Since its founding back in 2009, funky-destination arbiter Atlas Obscura has showcased the odd and usual across the globe.
The website features entries on everything from hair museums to the country’s biggest (and only) unclaimed baggage museum. After seven years in operation, co-founders Dylan Thuras and Joshua Foer, with associate editor Ella Morton, are releasing a digest featuring over 600 of their favorite oddities.
For the adventurous, Atlas Obscura is goldmine of unusual hiking destinations and road trips that wind far, far off the beaten path, says Thuras. Here, with help from Thuras, is a collection of the Atlas’ best oddball destinations.
This spot on Lake Superior’s rugged north shore, a stone’s throw from Canada, is one of Thuras’ favorite attractions. About a mile and a quarter down a trail through Minnesota’s Judge C. R. Magney State Park, the Brule River cascades into a waterfall. “It’s a split waterfall,” Thuras says. “One side of the waterfall goes into a river like you expect and the other side disappears into this glacial pothole.” Where the water in the pothole goes is a mystery. “Despite really concerted efforts to figure out where the water comes out”—scientists have dropped in dye and ping pongs to no effect—“nobody knows where it goes, Thuras says.
Although Atlas Obscura started with a few hundred entries written by Thuras and Foer, the vast majority of entries today are written by volunteer contributors. The Wikipedia model has led to over 10,000 published articles online, Thuras says, with a few thousand in the backlog, too.
Stiltsville, a collection of shacks built on stilts a mile into Biscayne Bay, in Florida, is a treasure trove for explorers. The “community at sea” was built in 1920s and ‘30s and served as a den of booze and gambling during prohibition. At one time there were 27 structures above the bay, but hurricanes have taken their toll—today, only seven remain.
Although you have to a permit to dock at Stiltsville, a trip out to the shacks is an easy jaunt for any intrepid kayaker in South Florida.
Ra Paulette’s Cave
These enticing caves, dug into the New Mexico desert, are an Atlas Obscura classic. For over 25 years, Ra Paulette, a New Mexico artist, has hand carved a network of huge caves and created a series of what the Atlas calls “psychedelic sandstone temples.” The miles of caves, Thuras says, are worth the trek. “Their locations are kind of secret, but they’re not locked or anything,” he says. “If you hike out you can find them.”
Ringing Rocks of Montana
Not too far from Butte lies a particularly interesting pile of stones. The geological formation isn’t much to look at, but when tapped with a metal wrench or pipe, the rocks begin to ring. Hitting one rock will cause others throughout the pile to call out in different timbres or pitches.
“It is believed that the ringing is a combination of the composition of the rock and the way the joining patterns have developed as the rocks have eroded away,” the Atlas notes, “though ultimately a concrete scientific explanation has yet to be arrived at.”
Northeast of Los Angeles, smack in the middle of the desert, is one of the most interesting places to mountain bike in the Mojave.
California City was supposed to be a suburban paradise. Its developer figured millions would flock to the desert if he built thousands of cheap houses on leafy cul-de-sacs. The city’s founder was so confident, he carved hundreds of miles of streets in a grid and named them all. The city never took off, but the location is now a surreal 125 square mile destination—an entire city street system laid out, with a central park, but no houses—for anyone looking for a particularly unusual mountain bike ride.
Fireflies of the Great Smoky Mountains
Two weeks out of the year, the Smoky Mountains are home to one of the Atlas’ most spellbinding sights. Each June, swarms of fireflies light up the park with a synchronized display of flashing lights. Per the Atlas, “These bugs start up in mid-June at 10 p.m. nightly. They exhibit six seconds of total darkness; then in perfect sync six more seconds.”
The NPS has tips for seeing the bugs and even runs a nightly shuttle during the show.
The geoglyths of Peru—the famed Nazca Lines—may get more attention, but California has its own collection of gigantic drawings carved into the earth.
Outside Blythe, in the Colorado desert, are the Blythe Intaglios, a collection of enormous figurines scraped from the clay. The largest figure is 171 feet long and can only be truly appreciated from the air. Their origins aren't known; scientists estimate they may date back 3,000 years.
The Atlas is so vast, and filled with so many far flung entries, that Thuras says it’s impossible to see them all. “The percentage I visit is a tiny fraction, but I try to get to as many as I can when I’m traveling,” he says.
Horsetail Fall’s Fire Fall
One of the nicest jaunts in the Atlas is also one of the most rewarding. For a few hours a day during the last two weeks of February, Horsetail Falls in Yosemite appears to catch fire. You can catch the sight, a trick of the setting sun over El Capitan, in the valley like most of the other photographers who pile into the park, but the Atlas suggests hiking away from the picnic area for unique, uncrowded viewing.
In Central Washington, far from the lush forests of the coast, is the “greatest waterfall that ever existed.” The falls, three times the size of Niagara, would be a wonder of the world—if water still flowed down it.
Today, Dry Falls is a vast landscape of groundwater-fed lakes and a habitat for unique wildlife. There are 15 miles of trails throughout and above the canyon, and campsites, too.
Thuras and Foer never expected Atlas Obscura to take off the way it has. “We went into this without a business plan,” Thuras says. “It was a passion project.”
The Hamilton Pool is classic Obscura. It’s accessible—the pool’s 23 miles outside Austin—but it feels worlds away from normal. Over the centuries, an underground river has carved away at the limestone beneath Texas’ hill country, leading to this freshwater oasis. The pool, which is often ringed with waterfalls, features a small beach and a cavern for exploring, too.