America's Top Roadside Attractions
“Every parent’s hope is that a family trip will inspire kids for the rest of their lives. You want to give them as many opportunities and as much exposure as you can,” says astronaut Chris Hadfield, who will command the International Space Station in 2012 and is the father of three grown children.
The road trip is an annual ritual that recalls the early days of our national highway system: parents load the trunk with luggage, pack a cooler with snacks, strap kids into the backseat, and, with a full tank of gas, hit the road. From the Joad family, to the Merry Pranksters, to the Griswalds, the collective road trip is ingrained in our national travel consciousness.
While not every road trip can raise the ambitions of a young astronaut, the stops and detours will be as memorable—and as fun—as the destination itself. Travel + Leisure sought out the coolest places to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and arouse the passions of little ones dozing in the backseat.
Children can dig in the dirt for dinosaurs that have been dead for the last 150 million years, when you take the family through Wyoming’s Big Sky country. Teenagers can hop on an Olympic bobsled to experience the force of gravity and the thrill of competition, right off I-80 in Park City, UT. And your entire crew can climb aboard a captured German U-boat beside Lake Michigan when you head south on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive.
“Kids today stand a very good chance of fulfilling the dreams of President Kennedy—who challenged us to explore—and I hope they will,” says Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo astronaut who was the second man to set foot on the moon.
A childhood journey can be a world-changer if it creates a future explorer, explains Aldrin. Or, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “This country was conquered by those who moved forward.”
Biosphere 2Oracle, AZ
This massive three-acre greenhouse was built as a research station to simulate the conditions of space colonization. Constructed to be airtight and self-sustaining, Biosphere 2 was the site of a two-year experiment with human “Biosphereans,” which went awry in 1991 when oxygen had to be pumped in, and subjects were sent crucial lifesaving supplies. Now managed by the University of Arizona and home to ongoing global-warming experiments, the self-contained mini-world with several climactic zones, including its own ocean with a coral reef and a rainforest, welcomes visitors.
Wyoming Dinosaur CenterThermopolis, WY
The thrill of discovery keeps travelers on their knees, scraping for bones in the dust of the Rockies. This dinosaur graveyard is home to one of the richest collections of fossilized remains in the world. Its popular “Dig for a Day” program enables travelers to become amateur paleontologists and look for 150 million-year-old fossils. After a day rescuing Jurassic remains from the detritus of time, explore the 12,000-square-foot museum and its 20-plus mounted skeletons.
Maya Lin’s Wave FieldMountainville, NY
Road: New York State Thruway
In an abandoned quarry an hour north of New York City, rows of undulating grassy hillocks resemble the swells and peaks of the sea. This six-acre outdoor sculpture was designed by Maya Lin, best known for the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial in Washington, D.C., and is the newest permanent addition to the Storm King outdoor art center. Walk among the 15-foot green crests, or view them from on high, where the mounds appear to lose their solidity, resembling waves breaking on shore.
Kennedy Space CenterCape Canaveral, FL
Take the kids for “Lunch with an Astronaut” at the Kennedy Space Center. Though NASA’s manned space program will end in August 2011 with the last of the shuttle flights (American astronauts will launch from Russia instead for some years to come), KSC remains a working spaceport, launching unmanned missions to space. See where rockets and robots are built, practice flying on simulators, and view memorabilia such as moon rocks and an original Saturn V rocket from the Apollo lunar missions.
Road: Lake Shore Drive
Captured by Allied forces in World War II off the coast of West Africa, a German U-boat is now on exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. See historical footage of the surrender, and one of the sub’s two Enigma machines that helped unlock the Axis codes and turn the tide of war. But it’s the onboard tour that draws global raves: walk through the crew quarters, peer into the torpedo bay, and visit the command station to take a turn at the wheel of a submarine—the only man-of-war captured by the U.S. Navy since the War of 1812.
Circus World MuseumBaraboo, WI
The railroads of America were once alive with lions, tigers, and elephants housed in gilded circus wagons touring the small, whistle-stop towns of the heartland. When winter came, Ringling’s big top folded and decamped to a home base in Baraboo, WI. Not far from the Wisconsin Dells, the Circus World Museum brings a lost era back to life with more than 200 circus wagons, original costumes, posters of mustached ladies and fat men, as well as daily circus performances in summer.
“The Comet” Bobsled at Utah Olympic ParkPark City, UT
Travelers who feel the need for speed can opt to bobsled down The Comet racecourse—a track that hosted 14 medal events during the 2002 Olympics. Even in summer, visitors can join a four-man sled piloted by a professional driver that hits speeds of up to 80 mph and drops 40 stories in under a minute. Kids 16 and older can experience the thrill of speed, the physical challenge of athletics, and the sheer joy of physics when they feel the force of 5Gs.
Roads: I-55 and I-40
The premier rock-and-roll pilgrimage, Elvis Presley’s Graceland is an unavoidable roadside stop, a shrine to the King and his indulgences. Best known for the shagadelic Jungle Room and mid-century kitsch interiors, the colonnaded mansion boasts a trophy room packed with gold and platinum records, bedazzled stage costumes, a car museum, and custom jets. But the audio tour narrated by Lisa Marie Presley, only nine when her father died, is Graceland’s most moving highlight.
Henry Ford MuseumDearborn, MI
The visionary of our national car culture, Henry Ford was a complicated man with a taste for American memorabilia. He collected the bloodstained chair in which President Lincoln was shot and George Washington’s camp bed from his days commanding the Continental Army. In 1931, the industrialist bottled the dying last breath of inventor Thomas Edison. Ford’s idiosyncratic devotion to the marvels of engineering permeates the collection, which includes a precise replica of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer.
Wigwam VillagesSan Bernardino, CA; Holbrooke, AZ; Cave City, KY
Roads: Route 66 and Route 65
In the heyday of the national auto craze, when Route 66 was the “Mother Road,” a man named Frank Redford had the idea that motorists would make a roadside stop when an attraction was visually startling. Redford’s concrete teepees (each containing an individual motel room) encircled a larger teepee housing a restaurant, gift shop, and gas station. Only three Wigwam Villages are left (two along Route 66 and one on Route 65); they remain enduring symbols of the surprise and romance of the westward road trip.