Opinion

Rhinehart: The hidden tourist attractions found off Arizona highways

Posted 1/26/21

Arizona’s highways can seem pretty desolate at times, miles upon miles of emptiness.

Then, in the distance, you see it, a much-needed spot to pull over, gas up and perk up before hitting …

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Opinion

Rhinehart: The hidden tourist attractions found off Arizona highways

Posted

Arizona’s highways can seem pretty desolate at times, miles upon miles of emptiness.

Then, in the distance, you see it, a much-needed spot to pull over, gas up and perk up before hitting the road once more.

Yet, in many instances, these are not your ordinary pit stops, these are actually roadside attractions. Those kitschy, weird even corny establishments that end up being not at all what they advertised themselves to be.

Just east of Interstate 17 in Camp Verde is the world’s largest Kokopelli or commonly known as “that big flute player.” This giant yellow sculpture stands 32 feet tall and weighs a whopping 5 and a-half tons.

The Navajo Indian god of wealth and fertility is a symbol seen across the Southwest, but this one was simply a giant billboard for the former Krazy Kokopelli trading post which is now a coffee shop and Mexican restaurant.

On the other hand, you don’t always have to be big to get noticed.

Sometimes being the smallest can earn you quite the reputation and turn your supposed shortcomings into bragging rights.

In the town of Superior just off highway 60 is the world’s smallest museum.

Once an ordinary tuff shed, now a 134 square foot collection of not so small treasures. Dan Wight and Jake Reaney opened the museum in the mid 90s as a way to lure diners into their next-door Buckboard Café.

Some of the unique exhibits you can check out include a 1984 Compaq computer, a Beatles concert poster, a 1960 letter from President-elect John F. Kennedy and the world’s largest Apache tear. An Apache tear is a semi-precious gemstone and this type of obsidian rock only comes from Superior.

During the Cold War, there were 54 Titan II nuclear installations in the United States.

Today, there is one left just off I-19 in Sahuarita, AZ. By treaty, all of the Titan Missiles had to be destroyed but this one, which closed in 1982, was allowed by the Soviets to survive as a museum and tourist attraction.

In 1986 it began offering guided tours through the missile where you get an up-close view of the components including the launch key that still flashes.

What makes this “museum” interesting is that it was actually a weapon capable of mass destruction 9,000 miles away.

What I think is most remarkable is throughout history when a country developed an effective weapon, sooner or later that weapon has been used in a conflict, but not a single Titan Missile was ever fired and that crates the ominous case for peace through deterrence. It really is a remarkable piece of history and found only off an Arizona highway.

More than just a roadside attraction, this monument in Winslow, Arizona is an all-out destination.

Even if you are not an Eagles fan, chances are you’ve heard the lyrics from their song “Take it Easy,” about standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona. In fact, in some ways, that song and those lyrics helped put this historic town back on the map.

Winslow, which is located on route 66 between Flagstaff and the New Mexico border was the largest town in northern Arizona until 1-40 by-passed the town in the late 1970s.

In 1998, the town created the Standin’ on the Corner Park paying homage to the song written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey made famous by the Eagles. In the song, the lyrics depict a guy on the corner and a girl driving by him in a flat bed Ford.

The park has it all, a life size bronze statue of a guy with a guitar and a two-story Trompe L’oeil mural where you can see the girl in the flat bed ford reflected in the storefront.

The town now estimates 100,000 people stop by every year to stand on that corner making Winslow more than a roadside pit stop.

If you have ever driven east on I-10 past Tucson, you can’t miss those distinctive yellow signs asking you if you know the Mystery of the Desert and to stop somewhere outside Benson at a Dairy Queen/Gas Station to see the Thing.

Guess what? Thousands of people, like me and my crew, have stopped to check out this half souvenir shop, half museum of oddities.

Truth be told, my inner child got a real kick out of the imaginative tale that included both dinosaurs and aliens, that the attraction owners wove together that leads you to big attraction.

Oh, yeah, about The Thing, if I told you what it was, it would spoil the thrill of going and that is why I totally recommend you follow the signs.

From US 60 to I-10, I-19 to I-17, Highway 93 to Route 66, Arizona’s roadways build connections to our past with stops that let us linger a little or awhile.

Some have been called tourist traps but today they’ve gained cult status luring travelers off our Arizona highways.

From the world’s biggest to the smallest to the biggest inside the smallest, roadside stops force you to slow down, take a look, enjoy the photo op and like the song says, just “take it easy.”

Editor’s Note: Keri Rhinehart is production manager of Arizona Highways Television.

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