5 Funky Carolina Roadside Attractions
Make your next long car ride fun with these interesting roadside attractions.
Sometimes the best part of a family road trip isn’t the destination.
As you pack the minivan for the annual beach vacation or mountain retreat, plan to make the most of your time together by visiting some of the funky, family-friendly roadside attractions that line the byways of North and South Carolina. From giant furniture and retro theme parks to out-of-the-way state parks and homemade ice cream shops, the Carolinas have some of the most unique attractions around.
Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs
Corner of Barnes & Douglas streets, Wilson
Once a machinery repairman, Vollis Simpson has spent the past 30 years as a self-taught folk artist. His "whirligigs" — massive mechanical windmills — have been a popular roadside attraction in Wilson County, 45 minutes east of Raleigh, for decades.
Simpson's welded and painted constructions are monumental in scale, with the largest, Horse Wagon, measuring in at 60 feet tall and weighing about two tons. Many of his works have been exhibited in museums, including the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. But more than 30 of the pieces have spent the past two decades in a field on Simpson’s rural farm.
Now the giant mechanical windmills have been relocated to a warehouse in downtown Wilson to undergo an extensive conservation effort. When finished, the brightly painted works will be the centerpieces of a new two-acre public sculpture garden.
Before the Wilson Whirligig Park opens in November, travelers can see many of the restored devices outside the conservation headquarters at the corner of Barnes and Douglas streets. Others can be found on street corners around Wilson. Tours of the warehouse may be scheduled on weekdays during business hours by calling Danny Price with the Whirligig Park Project.
Wheels Through Time
62 Vintage Lane, Maggie Valley
Wheels Through Time, nestled in the Smoky Mountains near Cherokee, is no dusty history museum. Its collection of rare American vintage motorcycles and memorabilia brings visitors’ imaginations roaring to life, while also working to preserve the two-wheeled vehicles’ history.
Founded by Dale Walksler in 1993, Wheels Through Time houses more than 300 of the country’s most unique, historic motorcycles. They are displayed in the 38,000-square-foot facility along with thousands of pictures and artifacts — including vintage tires, fenders, wheel rims and other spare parts.
The museum features more than 24 motorcycle brands, such as Harley-Davidson, Indian and Crocker, along with other vehicles powered by motorcycle engines. Some are one-of-a-kind machines with unique stories — including an ice sled that transported alcohol during Prohibition and a motorized mine car found more than 60 years after a mine collapse.
All of the motorcycles have been restored to running condition, and Walkser and his son, Matt, often demonstrate their power for visitors. A few lucky guests have been known to catch a ride in a sidecar as Walkser explores the winding mountain roads around Maggie Valley.
South of the Border
3346 Highway 301 North, Dillon, S.C.
Bill Warren Photography
Part theme park, part motor lodge and wholly unique, South of the Border is a larger-than-life roadside landmark. It has been welcoming travelers to South Carolina since 1949, when businessman Alan Shafer built a small beer stand on the side of Highway 301.
Sixty years later, the 300-acre complex features a motel, restaurants, carnival rides, mini golf courses and more. It’s capped by the 200-foot-high Sombrero Observation Tower, where travelers can overlook the Border’s grounds, as well as the surrounding Pee Dee swampland.
It’s hard to miss the retro wonderland near the North and South Carolina border, with about 175 billboards heralding its grandeur on highways from Virginia to Georgia. Prominently featured on each sign is Pedro, South of the Border’s sombrero-clad mascot. Visitors can drive through the legs of a 97-foot-tall Pedro on their way to the Border’s main restaurant and gift shop.
Despite its throwback appearance, South of the Border recently underwent major renovations to most of its attractions, including the 300-room motor inn. Its most recent additions are a reptile lagoon and a motocross training facility.
Kalawi Farms and Ben’s Ice Cream
1515 N.C. 211, Eagle Springs
With its welcoming porch swings, picturesque gazebo and bounty of fresh produce, Kalawi Farms has been a favorite pit stop for families on their way to the North Carolina coast for more than 25 years.
Located beside Highway 211 in Moore County, the sprawling farm stand offers a variety of fruit and vegetables, including tomatoes, watermelons, squash, onions and sweet potatoes. A few feet away, Ben’s Ice Cream shop churns out countless scoops daily for hungry travelers. But Kalawi’s real claim to fame is its peaches.
More than 4,000 peach trees flourish in the farm’s fertile Sandhills soil. By late fall, when peach season ends, the farm will have produced more than 40 varieties of the juicy fruit. The peaches are trucked to farmers markets and grocery stores across the state, but nowhere can they be found as fresh as at Kalawi’s roadside stand, located just yards away from the trees that produced them.
Kalawi Farms and Ben’s Ice Cream are open from Easter through Thanksgiving. In addition to its famous peaches, Kalawi offers a corn maze and hayrides in the fall.
World’s Largest Chest of Drawers and World's Largest Chair
508 North Hamilton St., High Point
Highway 109 & Main Street, Thomasville
In the region known as the "Home Furnishings Capital of the World," travelers can also find some of the biggest furniture around. Downtown High Point boasts the record-holding World’s Largest Chest of Drawers, and nearby Thomasville features the World’s Largest Chair — both built to celebrate the cities’ furniture-making heritage.
As tempting as it may be, Thomasville’s 10.5-foot-wide Duncan Phyfe armchair isn’t meant for relaxing during a road-trip rest stop. The concrete structure is 30 feet high, and the striped "upholstery" is actually brightly painted cement. For those who need a rest, there are benches nearby in the quaint town square with a view of the giant chair.
Just a few miles away, High Point’s huge bureau has been a local landmark since 1926. It was remodeled in 1996, transforming the building’s façade into a 38-foot-tall Goddard-Townsend dresser. One drawer features a pair of dangling socks, representing the city’s hosiery industry.
Katie Parsley is a freelance writer, mom of two daughters and lives in Statesville.