By: Molly Fergus
America the beautiful, sure, but America the strange? You bet. We’ve dug up 10 weird sights in America that run the gamut from natural abnormalities (albino squirrels, displaced deserts) to the downright odd (gravity vortexes, mystery lights). Hit the road this summer and seek out the curious and entertaining oddities sprinkled across the nation (many are conveniently located off major highways). You’ll scratch your travel itch, but count on scratching your head, too.
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Red eyes and snow-white fur make albino squirrels look like something out of a sci-fi movie, but in Olney, Illinois (about four hours outside of Chicago), the rodents might as well be royalty. City laws give these rare white squirrels the right-of-way on every street (jay-walking permitted), and police prohibit visitors from leaving town with one of the estimated 80 colorless animals. Albino squirrels scurry down trees in towns nationwide (at least five other American towns boast similar populations), but Olney provides a safe haven for the animals, who don’t exactly blend in like their camouflaged counterparts. Besides street-crossing privileges, these little guys can escape winter weather in citywide squirrel houses (wooden huts that locals nail to trees) and officials even encourage visitors to feed the squirrels – only nuts, seeds, and fruit, of course. For guaranteed sightings, visit on the last three Saturdays in October when a citywide squirrel census takes place (volunteers count the number of white and gray squirrels to keep track of the population). A town hunting for squirrels seems like an even weirder sight! Otherwise, find a park bench at Olney City Park, scatter a few nuts on the ground, and wait, camera at the ready.
Alliance, Nebraska’s modern, automobile-themed take on England’s mysterious Stonehenge stacks 38 gray spray-painted cars up in a life-size replica of the ancient structure. Archeologists still don’t know why Druids built the original, but the origin of the American counterpart is straightforward. Fascinated by Stonehenge, artist Jim Reinders created the Midwestern version in 1987 as a memorial to his father, who lived on a farm where Carhenge now stands. The effort was no small feat: 35 of Reinders’ family members and friends rescued cars from nearby dumps and teamed up to build the structure, which meant burying some cars, trunk down, 5-feet deep in the soil. Today, the memorial is a weird, all-American road trip destination with more than 80,000 tourists pulling off of Country Rd. 59 to snap photos. Next door, a visitor center and car art park showcase various statues, including the “Spawning Salmon,” a giant metal fish leaping out from the ground. Carhenge is free to visit 24-7; the visitor center is open from 10am to 5pm, Monday–Friday.
In 1892, South Dakota settlers decorated the first corn palace with produce to prove the fertility of the state’s soil. Today, the same space houses the much larger Mitchell Corn Palace, a full-fledged castle complete with elaborate Russian-style turrets made of husks, and enough space to throw a rodeo. To honor the farmers’ traditions, each summer local artists fill the palace’s exterior with themed murals made from 13 shades of maize and other native grains. The decorators spend more than three months constructing the panels and their dedication pays off: Half a million people visit this farmland fortress each year. Tours are free in the summer, but for the weirdest (or, corniest) trip, head to Mitchell August 21–25 for the annual Corn Palace Festival (performers will be announced at a later date). Free; daily, Memorial Day–Labor Day, 8am–9pm; off-season 8am–5pm, closed Sundays December–March.
Desert of Maine
Besides the lush pine trees and babbling brooks flanking this 300-acre stretch of desert, the intriguing sand anomaly in Freeport, Maine (yes, Maine!), just west of the southern coast, has all the trappings of the Sahara – vast expanses of soft sand, disagreeable soil, and even higher temperatures than those found in the rest of the state. The explanation for this out-of-place wasteland: A glacier about 11,000 years ago moved across the area and left behind a massive sand deposit. Fertile topsoil hid the mini-desert for centuries and as recently as 1797, farmers successfully toiled the land. Poor crop rotation and overgrazing eventually sped up erosion and by the 19th century, the sand had completely resurfaced and taken over the former farm. Today, the Desert of Maine is an odd sight, and visitors can make the most of their desert excursion with 30-minute tram tours of the sandy expanse, hiking trails, and camping facilities, located in the pine forest next to the desert. All that’s missing are some slow-moving camels. Admission costs $10.50 for adults, $7.75 for teens, $6.75 for children; daily, May–Oct, 9am–4:30pm.
House on the Rock
Walking into the House on the Rock feels a bit like walking into the elaborate home of a hopeless hoarder. Architect Alex Jordan built his Frank Lloyd Wright-style home in Spring Green, Wisconsin in the 1940s as a weekend retreat – but the wacky architecture and Jordan’s massive collection of antiques and toys drew curious visitors shortly after he moved in. All the rooms in the house provide a weird, often creepy sight, but the highlight is easily the Infinity Room, a 218-foot-long glass hallway that teeters off a cliff, 156 feet above the floor of the Wyoming Valley. The rest of the trippy property’s three sections burst with trinkets, souvenirs, and memorabilia. One room, called the Music of Yesterday, is entirely dedicated to mechanical instruments, while the Circus Room includes a full symphony orchestra and accompanying “choir” (composed of mechanical mannequins). In the Doll Carousel Room, dolls stare unblinking at visitors. At the end of the second wing, the world’s largest carousel, with 269 handcrafted animals and 20,000 lights, spins nonstop during tours. See each section separately for $12.50/per; entire property tour: $28.50, children 4–17 are $15.50; closed Tuesday, Wednesday March 14–April 28, 9am–5pm; open daily, April 29–May 24, 9am–5pm; May 25–September 2, 9am–6pm; September 3–November 10, 9am–5pm; closed Monday–Thursday, January–March; Tuesdays and Wednesdays, November–December.
Lucy the Elephant
This 90-ton, 65-foot-tall wooden elephant overlooking the beach in Margate, New Jersey, is essentially a 129-year-old publicity stunt. More commonly known as Lucy the Elephant, developer James V. Lafferty, Jr. built the colossal structure in 1881 to snag attention and shake up his local real estate business. Yet, after more than a century, Lucy still hogs the spotlight. She is America’s only lasting example of “zoomorphic architecture,” has housed a tavern and a private home, and has survived two hurricanes, a lightning strike, and a serious wrecking-ball threat. When developers planned to tear Lucy down in 1970, concerned admirers banded together to move her to a vacant beach two blocks down Atlantic Avenue. It took seven hours for a pickup truck to tow Lucy down the street and set her up at the shore, but she later landed a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and is a weird – but lovable – Jersey girl who’s here to stay. Today, visitors can climb up Lucy’s gams for a tour of the oddity and a one-of-a-kind ocean view. Entry is $8, $4 for children 12-2 (younger is free); Open May–Mid-June, September and October, Monday–Friday 11am–4pm, weekends 10am–5pm; Mid-June–Labor Day, Monday–Saturday 10am–8pm, Sunday 10am–5pm; off-season, Wednesday–Friday 11am–4pm, Weekends 10am– 5pm. Check out some weird sights, and then stay in one with our Top 10 Unique Hotels.
The Marfa Lights have baffled scientists since the first recorded sighting in 1883. Visible only on clear nights, the weird yellowish-green orbs float, bounce around, and vanish then reappear over the Mitchell Flats, just outside of Marfa, Texas. Explanations range from the mundane (mirages, car taillights) to the otherworldly (alien spacecrafts, displaced souls), but the fun of these inexplicable lights is certainly in the mystery. Each Labor Day weekend, Marfa residents celebrate the phenomenon at the Marfa Lights Festival. The three-day fest – complete with live music, street parties, and local arts and crafts vendors – kicks off with a Friday night parade and has become a reunion for former Marfa residents and mystery lights fanatics alike (there are several full books on the topic, by the way). Year round, visitors flock to the viewing center, about 10 miles east of Marfa, for a glimpse of the mystifying glows. Free; viewing center is open 24–7.
A weird sight since the 1930s, the Oregon Vortex and its so-called “House of Mystery” in Gold Hill, Oregon, earned its first slice of paranormal fame when it debuted on a 1999 episode of The X Files. What causes the disarming slant in the house? Why do brooms stand up on their own here? Despite Agent Mulder’s suggestion that something supernatural was brewing, skeptics swear the vortex is some kind of optical illusion or a glitch in magnetic fields. The attraction centers around one severely tilted mining shack that slid from its foundation just a few years after it was built in 1904. Paranormal or not, the vortex is a funhouse of physics-defying experiments: water bottles appear to roll uphill, visitors seem to shrink or grow with every step, and everything hangs at a perplexing angle. Admission $9.75, children 6–11 $7; open daily March, April, May, September, October, 9am–4pm; June–August, 9am–5pm.
For more trip-planning information, see our Oregon Travel Guide.
Petrified Wood Park
Visionary Ole S. Quammen probably deserved New Deal funding for his Petrified Wood Park in Lemmon, South Dakota. At the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, Quammen commissioned some 30 men to scavenge the Great Plains for rocks and fossils (and earn him an “amateur geologist” title). Besides putting food on their tables, the team’s efforts dug up gobs of petrified wood chunks that Quammen later turned into one weird site, featuring statues of everything from waterfalls to wishing wells. Today, the park features 100 towering cones of the ancient wood (each embedded with dinosaur-era fossils) and occupies an entire city block in downtown Lemmon. For the cheeriest visit, head to the park during the holidays, when Christmas lights take the edge off the eerie façade. Admission is free; open Memorial Day–Labor Day, daily 8am–6pm. Looking for other unique sights or accommodations? Branch out on your next trip with a treehouse hotel.
Darwin Twine Ball
Perhaps the most classic of all weird roadside sights is the world’s largest twine ball, made by one person, in Darwin, Minnesota. Why a large ball of twine? Well, it all began in 1950 when Francis A. Johnson started wrapping twine for four hours each day for 23 weeks. What motivated him? That we don’t know, but by the end of the fourth month, he needed a crane to lift his creation – but that didn’t stop him. He continued on spinning until his death in 1989. The ball eventually ballooned to 40 feet around, weighing 17,400 pounds, and is now on display in a covered gazebo in downtown Darwin. Each August, the city celebrates the ball with its Twine Ball Days Festival, but visitors can spin their own yarns year-round with twine ball kits sold at the onsite museum (cranes not included). Free admission; open daily. Museum open in summer daily from 11am–7pm. Plan on road-tripping this summer? Stay at one of our Top 10 Classic and Reinvented Roadside Motels.