Roadside attractions: They’re all here

One-of-a-kind diversions off the beaten track are a memorable solution for curbing “getting there” antsiness.
Red Dock Café walls
Ornate decorations are found on the walls of Red Dock Café. Photography courtesy Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
By Jim DuFresne

They are three little words that you know all too well.

That’s because you used them as kid and now you’re hearing them every summer as a parent or grandparent while heading up north for vacation: How much longer?

Are your children really interested in the logistics and details of reaching the final destination? Or are they just getting restless? If it’s the latter you need a roadside attraction, a quirky amusement to rejuvenate everyone’s enthusiasm.

Here are five that my kids loved:

Sea Shell City. You can only drive north on I-75 so many times before a billboard about a “man-killing clam” entices you off at Exit 326 and into Sea Shell City. The fact that this sprawling, tropical nautical gift shop is located in northern Michigan is strange enough, but in the middle of all the refrigerator magnates and polished shells is a 505-pound giant clam from the Philippines — reputedly the largest mollusk in the world — that “has the capacity to snuff out a man’s life with one snap of its shells.”

iStock Photo of a ShellIn reality, this clam was a vegetarian that feasted on algae (

Dinosaur Gardens. Although it makes every tacky roadside attraction list, Dinosaur Gardens ( is actually an interesting, even eerie, place to visit.

The 40-acre park is south of Alpena on US-23 and features 27 life-size dinosaurs constructed in the late 1930s from concrete, wire, and deer hair, all located within the tangled branches of a cedar swamp. A winding path leads through the dark woods where a dino lies waiting for you around every bend. Eeek!

Junction Valley Railroad. In 1979, William Stenger began building a three-inch-scale model train (three inches equal a foot) and eventually transformed his wooded backyard in Bridgeport into Junction Valley Railroad (, the largest quarter-size railroad in the world. 

The layout includes 16 bridges and trestles, a 100-foot-long tunnel, 30 buildings, four miles of track and dozens of engines and railroad cars. The highlight for kids is a ride on the train, a two-mile, 20-minute journey complete with stations, switch yards and a stream that is crossed four times.

Castle Rock. Towering over I-75 near St. Ignace is Castle Rock (906-643-8268). Slick brochures say the 183-foot-tall sea stack was used by Indians as a lookout and that Pontiac, the great Ojibway chief, was thought to have stood on it. Of course it also says that Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, once sat at the base of it. Believe what you want.

To reach the rock you first have to pass through the Castle Rock Curios Shop, where you might lose the rest of the family among the Daniel Boone raccoon caps and fake arrowheads. Then you climb 170 steps to the top where the view is magnificent. Spread out below you is St. Ignace with Mackinac Island offshore and between the cities a handful of ferries hustling tourists back and forth.

Mystery Spot entrance, Mystery Ridge
Mystery Spot entrance, Mystery Ridge

The Mystery Spot. Mysterious places where Mother Nature seems to deceive physics dot the country, and Michigan has its own on US-2 just west of the Mackinac Bridge. At Mystery Spot you can join a guided tour of wall-walking, seat-balancing and body-shrinking in a strangely tilted building. If that’s not enough of a break, there are also zip lines and an 18-hole miniature golf course (

Then, yes. You’re almost there!

Jim DuFresne is a Clarkston-based travel writer and contributor to

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