Roadside America calls them “attractions and oddities.” To me, they are welcome distractions from the humdrum of the roads we travel. I am not talking about those that we include in our bucket lists; I mean those that we don’t seek. They just pop up unannounced. Sometimes we enjoy them from the comfort of our vehicle. Other times, we just need to get out and walk a bit. For a few others, we see a sign and follow for a short distance.
Every summer when we visit family and friends in their homes (and to escape the Phoenix heat), they have made our trips much richer. Here are the 11 we remember best.
1. Lucy The Elephant
Margate, New Jersey
The first one we came across is dubbed the oldest roadside attraction in America; we saw her early in our RVing days. Built in 1881, Lucy the Elephant stands six stories high on the road alongside the beach in Josephine Harron Park in Margate, New Jersey near Atlantic City. Originally called the Elephant Bazaar, she later became a tavern. Now she’s a National Historical Landmark. She inspired us to watch out for more.
Pro Tip: Be sure to take the guided tour to explore her interior.
2. World’s Largest Praying Hands
Also during our early RVing days, we saw the world’s largest praying hands. It was 60 feet high and weighs 30 tons, the largest bronze sculpture in the world (the casting was done in Mexico in 1980), standing at the entrance drive of the Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Pro Tip: Just outside of the town of Webb City, Missouri, we came across the similar Praying Hands Memorial. It’s only 32 feet tall but is built on top of a 40-foot man-made hill.
3. Ampersand Sculpture
Stopping at a convenience store, part of the chain called Kum & Go, on Joplin’s Rangeline Road, we found the Ampersand Sculpture, not that big (8 by 7 feet), but quite colorful. The company’s core values are on one side; the other side contains things about Joplin’s history: mining, Route 66, Bonnie and Clyde, and the many symbols of Joplin’s “strength and hope.”
4. Cadillac Ranch
After Oklahoma, we passed through Amarillo, Texas where we discovered what road travelers have been raving about since 1974: a Cadillac Ranch with 10 Cadillacs buried nose-down in a field at the same angle as the Pyramids of Giza. It’s free and you can find it on the south access road of I-40 east of the Arnot Road exit and is open 24/7.
Pro Tip: Bring a small canister of paint so you can follow the custom and leave your own mark.
5. Arco Number Hill
Along US 20, you will be surprised to find a hill dotted with white numbers. Since 1920, the Arco, Idaho’s high school graduating class paints its year of graduation on Number Hill. We should have also explored Arco itself, dubbed the Atomic City!
Pro Tip: Start looking for the numbers as soon as you leave the Craters of the Moon National Monument.
6. Ward Charcoal Ovens
Once we took an alternate route going home to Arizona from Boise through Las Vegas. On US 93, at the small mining town of Ward in Ely, Nevada (population, 4,202), a sign pointed to “Charcoal Ovens.” We followed the signs on a well-maintained 6-mile-long dirt road to six large, beehive-shaped ovens (30 feet high, 27 feet in diameter with walls 2 feet thick at the base). Built in 1876, each one held about 35 cords of wood, producing 1,750 bushels of charcoal for two silver smelters in town. It is now the Ward Charcoal Ovens State Historic Park.
Pro Tip: From the dirt road, it is just 100 yards to walk to the ovens.
7. Wild Horses Monument
From Boise to Seattle, Washington (where my daughter used to live), as you go north on I-90, you will be able to spot the Wild Horses Monument. It’s a spectacular sculpture of 15 life-size galloping wild horses on a cliff overlooking the Columbia Gorge, just after Highway 243 becomes I-90. As you pass the sign to the town of Vantage on the left, keep looking up to see the Dave Govedare masterpiece.
Pro Tip: You can view it up close by taking a 0.2-mile hike up the hill.
8. Forever Marilyn
Palm Springs, California
On the road to my sister’s former in Lancaster, California, we were surprised to find that the famous Marilyn Monroe statue had been transferred to Palm Springs from Chicago, Illinois, where we had first seen her. We found out then that the 26-foot statue was moved to a new location every year (from Palm Springs it went to New Jersey, Australia, and Connecticut).
Pro Tip: In 2021, Forever Marilyn returned to Palm Springs as a permanent fixture on Museum Way, just east of the Palm Springs Art Museum.
9. Painted Pipes
When my sister moved to Alaska, we took a road trip north to Fairbanks and came across a colorful building air vent on a downtown street corner. A store owner we asked told us there were 13 of them (out of 23 in the city). Our afternoon turned into a treasure hunt. They were part of the Fairbanks’ “Paint the Pipes” project and serve as fresh air intakes for a utilidor (utility corridor) that runs under the streets.
Pro Tip: Now there are only 12 because the one called “Marilyn in Bunny Boots” has become just a pink pipe.
10. World’s Largest Tire
One of my daughters lives in Canada. Once on a drive back down, we found the World’s Largest Tire, a Uniroyal weighing 12 tons and standing 80 feet tall on I-94 between Highways 39 and 2 in Detroit, Michigan. It first served as a Ferris wheel in the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, then transferred to its current location at Allen Park in 1966.
Pro Tip: It is on I-94 near the Metro Detroit Airport.
11. Tovrea Castle
I have to tell you about Phoenix’s best roadside attraction. No one who drives on Arizona State Route 202 will miss it. Tovrea Castle is a four-story, 5,000-square-foot architectural masterpiece that looks like a wedding cake. It holds 100+ years of Arizona history and is Arizona’s only castle.
Pro Tip: There is a long wait to explore this gem. I have joined ticket lotteries but have not managed to win one yet.
There you have it! To all the roadside attractions we have loved before and to all the ones we will someday have the pleasure of seeing: Thank you for enhancing the roads we travel.
For more roadside attractions, explore Road Trip: 10 Scenic Stops In Kansas, Nebraska, And Colorado and The Highways In America (And Around The World) That Will Sing To You.