On this large and diverse planet, anywhere can seem odd if you’ve never been there before. But some places are just a little bit stranger than the rest. Did you ever think of strolling among thousands of retired airplanes? Or searching for aliens in the desert? How about staring into a bubbling pit of tar filled with fossils?
Traveling to unusual places spurs curiosity, fosters courage and is just plain entertaining for everyone involved. Plan a trip to one of our picks of the USA's most unusual places and have an adventure that will leave you hearing, 'remember that one time?' for years to come.
The Boneyard, Tuscon, Arizona
With Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon and Cathedral Rock, Arizona is a classic destination for the great American road trip. But while you’re out exploring nature’s most awesome wonders, check out The Boneyard at the Aerospace Maintenance & Regeneration Group on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base just outside of Tucson.
More than 4400 old fighter jets and other military aircraft are lined up in the Arizona desert, making Davis-Monthan Air Force Base the largest airplane graveyard in the US. The dry heat and lack of rain in Arizona mean aircraft take a lot longer to rust and fall apart. Also, the hard desert floor is able to support the weight of the planes, so it doesn’t have to be paved over. Tours are only available through Pima Air & Space Museum, so call to book ahead.
As a college town, Tucson is both cultured and fun. There are eclectic shops and funky restaurants, perfect for kids. Check out the nearby Saguaro National Park for day hikes, horseback riding and back-country camping.
Synchronous fireflies, Great Smoky Mountains
There are only a handful of places in the world where a certain kind of firefly, the phontinus carolinus species, puts on a magical show for viewers. Once a year, in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in East Tennessee, these fantastical little creatures flicker in unison.
The only way to watch this mystical light show is to catch a shuttle from the Sugarlands Visitor Center during a specific (and predicted) week every year. It's a popular show so you’ll have to enter a lottery to secure a seat on the bus. But, if you camp in the Elkmont Campground, you can access the area by foot.
The Smokies are family-friendly fun waiting to happen. There are miles of hiking trails for all abilities plus ranger and park programs – not to mention horseback riding and whitewater rafting. To stay in the park, book campgrounds about six months in advance. Alternatively, outside the park there’s a wealth of options.
Mapparium, Boston, Massachusetts
This place is more cool than strange, but tucked into a hidden corner of the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston is a three-story, stained-glass globe. Bisecting the globe is a 30ft glass footbridge allowing visitors to examine the placement of the continents from the inside. Standing at the center of the globe allows viewers the most accurate image of the world without distortions normally caused by maps.
The politico-geographical borders haven’t been updated since 1934, so there are a variety of inaccuracies to a modern audience, but the spherical shape of the room also creates strange acoustic phenomena. For example, if you stand directly under the North Star and talk, you can hear yourself in surround sound and if you and a friend stand at either end of the bridge, you can whisper to one another and hear it perfectly.
The Mapparium is a great stop on a day of exploring Back Bay in Boston. But with so many museums and historical landmarks to check out, kids might start to get a little fidgety. Take them to the Esplanade Playspace on the Charles River for some multi-sensory wild time.
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone
Deeper than a 10-story building and bigger than a soccer field, the Grand Prismatic Spring is a bubbling cauldron of sulfurous spring water. In the center, the water is a scalding 189 degrees fahrenheit (87°C), but as it flows outwards it cools, creating circles of different temperatures that attract different types of bacteria. The bacteria color the water in bright rings of orange, yellow and green.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is a must-see on any trip to Yellowstone National Park, but ranger programs, bison spotting and belching mud pots will round out any family adventure to this bucket-list destination.
Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, Wilmington, North Carolina
A collection of carnivorous plants – including Venus flytraps and a variety of pitcher plants and sundews – grow over an acre in this little corner of Wilmington, North Carolina. As one of the only places in the US where carnivorous plants grow in the wild, this was the perfect spot for the world’s only public carnivorous plant garden. A walking path lined with signs leads into a piney forest and eventually to a low-lying swampy area where pitcher plants grow in abundance. Try feeding that mosquito on your arm to one of them!
Coastal North Carolina has miles of white sand beaches just begging for a family getaway and Wilmington is a charming little city to spend a couple days in on your way to the beach. If you venture away from the shops and restaurants at the historic Riverfront, check out laid-back Wrightsville Beach. When the surf is up you can rent board and take a lesson close to the pier.
La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles, California
Both macabre and completely strange, LA is home to one of the world's most fecund and famous fossil sites. Lakes of bubbling crude oil bubble up around Wilshire Blvd. in what was once a vast Savannah teeming with thousands of Ice Age creatures. When these animals found themselves stuck in the gooey muck, they often struggled to survive. What is left now is a trove of fossils for scientists to unearth.
Some 3.5 million fossils of over 600 species have been found in La Brea Tar Pits, everything from snakes and mollusks to sloths and mountain lions. While the sticky asphalt is challenging to clean off bones, it keeps them in pristine condition so scientists have been able to piece together bits of animal stories and behavior they wouldn't otherwise have access to — the site even preserves entire ecosystems. Budding paleontologists can learn all about these fossils as well as details about the excavations from docents and demonstrations at the onsite museum.
Not far from the Tar Pits is Chris Burden's art installation Urban Light. This collection of restored 1920s cast iron street lamps is a charming homage to LA history and a great photo backdrop for your family album.
Area 51, Nevada
There are all kinds of stories about Area 51. Some people think it used to store alien spaceships that crashed into Earth. Others say it's the site of secret meetings between aliens and the government. It’s also been said that scientists there are inventing time travel and teleportation devices. Whatever the truth is, this is a strange place to visit. Airplanes are not allowed to fly over and the US government didn’t even admit that it existed until 2005.
For your alien-loving brood, why not take them on a themed road trip around Nevada? State Route 375 was dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway and runs from Las Vegas through Crystal Spring near Area 51, past Tonopah and through the ghost town of Rhyolite and finally to Pahrump where martians landed in the 1996 film Mars Attacks!.
Ringing Rocks, Buck’s County, Pennsylvania
Road tripping on the East Coast? There is a strange and sonorous wonder in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania called Ringing Rocks Park. These rocks are not unique in the world, but very rare — if you hit them with a hammer, they resonate like a bell.
Situated between New York City and Philadelphia, Ringing Rocks and the rest of Buck’s County make for a great stop over. Covered kissing bridges abound in the area and the Delaware River meanders gently along just begging for an afternoon float. Head to Bucks County River Country to get water-worthy craft for your trip down river.
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