We stopped at a few exceptional rest areas on our trip this summer, and I wanted to share what we found on the blog…but none of them by themselves really seemed to justify an entire post. So I thought maybe I’d group them together into a Best Interstate Rest Areas for Kids round-up kind of thing. And one thing led to another, and now I’m obsessed with researching rest areas.
I’m not unique in my newfound obsession, it turns out. There’s a whole website devoted to the history of rest areas. And photographer Ryann Ford has compiled her photos of these vanishing relics into a book (affiliate link). Speaking of which, did you know that rest areas are endangered? They’re expensive to maintain and staff, so many state are closing some or all of their rest areas. We noted this phenomenon this summer, in fact, particularly in California. It’s not such a big deal if you’re in a car; you can just pull off at the next exit and find a McDonald’s or wherever to stop, but RVers and truckers really rely on rest areas as places they know they can safely park to rest or go to the bathroom or eat lunch.
Safety Rest Areas, as they are officially known, are part of the US Interstate Highway system that was built in the 50’s, and were intended to provide safe places for drivers to stop, with simple amenities like restrooms and picnic areas. But they quickly became the place where states had free reign to show off some elements of local design and architecture and brought some regional character to an otherwise homogenous system of roads.
I’ve always liked rest areas. Rest areas mean you’re on a trip. You don’t stop at them when you’re driving around town or going out for a day trip. You’re there because you’re going somewhere. And now that I’ve spent approximately twelve hours reading all about their history, I’m starting to see them also as symbols of a time when Americans expected that the people and their government could get together and do great big, important, idealistic things. A massive modern highway system connecting the entire country! The highway system to bring us all together and then the rest areas, with their plucky devotion to regionalism and good design, to remind us that we’re also a country of fascinating, wonderful difference. A highway system that encouraged travelers to cross whole states without really seeing them….and then rest areas that insisted the travelers wouldn’t leave without seeing at least a little of what made that state its own place.
But in this post I’m not focusing on the prettiest or most historic rest areas, but on the ones that have something…extra going on–something like a playground, or a historic site, or a nature trail, or just a beautiful view–that makes them particularly great places to stop, particularly when you’re traveling with kids. Although many grown ups can also appreciate an especially great rest area, I imagine. But maybe not playgrounds so much. And maybe this is the future of rest areas, the thing that makes them relevant again and worth saving and funding. While we saw tons of closed rest areas on our trip, we also saw many shiny, newer rest areas that clearly had been carefully designed to offer more than just a place to stop and go to the bathroom.
When we were planning our trip, I searched and searched for some sort of online directory of super fun rest areas, but I came up empty. There are a number of apps for finding rest areas (I downloaded the one from AllStays, which is $1.99, and another one called USA Rest Stop Locator, which is free). AllStays lets you filter for a number of things, including RV dump stations, pet walk areas, eastbound vs. westbound, and WiFi….but not play area or scenic view or nature trail or anything like that. If you click on the individual rest areas, these features are often noted in the descriptions, though. Anyway, I’m mulling over putting together my own directory of super fun rest areas and offering it as an ebook or a bonus for new subscribers or some other thing like that that real bloggers do….but we’ll see.
In the meantime, though, here are a couple of rest areas that we found both RV and kid friendly and that were great stops to break up our driving days.
This is on I-90 at milepost 264.4 (both directions). South Dakota bills this as an Information Center, which means that, unlike a rest area, it’s staffed seasonally with “travel counselors” who can give you information on area attractions. And there is a big room here with all the South Dakota booklets and brochures you could ever want and staff on hand to answer questions. But there’s also a beautifully done Lewis and Clark museum, complete with a replica of a keelboat to explore.
You can easily spend half an hour in here. But wait, there’s more! Outside, there’s a short trail to a scenic overlook of the Missouri River (incidentally, the contrast between the eastern side of the river in South Dakota and the western side is stark and impressive).
You can see one of the stone teepees that are found at all the SD welcome centers:
And then the recently completed main attraction: a 50 foot statue of a Native American woman:
Wyoming Welcome Center: We stopped here just after crossing into Wyoming on I-90
The building itself is very nicely designed, and the grounds have great views and some nice artwork:
Inside there’s a staffed information desk and tons of brochures on the state’s attractions, plus a few nice, museum-type exhibits and displays about the state:
Also you can ride on this horse:
And Dave would like for me to tell you that there was free coffee there, too.
These were the two stops that stood out the most and the ones I had managed to find out about and plan beforehand, but a couple of others also impressed us.
I thought I took a picture of it, but apparently I’m wrong, but the Bell County rest area on I-35 just north of Austin impressed us with it’s shiny new, attractive building and it’s nice looking playground (we didn’t actually stop to play because it was 103). Word is Texas has updated several of its rest areas in a similar way in recent years.
There wasn’t anything especially awesome about the welcome center in Vicksburg, MS (in fact, there was very little RV parking), but there was a nice little walkway behind the building where we could admire this view, finally back on our own side of the Mississippi:
And that’s all I’ve got for you right now, so I’d better get back to my research! I hear amazing things about Iowa’s rest areas, for example, and there are a couple in Vermont that look awesome, too. I hear one even hands out free samples of maple candy.
Anyone else have a favorite rest area to share? Tell me about it in the comments!
Read more about our cross country trip:
Road Trip Post 1: starting off, St. Louis, etc.
Road Trip Post 2: South Dakota
Road Trip Post 3: Wyoming
Road Trip Post 4: Idaho, Oregon, N. California
Road Trip Post 5: San Francisco and the Grand Canyon
Road Trip Post 6: New Mexico, Texas, and home
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