Welcome to Alliance, Nebraska | Courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Commission
Welcome to Alliance, Nebraska | Courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Commission

Oh, Just A Giant Replica of Stonehenge Made Of Cars In The Middle Of Nowhere

The strangely sweet tale of Carhenge.

Driving through Nebraska’s panhandle, you'll encounter everything you expect: rolling waves of grain, jewel-toned wildflowers, and herds upon herds of cattle. But hit the stretch of County Road 59 due north of Alliance and you’ll come across something decidedly unexpected: Jutting from the High Plains like a trippy mirage, a marriage of ancient Druidic mysticism and red-blooded automotive ingenuity. Welcome to Carhenge. 

Yes, it's exactly what its name evokes: A replica of Stonehenge constructed of cars and plopped into the dirt. Some are welded together to form arches, all are situated into a majestic formation in an area otherwise marked by vast swaths of farmland. It is a paragon of roadside Americana, chilling in the nothing like a calm Midwestern cousin of a Burning Man installation. 

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More than 100,000 people were drawn into Carhenge last year | Courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Commission

Carhenge's story began, fittingly, at actual Stonehenge. Native Nebraskan Jim Reinders spent some time in England studying the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Upon returning to the state to mourn the passing of his father in 1982, the farmer turned artist wanted to erect an unforgettable memorial in his honor. 
He began collecting old cars and trucks -- American-made models from the '50s-'60s -- and spraypainting them gray on a 10-acre patch of his family’s farm near Nebraska’s oft-overlooked Sandhills National Natural Landmark. With attention to the proportions of the real Stonehenge, Reinders, 30 family members, and their trusty forklift then got to work plunking 38 vehicles into the earth, standing them upright as they had been dropped bumper first from on high. 
And he placed them with intent: Many suggest that Stonehenge was used for rituals based on solar and lunar movement. Accordingly, Carhenge was unveiled on the summer solstice in June of 1987.

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Among the fleet buried in the ground are Fords, Chevrolets, a Nash Ambassador, and a Gremlin | Courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Commission

Today, Carhenge is so ingrained in Alliance's identity that it graces the masthead of the local newspaper. But when it debuted, Carhenge was the hot-button controversy of 1987.  

Current Mayor Mike Dafney recalls joining the city council a year after Carhenge's completion and finding officials up in arms about the peculiar structure. At the time, the ethereal sculpture garden was in violation of zoning laws under the Planning Commission: Amid his burst of creativity, Reinders had neglected to pull permits, and many town members wanted his tribute to his dad dismantled. 

Eventually, the debate resulted in a change in jurisdictional boundaries, thus ending the city’s control of the property and paving the way for Carhenge to become a point of pride for Alliance and a legendary destination for road trippers. 

Laughing, Dafney said that the best quote he can think of to describe Carhenge is a borrowed one from the state tourism office’s tagline: “It’s not for everyone.” The mayor says that the monument is one of the area’s primary tourism drivers: Last year, it drew a record 100,000+ visitors to the town of 8,000.

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Darkness falls on Carhenge | Courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Commission

As Carhenge's legend grew, the attraction itself expanded. The site -- now owned and operated by Alliance itself -- expanded to include the Car Art Preserve, a grouping of sculptures made of discarded car parts. Original mastermind Reinders himself added to the car-art expansion with his cheeky “The Fourd Seasons,” a tribute to Midwestern seasons and the backbone wheat crop. There’s also a gift shop that operates in the summertime aptly named the Pit Stop. Admission to everything is free.

And in 2017, Carhenge managed, for a brief moment, to surpass its inspiration in the cosmic department. As the world clamored to see the total eclipse of the sun, Alliance and Carhenge found themselves in the path of totality. People -- among them Reinders and the state’s governor -- flocked to the sculpture garden to see the once-in-a-lifetime event unfold. As the area was engulfed in darkness, Carhenge stood mystical amid a historic astronomical event.

The druids would have marveled.

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Katy Spratte Joyce is a Midwest born-and-bred writer with extreme reactions to the term "flyover country." She holds strong opinions about lakes, Dairy Queen, and Paul Bunyan. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The New York Times, Chilled Magazine, and more. Follow her @katysjoyce