As roadside travel plazas get plush, why not make every old rest area a more welcome center?

The fate of interstate highway rest areas in the 21st century has been checkered, to say the least.  As privately owned service stations become larger and posher, state-operated rest areas have found it increasingly difficult to justify their existence.  In the eastern US, familiar names like Wawa, Sheetz, Pilot, and Love’s have expanded their convenience store options, introduced many more gas pumps, nestled independently operating fast food chains (Subway and Arby’s seem particularly common), and cleaned their restrooms more than once per day.  They offer more roadside products and food options than a public rest area, the fear of getting garroted behind the dumpster isn’t so great, and the toilets are far less likely to give anyone leprosy.

As a result, the times for rest areas are changing.  A decade ago, austerity measures during the Great Recession ultimately compelled some states to axe their least used rest areas, given that a federal law enabling commercialization seemed unlikely to pass.  (It didn’t pass, and still hasn’t; only state-level toll roads, which receive no federal funding, can support commercialized rest areas with familiar restaurants and retail.)  More recently, the primary impetus for rest area closures has been the charming 2020s-era hobby of squatting and open-air drug use on public lands.  Hopefully such illicit activity and the closures, both concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, are temporary.  Rest areas these days may actually be less safe than the brightly lit, all-purpose service station.

Publicly funded rest areas still provide overnight truck parking for which a high demand persists, but the revenue the facilities generate (mostly through vending machines) does not offset their high maintenance and cleaning costs.  The escalating demand for electric vehicle charge stations has remained unfulfilled at public rest areas, partly due to the intense lobbying efforts of organizations like NATSO (the National Association of Truck Stop Operators), who perceive the introduction of Tesla Superchargers as the slippery slope toward full-scale commercialization, which would create serious competition for truck stops.

So what can public rest areas do to justify their existence?  One solution is for their exact locations to be as strategic as possible.  It remains customary for travelers to expect a welcome center shortly after crossing a state boundary, and this can serve as an excellent opportunity for a state to ply some of its biggest tourist attractions.  Most welcome centers offer all the amenities of a typical public rest area but also have staff present during normal business hours who can serve as a sort of park ranger for the state’s various natural features.  These welcome centers also typically offer more detailed maps, brochures, and cultural displays with State History 101 text/imagery.  Privately owned, commercial truck stops and service stations have no incentive to offer such amenities.  So they don’t.

One particular public rest area has offered what I perceive as the perfect fusion of locational strategy with amenities that capitalize on this location, all bundled within the requisite state-level cultural branding of “welcome center”.

Maryland Welcome Center

The brown stucco might lead one to conclude this is a “faux-dobe” edifice in the American Southwest, but New Mexico’s arid flora is rarely this verdant, and the desert sky isn’t typically so cloudy.  Nonetheless, those lumps of limestone looming to the left and right of the building sure look mountainous enough.  (It’s actually sandstone, I think, but that lacks the same alliterative appeal.)   Perhaps the black-and-yellow checkered flag in the far right edge of the photo is a good enough clue.

It’s a Maryland Welcome Center, perched on Sideling Hill, one mountain range among many in the state’s rugged and sparsely populated western expanses—one that extends into south-central Pennsylvania, which has a commercialized toll plaza that has taken the hill’s name.  

Here’s a map that shows the Welcome Center’s location along Interstate 68.

At first blush, Sideling Hill seems an unlikely place for a Welcome Center: I-68 stretches many miles to the west and terminates about two miles to the east at I-70, at the town of Hancock.  But note that I-70 crosses into Pennsylvania immediately north of Hancock, right there at the narrowest portion of Maryland (and probably the narrowest part of any state in the country), where the longitudinal distance of the state is less than two miles.  So this Sideling Hill Welcome Center is greeting motorists who came along I-70 in a south/southeast direction, then caught westbound I-70 toward the small cities of Cumberland, Frostburg, and Morgantown, WV.  It’s pretty close to a point of entry, and, of course, it’s a mere stone’s throw from the perfectly horizontal Maryland/Pennsylvania boundary (historically the Mason-Dixon Line).  In fact, one can easily envision that historically significant line from this view standing outside the Welcome Center and looking to the northeast.

The foreground with the picnic table is Maryland; the background is Pennsylvania.

But how about those views?  On the opposite side of the Welcome Center, just behind the structure as it is situated in the first photograph, a steep staircase allows visitors to ascend partly up the hill.

View up Sideling Hill from Maryland Welcome Center

The staircase doesn’t really go anywhere: just climbs the equivalent of about five stories, and dead-ends.  But it allows visitors a more lingering chance to peer through the mountain cut than they’d ever get while rushing at 75 miles per hour.

And of course they can turn 180 degrees and look back eastward toward the valley, or a bit northeast toward the Mason-Dixon Line and Pennsylvania.

Let’s not forget one more clever amenity: protruding from the Welcome Center is an overpass.

View from Maryland Welcome Center

But it’s too narrow for cars.  It’s a pedestrian bridge.  Descending those stairs and returning to the Welcome Center, here’s what it looks like.

Like the massive staircase, it doesn’t really go all that far.  But it does cross over the interstate and provide a pedestrian linkage to the rest area on the opposite side of I-68, serving eastbound traffic.  I didn’t visit that rest area, but I get the impression it is smaller, more focused on basic roadside amenities, and the Maryland Office of Tourism neither manages nor finances it, unlike its eastbound counterpart in all these photos.  And, of course, the connecting ped bridge offers more stunning mountain views.

View from Maryland Welcome Center

The Tripadvisor reviews for the Sideling Hill Welcome Center are overwhelmingly complimentary, but they have less to say about the structure itself than the very friendly staff—a feature that often distinguishes welcome centers from the more common rest areas (which are typically unstaffed aside from maintenance).  And of course, the spectacular views.  The combination of a dramatic location with tourist outreach collectively help to give the Sidling Hill Welcome Center a significant edge over the run-of-the-mill rest area.  Obviously not every state can claim such distinctive geography right at the point where a major interstate highway crosses its boundary.  In fact, most states can’t claim this.  But I can’t help recall an article about a Texas Visitor Information Center that I featured over a decade ago, right near the Louisiana state line.  For all its vastness, Texas has little of the dramatic topography of western Maryland (certainly not in the eastern half of the state, which is mostly flat).  But Interstate 10 hugs coastal Texas (the Gulf Coast in general), and it does offer distinctive wetland scenery.  And this big friendly “welcome to Texas” features boardwalks into the adjacent swampy terrain so travelers can walk a little bit as they stretch their legs and begin a potentially 1,000 mile journey across the enormous state.

For the most part, the options for rest areas is somewhat limited.  They obviously won’t attract anyone unless they’re immediately adjacent to major thoroughfares, and if the goal is a tourist-themed welcome, they should be close to the highway’s entry point at the state line.  These limited factors don’t always promise much picturesque scenery or any breathtaking views.  But if a state does enjoy that rare convergence of advantages, why not capitalize upon it?  Western Maryland, to say the very least, puts on a jolly good show.

View from Maryland Welcome Center

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13 thoughts on “As roadside travel plazas get plush, why not make every old rest area a more welcome center?

  1. Chris B

    I-68 is a beautiful drive (I drove its length E-W last summer) but it is like I-84 across Southern New York, very lightly traveled.

    Rest areas, no matter how scenic or nice, can feel scary on a lightly traveled road, since there might be only one or two vehicles in the parking area sometimes. We had an experience on 84 several years ago, with people loitering suspiciously around an unstaffed rest stop that made me a little nervous.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Beautiful and sparse. And one of the newest stretches of interstate highway east of the Mississippi. It only links three places big enough to be called “cities” (Morgantown, Cumberland, Hagerstown), none of which has more than 40K people or represents a conurbation bigger than 150K. It’s also completely redundant with the I-70 stretch that runs south of Pittsburgh and about 25 miles to the north. Perhaps the biggest impact I-68 has had is in siphoning away traffic from formerly mighty travel stops like Breezewood, PA, which we both discussed last winter. Aside from powerful lobbying efforts in MD and WV, and perhaps evoking preservationist sentiment through a rededication of The National Road U.S. 40 (I-68 is nicknamed the National Highway), it’s difficult to see its reason for being. And the lack of traffic only reaffirms this.

      It wouldn’t surprise me if this Welcome Center at Sideling Hill gets few visitors, as nice as it is. And you’re probably right about the safety thing, especially after hours. The tourist component is open during normal retail hours, while the restrooms are 24-hour. And the sparseness of the area does open the possibility of questionable behavior. During my last trip on I-68, an extremely dangerous driver was playing slalom on the two-lane EB highway (making it difficult to pass) and veering between 40 and 110 mph. Probably under the influence. He managed to get away with this for a good 45 minutes before Maryland State Troopers caught him. The distress he was causing the (few) other motorists was palpable, and it’s hard not to think he would have gotten stopped a lot sooner in more heavily traveled road.

      Then again, the rest areas in Washington State that I reference in this article–the ones that have been closed down from homeless encampments–are in the ultra-populous northern suburban stretches of Seattle-Everett, in Snohomish County. As we all know from the history of criminality over the last 75 years, densely settled areas can support lawlessness just as easily, if the enforcement infrastructure is weak (and weak enforcement captures the etiology for both urban and rural lawlessness).

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I suspect a better name for the road would have been “Robert Byrd Highway”.

        The section of I-70 you mention also does not connect very populated areas of PA between Breezewood and Wheeling.

        I never understood why 70 didn’t follow US 22 from Zanesville in eastern Ohio up to and around the south side of Pittsburgh…it connects to every other big city along US 40 to St. Louis. (It skirts the Pgh exurbs today, but only because that metro has grown southward to Washington PA.)

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I’ve wondered that too, Chris. It seems like, espeically in the modern mail-order era, metro Pittsburgh, through its comparatively weak linkage to major interstate highways, lost out on a chance for some of the warehousing jobs that would have helped (to a small degree) supplant the significant blue-collar collapse of the steel industry.

          Then again, those warehouses need huge floorplates, and the amount of grading necessary in an area with PGH’s topography means it would cost a lot more. Probably the same reason that Cincinnati is nowhere near the logistical hub that Indianapolis and Columbus have become.

          Reply
    2. MadAnthony

      I’ve noticed Florida rest stops often have signs saying something to the effect of “patrolled by security at night”. Not sure if that is due to a specific incident or just because of the uncomfortable nature of being at a mostly empty rest area at night.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Good points, MadAnthony. What could be a huge selling point for rest areas–the fact that they’re open 24 hours–is offset by the fact that many roadside truck stops and gas stations are also obviously open 24 hours, and that they tend to be much better lit (they’re more offset from the highway) and thus get more foot traffic at 3am, which in turn makes them feel safer. They also have a visible staffing presence that rest areas often lack, even at 2pm.

        That said, the Maryland Welcome Center is at least staffed during primary business hours, and the FLorida patrols you mentioned are probably a combination of cameras and intermittent on-site visits through surveillance personnel. Contrast that with parts of the country where there’s little surveillance and an overwhelming lack of monitoring public lands–the Pacific Northwest for instance–and there have definitely been reports of long-term homeless encampments at rest areas, accompanied by inevitable crime. A few have had to shut down because of this. Florida and Maryland wisely seem to be taking the opposite approach.

        Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    I’ve stopped here many times on the way to Deep Creek and have walked to the ends of both pedestrian walkways. It does have spectacular views albeit a little loud from the highway noise. But it is convenient and pleasant for a restroom stop and does highlight the geology of the area, especially as exposed by the highway cut. It was more than just a rest area or welcome center though, it was originally the Sideling Hill Exhibit Center, a four-level geological museum and travel information center which opened in 1991. Due to state budget cuts, this facility was closed on August 15, 2009, as part of a $280 million budget reduction package, saving the state about $110,000 annually. Before its closing, the center served about 95,000 visitors a year (from Wikipedia).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for pointing this out to me, Alex. Not sure how that detail about the Sideling Hill Exhibit Center escaped my observation during my research. Oops. I presume, after the 2009 closure, that the Maryland government did NOT demolish the building but repurposed it for the scaled-down role? Looking at a 2009 photo (https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/story/news/local/2015/09/25/sideling-hill-visitors-center-to-reopen-in-hancock/45951781/), it appears to be the same structure, so I’m glad to know it lasted more than 18 years. I’ll admit that it the building felt unusually large for its limited function, but that visit was during the peak of COVID, so I thought huge portions might have been roped off temporarily.

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        This rest stop is so unique in its location and size, it always seemed to stick out like a sore thumb to me. It kind of screams “stop and check me out”, I think largely due to the “enclosure effect” of the mountain cut, maybe why they built the exhibit center originally. I first went to DCL in 2003 and I do vaguely remember stoping and going through the exhibit before it closed.

        Reply
        1. Alex Pline

          I just realized why I find it interesting: it kind of reminds me of something out of Lord of the Rings (I’m a 50 year fan of the books).

          Reply

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