Best of the worst tourist traps NY to LA
February 4, 2023 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Theoretical road trip for humorous story. New York City to Los Angeles, unlimited time and no real restrictions. What are the absolute worst tourist traps along the route, within a few hours detour?

Yeah, grand canyon is neat, but that's too plebian of a goal. They want worse than the giant ball of twine. Toilet seat art museum? Perfect. Dime in a box, Texas? Amazing. Giant concrete bear wrestling a plastic dinosaur? Detour to see that for sure! World's biggest ice cream cone made of hay bales? Heaven. They do have to be real world objects and locations I can find, but other than that, there's no limits for the level of terrible and absurd. The characters also don't mind trespassing, so public access isn't a limit.

Route is probably the more southern one, St Louis through Oklahoma and New Mexico and Arizona, but absolutely feel free to include stuff on the northern Chicago Nebraska Las Vegas route.

posted by Jacen to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Thing
posted by doctord at 9:05 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Came here to say The Thing. It is the absolute worst.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:15 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Maybe it’s just because I grew up in Missouri, but the Precious Moments Chapel.
posted by sacrifix at 9:19 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Carhenge sounds like a very silly place to visit
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:45 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Unlimited time? Fiction? No real restrictions? Don't mind trespassing (ya gotta sleep SOMEwhere every night!) There is zero reason not to do this tourist trap road trip by bicycle and every reason to add more bike travel representation to the world of fiction.

Somewhere in Southwest Texas someone suggested we visit some sort of famous UFO sightings area. Within a day's bike ride of the Southern Tier Adventure Cycling route, but I'm not sure where exactly because we did not make that detour.

Tourist trap road trip by bike. It's the only way. Memail me if you need real-life details about traveling by bike.
posted by aniola at 10:03 PM on February 4

Best answer: Do you mean "worst" as in "provide no value" or "most egregiously promoted" or "most inexplicably weird"?

House on the Rock has no reason to exist and is weird as fuck, but... it's still transformative to go there.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:11 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Went by the venerable Mystery Spot recently, and while the route probably wouldn't make much sense, it would seem to qualify. (Wikipedia also has a list of other gravity hills.)
posted by ASF Tod und Schwerkraft at 10:18 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bedrock City?
posted by Countess Elena at 10:46 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah I don't get whether you mean "it actually would depress you to have wasted your time to show up here" or (and this is how most of your examples read to me) "why on earth does this exist but I'm kind of glad I saw it."

If the first: Wall Drug.
If the second: The World's Largest Prairie Chicken.

I've seen both and I know which one I'd see again.
posted by escabeche at 11:01 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Dang! Chase County Kansas, the home of William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth [1991] is midway between your two routes. The Grand Central Hotel & Grill in Cottonwood Falls is, and I quote an "extraordinary venue" and one of "8 Wonders of Kansas".
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:42 PM on February 4

Best answer: Not sure if you are taking the shortest route or open to making major detours, but years ago, I made an epic trip from San Diego to Vancouver, stopping in similar kinds of places. Some of them may not be open at the moment, but if you can, I recommend the following kinds of places. They are not necessarily the "worst", in fact they are great, but they activate the weirdness receptors in your brain:

You can get further inspiration from (sorry, I'm having trouble embedding the link).

- If you are allowed, visit Unarius headquarters in El Cajon California (suburb of San Diego) and be initiated in the UFO cargo-cult of Ruth Norman (Peace be upon her. She has now ascended to the Galactic Federation).
- See one of the largest drive through donuts in LA
- In San Luis Obispo, half way between San Francisco and LA, stay at the Madonna Inn, where every room is a different theme (from the caveman to the Tipi), make your own contribution to Bubblegum Alley, where every graffiti comes from someone's mouth. If you are a history buff, the very first Motel in the USA is somewhere there.
- The Hat in Three Stages of Landing by Claes Oldenburg and partner Coosje van Bruggen in Salinas (Sherwood Park)
- If it is open, don't miss the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA near Venice

I envy your trip! It sounds like you are in for a blast. (Just don't listen to AM radio as you drive through....)
posted by Bigbootay. Tay! Tay! Blam! Aargh... at 12:18 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Southwest Texas UFO stuff is probably Marfa, which I've been to! Apparently it was the wrong time of year to see the actual Marfa Lights, but I spent over an hour in freezing cold watching a large swarm of emergency vehicles stream back and forth, no sirens, just the endless strobes in thick fog. Never did figure out what happened, but was highly surreal.

Bleak and oddly rewarding are both fine! I have a personal love of the weird, but I also deeply enjoy the concept of wanting to see something like World's Deadliest Electric Chair
posted by Jacen at 1:05 AM on February 5

Best answer: On the most mundane level, I can tell you that the big rocks with the heads of dead presidents in Nowhereville, South Dakota looks exactly like it does in postcards and was the least worthwhile detour of my entire life.

There nearby Waffle House, however, was 100% worth the stop.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:59 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There is The World’s Largest Pistachio in Alamogordo, New Mexico…but I actually rather enjoyed the stop haha. It was kinda charming and they had really delicious pistachio ice cream there (as well as every possible pistachio product you can imagine…)
posted by sprezzy at 2:59 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Lucas, Kansas has the world’s best world’s worst tourist trap: the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things! Artist Erika Nelson travels around the country visiting roadside attractions and making miniature reproductions of them for the collection.
posted by moonmilk at 4:54 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]

Best answer: MY TIME HAS COME

I have actually taken this very road trip on purpose, a trip in search of cheese and kitsch. I didn't go all the way to Los Angeles; my final stop was Las Vegas, which seemed thematic (also I could mooch a free hotel room off a journalist buddy who was covering a convention there).

Some of the standouts from what I saw on the way:

* Big Well in Greensburg, KS. It is the World's Biggest Hand-Dug Well. There is a staircase taking you to the bottom, but it costs extra; I opted out of that, so this basically was just....a big hole in the ground.

* One of the two worlds' biggest balls of twine is in Kansas (I think one is a continuous string, and the other is made of multiple strings; I forget which is which). I never saw it; I got lost looking for it, and that's how I found the Big Well.

* There's a spot in Kansas that claims to be the exact geographic center of the US. There's just a marker claiming that, and when I went there was also a sort of shed thing claiming to be a recreation of "a traditional pioneer's Sod House". I was the only visitor at the time I showed up and I got the sense that it was a kind of only-open-twice-a-week things. I don't remember the chapel they mention in this article, so either it wasn't there yet or wasn't open.

* My memories of The Boot Hill Museum are not quite as splashy as this web site depicts, so either they upgraded it or they are really trying to sell it; I remember it as being just like a city block-sized stretch of Old-Timey-looking buildings that served as the gift shops and restaurants, with one interpretive museum about The Old West. (I was also in a bad mood and it was bloody hot, so that may have soured me on everything.) At the time I visited they also had a "live shootout" scheduled, where a couple guys would stage a High-Noon type of encounter with starter's pistols, and shortly after that was a "can-can dance class"; but I blew off the chance to see both and went to the hotel pool instead.

* ENTHUSIASTICALLY SECONDING the Precious Moments Chapel. Creepy as whoa in a "holy crap people are taking this schmaltz seriously" way. It was actually even bigger at the time I visited; they used to have an R.V. park and a second chapel set aside for people to have Precious Moments-themed weddings; a night in a "Victorian mansion" was also part of the wedding package.

The other things I saw were actually kind of decent, but will mention anyway:

* An anthracite mining history museum in Scranton, PA. This actually was a decent little museum.

* The Fort Uncomphagre recreation in Delta, Colorado. This is a "recreated trading post", but seems to have been taken over by the National Park Service since I went; when I went it was just a cluster of buildings with a guy who looked like Uncle Jesse from The Dukes Of Hazard giving guided tours and then letting us all try our hands throwing a tomahawk for target practice.

* The Meramec Caverns were a spot-on balance of "tourist trap cheese" and "actual natural wonder". It's been a "tourist trap" on Route 66 for decades, and used to have stuff inside the cave like a restaurant or a ballroom - but then discovered this was actually hurting the cave itself, so they moved the touristy tat to a couple of separate buildings on the grounds and you can only access the cave on a guided tour that they maintain pretty well. They do a deep dive into the history there - it's been used as an arms storage spot during the Civil War, Jesse James had a hideout there, and a handful of TV shows were filmed there - but they also spotlight some of the legitimately cool cave features; I particularly remember the "wine room", a small cavern where the stalactites were all in these blobby forms that looked like clusters of grapes and there was a stalagmite in the middle that SORT of looked like a table with a bottle of wine sitting on it.

....I WOULD tell you about the cheesiest thing I saw in Vegas, but that thing was the Sigfried and Roy show and that's long since ended.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:08 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]

Best answer: The Kansas ball of twine is specifically 'Largest ball of sisal twine', made of segments, and you can add your own; it's in reasonable proximity to the Largest Czech Egg and Largest Easel (with fake van Gogh). There are also the highest points of Oklahoma and Kansas which are...not.

If you send them to Missouri, Jim the Wonder Dog's garden was certainly a strange thing back in '02 when I went.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:36 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There isn't much to do at Carhenge, but it's still pretty cool.

Is Wall Drug still a thing? I feel like this is canonically what Wall Drug is for.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:42 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Center of the Universe in Tulsa
The "other" Eiffel Tower in Paris, TX
Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo
Big Texan Steak Ranch, also in Amarillo
posted by neushoorn at 7:45 AM on February 5

Best answer: South Dakota is chock full of tourist traps; they very much know you're only crossing it to get somewhere else and are desperate for your dollars. There's the obvious Wall Drug (with a jillion billboards starting 500 miles away) but there's also the (World's Only!) Corn Palace and Porter Sculpture Park. And apparently there's a SPAM Museum in Minnesota.
posted by sencha at 7:55 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Wall Drug has a really good Western history book selection, so let’s not get too snobby, please. Crazy Horse memorial.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:57 AM on February 5

Best answer: The entire town of Roswell, NM.
posted by credulous at 9:37 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I wouldn't (at all) call this a tourist trap, per se, but since the question mentions both New Mexico and willingness to trespass, I thought I'd mention Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field, which is a large and famous work of land art that's in a semi-secret location in NM and normally requires booking the one tiny cabin on the site months in advance to visit. That might be a fun thing for your characters to sneak into.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:50 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Grand Canyon Caverns in Peach Springs, Arizona sounds a lot like The Meramec Caverns that EmpressCallipygos mentions above. Genuinely incredible caverns, but everything else about the place is cheesy. Really, all along Route 66 you'll find roadside attractions that might scratch your itch.
posted by JaredSeth at 12:05 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We travelled a lot on Route 44 in MO, years ago-not sure what remains of….the world’s largest rocking chair, a vacuum cleaner museum, just follow the billboards. There was a Cave Restaurant that was a tourist trap. refresh a tourist’s sense of adventure with a slice of pie from the homemade pie shop in Rolla, MO, before or after you take in the replica of Stonehenge. The next big area is Ft. Leonard Wood, and after passing through security (they train MPs, among other MOS) and they likely would object to “tourist trap” categories, though there is a ton of Route 66 touristy shops on the way.

The Bigfoot Museum in Bailey CO likely qualifies.

South of the Border is not in your travel itinerary but was awful, even knowing it was a tourist trap.
posted by childofTethys at 1:16 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Uranus Fudge Factory is between St Louis and Springfield. It is, well, a fudge shop. That also has dinosaur statues. And a sword swallower. And a bunch of other things that belong more at a traveling carnival than a candy store. I went while on vacation last summer and wasn't expecting anything and it completely surprised me. And it might be a cult. It was hard to tell. But nothing like I thought it'd be. And yes everything is a play on the fact that it's called Uranus.
posted by downtohisturtles at 4:43 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The Billy the Kid museum in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. It's great. It starts off as an actual Billy the Kid museum, featuring such things as old guns that "might be similar to a gun Billy might have shot" and then gives up any pretense to Billy related objects eventually and meanders into room after room of neatly arranged, labeled stuff. Stuff like old Barbies and wagon wheels; lunchboxes, TV sets, dinner plates, whatever, you name it and they have it. It's all labeled. "Collection of toys, mid 1960s" - and it feels like whenever someone in town (it's a very small town) has anything they want to get rid of and don't know what to do with, they give it to the museum and it goes on display. I loved it; it's the perfect small town museum. I want to go back some day.

Also in Roswell, after the UFO museum - great, but also terrible, but actually no, it's mostly terrible - is a surprisingly good contemporary art museum. I went looking for UFO schlock and got sidelined by art, excellent juxtaposition.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:03 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

Oh and then there is Cadillac Ranch, which is . . . well. It is. Bring spray paint.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:06 AM on February 6

Best answer: As you're crossing the Ohio Turnpike, detour south on I-71 to Mansfield, Ohio, where you'll find Biblewalk, which consists of reclaimed wax figures dressed for scenes from the Bible. Nearby you can also visit the Ohio State Reformatory where they filmed parts of Shawshank Redemption.
posted by slogger at 10:27 AM on February 6

Best answer: Someone in this thread mentioned Oatman and oh god yes! Oatman is insane! It's a ghost town that is actually full of surly bikers selling t-shirts and other tourist junk and equally surly extremely fat wild burros demanding treats! The cacti and shrubs on the road there are festooned with Christmas ornaments! It's totally nuts and right up the road from Bullhead City, which is kind of an enjoyably weird place all by itself. Further west, consider a stop at Calico Ghost Town, which is like, hmmmm, Colonial Williamsburg but West! But tacky! And with much much more in your face costumed actor staged drama.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:48 PM on February 6

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