Steel coasters far outnumber wooden ones, but purists and more casual park fans alike still love wooden coasters. Dating back to the late 1800s, even modern-day "woodies" have a retro feel. But ride designers have outfitted some of them with new technologies that enable them to deliver inversions and do other things that older coasters can’t match.
The United States is full of wild wooden coasters sure to give you a thrill. We believe these are the best of the bunch.
El Toro tops our list as the number one best wooden coaster in America. Smooth-as-silk and among the fastest wooden coasters in the world (at 70 mph), El Toro is a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps its greatest attribute is the freaky out-of-your-seat airtime it delivers. Although the ride takes just under two minutes to complete, this New Jersey attraction is sure to keep you coming back for more high-flying fun.
The world's first launched wooden coaster, Lightning Rod grabs passengers' attention right away and ranks second on our list of America's best wooden coasters. Located in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains at Dollywood, the coaster hits speeds of up to 73 miles per hour, heights of up to 206 feet, and a 165-foot drop down a 73-degree angle. You can also ride Lightning Rod well into the night at Dollywood if you choose to stick around for some of the park's famous nighttime performances and concerts.
Update: Since it opened in 2016, Lightning Rod has delivered a sublime ride experience. But it has been plagued with problems and has suffered from a lot of downtime. In late 2020, Dollywood announced that it would address the issue by replacing some of its track. Because it features “Topper track,” Lightning Rod was already a distinctive kind of wooden coaster. When it reopens in 2021, it will include a combination of “Topper track” and steel “IBox track.” That means it will no longer be a wooden coaster. Then again, it won’t neatly fit any category of coaster. For now, we will leave Lightning Rod on this list, because it deserves recognition as a great ride.
The Voyage at Indiana’s Holiday World regularly gets the nod from coaster fans as being among the best (if not the best) thrill machines and ranks third on our list. It has all the makings of a great ride with plenty of height, speed, acceleration, and loads of airtime. Plus, it features a number of underground moments, including a triple-down dive into a cool, dark cave. You'll experience 24.3 seconds of zero-G liftoffs, brave one of the steepest drops around, and dart around huge curves.
Boulder Dash at Lake Compounce (Bristol, CT)
Located anywhere else, Lake Compounce's Boulder Dash would still be a top favorite offering great airtime, a smooth ride, and relentless speed from start to finish. The fact that the coaster is built into the side of a mountain and careens around trees and boulders, however, pushes it near the top of our list.
Phoenix at Knoebels (Elysburg, PA)
Originally known as Rocket, the classic Phoenix could have ended up in a Texas landfill when the small amusement park that owned it closed in 1980. Instead, Dick Knoebel purchased it, moved it to his Pennsylvania park, Knoebels and restored it to its original glory (and then some). The park maintains Phoenix with the fervor of true coaster lovers. With a height of 78 feet and a top speed of 45 mph, this may not be the biggest coaster on the list. But it's certainly one of the most classic wooden coasters in America.
Goliath is a new-age wooden coaster and the sixth best wooden coaster on our list. Located at Six Flags Great America near Chicago, the ride features an innovative "Topper" track that enables it to include inversions. It holds the distinction of being the world's tallest and steepest wooden coaster. At 72 miles per hour, it is second only to Lightning Rod for the fastest wooden coasters. Goliath climbs 180 feet before dropping 85-degrees down and whipping around a 180-degree curve.
Lightning Racer at Hersheypark (Hershey, PA)
With their bursts of airtime and wild lateral G-forces, each side of Lightning Racer at Hersheypark could be a top-ranked coaster on its own, but as a racing and dueling coaster, it ranks seventh on our list. The first of its kind in America, Lightning Racer has two tracks that each offer a unique ride experience, adding a sense of competition to the general excitement. It also offers the thrill of near-misses, as the Millennium Flyer trains seem hellbent on demolishing each other.
Located in Knott's famous Ghost Town, GhostRider was a huge hit when it first opened in 1998. As is the case with many wooden coasters, however, it became excessively rough and dropped off of many best coaster lists, including ours. Thankfully, the park gave GhostRider a major makeover and reopened it to great acclaim in 2016. It has now returned to our list in the eighth position.
Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City (Branson, MO)
Outlaw Run was the first roller coaster to feature “Topper” track. It was also the first modern-day wooden coaster to include inversions. It offers great rides at any time of the day, but a nighttime ride, especially when the park turns off all of the ride's lights, is especially wild and fun.
The Comet at Six Flags Great Escape (Queensbury, NY)
Another coaster that survived a move from its original location, the Comet at the Great Escape, is eighth on our list of America's best wooden coasters. This great old woodie found a new home and a new lease on life and now delivers its still-potent thrills to new generations of riders at Six Flags Great Escape near Lake George. This 4,200-foot wooden coaster was built in 1927 but redesigned in 1947 before relocating to the Great Escape park in the late 1990s.
The Cyclone at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York is a true antique and earns an honorable mention spot on our list. Although it might not be the biggest or the faster coaster around, it still packs a wallop. The Cyclone is nostalgic yet surprisingly vital after all these years. Consider seeking it out when you find yourself in New York City.