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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.