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A Revival of Roadside Picnic Areas

May 28, 2021

Another Way for week of May 21, 2021

A Revival of Roadside Picnic Areas

My husband and I have been enjoying a renewed use of roadside rest stops and picnic tables. That’s one good thing I’m celebrating from our months of you know what.

When I was quite young, I remember roadside picnics with a cement or wooden picnic table or a blanket on the ground. We would often either pack sandwiches and chips for a day trip. Or, on a longer trip, we’d stop in a grocery store in a strange town and go wander the aisles and pick out our favorite cold meats, cheeses, loaf of bread, chips or other snacks, and some fruit or Twinkies. And a carton-sized container of juice or chocolate milk. If memory serves me correctly, this would have been our family “motoring” in a 1949 era Chevrolet.

Are you old enough to have experienced this kind of family fun?

Roadside parks began in the early days of “autotouring” or motoring in the 1920s which today we would call the road trip. Herbert Larson is credited with coming up with the idea of saving strips of land along the ever-increasing highways spreading across our country. He had in mind helping to preserve virgin hardwood trees “so that posterity could see and enjoy nature…” and serve as a place for picnicking. The very first such roadside park was located north of Indiana (where I lived) along U.S. 2 near Iron River, Michigan. I first experienced this kind of roadside lunch on our way to Little Eden, (MI) which was a church camp. A family photograph shows one such picnic on a blanket, where one of us children spilled a bottle of drink and dear Mom was trying to clean up the mess.

Then along came restaurants and fast-food. Over the last 40-50 years instead of packing a picnic lunch and stopping at a roadside table or park, most of us stopped at fast-food restaurants. Or more recently, perhaps food trucks.

A Wikipedia entry says that 10 years ago an estimated 2000 highway rest areas helped wake up motorists. I was not able to find reliable data on how many are open today. As recently as five years ago, an online article bemoaned the closing down of many of these roadside oases.

But I’m sensing a revival—at least in the parks I have seen where more people are taking advantage of outside tables to stretch legs and hips, walk dogs, and let the children run free for a while. In some ways it’s another form of today’s football tailgating picnic before a game.  

Enjoying a sunny lunch at a wayside park near the eastern Ohio line on I-70.

Of course you want to use such roadside spaces carefully, bringing along a tablecloth or simply a roll of paper towels to cover your eating area, and hand cleaner. Bring your own water or drinks so your picnic will be as hygienic as possible. I pack a very lightweight ice chest and keep in outside pockets a wrapped sharp knife and some plastic (or not) spoons and forks so those basics are always on hand without extra packing. And with the ice blocks that arrive with every shipment of one of my husband’s medications, there’s always plenty of ice readily available to keep things cold at least two days (perhaps not in hot summer).

A country store on historical Route 11 in Virginia keeps picnic tables in the parking lot for those who want to eat their yummy fried chicken while it’s hot. Notice I just used paper toweling for a tablecloth. I forgot plates and the clerk allowed us to borrow two which they keep on hand for the purpose.

I’m happy for a new interest and use of road side parks or picnic tables. When I lived in north Florida, there was a wayside park at the beach and since the beach area was in a relatively rural area, we were happy picnickers when we arrived and were able to claim the free table for a half or full day. There was even a concrete grill available to cook some meat or toast some marshmallows.

Such parks are absolutely free to visit (well, maybe other than paying state taxes if they’re in your home state) and a great way to enjoy the natural beauty God created. Bon appetít!

Send your memories, comments, or stories to or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.  

  1. When we used a Eurail pass through Western Europe years ago, we often went to the grocery store, bought lunch items and ate outdoors, improvising a picnic “table.”

    These days, we have felt safer in outdoor spaces near trees and trails–fewer people and germs! By the way, I patronize Aldi too and have a bag just like yours.

    Enjoy your holiday weekend!

  2. So, there are Aldis in Jacksonville too! I remember my student days in Europe where we did the same in going to the small mom and pop groceries and picking out goodies. Thanks for bringing this example/story in.

    Thanks for the good wishes (our 45th wedding anniversary tomorrow!

  3. Now I’m in the mood for an outdoor, roadside picnic! Especially now that we have this lovely warmer weather – yet it’s not too hot out. Combined with a nice day-outing drive – it sounds like a perfect afternoon!
    Thanks for another great post!

    • I’m glad this inspired you and delighted for you it is not too hot in Texas! Have a great weekend and holiday and happy you enjoyed the post.

  4. martyw37 permalink

    We do not travel much but we do have one son who lives a distance from us and we usual break up the trip with a roadside picnic We did do that when our children were small too
    Enjoyed this one very much

    • Caro-Claire, I’m glad you enjoyed this. I read Marty had some difficult health concerns you all were taking care of this week. God be with you through the ups and downs.

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