurs, houses filled with dolls and puppets, museums of the weird: America's most interesting roadside attractions are often overlooked, occasionally maligned, and usually hidden away from more heavily traveled areas.

    1. America's Musical Cities
    2. Forbes Guide To Worldwide Travel: Midsummer
    3. America's Great Fourth Of July Celebrations

Sure, they might not be enough of a draw to warrant a visit by themselves, but they can more than repay the time spent diverting from a longer road trip or vacation.

Slideshow: Weird roadside attractions

What makes for a good roadside attraction? Size certainly helps. Just labeling something "the world's biggest X" is often enough to detour at least a trickle of curiosity seekers. Whether it's a record-setting Pez dispenser in Burlingame, Calif., or a towering thermometer that measures the baking heat in Death Valley, size matters when it comes to bringing in tourists off the interstate.

Oddity is another selling point for out-of-the-way destinations. Dinosaur Kingdom, located in Natural Bridge, Va., is an alternate history playground mix of the Civil War and the age of the dinosaur, where Union soldiers are mercilessly devoured by hungry lizards. It's owned by a "21st century P.T. Barnum," Mark Cline, who also runs the nearby "Haunted Monster Museum" and "Hunt Bigfoot with a Redneck" attractions.

"Roadside attractions have always been seen as something unique to bring people off the road so that they could part with their money," says Cline. "These days we're competing with the likes of water parks, theme parks or the computer. You have to come up with an angle or gimmick that really makes people turn their heads.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

Doug Kirby, publisher of, has been cataloguing the country's roadside attractions for more than 25 years, and is still fascinated by the surprises that can be found in the most unexpected of towns. His favorites include those that reveal something about their proprietors, such as an obsessive personality. Others provoke specific emotions, like the unease he felt standing inside the Vent Haven Ventriloquist Museum, in Fort Mitchell, Ky. Kirby describes it as "the most disturbing place to be locked in after hours."

These attractions lend themselves to a family road trip, and can help break up longer drives, when kids can get antsy and bored. They even provide opportunities for group fun and unique memories. Take the Super Museum in — where else? — Metropolis, Ill., where kids and Superman enthusiasts of all ages can explore a comprehensive collection of more than 20,000 items of Man of Steel memorabilia.

Other roadside attractions are best explored without children in tow. The Oasis Bordello Museum, in Wallace, Idaho, is an odd, frozen-in-time snapshot of a recently-forgotten era: the 1980s-era Idaho bordello scene.

"The old videogame console, the price list hung on the wall for the various services, the medicine cabinets that were hung above the sinks by the girls' beds — all this stuff is meticulously arranged," says Kirby. "I'm impressed by the notion that it was emptied out, then somebody bought it and restored it to its previous state — it's just a very strange place."

  1. Most popular

These smaller and more ephemeral attractions can come and go depending on the owner's schedule. Kirby laments the closing of the Museum of Menstruation, located in the basement of a Maryland man's home. "It was run by a guy who got interested in the advertising for old Kotex and feminine napkins," says Kirby. "It had a real Hannibal Lecter vibe to it."

Other attractions represent the accumulated work of artists and craftspeople with a unique vision, and the space or land to realize a dream. Solomon's Castle, located in Ona, Fla., contains a collection of more than 300 pieces by local artist Howard Solomon, who uses found objects and discarded material to create his works. Three stories high and covering 12,000 square feet, it is covered on the outside by shining aluminum printing plates, and packed inside with art that hasn't sold.

Begun in 1972 Solomon's project has grown to include a restaurant and a nature walk, and it's a hit with locals and tourists alike.

"A lot of these places are more accepted by the locals when people realize they bring some character to a town," says Kirby. "If they are there long enough, they become beloved landmarks."

© 2012


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments