In this day of massive airliners and six lane highways we focus solely on our travel destination. Pack, fly, arrive, return. What we’re missing is everything in between. The little towns, the natural wonders, the giant fiberglass fish beckoning weary families into a restaurant. These roadside attractions are slowly fading into the past as road trippers stick to the interstates with their cookie cutter exits. There was a time when travelers delighted in finding interesting places along the road instead of barreling by; desperate to reach their end point. It’s time we take a step back and seek out the interesting little side trips and roadside oddities.

 

Busy Interstate 77 looks so much different viewed from the Marietta, Ohio river front. ©R. Christensen

Roadside Attractions Enrich Travel

Family travel articles focusing on enrichment typically zero in on a specific location, such as a hands on museum or science center. While perfect for teaching lessons on a variety of subjects, this approach lacks curiosity and adventure. Instead of solely looking towards the final destination, seek out interesting stops along the way to expand the experience.

The variety of places you might encounter along the road are endless. An old main street to wander, small local museums, specialty stores. All of these places have a story to tell and, most likely, it’s one you’ve never heard. While traveling with your kids, this acts as both a distraction and encourages a natural curiosity. You’ll often find locals who love to tell their town’s tale or answer questions.

Along the road I’ve encountered historic buildings and monuments, military forts, local museums, and natural wonders. My favorite are always the chance encounters. For instance, on a trip through coastal Georgia last year I discovered an old fort within a stone’s throw of Savannah while perusing brochures at a rest stop. It wasn’t operated by the National Parks Service, so didn’t show up in many travel guides. The guides were eager to share their knowledge since they had personally put a lot of work into the maintenance of the site and were grateful to have visitors, unlike the busloads of tourists stopping at the standard itinerary of downtown Savannah.

 

Old Fort Jackson near Savannah, GA ©R. Christensen

Visiting Roadside Attractions Preserve the Past

When you visit an off the beaten path location, you’re doing more than just satisfying your curiosity. Every person who shows interest in a place, every dollar that gets dropped in the donation jar, keeps a bit of our cultural history alive. Whether it’s small town museum or waterfall tucked away in a local park, these places fall out of use or fade from memory.

A tale of two forts. The aforementioned place I mentioned in Savannah is Old Fort Jackson. It is merely a mile outside of the downtown and tucked away along the shoreline among port facilities and depots. I did not see mention of it in my travel guides and, had I not been watching for it, would have likely driven right past the little sign on the side of the road. On the flip side, Fort Pulaski, which is run by the National Park Service, is several miles out of town but well advertised. The real irony is that Fort Jackson had a much deeper and more interesting history. I also learned a lot more about the area from the volunteers there, while at Pulaski all I had were signs to read. I’ve always found it well worth the effort to seek out little known attractions along the drive.

 

Sheldon Church Ruins near Beaufort, SC ©R. Christensen

Seeking Roadside Attractions

So, the big question, “How do I know where to find interesting roadside attractions?” Well, there’s not just one answer. While I’m always watching for signs along the road, the search starts when I’m planning a vacation. Here are a few tools and tips for finding new and interesting places along your route.

Maps, atlases, and travel books. The easiest place to start in your search is the good ol’ paper map. State maps and road atlases often have minor attractions listed, such as historic sites and parks. You may also find books dedicated to local knowledge and sites. A favorite of mine is Along Interstate 75 by Dave Hunter. Aside from being a comprehensive list of what is at each exit, the author travels the side roads in search of bits of history, interesting stops, and local restaurants to get you to look beyond the highway.

Google Maps is a technological marvel in my eyes as a traveler. Things that I run across on maps, or the chance road sign I’ve seen, can be explored to find out if it’s worth deviating from my path. Using Street View or images uploaded from previous visitors, you can see exactly what is there.

Grand Traverse Lighthouse near Traverse City, MI ©R. Christensen

Websites. If you’re reading this article, you already know just how much help travel bloggers can be when learning about a new destination. Seek out travel bloggers who have explored the area you’re going and see what interesting places they’ve found along the way. Websites, such as Roadtrippers and Roadside America, can also turn up points of interest along your route to explore.

If you have interest in certain types of attractions, local foods, or and area, you may find valuable information on social media. Follow the local CVB on Twitter or people who have similar interests. I love encountering roadside oddities and follow accounts on Instagram, such as In Search of Quirk, where other travelers share their finds.

And while you’re on the road, be sure to take a minute to peruse the brochure racks at rest areas and local restaurants. They often have pamphlets for smaller attractions who don’t have the budget to advertise nationally. Go one step further and talk to the locals. A simple question at a restaurant may turn up a unique place to visit that you’d otherwise have never found.

 

Trout fountain in Kalkaska, MI ©R. Christensen

Next time you set out on a long road trip, consider doing an extra bit of research and find some little side trips to get your off the highway. Or pull over on a whim to read an historical marker or follow that little sign pointing to the random old country store. It’s often worth the journey and provokes that sense of wonder we all too often lose to the daily grind.

 

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