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Sputnik, Carhenge, and 5 Other Can’t-Miss Midwestern Roadside Attractions

United States Illinois Missouri North Dakota Nebraska South Dakota Wisconsin Road Trips Insider Guides
by Eben Diskin Jan 29, 2020

Every respectable traveler knows that the journey is just as important as the destination, but if the journey is 26 hours of painfully boring farmland, punctuated only by corn silos and wind turbines, the destination takes precedence. There’s no escaping the monotonous landscape when on an American road trip west, but you can easily take a break from it by checking out some seriously weird and intriguing attractions — if you know where to look. You might not plan a vacation around seeing Idaho’s Oasis Bordello Museum, but it, along with these six other roadside attractions in the Midwest, will certainly liven up your car ride on your way to more entertaining pastures.

1. Carhenge — Nebraska

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Stonehenge is one of the world’s most incredible and mysterious monuments, but if you’re set on an epic American road trip, it won’t be part of your itinerary. Good thing Carhenge is here to pick up the slack. Exactly as its name suggests, Carhenge is a modern (and insane) interpretation of the English monument with cars instead of stones. Located on the western edge of the Sandhills near the city of Alliance, Nebraska, Carhenge is a circle of vintage American cars, painted gray to replicate Stonehenge, some standing vertically, some balancing horizontally, and others half-buried in the ground.

Carhenge was built by artist Jim Reinders in 1987 as a memorial to his father. Reinders, who lived in England, had studied the original Stonhenge’s shape, proportions, and size to create as precise a replica as possible.

2. Petrified Wood Park — South Dakota

Lush forests are never an unwelcome sight on a road trip, but if you’ve been driving for several days across the US, chances are you’ve seen your fair share. A few pine trees might not inspire you to stop the car, but this Petrified Wood Park in South Dakota definitely will. Taking up an entire block in the city of Lemmon, the park is filled with over 100 constructions built completely out of petrified wood, fossils, and stone. The park was constructed between 1930 and 1932 and features a waterfall, wishing well, and a 300-ton castle with spires housing a museum. The perfect place for a pit stop, the museum displays historical artifacts from the Lemmon area and a miniature version of a petrified-wood house.

3. Sputnik Crash Site — Wisconsin

Photo: The Rahr-West Museum/Facebook

For those fascinated by the Cold War, the Sputnik Crash Site might be the ultimate roadside attraction. The Russian launch of Sputnik IV in 1960 was a big step forward for the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Its subsequent crash landing in 1962 was similarly symbolic. While you can’t see the satellite for yourself, you can visit the very spot where it crashed to Earth in the small town of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The spot of the landing is marked by a plaque, and a chunk of the satellite can be visited at the nearby Rahr-West Art Museum. The museum’s galleries also contain paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Picasso, and Andy Warhol, all housed in a historic mansion.

4. Precious Moments Chapel — Missouri

An impulse marriage at a roadside chapel is unusual enough, but doing it at this funhouse-like chapel in southwest Missouri takes it to the next level. The Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, Missouri is known for its many full-sized figurines, ranging from anime clowns to firemen, and its large-scale murals. It’s been described as “America’s Sistine Chapel” though Michelangelo would probably take issue with that nickname. The chapel is the brainchild of Samuel J. Butcher, a former janitor, artist, and inventor. It’s also home to a visitor’s center, gift shop, and garden dotted with fountains and bronze statues.

5. Leaning Tower of Niles — Illinois

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You can deny it all you want, but everyone kind of wants a picture of themselves pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The problem is, getting there is a bit of a hike. Luckily there’s an alternative right here in the US. In Niles, Illinois, you can find the famous tower’s little-known cousin: The Leaning Tower of Niles. The tower is the closest thing to the original you’ll find this side of the Atlantic. It’s only 94 feet high compared to the original’s 177 feet and has a 7.4-foot tilt compared to 15 feet, but beggars can’t be choosers.

It was built in 1934 to conceal a large water tank and make the structure more aesthetically pleasing. In 1995, the village of Niles began a $1.2 million renovation project to repair cracks in the building, repair the concrete, install new lights, and build a plaza around the tower. A sister-city pact was also established with Pisa, Italy, to even further solidify the connection between the two landmarks.

6. The Enchanted Highway — North Dakota

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The best part about this attraction is that you don’t even have to venture off the highway to see it. The Enchanted Highway — a 32-mile stretch of North Dakota’s Highway 21 between Gladstone and Regent — features massive sculptures along the side of the road, which are sure to keep you from nodding off. It begins with a metal sculpture called “Geese in Flight” at exit 72 and also includes “World’s Largest Tin Family,” “Teddy Rides Again,” “Pheasants on the Prairie,” “Grasshoppers in the Field,” “Deer Crossing,” “Fisherman’s Dream,” and others. Each sculpture has a parking area and a kiosk. There’s even a gift shop in Regent with miniatures of each statue, in case you want to commemorate your magical journey along Highway 21.

7. Oasis Bordello Museum — Idaho

Most bordellos ceased their day-to-day operations eons ago; the Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace, Idaho, was an active establishment until the late 1980s. Here you’ll certainly find remnants of a bygone era, but they won’t exactly look like they came off the set of a Wild West movie. The bordello’s occupants fled town fairly hastily in 1988, leaving many personal items behind, including VHS tapes, groceries, modern furnishings, and clothing that still remains in the closets. Converted into a museum in 1993, the building has been preserved and includes a guided tour that explains the departure through the eyes of former maids, clients, and the sex workers themselves.

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