It was probably destined to happen. The ingredients had been there for a long time. There’s Nevada, with its sparsely traveled highways and huge open spaces, where the imagination can run wild. And right in the middle of the state, a remote super-secret military area, off limits to all except a group of tight-lipped employees.
That place and those circumstances were sure to breed rumors and stories. In time, stories become legends and myths. That is how a very remote Nevada highway, State Route 375, came to be known as the Extraterrestrial Highway.
There always have been strange things in the sky out there. During the 1950s, there were mushroom clouds from above-ground nuclear tests. Locals and visitors alike would plan parties around the scheduled explosions, called “shots.”
And always, at night, there were strange things in the sky. Oddly shaped aircraft with no markings would roar across the deserted highway right in front of you when you were all by yourself on the road, then disappear over the hill before you remembered that you had a camera on the seat.
People talked to each other. News reporters talked to the military. The military talked to no one. It denied the existence of any secret bases, such as the infamous Area 51, also known as “Dreamland,” near the tiny town of Rachel, Nevada. And yet, all a person had to do, if they dared, was climb a hill, and look down and see that, yes, there was indeed a base, with aircraft coming and going.
For some people, there could be only one explanation. The government must be hiding aliens there. Maybe the U.S. Air Force is even test-piloting alien craft that have crash-landed at various places on earth. Or perhaps we are secretly exchanging scientists with extraterrestrials. Yes, a cadre of their finest minds are working at the Area 51 Base, while a contingent of Earthling scientists are on some far-away planet learning of a cure for the common cold.
The most noted UFO believer was a man named Bob Lazar, who drew national attention to the area in 1989 when he publicly claimed to have seen alien ships captured by the military. He supposedly saw them while he was employed as a physicist at the base. Neither Lazar’s employment nor his professionals credentials have been verified, although some pieces of his story have been.
That is one end of the spectrum of opinion about this mysterious area. At the other are those who simply believe that the U.S. Air Force is secretive because the area is being used, as it has been for the past 30 or so years, to develop new military aircraft, such as the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes and the F117-A Stealth Fighter, which was captured in flight by a Las Vegas photographer one bright, sunny afternoon. The problem was, the U.S. Air Force at that time was denying that it existed. Shown the picture, an Air Force spokesman claimed not to know what it was.
The 98-mile highway was given its unique designation by the Nevada Department of Transportation, which was responding to requests from tourism leaders in several south-central Nevada communities. The only one of those communities that is actually on the highway — and the only community of any kind on the highway — is Rachel. The residents are alfalfa farmers, employees of the adjacent Nevada Test Site and some retirees.
The social center of town is the Little A ‘Le’ Inn, which is a cafe, bar and small motel, as well as a UFO information center. The walls are covered with photos of flying objects, some from the surrounding area. The inn also contains a library of more than 150 volumes, exclusively on the subject of UFOlogy, and visitors are welcome to peruse it.
The definitive work on the region is resident Glenn Campbell’s “The Area 51 Viewer’s Guide.” The book tracks the history of how Rachel became the UFO capital of the West and provides some detailed information on how best to have your own close encounter. Another good work on the subject, and one with numerous rare photographs of the secret base, is the Area 51 & S-4 Handbook by Chuck Clark. (S-4 is another super-secret area adjacent to area 51.) It can be ordered from the Little A ‘Le’ Inn.
Depart Las Vegas for the 2.5-hour drive to Rachel. Take Interstate 15 north 22 miles to its junction with U.S. Highway 93. It is 93 miles to its junction with State Route 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway, and 25 miles farther to Rachel.
Along the way, at a point about 50 miles north of Interstate 15, U.S. 93 passes through the verdant Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, a lakeside oasis set with tall cottonwoods, a popular spot for a roadside picnics. Dining is available either at Alamo or in Rachel at the Little A ‘Le’ Inn, where you can feast on an “Alien Burger.”
Spend the evening at the inn, which has seven rooms and 15 RV spaces and several tent spaces. But nearly all the open space around the town is public land, and it generally is OK to camp anywhere off the roadway.
Don’t forget the binoculars or telescope. If you don’t spot anything within an hour, stop by the inn’s bar and ask for a “Beam Me Up, Scotty.” This beverage has been known to help watchers locate even the most cleverly concealed UFOs.
Depart Rachel for Tonopah. Drive time is just under two hours. Go west on State Route 375 for 62 miles to its junction with U.S. Highway 6. Continue west for another 49 miles to its junction with U.S. Highway 95 and the historic town of Tonopah.
Founded in 1900, Tonopah was once an important silver and gold mining town. Perched on a craggy mountain top, it retains the look of a real wild west town. For an overview of area history, stop in at the Central Nevada Museum at the south end of town. Tonopah is a good overnight resting place, with lodging at bargain prices, several restaurants, and casino action. If you are in a hurry, it’s the lunch break.
Just 25 miles south on U.S. 95 is the almost-ghost town of Goldfield. Take some time to drive around this sprawling old town, and take a peek inside the old Esmeralda County Courthouse, in continuous use since 1905 and recently restored to pristine condition.
Continue south for 67 miles to Beatty, and a two-mile side trip to the ghost town of Rhyolite. Perched at the edge of Death Valley, the grand old ruins of this town are among the most photographed in the state.
Optional Day Three
After overnight in Tonopah, travel 56 miles on U.S. 95 to its junction with State Route 267, and another 26 miles to Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park. (Drive time is about 1.5 hours). Spend the day exploring the park, and return via State Route 374, spending the night in Beatty. Lodging and good food are inexpensive here, and the town has plenty of casino action. In the morning, continue south for 116 miles, or just under two hours, to Las Vegas.
For more information about the Extraterrestrial Highway and Rachel, visit http://www.rachel-nevada.com/ or call the Little A ‘Le’ inn at 775-729-2515.
Other sources and more info
The Nevada test site is 1,375 square miles about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas and it is a secured area. Visitors must be “cleared” to be admitted. Guided tours are available, and participation must be arranged in advance. There is a lot of other defense-oriented activity on land adjoining the test site, including an Air Force gunnery range. Air space over these areas is restricted so no unauthorized aircraft is permitted to fly over.
The test site was created for the defense and security of the United States. It was used for atmospheric and later only underground testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War (after World War II). Since 1992, when all nuclear testing ceased, the site has been used for other kinds of testing that requires security and cannot be conducted in public areas for health and safety reasons. If you visit the test site today, you can see the remnants of some nuclear testing, such as huge craters where the ground caved in after an underground blast and warped and melted metal and concrete from atmospheric blasts.
The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas is a fascinating place that offers all of the history of nuclear testing in the United States and the test site. It explains why it was necessary and what was accomplished. For more information please visit: atomictestingmuseum.org