Strange roadside attractions are an American phenomenon that followed mass production and widespread use of the automobile, after the America highway system made long-distance road travel popular in the 1930s. Bizarre roadside attractions were meant to catch the eye of travelers, luring them in to stop and spend money. While many roadside attractions are free, they often come complete with diners and gift shops that help collect tourist dollars.
The advent of super-fast road travel on the interstate highway system in the 1950s caused many roadside attractions to go out of business, but a few of the more well-known strange attractions managed to stay alive, using billboards to bait travelers, often for hundreds of miles in advance. After all, who wouldn’t want to stop and pay a dollar to find out what “The Thing” is after being enticed for over 200 miles by signs advertising “the mystery of the desert?” Although often considered tacky or kitschy, many bizarre roadside attractions are iconic to American highway travelers.
Even if you don’t do road trips, if you live in America you’ve probably heard of Wall Drug (South Dakota), the Douglass Jackalope (Wyoming), or The World’s Largest Ball of Twine (Kansas). While Nebraska’s “Carhenge” may sound a bit more exciting than potatoes, here are a few, lesser-known roadside attractions out west that you won’t want to miss if you’re on the road this summer.
Bishop Castle, Wetmore, Colorado
Located outside Colorado City in the San Isabel National Forest, Bishop Castle is the ongoing, lifelong project of a single man: Jim Bishop. The strange castle has been under construction since 1969, and now stands over 70 feet tall. Working alone, Bishop harvests the rocks from the national forest and has been building his own castle for 41 years. The multi-room castle boasts a tower, stained-glass windows, and a fire-breathing dragon, with future plans for a moat, drawbridge, and possible second castle. The exhibit is free and visitors are welcome to enter and explore the castle at their own risk after signing the guestbook (waiver of liability).
UFO Watchtower, Hooper, Colorado
While in southern Colorado, swing on over to the UFO Watchtower. In 1999, former cattle ranch owner Judy Messoline built the tower as a bizarre tourist attraction in the San Luis Valley, known for its UFO sightings and other strange phenomena. Although the “tower” is actually a second-story platform, the view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and nearby sand dunes is spectacular, and one could easily spot a UFO in any direction. In addition to the tower, the strange attraction features a domed gift shop with alien info, articles, gifts, and souvenirs; an alien alter where it is customary for visitors to leave offerings; and a healing garden. Admission is free, but donations are accepted, at this odd roadside attraction, and visitors must sign the guest book.
Gilgal Garden, Salt Lake City, Utah
Mormon bishop Thomas Battersby Child Jr. spent the last 18 years of his life building his bizarre attraction, Gilgal in his backyard as a retreat from the world. Featuring a giant sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith and a statue of himself in brick pants, the Utah State Park is both a rock sculpture garden and religious shrine. In addition to a number of other odd sculptures, the garden is complete with a sacrificial alter, rocks bearing literary and religious inscriptions, walkways, and fountains. Admission to the garden attraction and its mishmash of cool, strange and bizarre sculptures is free.
Oregon Vortex, Gold Hill, Oregon
Visitors flock to this odd roadside attraction to experience paranormal activities and optical illusions, rather than man-made structures. Those who have lived on the former mining claim over the years have both witnessed and scientifically studied the strange activities that occur there. In the vortex area, the positioning of magnetic fields renders the laws of physics void, sometimes even reversing them (as in the case of a ball that reportedly rolled uphill). Other phenomena that regularly occur there include the inability to stand up straight (the magnetic fields will pull you toward either the north or south pole), and people appearing to be both taller and shorter than they really are, depending on where they stand in the vortex. Ailing visitors frequent the vortex due to claims of its healing powers. Located outside Medford in southern Oregon, this bizarre attraction currently collects $7-10/person over age five.
Idaho Potato Expo, Blackfoot, Idaho
As their website states, the Idaho Potato Expo is “dedicated to the history and current information regarding the potato.” The expo doubles as the Idaho Potato Museum and Gift Shop, and Blackfoot is reportedly “the potato capital of the world.” You can visit the museum (formerly the railroad depot were potatoes were picked up for export) to learn about all things potato in America, including historical and nutritional information. Other strange roadside attractions include the world’s largest styrofoam potato (now topped with sour cream and butter), a Mr. Potato Head shrine, a “potatoes in space” exhibit, and a sampling of potato based treats, such as potato fudge and potato ice cream. Although admission for children over 6 is $1, and a whopping $3 for adults, each adult receives “a box of yummy hash browns to take home with you” (in place of the free baked potato they used to give away).
Spud Drive-In Theatre, Driggs, Idaho
If you haven’t had enough of potatoes after visiting the potato expo, head northeast to Driggs, Idaho to catch a flick at the Spud Drive-In. Although the Drive-In offers camping and hosts concerts and other events in addition to it’s regular movie screenings, this odd roadside attraction features the “Spud Truck”—a vintage truck carrying the world’s largest (concrete) potato.