Longtime tourist attraction Ruby Falls is an impressive underground sight
Colorful Salvation Mountain provides a message in the California desert
Lower your expectations enough and any roadside attraction is a good excuse to stretch your legs, lose a couple bucks, and see a genuine slice of Americana you’ll likely never visit again.
But some of these destinations have become kitsch institutions. You might even make a trip just to see them. Or at least you won’t regret adding the extra time to your journey.
1. Salvation Mountain
Some people use churches, sidewalks or subway cars. Leonard Knight chose to build a 50-foot technicolor adobe mountain in the desert of Southern California in order to spread his message that “God is Love.”
For nearly three decades, Knight built the mountain out of adobe and hay, and he painted it with swerving colors and messages, with the hope of sharing that simple message in a big way. And he’s succeeded. At least 50 people visit this giant example of outsider art each day.
Knight, who died in 2014, used to greet visitors until he was prevented by ill health.
A group of volunteers now maintain the site. Paint donations are always welcome.
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2. Prada Marfa
You’ve seen the pictures on Beyonce’s Tumblr and your trendy Austin friend’s Instagram. No, it’s not a Prada store. It’s not even in Marfa. The “store” is actually an art installation about a half-hour drive northwest of the small west Texas town that has become a pilgrimage destination for artists and hipsterati.
The $80,000 sculpture was created by Elmgreen & Dragset in 2005. The art duo of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset wanted to leave it alone forever so that it could decompose into the high desert surroundings, providing a commentary on materialism. But when vandals broke in and stole all the shoes three days after it was finished, the artists decided to make repairs and add video cameras. Don’t worry – you can still be as ridiculous as you want when you hold your photo shoot.
US 90; Valentine, Texas
3. Ruby Falls
While we’ve come to fear sinkholes, Ruby Falls is proof that they’re not all bad. (Although we sure wouldn’t have wanted to be walking over Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain around 30 million years ago.)
Located 1,120 feet underground, this 145-foot waterfall – one of the largest publicly accessible underground waterfalls – was caused by this natural phenomenon.
Stalactites, stalagmites and other cave formations are also explained on the guided cave tours. Tickets are $19.95 for adults, $11.95 for kids ages 3 to 12.
1720 South Scenic Highway, Chattanooga, TN; (423) 821-2544. www.rubyfalls.com
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4. Biosphere 2
What, you didn’t know that earth is Biosphere 1? Well, that’s what the developers of this gargantuan lab, known as Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Arizona, consider it. Oil millionaire John P. Allen funded the project hoping it would help us better understand how to colonize Mars.
The three-acre glass temple included a rainforest, ocean, corral reef, wetland and fog desert. Seven scientists entered the bizarre ecosystem melting pot in 1991 for the first mission. For two years they ran experiments on how to sustain life in a contained environment and when they left two years later, the $151 million project was largely considered a failure. The team had extreme difficulty keeping themselves or the environment healthy.
The University of Arizona took over the property in 2011 and uses it for experiments and classes, and provides daily tours from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Admission for adults is $20; $13 for children ages 6 to 12.
32540 S Biosphere Road, Oracle, AZ; (520) 838-6192. b2science.org
5. Winchester Mystery House
San Jose, California
No one is quite sure why Sarah Winchester wanted the construction of her sprawling Victorian mansion to go on as long as she lived. The most exciting theory is that she believed she was haunted by those killed by her husband’s invention, the Winchester rifle, aka the gun that won the West.
Apparently she thought she would keep these spirits away if she moved to California and never stopped building. Men worked around the clock until her death in September 1922, 38 years after breaking ground.
The result is an M.C. Escher painting come to life – stairs lead to nowhere, doors open to reveal walls. If ghosts did make it to her house, they would probably get lost on the way to her room.
525 S. Winchester Blvd, San Jose, California; (408) 247-2101; www.winchestermysteryhouse.com
6. Wall Drug
Wall, South Dakota
What does it take to become the country’s most famous remote roadside store? Free water.
Ted Hustead’s wife Dorothy came up with the idea in 1936, five difficult years after he bought the store: Put up signs offering ice-cold water to the hot drivers on their way to Mount Rushmore. It didn’t matter that most drug stores already provided this convenience. The idea worked, and now Wall Drug receives about a million visitors a year.
The humble store has grown to include a chapel, a western art museum, a department store and life-sized dinosaurs. But there’s still a water well out back for any parched passers-by.
You’ll have a hard time missing the spot. If you’re driving on I-90 through the state of South Dakota you’re sure to see one of the many, many signs dotting the roadside, with enticing messages ranging from the folksy (“Wall I’ll Be Drugged”) to the hippie (“Have You Dug Wall Drug?”).
510 Main Street, Wall, South Dakota; (605) 270-2175. www.walldrug.com
7. Skunk Ape Research Headquarters
Sometimes it takes a particularly obscure obsession to make an excellent roadside attraction.
Dave Shealy, for example, has been hunting for the elusive skunk ape since he says he first sighted the smelly Sasquatch relative at the age of 10.
You can find all the hunting methods and tips that he’s accumulated over the years at his Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. You can also visit his bird and lizard zoo and get pointers on where to search for one of the seven to nine mighty beasts that Shealy is sure live in the surrounding Everglades area.
40904 Tamiami Trail E, Ochopee, Florida; 239-695-2275; www.skunkape.biz
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