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10 tourist traps to love

These roadside attractions dole out equal portions of schlock and awe.

Downtown Wisconsin Dells.

© Beth Gauper

Downtown Wisconsin Dells is a honky-tonk mix of carnival-style tourist attractions and souvenir shops.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with their tourist traps. Theyíre so uncool . . . but so irresistible.

What makes something a tourist trap? Itís a place thatís so cheesy you have to see if itís really as cheesy as it looks. A place so iconic youíve seen a million pictures of it. A place plugged by thousands of highway billboards.

Mostly, itís a place everyone else has seen ó so you have to, too. We canít help ourselves, especially when it comes to anything thatís odd or oversized.

And why not? Few tourist traps have no redeeming qualities at all, and most actually are pretty cool ó or so youíll think afterward, once the headache fades (Iím talking about you, House on the Rock).

Here are 10 tourists traps that might make you roll your eyes but still are worth a visit.

Wisconsin Dells

So youíre standing under the tail of the plane sticking out of Ripleyís Believe It or Not, staring at the billboards all around you: Gentlemenís Club. Torture Museum. Dells Bells Wedding Chapel.

Las Vegas? No, this is the town that TripAdvisor just named Best Destination in the U.S. for Families.

Families that don't mind constant over-stimulation, apparently. There's also a 60-foot Trojan horse, an upside-down White House, a Castle of Terror and, of course, a lot of roller coasters and water slides.

Roadside America, the bible of tourist traps, calls it ďone of America's most over-the-top tourism meccas,íí and it certainly is.

Why you have to go: Your kids will make you.

What if you donít want to? Skip the Vegas-like strip and concentrate on the quiet side of the Dells, preferably after Labor Day and before Memorial Day. Along the river, the Dells are just as beautiful as they were when photographer H.H. Bennett made them famous.

Creepy clowns at House on the Rock.

© Beth Gauper

You may feel eyes following you around House on the Rock.

House on the Rock

Perched on a limestone spire overlooking the Wisconsin River Valley and Frank Lloyd Wright's beloved Taliesen, this rambling complex near Spring Green is full of stuff, some museum-quality and some flea market-quality.

House on the Rock is like a train wreck ó looking won't make you feel good, but it's impossible to turn away. If you want to see everything, it's a 2Ĺ-mile walk from the original "Japanese house'' and Infinity Room to the Doll Carousel Room, and you'll be accompanied the whole way by tinny music from dozens of vaguely sinister mechanical orchestras.

You'll be exhausted, but you'll also be amazed. And you'll be asking one question: Why?

Why you have to go: 1) Because dozens of highway signs say you do. 2) Once you've seen it, you don't have to go again.

Navy Pier

Millennium Park may be tourists' favorite milling-around spot now, but Navy Pier became Chicago's No. 1 tourist attraction after it was reopened in 1995, and it keeps adding ingenious new ways to separate tourists from their cash.

Outside, there's a Ferris wheel, musical carousel, wave swinger and various thrill rides.

Much of the inside is lined with souvenir shops and snack stands. Don't go there, if you have children who beg.

Why you have to go: There's a lot of free stuff to see and hear, too ó pirate shows by the resident Navy Pier Buccaneers, marching bands, beer-garden concerts, a stained-glass museum, Wednesday and Saturday fireworks. Just keep a good grip on your wallet.

Mall of America

Thereís literally no bigger tourist trap than this vast mall in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, with 4.2 million square feet of stores, restaurants and attractions.

Itís the No. 1 tourism attraction in Minnesota ó those 10,000 lakes arenít even in the running.

The attractions include Nickelodeon Universe, the nation's largest indoor family theme park ó you do love SpongeBob SquarePants, don't you? ó which offers more than 30 rides, including the Dutchman's Deck adventure high-ropes course.

There's also the 1.2 million-gallon Sea Life Minnesota aquarium, FlyOver America  flight simulation ride and an 18-hole miniature golf course.

And then there's that other attraction ó no tax on clothing.

Why you have to go: Because everyone back home will think thereís something wrong with you if you donít.

Paul Bunyan

Bemidji's famous Paul Bunyan and Babe.

© Beth Gauper

Paul and Babe await tourists on Bemidji's lakefront.

In Minnesota, no one leaves Bemidji without getting a picture taken with Paul Bunyan.

This 18-foot, plaid-shirted lumberjack began the mania for oversized town mascots when local Rotarians built him to attract people to  the town's Winter Carnival in 1937.

Paul and his blue ox Babe were a hit, landing on the pages of Life magazine and the New York Times. In 1938, Bemidji's Winter Carnival drew 100,000 people to the town of 7,200, and now Paul and Babe are considered the height of Americana, appearing in coffee-table books the world over.

There's also a giant Paul in nearly Akeley, his hand extended so kids can climb on. Seven miles east of Brainerd, a 27-foot Paul Bunyan at Bunyanland theme park can talk. And Paul Bunyan's wife, a buxom 17-footer, lives in Hackensack.

Why you have to go: You havenít really been to Minnesota unless you've snapped a picture of a giant Bunyan. (In a pinch, though, snap one of the many other giants in the region.)

Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum

Big muskie in Hayward.

© Beth Gauper

The mouth of Hayward's giant muskie is a favorite spot for weddings.

This complex in the northern Wisconsin town of Hayward includes 300 mounted fish, 1,000 antique motors and 50,000 lures, rods, reels and accessories.

But what reels in the tourists is the 4Ĺ-story concrete and fiberglass muskellunge, the local trophy fish. It's half a city block long, and its jaws are big enough for 20 people or, occasionally, a wedding party.

Why you have to go: There are a lot of fiberglass fish in the north woods, but this is the biggest.

Niagara Cave

Did you think you'd checked Paul Bunyan off your list? Not so fast. This cave near the Minnesota town of Harmony, one of several near the Iowa border, includes a ledge that guides long called Paul Bunyan's bed.

Tours indulge in less kitsch these days, but guides still point out an Elephantís Head, a three-tier Wedding Cake and the Battleship.

Every cave is as sensational as your imagination ó so bring yours stoked to see the most. There's also a 60-foot waterfall, a Cathedral Dome formed by a whirlpool and a 625-foot Grand Canyon Room, not to mention thickets of stalactites.

Why you have to go: It's cool, all right ó 48 degrees year-round.

Corn Palace

The Corn Palace.

© Beth Gauper

Every year, there's a new tableau on the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.

If you like to look at the seed art at the Minnesota State Fair, you'll love the facade of this 1921 Moorish exposition hall in Mitchell, S.D.

Every year, local grain, grasses and 13 shades of corn are arranged in a mural illustrating a theme.

There are free guided tours, with guides sharing "a-maize-ing'' facts about how the murals are created. Stay for a rodeo, car show, tractor pull or polka festival inside.

Why you have to go: The drive to the Black Hills would be really boring if you didnít.

Mackinac Island

This island in the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron is more fudgy than cheesy. As soon as tourists step off the boat, theyíre assailed by aromas from a dozen fudge shops as well as aromas from something else thatís brown and gooey ó manure from the hundreds of horses who pull tourists around in wagons and carriages.

If you donít venture beyond the congested harbor area of this car-free island, youíll think itís nothing but overpriced fudge and T-shirt and bike-rental shops. 

Downtown Mackinac Island.

© Beth Gauper

Fudge and bike-rental shops dominate the main street of Mackinac Island.

So skip the fudge, rent the bikes and ditch downtown as fast as you can. The island is encircled by a paved, eight-mile bicycle trail, and the wooded interior, which rises like the back of a turtle, is crisscrossed by more trails.

Why you have to go: Itís the classiest kind of tourist trap (just watch where you step).

Da Yoopers Tourist Trap & Museum

Tourists with even an ounce of curiosity become tourist-trap roadkill at this roadside attraction in Ishpeming, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Who can resist Big Gus, a 23-foot blue chainsaw (world's largest) that really runs, or Big Ernie, a working rifle (world's largest) mounted on the bed of an antique pickup truck?

Inside the museum, see a 10-foot mosquito and a patented Sno-Cicle, a snow machine with wheels "for the one month we ain't got no snow.''

In the tourist trap, you can buy packages of Roadkill Helper and a T-shirt showing a Yooper seven-course meal ó a pasty and a six-pack.

Why you have to go: Who doesn't love a good Yooper joke?

Last updated on July 20, 2021