Gulf Coast Road Trip: Atlas Obscura’s - Atlas Obscura

Atlas Obscura’s
Gulf Coast Road Trip

Sponsored by

The terrain along the Gulf of Mexico is sometimes called the “Third Coast,” but for an offbeat road trip, it’s second to none. Starting in Houston and ending in Pensacola Bay, this journey takes you through some of America’s most diverse landscapes. You’ll cross Cajun swamps, drive along sparkling white sand beaches, and even spend some time in the Big Easy. Take an RV and camp along the way to truly immerse yourself in this wondrous region. The world’s largest gulf, it turns out, holds some of America’s best-kept secrets.

Explore
One man's monument to his favorite fruit.
OUTSIDER ART

1. The Orange Show

A labyrinthine wonderland dedicated to the world’s most popular citrus fruit may seem a strange starting point for this trip. But the Gulf Coast’s mishmash of cultures, landscapes, and industries makes the region unclassifiable, and the Orange Show is, too.

Tucked into a sleepy neighborhood on the edge of Houston, the Orange Show is a one-of-a-kind art project created by the retired postal worker Jeff McKissack. McKissack bought this property in the 1950s and spent three decades building a junkyard masterpiece in honor of his favorite fruit. Among the Orange Show’s many delights are one-of-a-kind whirligigs (one of which depicts the stages of the moon) and mosaics inked with quotes from great thinkers (keep your eyes peeled for the occasional misspelling that McKissack didn’t bother to fix). Inside a one-room “museum,” mannequins and wooden plaques shed light on the creator’s own peculiar mind and philosophy.

2402 Munger St, Houston, TX 77023

The longest sidewalk in the world?
INCREDIBLE INFRASTRUCTURE

2. ‘The World’s Longest Sidewalk’

Before dipping down to the swamplands that span much of the coast, it’s worth a slight detour to enjoy the breaking waves of the actual Gulf. Galveston, which was an important port during Texas’s brief life as an independent republic, was devastated by a hurricane in 1900. In response, the state built a massive protective wall along the edge of this barrier island.

The city claims a few hard-to-verify records. At 10 unbroken miles, the seawall may constitute the world’s longest sidewalk. A 2.4-mile mural that stretches from 27th Street to 61st Street is also supposedly the longest in the globe. Today, it’s easy to forget that this popular promenade is the careful work of engineers. As you walk, you’ll see sunbathers lounging on the adjacent beach. Piers extend from the seawall, including the “Pleasure Pier,” a throwback amusement park with a picturesque ferris wheel that looks over the sea.

You're spoiled for beachside campground options on Galveston Islands. Spend a few days soaking up the sun before you head back inland. 

Seawall Blvd, Galveston, TX 77550

You can't miss the entrance to Gator Country.
SWAMP THINGS

3. Up Close and Personal With Gators

Directions to Gator Country are simple: take I-10 East, and exit as soon as you see the giant, gator-shaped shack.

From Texas to Florida, the Gulf is ringed with wetlands that prehistoric beasts call home. But alligators don’t always fare well in the increasingly suburbanized landscape. The 450 animals at Gator Country are rescues, hauled in from swimming pools or other residential waterways. Two crusty old-timers, Big Tex and Big Al, are the stars of the show, both well over 13-feet-long. But the highlight, really, is getting to handle baby gators and feel the silky-soft skin on their bellies. (Any non-dangerous animal can be handled; just ask the staff.)

Feedings are held daily, when co-owner Gary Saurage puts on a charming show, weaving information about the gators’ cold-blooded biology with jokes about their surprisingly docile behavior. The big gators will even do tricks, though you won’t see them jumping through rings of fire. “Sit,” Saurage says, and the gator does.

21159 FM 365, Beaumont, TX 77705

The Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum transports visitors back in time.
OIL-RICH NOSTALGIA

4. Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum

In January of 1901, Croatian American speculator Anthony Lucas got more than he bargained for. Drilling on Spindletop Hill near the Texas coast (which he’d leased less than a year prior), he struck black gold. The eruption lasted nine days, gushing 100,000 gallons per day before it could be capped. The bonanza changed the nation’s economy and gave birth to the modern, petrochemical Gulf Coast.

The Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, which sits a mile north of that hilltop, consists of a ring of buildings stocked with period furnishings, giving a feel for life in the pop-up city that emerged around the well. You’ll find a saloon, a barber shop (which doubled as a dentist’s office), and a general store. Inside a working forge, a blacksmith sometimes shapes iron using tools from the original boomtown. Rusted gear from the original pumpjacks is on display at the museum’s southeast corner.

If you’re lucky, the model well out front will erupt in a watery re-enactment of the first gusher. (Check Facebook for dates and times, which are posted at the beginning of each month.)

5550 Jimmy Simmons Blvd, Beaumont, TX 77705

A misplaced chimney is a reminder of the 1980 disaster.
HISTORIC MISHAP

5. A Serene Site With a Dramatic Past

Standing on the quiet banks of Lake Peigneur today, it’s hard to imagine it being a scene of chaos. But early one morning in late 1980, this lake ripped open into a roaring vortex. Barges and boats, a drilling rig, a house, and 65 acres of land were all swallowed. Today, a single, crumbling chimney rises from the water on the lake’s eastern edge, the only relic of that destructive day.

The specifics remain contested, but it seems that an oil rig accidentally punctured a salt mine near the lake, causing the lake water to drain into the mine’s caverns. A canal that connected the lake to the Gulf then began to run backwards, pouring into the sinkhole and creating a 150-foot waterfall in a landscape famous for its flatness. The once 10-foot deep freshwater lake has since settled into its new life as a shallow pool of brackish water.

Driving along Louisiana Highway 89, you’ll be able to catch brief glimpses of Lake Peigneur’s western edge. But since it’s entirely surrounded by private property, you’ll need to enter Rip Van Winkle Gardens for a closer look at the chimney. Take your time making your way through these manicured, semi-tropical environs, and watch out for peacocks: they roam freely on the grounds.

5505 Rip Van Winkle Rd, New Iberia, LA 70560

Visitors leave offerings at the museum for good luck.
RELIGIOUS RELICS

6. The Many Masks of Voodoo

Arrive in New Orleans and dive straight into its idiosyncratic culture. From enslaved laborers to French aristocrats, from river-rat houseboat squatters to free people of color, New Orleans has always been a jumble of people and ways of life. One of the most famous products of that mixture is New Orleans Voodoo, which combines African religious practices with Catholicism and Francophone (including Haitian) cultures.

The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, tucked into a quiet block of the French Quarter, consists of two rooms cluttered with shrines and taxidermy. Signage provides a lesson in history and mythology, explaining, for example, the difference between Voodoo, an organized religion with many incarnations rooted in West African tradition, and “Hoodoo,” a folk spirituality that arose from the blending of beliefs shared by enslaved Africans in the New World. In the museum, you’ll also see “gris-gris” (talismans worn to ward off evil spirits) and Voodoo dolls, both introduced to American parlance through New Orleans Voodoo.

Voodoo is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NOLA culture, so you'll want to spend some time there. RV options couldn't be more convenient even in the heart of the city, at places like the French Quarter RV Resort. 

724 Dumaine St, New Orleans, LA 70116

Aboard the spacious Canal Street Ferry.
ON THE WATER

7. Experience the Mississippi Like a Local

Immerse yourself in the bustle of the Big Easy. But when it comes time for a break from Bourbon Street, skip the fancy steamboats and take the Canal Street Ferry, a humble, two-dollar cruise. It’s a quick ride, hardly more than five minutes, but that’s enough to ride the turbulent rush of America’s mightiest waterway. Catch glimpses of barges and freighters as they round the city’s crescent and pass beneath the downtown bridge. Stand on deck so you can feel the spray of water, and feel free to bring your bike, your stroller, or even your dog.

Once you reach Algiers Point, stick around to meander through the city’s second-oldest neighborhood. Founded in 1719, it’s a remarkably quiet and historic community of shotgun houses, homey pubs, and coffee shops.

New Orleans, LA 70130

Owner Ronald Lewis handcrafted this Mardi Gras Indian decorative piece in 1992.
BACKYARD MUSEUM

8. House of Dance & Feathers

Ronald Lewis is true New Orleans royalty: he has presided as the council chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe, as the king of one of the city’s most rambunctious parades, and as the president of the Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Club, one of the organizations responsible for administering the city’s famous second-line parades. Through it all, he’s accumulated many costumes and trinkets—so many that his frustrated wife eventually dumped them in their yard. Lewis picked up the heap and moved it into a backyard shed. The neighborhood kids dubbed it a museum, and the House of Dance & Feathers was born.

The single room is jam-packed with objects: flyers and throws from parades and balls, masks and boots and beadwork, books and pamphlets and newspaper clippings, all stacked haphazardly on tabletops and shelves. Notably, there is no interpretive material. That’s because Lewis is eager to talk. “Everything makes a story,” he says—though he readily admits that his museum is just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The museum is open by appointment only, so be sure to call ahead.

1317 Tupelo St, New Orleans, LA 70117

Fishermen sell straight from boats like these during the summertime.
LOCAL FISHERMEN

9. Pick Up Some Just-Caught Seafood

Driving US-90 out of New Orleans, you’ll pass truly scenic views, from pine forests to swampy estuaries to—finally, after hundreds of miles of inland driving—views of open water. Despite the casinos that loom over the Mississippi beachside, the towns here still have their bucolic charm: you’ll find antique shops and juke joints, museums, and cafés. You’ll also see plenty of signs written in Vietnamese.

Vietnamese families began arriving on the coast en masse in the 1970s, fleeing war and seeking a place where they could use their skills as fishermen. Now, in Biloxi, Mississippi, around half of the local shrimping fleet is Vietnamese American. Most mornings you can find these ships in Small Craft Harbor, tucked behind the seven-level parking garage of a Hard Rock Casino. From June until late autumn they’ll sell the day’s catch straight off the boat. Come early, as the boats return from overnight trips near sunrise, and the day’s supplies often sell out. Pick up a bounty and cook up a seafood feast in your RV's kitchen–just make sure to leave the windows open. 

679 Beach Blvd, Biloxi, MS 39530

The Main Gallery Room of the museum showcases art and regalia.
HIDDEN HISTORY

10. Mardi Gras’ True Origins

When a band of drunken revelers weren’t ready to stop at midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1830, they wandered into a hardware store, bought rakes and hoes and cowbells, and took to the street to make some noise. Thus began the first Mardi Gras parade in North America. Later, those revelers formed a society to repeat their impromptu parade year after year. Eventually, it was moved to the final day before Lent, to cap the carnival season.

Sound like New Orleans? Think again. The Crescent City’s first organized Mardi Gras “krewe” was actually founded in 1857 by a few former Mobilians who had moved west, bringing their homegrown tradition with them.

Today, Mobile is known for a more family-friendly version of Mardi Gras, with parades and balls hosted by the city’s 70 active “mystic societies.” The Mobile Carnival Museum showcases the sumptuous gowns and regalia worn by some of the societies’ past royalty, displaying a level of decadence that only adds to the mysterious allure of the secretive, invitation-only societies.

Don’t overlook the abundance of ephemera: historic lithographs and photographs, exquisite renderings of bygone floats, and fashion illustrations of vintage costumes. And don’t leave without stepping inside a room devoted to the “Comic Cowboys,” a satirical society whose bawdy approach to parading adds a nice balance to the finery donned by the “aristocracy.”

355 Government St, Mobile, AL 36602

A beautiful-but-deadly pitcher plant.
CARNIVOROUS FLORA

11. Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park

Cross the border into Florida to enter a landscape of moss-draped pine and oak trees. The Tarkiln Bayou Preserve makes a compelling case that the Gulf Coast deserves far more acclaim for its natural wonders. But it’s not just beauty that you’re here to observe: some of the plants are also beasts. This park is one of the best spots to see blooming “pitcher plants,” so named for the deep pitchers formed by their leaves. Filled with digestive liquid, these appendages lure, trap, and eventually dissolve their insect prey.

One species, the white-topped pitcher plant, can only be found here on the Gulf Coast, between the Apalachicola and Mississippi rivers. You’ll find the pitcher plants blooming in mid-spring along the Tarkiln Bayou Trail, a half mile of raised boardwalk that runs alongside the park’s bogs.

There are no campgrounds in the Preserve, but there are about five miles south in Big Lagoon State Park. The gateway to the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, the park is a bird-watcher's paradise. Climb the three-story wooden observation tower to watch for rare breeds, or simply take in the magnificent views. 

2401 Bauer Rd, Pensacola, FL 32506

Inside the main gallery of the fort.
VAULTED TUNNELS

12. Fort Barrancas

Once upon a time, imperial powers battled over who would own this sea. Pensacola Bay, deep and easily protected, made for a natural naval port, which is why the Spanish constructed a fort here in 1698, and why in the mid-19th century, American military engineers rebuilt and expanded the old structure. Fort Barrancas was part of a series of defenses that lined America’s coasts. The area remains important to the military, and is now a Naval Air Station base. That means all non-military visitors must enter through the base’s West Gate, on Blue Angel Parkway.

There are a number of structures worth exploring at Fort Barrancas. Wander the narrow passageways that wind through the fort, then descend the steps and pass through a tunnel into the Spanish Water Battery. This white-walled structure was built by the Spanish and later restored during the construction of the new fort in 1844. It wasn’t too long after that the fort was put back to use during the Civil War, halting construction of the nearby Advanced Redoubt. It's only accessible with a guide, so take a weekend tour to traverse the dilapidated tunnels that open into tall, arched rooms.

Once you’re done, emerge back into the Florida sunshine. Whether you head east or west, the beach awaits just minutes away. For all the gems hidden along this coastline, access to the water is still one of the best reasons to travel the Gulf.

3182 Taylor Rd, Pensacola, FL 32508

Keep Exploring
There's magic to be found all across the French Quarter.

Hidden French Quarter

It may be famous for Mardi Gras, but New Orleans has subtle, surprising wonders on tap all year long—even in the touristy French Quarter. Around every cobblestoned corner, you’ll find historic ephemera, bits of Creole culture, environmentalism, and no shortage of spooky stories, whenever you happen to visit.

Explore

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hard to miss: The institution’s two-million-square-foot main building, at 1000 Fifth Avenue, spans four New York City blocks and stretches into Central Park. Inside the galleries, you’ll find thousands of objects spanning 5,000 years of world history. With so many treasures under one roof, it's inevitable that some fascinating pieces are tucked into the museum's lonelier nooks and crannies, hiding in plain sight. The next time you spend a day at the museum, keep an eye out for these overlooked wonders.

Explore
The RV/MH Hall of Fame.

Motown to Music City Road Trip

Detroit and Nashville are synonymous with two all-American music genres. It’s no surprise that visitors flock to these cities each year to get a feel for the places where artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton began their careers. A (relatively) straight, north to south route connects the two cities, as does musical heritage. Load up the RV, make sure your speaker system is in tip-top shape, and create a playlist filled with old-school Motown and Country hits. If you're not driving on the trip down south, you should be dancing.

Explore
Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long. If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

Explore
A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

Los Angeles’ Highland Park is a diverse, eclectic neighborhood that Native Americans and Latinx communities have inhabited for centuries. Celebrated for its history, art scene, ethnic diversity, and cuisine, Highland Park is filled with surprising delights that more and more people are discovering every day. Exploring the neighborhood's nooks and crannies is one of the most rewarding ways to spend a day in L.A.

Explore
The heart of Venice.

Venice

Once referred to as “The Coney Island of the Pacific,” L.A.’s beachfront neighborhood of Venice has long been a popular tourist destination. Its colorful characters, quirky architecture, and carnivalesque atmosphere are well-known the world over. But take a moment to look past the kitsch, and you’ll discover a place where artistic ingenuity thrives more than a century after Abbot Kinney endeavored to bring a grandiose version of Venice to America. The bohemian beehive has always attracted artists and performers, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the show.

Explore
Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today. In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

Explore
The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

Explore
An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

Explore
Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

Explore
View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

Explore
A subway entrance in Times Square.

Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

Explore
Upper Hoh Road, Olympic National Park, Oregon.

Summer Radio Road-Trip

Follow along on our 2,200-mile adventure with NPR's 'All Things Considered.'

Explore

Amsterdam

Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.

Explore

Buenos Aires

Find faded grandeur and vibrant street life in Argentina's largest city.

Explore

Chicago

Just when you thought you knew the Windy City, it finds new ways to surprise you.

Explore

Detroit

Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

Explore
The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.

Lisbon

In the homeland of explorers, your best bet is to keep looking.

Explore

Miami

Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.

Explore

Queens

New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.

Explore

San Diego

Southern California's second city holds plenty of sparkling secrets.

Explore

Savannah

Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.

Explore