How Dinosaurs Became Kings of the American Roadside

Dinosaurs still rule the Earth. But mostly near gas stations.

Two hundred million years ago, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Today, they reign over the American roadside. 

As with pizza and hot dogs, every region of the US has a signature roadside attraction. Paul Bunyans populate the midwest. On the Gulf Coast, gigantic sharks reign over gift shops. Drive through enough southern counties and you’re sure to find the world’s biggest rocking chair. But whatever time zone you’re exploring, you’re bound to see a dinosaur. 

Hundreds upon hundreds of dinosaurs tower over the backroads of America. They are the most common off-highway oddities, yet each offers a unique look at the region they call home. Thunderlizards point the way to gem-laden gift shops in fossil-rich lands like Holbrook, Arizona. In Natural Bridge, Virginia, dinosaurs are still stuck in the Civil War, battling (and playing horse to) Union soldiers. In fame-crazy California, the most ‘grammed dinos are the brontosaurus and tyrannosaurus in Cabazon, made famous by one P.W. Herman, who, like countless desert-bound tourists, climbed up for a view from within Rex’s jaws.

America’s backroads are a living museum chronicling our dinosaur obsession.

Montana has so many prehistoric museums it even boasts a statewide Dinosaur Trail. But if that science is too sinful, you can have your dinosaurs with a side of Biblical interpretation. They’re present on a massive replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky, as well as at Alabama’s Dinosaur Adventure Land, an anti-evolution Creationist attraction claiming that dinosaurs are satanic propaganda and the earth is just 6,000 years old. But the dinosaurs are still rad. 

Weather-beaten dinos that look like Flintstones extras pop up along Route 66 with the same frequency as prefabricated diners. For something more high-tech, Dinosaur World is a full-blown theme park chain with locations in Florida, Texas, and Kentucky, complete with realistic, rideable raptors. And Wall Drug -- perhaps America’s most perfect attraction -- has both versions, boasting cartoonish bronto statues and a lifelike animatronic T. Rex that roars every 15 minutes. 

For as long as there have been road trips, there have been dinosaurs. But why?

Dinosaurs roam the lands of Holbrook, Arizona | Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Ever since the first American dinosaur fossil was discovered, dinos have been at the forefront of our collective imagination, from early sci-fi novels to big city museums. Through the one-two punch of the automotive boom and the advent of cinema, dinos clung on. An adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World captivated viewers at nickelodeons even before King Kong started slugging it out with giant lizards on the silver screen. 

It’s no coincidence roadside dinos started popping up soon after in the ‘30s. If these big-ass monsters could lure people to movie theaters, the thinking went, maybe they could lure them off the road to a small town diner as well.

“There’s a car-culture connection,’” says Doug Kirby, co-founder of the legendary Roadside America website and books, which have chronicled some 15,000 roadside gems since the mid ‘80s. “Dinosaurs are somehow ‘American.’ Science knows these are all over the planet, but there’s something about the way America embraced its bounty of fossils and started putting them in museums.” 

Unlike many old-school roadside attractions -- those big balls of yarn or oversized kitchenware -- roadside dinosaurs evolved over time with our scientific understanding of them. As Jurassic Park ushered in the age of the velociraptor and technological advances pointed to a modern association with birds, newly reimagined dinos popped up alongside the crumbling, cartoonish versions. America’s backroads have transformed into a living museum chronicling our dinosaur obsession, as well as a roadmap to how we’ve long understood -- or misunderstood -- dinosaurs.

“Just like there are layers you can dig down and find older and older versions of fossils, you can dig through the ages of tourist attractions,” says Kirby, perhaps America's foremost roadside dinosaur expert. “You have generations of Americans growing up with the idea that dinosaurs were part of the landscape, but they’re also being completely misinformed about what they looked like and how they behaved.

"You’ll see dinosaurs in all kinds of environments that make no sense, but they don’t seem wrong. If you see a dinosaur in a rainforest or a jungle, that looks right. If you see them on a rocky hill or a desert…. that looks right as well.”

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Wall Drug features 80 towering feet of outdated science | Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

It helps that dinosaurs are just so damn appealing. They’re just as at home populating rest stops in places they never existed (like Florida) as they are at legitimate excavation sites. They lure road warriors off the highway with the promise of a picture and a memory, but also become compass points for generations.

“People don’t lose their interest. Kids love monsters, or they love science, or they love both,” says Kirby. “If you don’t love science, you can love the monster part. If you love science you can go in and be a real dinosaur nerd.”

The current pandemic has revived these bygone relics for a new generation of road-tripping proto-Griswolds. In an era when monuments continue to tumble, the dinosaurs have persevered, luring the curious to uncharted territory, or maybe just a slice of diner pie. These, perhaps, are the true monuments of America.

“With all the current controversy about what part of our history we’re now ashamed of, dinosaurs seem to be weathering this pretty well,” says Kirby. “The dinosaur parks are going to be there no matter what new plague falls on it.”

Senior travel editor Andy Kryza makes his family stop at every single dinosaur he sees...  and he sees a lot of them. Follow him to very weird family-therapy sessions @apkryza