Part of the fun of any road trip is stopping at the quaint and quirky attractions along the way. Not only does it offer a nice break from the drive, but in most cases it also stimulates conversation during onward travels. To that end, here are some favorite accessible roadside attractions located along America’s highways and byways.
Wildwood Chapel — Marblemount, Washington
Constructed in 1997, the Wildwood Chapel makes a good stop on the way to North Cascades National Park. This tiny chapel is located along Highway 20 near mile-marker 103.5, across the street from Clark’s Skagit River Resort.
There’s a level spot to parallel park near the nondenominational chapel and level access over to the pint-sized building. Constructed by the owners of Clark’s Skagit River Resort, the chapel seats nine, with three two-person pews and three single seats. There’s a slight lip at the 28-inch doorway, but be careful if you wheel inside, because there’s no room to turn around. All in all the best view is from the doorway.
It’s a pleasant shaded site near the Skagit River, and today many folks use it as a wayside chapel. And yes there have been weddings there — if you’re interested contact the owners across the street.
Giant Thermometer — Baker, California
Located in the middle of the California desert midway between Barstow and Las Vegas, the Baker Thermometer makes a nice stop on the way to Sin City. The brainchild of Willis Herron a local businessman, the 134-foot tall thermometer was constructed in 1990 as a tribute to the record high temperature in the US — 134 degrees in nearby Death Valley. Unfortunately Herron didn’t account for the high winds in the area in his original plans, and as a result a strong gust brought the monument down, smashing a nearby gift shop that was under construction.
Undaunted Herron rebuilt the thermometer, and filled the second model with concrete to keep it steady. And although the thermometer was shut down for a while after Herron’s death, today it’s up and running again. It’s easy to find too — just take the Baker exit on Interstate 15 and follow the main drag until you see it on the south side of the street. To be honest, you can see it towering over the hamlet long before you even exit the freeway.
The best vantage point is from the Del Taco parking lot next door, because once you pull up too close to the thermometer, it’s hard to get a good photo. Accessible parking is available in the lot, and it’s a nice level roll over to the far end, where you’ll get a good view of it all. And if the thermometer tops 100 — as it often does — you may just want to wander into to the Del Taco for a nice cold drink.
Thunder Mountain — Imlay, Nevada
Located along a barren stretch of Interstate 80 in Northwestern Nevada, Thunder Mountain offers motorists a much needed — and somewhat entertaining — break between Reno and Winnemucca. It’s easy to find too — just take exit 145, turn east, and then make a left turn on the frontage road. Soon the asphalt is replaced by dirt, and then gravel, before the first remnants of Frank Van Zant’s paradise lost comes into view on the left.
As the story goes, an old Creek medicine woman told Frank that in the final days there shall rise up a place called Thunder Mountain, and only those that lived there would survive the apocalypse. So he set out to build this mythical place of refuge after his car broke down along the interstate. Shortly thereafter he changed his name to Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder as he set to work to craft his mansion patterned after Tom Kelly’s Bottle House in Rhyolite. It all began with his travel trailer, which he parked in the sagebrush and covered in concrete. That was in 1968.
Today the compound is open to the public, and although a fence has been constructed around the major domiciles to protect them from vandals, Thunder Mountain is still worth a stop on any trek through the Silver State. As far as access goes, it’s doable for most folks, even though no access upgrades have been added. There’s no striped parking, but there’s plenty of room to park an adapted van in the large dirt parking area next to the entrance. From there; it’s a level roll to the front gate which is 35 inches wide. Inside the compound, the pathways around the sculptures, homes and exhibits are flat, and although there’s a bit or gravel here and there, it’s easy to dodge. And if you want to pack along a picnic lunch, there are also a few covered accessible picnic tables available.
Ornate — and graphic — statues surround the dwellings, and rock fences adorned with everything from an old transmission and a tailgate, to a television, some doll heads and a number of items I couldn’t even identify dot the property. The main house includes windows made from recycled windshields, and is crowned by a mass of ornamental wood and yet another sculpture. Everywhere you look you’ll see found objects woven into the framework of the compound. Truly it makes you wonder what was going on in Van Zant’s creative mind.
Sadly things didn’t end well for Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, as he committed suicide at the age of 69 — some say because he completed his masterpiece. Still his legacy lives on at Thunder Mountain, just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 80.
Giant Roadrunner — Las Cruces, New Mexico
Artist Olin Calk originally crafted this roadside icon out of junk from the city dump, but the harsh desert climate really took its toll on the old bird. Fortunately Calk’s son Cameron, stepped in an gave this Las Cruces mainstay a new lease on life in 2012.
As part of Cameron’s refurbishment the bird was covered with “new salvage” including discarded cell phones and other electronics. As a finishing touch some ruby slippers were placed inside the bird. The slippers not only symbolize the bird’s heart, but they also bring to mind that famous Wizard of Oz line — “There’s no place like home”. It’s also said that these Oz-inspired words are inscribed “somewhere” on the sculpture.
Cameron’s bird overlooks Interstate 10 near the airport. Unfortunately you can only get to the rest area that houses the sculpture if you are traveling east. Take exit 135 off Interstate 10 and follow the road around to the picnic shelters. Accessible parking is available near the restrooms, and the best view of the roadrunner can be had from the first picnic shelter. Alternatively you can roll out on the dirt for a better view (watch for snakes), but the optimal view of this work of art is actually from afar.
Idaho Potato Museum — Blackfoot, Idaho
Most folks know that potatoes are the number one crop in Idaho; however many visitors completely pass up an unusual museum that celebrates the origin and versatility of this ubiquitous cash crop. Located in a 1912 railroad station off Interstate 15, this roadside attraction makes a nice diversion on the route between Pocatello and Idaho Falls. You can’t miss it — it’s the only building on Main Street with a giant potato in the front.
There’s accessible parking near the front door, and level access over to the main entrance of the Idaho Potato Museum (www.idahopotatomuseum.com). Inside there’s plenty room to maneuver a wheelchair around the exhibits, and ample space for wheelchair seating in the adjacent restaurant. And although the restrooms are not wheelchair accessible, there is one large stall without grab bars. That said, most wheelchair-users will find it a tight fit through the narrow and oddly-placed entry door to the restrooms.
The exhibits present an excellent history of the spud, tracing its origins back to South America, and illustrating the factors that make Idaho an excellent place to cultivate the crop. Interestingly enough, the timeline also notes that it took western cultures 450 years to realize the advantage of dehydrated potatoes — something that the Incas knew all along. The museum is also filled with display cases that contain collections of potato peelers, potato mashers and even potato sack clothing. And if you’d like a little more education about taters, there’s room for a wheelchair in the small theater where you can view an interesting selection of potato themed videos.
There’s ramped access — although some folks may need a bit of assistance because of the steep pitch — to the second gallery, which includes a collection of machinery, including a potato sorter, a tractor, a potato sack sewing machine and a number of scales. There is also a small children’s hands-on area, but there are five steps up to it. And don’t miss the world’s largest potato crisp, which is 25 inches long and weighs in at 5.4 ounces.
The Idaho Potato Museum also makes a good lunch stop as the cafe serves up a baked potatoes with a variety of toppings, and sandwiches on potato rolls. And if that’s not enough to lure you in, the restored railroad depot is a hidden gem, and certainly worth more than a cursory a drive-by glance.
World’s Largest Purple Spoon — East Glacier Park Village
If you’re heading up to the Two Medicine area of Glacier National Park, be sure and stop in at East Glacier Park Village to see the World’s Largest Purple Spoon. Located next to the Spiral Spoon (www.thespiralspoon) on MT 49, this local landmark is affectionately known as Big Martha. Crafted by Charlie and Jo Wagner, the 25-foot high utensil, which is made of plywood and Styrofoam, was unveiled on May 20, 2005.
There’s level parking in a dirt area next to the spoon, and a level path over to the Spiral Spoon. The shop itself has two small steps up into it, and if you can manage those, it’s definitely worth a look inside. This quaint shop offers a good selection of spoons and other implements carved by local artists. And in the back room, there’s an interesting display of vintage spoons on the ceiling, and a prop spoon that was used on the television show Bonanza in a case on the back wall.
All in all it’s a fun stop, if only for the photo op. It may or may not be the world’s largest purple spoon (hence the “maybe” etched on the plaque) but it’s definitely the largest one in this tiny village.
Marfa Prada — Valentine, Texas
This permanently installed sculpture by artists Elmgreen and Dragset is located about a mile or so north of Valentine along a lonely stretch of Texas Highway 90. Most likely it takes its name from the the non-profit that sponsored the installation — Ballroom Marfa — as it’s located some 35 miles from the namesake town.
There’s no parking lot per-say for the store, but you can pull over on either side of the freeway, park in a level dirt area and find a barrier-free pathway to the locked building. The faux showroom contains 20 left foot shoes and six purses from the 2005 Prada collection, and it’s been dubbed a “permanent land art project” by the creators.
Although the installation has been vandalized a few times, it’s always been restored to its original state. And today the Prada purses hide part of the elaborate security system. It’s a nice stop in the middle of nowhere, plus you’ll probably also bump into some interesting characters who seem to flock to this popular roadside attraction.
Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial GraveyardEstablished in 1937 when Key Underwood laid his dog Troop to rest at his favorite hunting camp, this unique cemetery now has more than 185 hounds buried there. Truth be told, the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard (www.coondogcemetery.com) is just one of the many off-the beaten-path sights you’ll stumble across in Northwest Alabama. It’s located about 30 miles from Tuscumbia, on Alabama Highway 247, just 12 miles south of US Highway 72. Watch for the signs.
There is a small gravel parking area, and although there are no formal paths through the graveyard, the terrain is fairly level and in dry weather it’s doable for most wheelers and slow walkers. You’ll see a little bit of everything at the graveyard, from marble monuments and wooden headstones to dog collars and even a plastic raccoon grave marker.
It’s still an active cemetery, as true coon dogs are eligible to be buried there. And they do stick to those restrictions. As the former caretaker elaborated, “A dog can’t run no deer, possum — nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound. Couldn’t be a mixed up breed dog, a house dog.”
All in all it’s a fun stop, and some of the headstones and memorials are priceless. There is also a picnic shelter with a grill, so pack along a picnic lunch and extend your stay at this unusual roadside diversion