I like visitor centers, those places of tourist information paid for by states to let folks know all the fun things they can do while in the area. There’s a lot to like at these informational pit stops.
- Clean restrooms Visitor centers want to make a good impression, so they tend to keep their restrooms impeccably clean. If you’re picky about restroom cleanliness, visitor centers may be where you want to stop.
- Free beverages When I entered Louisiana from Mississippi on Interstate 20, the visitor center I stopped at offered free coffee. It was even Community brand, a very popular Louisiana flavor. Years ago the visitor centers in Florida offered tiny paper cups of free orange juice. (Certain visitor centers in Florida apparently still offer free citrus juice to guests!) If nothing else, a visitor center is bound to have a water fountain where you can fill your water bottles.
- Free state maps If you’re entering a new state, a visitor center is a great place to pick up a free paper map to help you find your way around. When I looked at the free info at the visitor Center in Deming, NM, I saw paper maps New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas up for grabs.
- Tourist brochures Every visitor center I’ve ever been in has offered tons of brochures advertising attractions throughout the state. From pistachio farms in New Mexico to swamp tours in Louisiana, to ghost towns in Arizona, there’s a lot to do in every state. These brochures tell you where to go and what to see and sometimes include money-saving coupons!
- State tourism guides All states have a department of tourism and most publish a guidebook to tell visitors what’s special about their particular state. These guides typically divide the state into regions and give details about what to see and do in each region. The guidebooks may also tell about the state’s history, Native peoples, and special foods; they give a good overview of each state. Visitor centers typically have free copies of their state’s guide free for the taking.
- Informative exhibits If you want to learn more about the state you’re in, visitor centers often have exhibits explaining the state’s history, its Native people, the flora and fauna of the region, geologic features, and the area’s history.
- A live person to talk with If the visitor center is staffed, don’t pass up your chance to ask questions of a local. At the visitor center in Deming, NM, a young woman and an elderly man answered all my questions about the town’s annual duck race. Most people working at a visitor center are going to be knowledgeable about the area and the entire state. Ask the worker for directions. Ask about road construction and free camping. Ask what attractions in the state can’t be missed. Ask what food you should eat and the best places to find them. Ask about upcoming festivals and special events. Ask about the weather. If the people working at the visitor center don’t know the answers to your questions, they can find out for you.
- A place to stretch your legs Even if you don’t need a paper map or information about tourist attractions, visitor centers are often nice places to get out of your rig for a while and walk around. If the sound of your own wheels is about to drive you crazy, get out of your vehicle at a visitor center and move around a bit outside.
- Pet walking areas While you’re stretching your legs, let Fido or Lassie move around too. Many visitor centers have special areas where you can walk your dog and allow it to relieve itself. (Many even offer poop bags to make it easy to clean up after your pet.) You’ll probably need to keep your pet on a leash, and you’ll definitely need to pick up any droppings.
- Picnic areas Many visitor centers have picnic tables or at least a bench where you can sit to have a snack or eat your lunch. Some sitting areas are even under shade structures so you can get out of the sun. If you can park your rig close enough to a table, you should be able to pull out your stove and kitchen supplies and cook a complete meal for yourself.
- Dump stations If you’re driving an RV with a black water tank, some visitor centers (especially if they are part of a larger rest area complex) may offer a dump station. You can find a state-by-state guide to dump stations at RVdumps.com.
- Free water for your tanks Some visitor centers offer free water to fill holding tanks if you have an RV or jugs if you’re living the vanlife. Pay attention to signs telling you if water is potable (safe to drink) or non-potable (not safe to drink).
- Safe overnight parking If a visitor center is within a rest area, you may be able to park for the night after you get your fill of tourist info. Overnight parking at rest areas varies by states, but many states do put the “rest” in “rest area” by allowing folks to park for several hours at a time. Once you grab your free state map and tourism guide, get some shut-eye before you get back on the road. If you get to a visitor center late at night and anyone asks you why you’re parking there, just say you want to get some information as soon as they open in the morning.
Now that you’ve considered all visitor centers have to offer, maybe you’ll stop in at the next one you see as you’re tooling down the road.