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Approaching Area 51

by Donald Prothero, Dec 25 2013


Come join the Skeptic Society for our trip to Area 51 and other alien landscapes, Martin Luther King weekend (January 18-20), 2014. We will spend 3 days exploring the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (with lunch at the Little A’Le’inn), collecting trilobites, and visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum and their UFO exhibit, as well as the alien landscape of Valley of Fire State Park and Calico Ghost Town. Both nights will be spent at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. For further details, see this link. Hurry! We’re down to our last few seats!

We are driving west in a black GMC Yukon Denali SUV across the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (Nevada State Highway 375), about three hours north from Las Vegas. The road itself is unremarkable—miles and miles of a ribbon of asphalt cutting across barren desert of mesquite and Joshua tree yuccas, with no signs of life anywhere. Occasionally the road rises up from the low flats to cross a small mountain range, with jagged rocks exposed on all sides, completely devoid of vegetation. During the summer, the temperatures here stay above 100°F for weeks on end, and almost no one comes through here. In the winter, the daytime temperatures are more comfortable, but at night it gets bitterly cold, especially if the desert winds are howling through the area. It’s also over 4400 feet in elevation here, so some winters are cold enough that snow will accumulate on the high desert surface, and may persist on the peaks well into the spring.

After you pass through the tiny towns of Alamo and Ash Springs (last gas station for 150 miles or more) on U.S. Highway 93, and turn west on to Highway 375, you drive about 15 miles until you reach Hancock Summit, a mountain pass over barren rock that is the highest place in the region.  You can get out of your car and look to the southwest, but all you will see is the Groom Range to your west. The military base is down in the valley beyond, and there is no other spot in any direction where you could see the base from the paved road.  You can make the strenuous hike to Tikaboo Peak to the south, and see parts of the base on the other side of the range without incurring the wrath of base security, but this isn’t much more informative.

The isolation of the base was deliberate. Its location was purposely chosen to be as remote as possible, and impossible to see from the paved road, no matter how high up you drive. Until recently, the only way to see the base was by airplane, and the entire airspace above the base is restricted, so unless you want to be chased away by fighter jets, you don’t try to fly over it with a civilian craft. Then, when spy satellites and especially Google Earth became available to anyone with a computer, it was possible to get satellite images of the base. But all these show are a series of airstrips and a bunch of buildings down on the valley floor next to the dry Groom Lake bed. Sure, you can see there is military activity there, but this reveals nothing that is worth getting excited about. It looks just like any other desert military airstrip.
Driving southwest and down from Hancock Summit, somewhere between mile markers 34 and 35, you come to a right curve, where the paved highway veers off to the northwest. Going straight ahead to the southwest is Groom Lake Road, the primary entrance to the base, deliberately left unmarked and hard to find so only authorized people will drive this way. If you veer off down this dusty road, there are sensors buried beneath it that will let them know you’re coming. After about 13 miles, you come to the first signs that warn you that this is a closed military installation, and that photography is not permitted. Meanwhile, on the hills above the road are several lookout spots where the “camo dudes” (as some people call the security personnel) are watching you from their white Jeep Cherokees or Chevy pickup trucks with high-powered binoculars. If you stop and look around, you’ll see not only their vehicles, but also security cameras on posts with a closed-circuit TV feed, so the entire base security can watch you. Finally, at 13.8 miles from the unmarked turnoff from Highway 375, the last sign warns you that you are on the base perimeter. The signs not only warn you not to go further, and that photography is not permitted , but also that the use of deadly force is authorized! These folks aren’t kidding! The perimeter is marked not by a big fence, but by a series of large orange posts spaced about 50 yards apart on the base borderline. As long as you stay in your vehicle and don’t cross the line, you’ll be OK. Lately, they have even begun to tolerate photography of the signs and the base perimeter. But if you drive past the signs, or get out and walk too close to the line of orange posts, they will swoop down, arrest you and turn you over to the Lincoln County Sheriff, where you will have to pay a steep fine for trespassing on a restricted military base.

If you were allowed to pass this perimeter fence, you would drive another 0.8 miles through a canyon through the mountains before you even get to the actual guard post. Tourists and casual UFO fans never get this far, because the checkpoint is well inside the restricted area. And if you’re driving the road, you need to pull completely off the onto the shoulder to let the big white bus speeding out of the base pass you as it brings authorized personnel in and out. It typically leaves the base about 4:40 each weekday afternoon.

Hikers try to sneak inside the base perimeter and get photographs from the mountains that overlook Groom Lake, but most are caught quickly before they ever get there. If you are lucky and stick around long enough, you’ll see their Pave Hawk security helicopters swoop overhead, looking out for hikers trying to sneak past the perimeter. At one time, these choppers would swoop down low and “sandblast” trespassers with the downwash from their rotors to drive them back and discourage them, but that practice is no longer allowed.

The "black mailbox" is actually dirty white and covered with graffiti

The “black mailbox” is actually dirty white and covered with graffiti

Driving past the unmarked entrance to Groom Lake Road, about 5 miles further to the northwest on Highway 375 (between mile markers 29 and 30), there’s a small mailbox by the side of the wide graveled parking area south of the main highway. This is the legendary “black mailbox,” so popular in the fan literature of UFO hunters. Oddly, it’s not colored black at all, but a dull dirty white, and it has so many stickers from all over the world and so much graffiti scrawled on it that the color is obscured. The “black” refers to the original mailbox that was here before 1996, a regular black-painted county mailbox you could buy in a local hardware store. Despite all the legends about it, the truth is much less glamorous. It’s not a mailbox for the base at all! Naturally, the military has its own system for delivering mail, and would never use a mailbox accessible to the public. Instead, it’s the mailbox for the only rancher in this area of the Tikaboo Valley. He has to cope with a constant problem of UFO fans going through his mail looking for “top-secret military posts” and breaking his mailbox open, and even shooting at it! The original mailbox was eventually removed and auctioned off to a UFO fan for $1000, and the current mailbox has been there since 1996. It is tightly padlocked and bulletproof, so the only thing tourists can do is decorate its outside. But the wide gravel pullout around the mailbox is a favorite place for UFO fans to hang out at nighttime, and even camp overnight, trying to get a glimpse of the lights of anything flying in the skies.

Finally, if you travel about 40 miles from the eastern end of the “Extraterrestrial Highway,” you reach Rachel, Nevada, the only “town” in the entire area. Actually, calling it a town is a bit too generous. The 2010 census counted only 54 residents, all of whom live in rows of trailers just south of the highway, baking in the desert sun.  Most of the residents are retirees living cheaply on fixed incomes. There is no post office, and the few children in town must ride buses all the way to Alamo, Nevada, for school.
The only thing worth seeing in Rachel is the legendary “Little A’Le’inn”, a quirky restaurant, motel, and bar that is the meeting point for all the UFO fans who pass through the area. It has a big tow truck out front next to the sign with its crane and tow-hook holding a “flying saucer” made out of old satellite TV dishes. Inside, the walls are lined with UFO articles and paraphernalia, and the ceiling over the fully stocked bar is thickly plastered with dollar bills that have been stapled up there for some reason. The menu is mostly typical coffee-shop fare, although they do make an “Alien Burger” that I found was quite tasty. (Its meat is not alien, of course, but probably from some of the cattle that wander across the entire area of open range). According to one interview:

A’Le’inn owner Connie West says that Rachel plays host to people of every shape, size and nationality. With seven rooms for lodging, the inn, restaurant and gift shop has no typical customer. “I’ve got people from all walks of life coming out here. Some pretty normal, some out there,” says West. “People bawl their eyes out — they’ve been waiting their whole life to be here. We are also a watering hole for the military, or anyone who comes down the highway.” She once had to kick out two men who showed up wearing nothing but silver and green spray paint. “I live eight miles from the most publicized top secret military installation in the world,” explains West. “Of course I see strange things.”

The “Little A’Le’inn” has been featured in many movies and TV shows made about Area 51, including the hilarious film Paul. It features British actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the UFO tourists going on a UFO pilgrimage from Comicon in San Diego to Area 51 in a big RV. There they meet the escaped alien “Paul” (voiced by Seth Rogen) who hitches a ride with them, and the rest of the movie is a chase with the “men in black” from the base trying to recapture Paul. The “Little A’Le’inn” is also featured in The X-Files season 6 episode called “Dreamland II”, and in Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, season 1 episode 2, and also in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

The movie Independence Day pretends to have been filmed in Area 51, but it was actually filmed in the California desert, and there are no shots of actual features around Area 51, such as the Little A’Le’inn. Ironically, once the Nevada Commission on Tourism decided to give Highway 375 the moniker “Extraterrestrial Highway,” the producers and some of the cast of Independence Day took part in the dedication ceremony of the renaming of the highway—even though the film had been made in another state.

If the lack of any impressive features at the main Groom Lake Road entrance fails to impress the UFO tourists, there is always the other entrance to Area 51: the North Gate, also known as the Rachel Back Gate. If you follow the dirt road going south out of Rachel for about 10 miles, you will reach it. There you encounter the warning signs, a fence, and then a real guard post at the gate. Tall posts tower above the gate, with security cameras that can pan all around and see the landscape for miles. For many years, there was a simple guard post building with one guard inside (usually watching TV westerns when no one is near), and security vehicles parked nearby. Since the ground is level for miles, they don’t need the vehicles parked on hilltops, because there is nowhere to hide and they can see you easily with all their security cameras and sensors. There are three black buildings numbered 997, 998, and 999, and a barbeque behind the guardhouse for the security staff to use while relaxing. In October 2000, the old guard shack (now abandoned) was upgraded to a larger facility, which had a pair of double gates so that anyone passing the first gate would be trapped between the first and second gate while their security credentials were being checked. Then in January 2011, the guard post was upgraded again to a building about three times the size of the old guard post. It is much more complete, with facilities for many different personnel as well as room to accommodate all their monitors for security cameras, and store their equipment.

If you pass a certain point without authorization, the security forces will swoop down on you. As in the case with the Groom Lake Road entrance, these guys are not messing around! They will arrest you and call the Lincoln County Sheriff to haul you away. The signs also say they are authorized to use deadly force to stop you, although so far no one has apparently been shot going too close. But in 2012, a British reality series called “Conspiracy Road Trip: UFOs” decided to test its limits. The show follows five young Britons who are true believers in some unconventional idea (such as creationism, or the 9/11 “Truthers”), and then drives cross-country visiting areas that provide the best evidence to challenge their beliefs. After the usual stops at the Black Mailbox and the Little A’Le’inn, they tried driving right into the North Gate with their minibus, filming all the way (starting at minute 38:00). The guards were not amused, arrested the entire crew and cast in the bus and held them for several hours. They finally released them to drive away late at night, but confiscated all their cameras and their footage. The finished episode aired in 2012 ends with a tiny video clip, apparently shot in the dark with someone’s cell phone camera that the guards missed, sheepishly explaining what happened. It seems amazing, but apparently people don’t realize that these security guards are dead serious!

So be forewarned: curious UFO tourists can wander around the perimeter and get their thrills approaching the various entrances to Area 51, but if you cross the line, you’ll be sorry!

The old guard shack at the "back gate" to area 51, 10 miles south of Rachel, Nevada

The old guard shack at the “back gate” to area 51, 10 miles south of Rachel, Nevada

One Response to “Approaching Area 51”

  1. Max says:

    Try driving a white bus instead of a black SUV :-)
    Is the bus allowed to speed? What happens if you don’t get out of its way?