American highways are filled with unique, eclectic, and memorable attractions ready to fascinate you. Of course, not all USA roadside attractions are created equal. While some are quirky and borderline cheesy, others are artistic, educational, and emotive. Whatever your preferences, there is something for everyone.
The beautiful thing about a road trip is that it is 100% yours. You choose the timeline and destinations. You choose the adventure.
With the help of some of our travel blogging friends, we have compiled a list of our favorite sensational roadside attractions to help you plan your next USA road trip.
Best USA Roadside Attractions
1. Salvation Mountain
Submitted by Kay, The Awkward Traveller
Salvation Mountain is a beacon of love in the California desert. Covered with messages of love and acceptance and sprinkled with plenty of glitter and enticing colors, Salvation Mountain is the brightest attraction in Southern California. But in a more literal sense, Salvation Mountain is a large outdoor art installation by one man who created a mountain out of garbage. Quite literally.
On the outskirts of civilization in Slab City, California – deemed the last free city in America – Salvation Mountain looms over the entrance in its technicolor paint and stark white cross perched atop the summit. For photographers, Salvation Mountain is a dream. With endless nooks and crannies to explore, Salvation Mountain is a shooting location unlike any other. For explorers that love escaping the crowds, the history behind Salvation Mountain alone is enough to make the trek outside of Coachella Valley’s more popular areas like Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. Although Salvation Mountain is just a small part of Slab City, it encompasses the free-spirited and eccentric energy of this unincorporated -and legally grey- area.
Before you head out that way, be sure to stock up on both gas and snacks, as you will find neither in Slab City. The best months to visit are between late fall and early season, as the summer months can easily reach the triple digits by noon. Since visiting Salvation Mountain only takes up about an hour if you’re just exploring, maybe two if you want to take lots of photos, you’ll have plenty of time to visit other spots in the area like the Salton Sea or Bombay Beach!
Location: Beal Rd, Calipatria, CA 92233
Submitted by Derek and Mike, Robe Trotting
Abandoned buildings and spaces make some of the most interesting offbeat places to explore while on a road trip. These eerie destinations border on the spectrum of dark tourism, and often have fascinating stories behind them. When you think of an entire town being abandoned, you may think of boom and bust gold rush settlements in the American West, but there’s one on the east coast between two of America’s largest cities.
If you’re driving between New York City and Philadelphia, you can make a stop in the beautiful Pocono Mountains. There you’ll discover an abandoned city called Centralia. It may look normal enough, but beneath the surface of the town burns a massive coal seam fire. 300 feet below the surface of Centralia there are eight miles of mines that have been burning for nearly 60 years.
First discovered in May of 1962, the fire forced the residents of the town to make a difficult decision – stay in their homes or flee the natural disaster beneath the ground. The majority of residents left Centralia shortly after the fire was discovered. Risk assessments found that staying would be problematic for not just the property, but the health of Centralia residents. What remains in the east coast ghost town is like a time capsule of the early 1960s. In many parts of the town, it’s safe to wander around and even drive, and a few dozen curious tourists drop in on most days.
If you make this creepy detour, you might as well explore the gorgeous nature in the area and rent a Poconos Airbnb for the night. There are miles of well-maintained trails and outdoor activities like whitewater rafting in the spring and summer or skiing in the winter. It’s also a great destination for leaf-peeping in the autumn months.
Location: Columbia County, Pennsylvania
3. Seven Magic Mountains
Submitted by Monica, This Rare Earth
Roughly 20 minutes outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, in a barren patch of the Mojave Desert off of Highway 15, sits a stunning and brightly painted public art installation named Seven Magic Mountains. These seven towers of locally sourced boulders have attracted visitors from all over the world, and was made famous through the many stunning photos seen on Instagram.
Seven Magic Mountains was built in 2016 as a temporary art installation, and was originally planned to have already been removed. But because of its popularity, this artwork has been extended for at least another year.
Against the dry desert backdrop, this artwork is more than unexpected! As you walk around the sculpture, different angles offer new and interesting views and configurations. Part of the beauty is the contrast of the neon bright artwork against the brown desert, purple mountains, and blue sky.
Fall through winter is the best time to visit this art installation, due to the brutal summer temperatures in the desert. Allow a solid hour to explore the towers, read the plaques about the artwork, and take photographs against the rainbow backdrop. These rock sculptures are a welcome break from the lights of the city. Parking is free.
If you are driving from Las Vegas, Seven Magic Mountains can be reached from the I-15 South. Take the Sloan Rd exit and turn left onto Las Vegas Boulevard. In roughly 7 miles, the artwork will appear on your left-hand side. You can’t miss them!
4. Cadillac Ranch
Cadillac Ranch is a route 66 road trip must-see destination, captivating hippies and travelers alike since 1974. The concept for the installation is the brainchild of several San Fransisco artists and an Amarillo billionaire who desired nothing more than to baffle locals with a unique piece of public art. The result? 10 Cadillacs driven nose-first into the ground as a tribute to the evolution of the Cadillac tail fin.
Overtime visitors have left their mark on the artwork, defacing the automobiles with graffiti and ripping off pieces of the vehicles to save as souvenirs. Although this was not part of the artists original intent, Cadillac Ranch is now a live and interactive piece due to the endless “contributions” of visiting patrons. Visitors are encouraged to visit the site equipped with spray paint to leave their mark, if not temporarily. The attraction receives so many visitors that it will not be long before any one marking is covered up by the next.
Cadillac Ranch is located just a few miles west of Amarillo City. Taking exit 60 from I-40, you will see the half-buried cars on the south side. Visitors, spray cans, and furry friends are all welcome to this free road-side attraction!
Location: 13651 I-40 Frontage Rd, Amarillo, TX 79124
5. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Looking for an urban road-trip attraction? Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is a unique and colorful experience nestled in the heart of a major city. Every inch of three city blocks has been transformed into a giant mosaic consisting of various items including kitchen tiles, glass bottles, mirrors, and international folk art. The vision of artist Isaiah Zagar was to channel his life and influences into this immersive space. The mixed-media attraction consists of 2 indoor galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden.
The Magic Gardens is a nonprofit museum instilling a love for art in the local community through outreach, public programs, and other activities. They are committed to inspiring positive change in ourselves and to those around us. To that end, the Philadelphia Magic Gardens have ensured that their exhibitions and programs include contributions of people of color and Black communities. “Specifically, at least 40% of our programming will feature Black artists. Additionally, at least 75% of our overall programming will feature people of color, women, or members of the queer community.”
Location: 1020 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
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6. Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch
Driving along Route 66 in Oro Grande, California, it is impossible to miss Elmer Long’s Bottle Tree Ranch. Thousands of colorful glass bottles are artistically installed onto welded metal sculptures. The chaotic artistry and potpourri of colorful objects make this an ideal backdrop for creative photography and of course the compulsory selfie. What makes this installation particularly unique is the way in which the elements seem to bring stationary objects to life. When the sun shines at just the right angle, the glass bottles begin to glow as if they are a thousand tiny stained glass windows. Enter a steady breeze and a sort of soft and natural music is produced from clinking bottles, wind chimes, and twirling windmills.
The origins of this eclectic USA roadside attraction begin with the artist and his dad collecting bottles and other artifacts during their outdoor adventures together. As the collection grew to thousands of bottles Elmer decided to transform the bottles into art. The first tree was erected in 2000. The technicolor forest now stands at well over 200 trees. Elmer lived in a small house behind his creation, continuing to expand the bottle ranch almost until the day he passed on June 22, 2019.
The Long family currently maintains the property so that visitors from around the world may continue to appreciate and enjoy Elmer’s legacy.
Location: 2466 National Trails Hwy, Oro Grande, CA 92368
7. The Neon Museum
The first neon sign in Las Vegas was illuminated in the late 1920’s. Since then hundreds of dazzling neon lights have graced the famous Vegas strip, but what happens when they are replaced by newer and brighter installations? They are sent to the “Boneyard” otherwise known as the Neon Museum.
According to their website, this non-profit organization is “dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying, and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment.” Today, there are over 150 decommissioned, non-restored neon signs that have made this boneyard their final resting place. The once famous signs are now faded and weathered by the passage of time and exposure to the desert elements. Walking through the open-air installation is a nostalgic trip through Vegas history reminding visitors of the golden age of mobsters and mafia in the 1950s to the beginning of the megaresort era in 1989.
You may recognize some of the retired signs from childhood memories or perhaps from scenes in popular movies. Either way, a visit to the Neon Museum provides an intimate glimpse into a Sin City quite different from how we might recognize it today. The Vegas Neon Museum is a worthwhile stop on your next USA road trip, if not for the nostalgic history lesson than for the insta-worthy photo opportunities that will make any traveler green with envy.
Location: 770 Las Vegas Boulevard North Las Vegas, Nevada 89101
A Note on COVID-19: How safe is a road trip during the pandemic?
With a global pandemic continuing to ravage different parts of the world, many continue to discourage international travel and public transportation including flights. This does not mean that travel and exploration must stop entirely. Enter the great American road trip.
Traveling locally within your own vehicle helps to mitigate unnecessary contact and possible exposure, however it does not prevent unforeseen risks entirely. Making stops along the way for gas, food, and roadside attractions can put you into close contact with others and whatever they may or may not be carrying.
It is your responsibility to practice safe behavior to keep yourself and others safe while road-tripping during COVID-19. Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind:
- Carry a mask on you at all times.
- Wash hands frequently and thoroughly, particularly after making a stop.
- Always bring along sanitizing wipes and instant hand sanitizer for when water and soap are not available.
- Don’t be afraid to wipe down all public surfaces. This includes gas station handles, tabletops, and seats.
- Camping or traveling in an RV is a safer alternative to staying in hotels. If you do opt to stay in public accommodation, be sure to check their COVID safety regulations.
- For any planned road trip stops, be sure to check the local websites for updated hours and COVID related closures.