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10 Strangest Places to Stop on a U.S. Road Trip

SmarterTravel

America is full of bizarre and strange things—supersize meals, pennies, obsession with Starbucks, you name it—but these 10 tourist stops along popular U.S. road trip routes take the cake. From a graveyard for ice cream flavors to a palace made out of corn, here are some of America’s weirdest pride and joys.

California: Salvation Mountain

This clay-straw mound covered in over 100,000 gallons of colored paint was created by struggling artist Leonard Knight. What you see today was actually his second attempt at creating the structure—he used concrete to build his first mound, which eventually collapsed. He painted religious phrases, prayers, and Bible verses over the clay-straw mixture in all sorts of colors and now it’s a trippy, hippie-looking rainbow hill. There’s also a section that Leonard called the museum, modeled after a hot air balloon, where visitors and friends leave small objects and pray.

Today, visitors bring paint to donate to the project and there is even a public charity, Salvation Mountain Inc., that was created to maintain and protect the site. Coldplay filmed the music video for its song Birds here and the site was also featured in the film Into the Wild.

You can find Leonard’s mountain in the Colorado Desert in Southern California, which is in Imperial County, about an hour and a half from Palm Springs.

South Dakota: Corn Palace

While the palace—which looks like something from czarist Russia—is built from reinforced concrete, the exterior is completely covered with thousands of native South Dakota corn, grain, and grasses arranged into themed murals every spring. (2016’s theme is “Rock of Ages”). It is over 120 years old and recently underwent a renovation complete with interactive exhibits.

The palace is actually an auditorium and sports arena, and is also the headquarters of Corn Palace Week, which marks the end of the harvest. So stop by to check out the architecture, its annual August festival, or any of the concerts and events.

You can find this oddity off of I-90 in Mitchell, South Dakota.

Nevada: Area 51 Alien Center

It’s a gift shop, diner, gas station, and yes … an alien center (and a brothel too). Area 51 basically has it all. While TripAdvisor reviews rave about the gift shop and diner (no comment on the brothel), the Alien Cathouse is located behind the alien center and offers free tours if you so desire to check it out. Located right next to the World’s Largest Firework on Highway 95, you can visit two cheesy tourist attractions in one.

Vermont: Ben and Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard

What happens to an ice cream flavor when it is no longer made? Ben & Jerry’s has created both a virtual and physical “Flavor Graveyard” for all retired ice cream flavors. Each flavor has its own tombstone, complete with a flavor description and cheeky poem about why it failed and the years it was in production. So, if you’ve had a favorite flavor that’s been de-pinted, you can visit them here. RIP Holy Cannoli.

You can find the graveyard at the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, Vermont off of I-89.

New Jersey: Lucy the Elephant

Lucy the Elephant is a six-story, 90-ton elephant-shaped building made out of wood and tin, located in Margate City just outside of Atlantic City. Inventor James V. Lafferty conceptualized the elephant, which was built in the late 1800s, and he brought real estate customers up to the top to show them properties available for sale. Over time the elephant has had numerous owners and has been a restaurant, business office, cottage, and tavern.

Today, you can take a guided tour through the spiral staircase in the back left leg up into the interior and further up into the top for views of Atlantic City and the ocean. The elephant has survived both a lightning strike and Hurricane Sandy, and is featured in numerous commercials, books, films, and TV shows and is a designated National Historic Landmark

New Mexico: World’s Largest Pistachio

While there are dozens of large and bizarre man-made sculptures across the world, and in particular the U.S., this one stands out along U.S. 54 from Alamogordo and Tularosa. The giant pistachio was created by Tim McGinn, owner of McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch & Arena Blanca Winery, as a way to honor his late father and the farm’s founder. The 30-foot-tall nut is located on the farm so you can get some snacks and wine (to enjoy when you’re done driving of course) for your journey, too.

Utah: Hole N” The Rock

Hole N” The Rock is a home, zoo, and trading post carved out of a massive rock in Canyonlands Country along U.S. Highway 191. The home is about 5,000 square feet with 14 rooms built by Albert and Gladys Christensen. To create the structure, Albert excavated 50,000 cubic feet over a period of 12 years, complete with a sculpture of FDR on the face of the rock above the home. He passed away before it was finished and his wife completed the project, opening a gift shop and offering tours until her death in 1974.

Today, for 6 dollars you can take a 12-minute tour of the home and see zebras, bison, and camels at the exotic animals’ zoo. The Hole N” The Rock store also sells unique souvenirs and the trading post has locally made Native American pottery and jewelry.

Alabama: Unclaimed Baggage Center

Warning: this pit stop might take longer than a quick photo-op in front of the world’s largest ball of twine. It’s a center that buys and sells unclaimed baggage from airlines, and a visit here can lead to some great bargains. Now, before you freak out that your lost luggage could end up for sale, I’ll explain how this works. If an airline loses your bags, there is a three-month process of trying to reunite the bag and passenger. If that doesn’t work out, and only after claims are paid to the passenger, airlines are allowed to sell the bags to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. From cameras to wedding dresses, the 40,000 square foot space receives hourly inventory, so plan your visit accordingly.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center is a little bit out of the way, but well worth the stop—it’s accessible from I-65, I-59, and I-24 in Scottsboro, AL.

Missouri: Nuclear Waste Adventure Train and Museum

What was once the largest explosives factory in America is now an adventure trail found in Weldon Spring on I-64, just outside of St. Louis.

The former explosives factory was occupied by a plant that refined uranium for Cold War nuclear bombs. The plant was abandoned in the late 60’s, and when the US Environmental Protection Agency showed up 20 years later, they decided to entomb all the left over contaminated materials. Now you can climb this man-made mountain for fun.

Apparently this spot is popular for birdwatchers and astronomers, offering a great view from the top. If you’re curious about the history of the site, there’s a visitor center that shows a cross-section of the hill where you can see all the protective layers of the entombment. While there’s some controversy regarding health risks, it’s deemed safe and open to the public, so enjoy at your own risk.

Arizona: The Thing

If you’re driving along I-10 you’ll start seeing “The Thing” advertised for miles, luring in visitors by its ambiguous name. The gas station, gift shop, and nearby Dairy Queen make for a useful rest stop, so you might as well pay the $1 entrance fee and see what all the hoopla is about. Read on if you want to know what The Thing is, but you’ve been warned: spoilers ahead.

Turns out “The Thing” is actually a collection of items (with unverified claims and origins I might add) that were “The Thing” of their time—covered wagons, antique cars, phonographs, books, a Rolls Royce rumored to have been used by Adolf Hitler—the list goes on. The main weird “thing” that started it all is a mummified mother-and-child in a glass-covered coffin. Theories state that the mummy must have come from another curiosity museum in the 50’s (so don’t think you’re looking at a real mummy, as it’s most likely fake).

More from SmarterTravel:

Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

(Photos: TripAdvisor, LLC)

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