Rest stops are very useful to long distance travelers – especially those with small children who need to “go” five minutes after leaving the McDonald’s Playplace! But they can be so much more than simply an unplanned emergency stop – and there are many more alternatives to them along your route as well. If you put on blinders and have tunnel vision for your final destination and don’t take the time to notice the interesting sites along the way, you are shortchanging yourself and your family.
This post isn’t just about where to stop to go pee. It’s about putting some thought into your roadtrip planning to make the trip itself the destination! When you take the time to scout out the road ahead using a road atlas, Google Earth and other websites, you will often find there are multiple routes to your final destination as well as numerous interesting sites along your route. Don’t leave it up to your GPS alone to simply pick the fastest or most-direct route for you. Use that as a guide, compare alternative routes, and do a little research to see what exists along the way. Obviously, you won’t be able to stop everywhere, but knowing your options and marking your map will enable you to make even your rest stops a memorable part of your trip.
As I am beginning to understand RVers, rest stops might even be places one plans to stop at, although not for quick restroom visits. Some actually use it as a “in-between” place to stay overnight. A place without hookups – a place to boondock as it is referred to. However, I am not writing as an experienced RVer. I have only traveled in an RV once and it was many years ago. I am, however, an experienced roadtripper. Sometimes a quick pass through a highway rest area is a simple necessity. Other times, it can be a scheduled stop.
Rest stops aren’t just for quick bathroom breaks. They are also places to stretch the legs, perhaps take a short nap to prevent drowsiness while driving, or to walk the dog. Some highway rest areas double as scenic viewpoints, although those are often separate stops. Many highway rest stops have visitor information kiosks and occasionally historical markers. Highway rest areas can also be home to hidden treasure or interesting waymarks. Many people also pack a cooler for their trip and stop at a rest area to eat in order to save money and eat healthy instead of getting fast food from a gas station or drive-thru. With all that in mind, what other places are there along your route which provide the same services?
The aforementioned Playplaces are great for kids to run around in and burn off some energy; but the food isn’t the healthiest or cheapest and you don’t get the fresh clean air of an outdoor playground full of trees. They aren’t the most scenic or educational either. Of course, if it’s raining, you might want an indoor playplace.
Most travelers don’t think of municipal parks as a planned stop on a road trip. They are generally not advertised from the freeway and most kids won’t get excited about it if you ask them, especially when their sights are set on something more exciting at their final destination. However, they usually have playgrounds, where rest stops do not. Also, stopping at a public park is a great way to meet the locals. Perhaps you’ll start up a discussion about your homeschool roadtrip or where the best place to eat is. You won’t get that at a rest stop.
If you do a little bit of research with Google Maps and Waymarking.com, you can locate public parks and playgrounds along your route, which are often very close to the interstate. And if you know about them ahead of time and mark them on your map or GPS receiver, you can stop there in lieu of a rest stop.
If you look at the screen shot of Google Earth below, you will see on the right side, the interstate – marked with a blue pushpin. On the left, marked with a red pushpin, is an off-leash dog park and below it (marked with a green picnic table icon) is a public park and playground. South of the playground is a “fitness trail”. It is not marked on the map but it is view-able at Waymarking.com – good to know if you’re trying to fit in an exercise routine on your trip.
Of course if you are travelling through a long stretch of desert, you might think you are unlikely to find a cool, shady public park nearby. But with a little bit of advance planning, you might map one just prior to, or immediately after, the stretch of desert highway.
Travelling from Southern California to Phoenix to visit family friends, most online maps will advise me to take the I-10. We choose to take the I-8 through Yuma instead. The route is longer in mileage, but only slightly longer in travel time – twenty minutes – all else being equal. But, the route itself has more to offer.
At the eastern end of San Diego County, near the Mexican border, just before you enter the desert to get to Yuma, there is a little oddity we have stopped at a number of times. The Desert View Tower is – well, it’s a tower, at the edge of the desert, and it offers a nice view, and it has a gift shop and restrooms and uniquely carved boulders kids love to play on and around, and desert “springs” (pay at your own risk to go see them). On one visit, the kids’ attention was captured by U.S. Border Patrol helicopters buzzing the nearby foothills. This can be a good starting point for an important discussion about our nation’s borders, immigration and drug smuggling.
After a short drive through the desert, we pass through El Centro. Now El Centro may not offer much, if anything, in the way of tourist attractions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get anything out of it along the way. If you look closely at Google Maps, you might notice the community of Dixieland just west of Seely/El Centro. You might ask the kids if they think the name of that place has something to do with all the cotton fields you passed by. Then you can research the name of the song, talk about the south and the Civil War, El Centro’s economy and the California Desert. If you anticipate that you might want to stop for a leg stretch nearby, then mark Sunbeam Lake Park near Seely or Bucklin Park near El Centro on your map. Both of which are freeway close and are great traditional rest stop alternatives. Remember, this isn’t a promo for I-8 or El Centro or Yuma. It is about getting you to plan your route to meet your needs.
After you pass through this farmland in the middle of the desert, you will cross the desert before you arrive in Yuma. As Yuma may not be your final destination, all you need to do to find a little oasis, is zoom in on the Google Map and “travel” along the Interstate until you find a municipal or other park nearby. If you want, you can look up the parks and recreation department for the city or county you are in to see what amenities are available at each park, if you can’t tell by looking at the map.
After having said all of that, I may very well decide to travel along the I-10 to Phoenix one day. But it will likely be to see what, if anything, I’ve missed by taking the I-8 all this time. And that is a far better reason than taking it because my GPS receiver told me to do so.
Here are some resources to help you find interesting sites along your route.
- Central Iowa farmers object to losing land for rest stops (gazetteonline.com)
- March 19, 1995- The Howard Stern Rest Stop (todayinhh.com)
- Prison time for man who used camera to tape women using rest-stop bathroom (timesunion.com)
- House Transportation Bill Promotes A New Roadside Attraction: Lottery Machines (huffingtonpost.com)
- State officials still want commercial rest stops along highways (dispatch.com)
- Free New Year’s coffee, tea at Thruway rest stops (mysanantonio.com)