In 2019 a Facebook prank threatened to send a horde of thousands into the sweltering Nevada desert to storm Area 51. What actually eventuated was a couple of hundred people loitering by the base perimeter at 3am. Some wore costumes. Others feigned a Naruto-run at the gate. All of them shuffled away eventually. While the concept of military secrets and UFO sightings is alluring, the reality is far more tame.
Small town stories. A hand drawn map. Unbridled beauty. If this is sounding too banal for your taste, don’t worry. There’s always the threat of arrest.
If you plan on visiting Area 51 to spots aliens or military tests, you’re probably going to be disappointed. That isn’t to say you won’t see or hear something strange, though. We certainly did.
At the heart of any trip into the Joshua-tree studded desert should be the landscape itself. It’s vastness and rugged beauty is intoxicating. Standing in it, you quickly understand why such a barren and deafeningly quiet place was chosen for a military testing facility.
What is Area 51, anyway?
The existence of Area 51 was only officially confirmed in 2013 after a CIA report mentioning the base was declassified. But for 60 years prior there had been reports of Unidentified Flying Objects being spotted in the area around the base – which is actually named the Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake.
There seems to be a solid correlation between the base opening and when UFOs began being spotted. So while it’s fun to conjure images of aliens, it’s probably just the government testing stuff.
Sadly you can’t casually roll up and ask for a tour, but there are a few places to visit along the way.
Our journey started in Las Vegas, where we hired an obnoxiously large jeep and began racing towards the desert.
The Black Mailbox of Area 51
After turning onto the aptly-named Extraterrestrial Highway, you drive across the lonely desert for quite awhile before hitting your first Area 51 landmark.
A legendary slice of alien lore, the Black Mailbox is covered in stickers and graffiti by enthusiasts who perhaps want to imprint a little something of themselves onto the mythos.
Interestingly, it’s actually two mailboxes, due to the sheer excess of mail and alien-related offerings that are bestowed upon it.
According to the stories, the Black Mailbox belongs to a local rancher by the name of Steve Medlin. It was inadvertently written into the Nevada extraterrestrial legend when an alleged former Area 51 employee, Bob Lazar, claimed to be able to show people spacecrafts flying over the area. He offered to meet interested parties at the Black Mailbox.
It was later discovered the Lazar was never employed at Area 51, nor the scientist he claimed to be. But the Black Mailbox’s entry into the alien myth has remained solid.
Approximately 240 kilometres outside of Las Vegas lies the sleepy town of Rachel. Compared to the temptations and sordid delights of Sin City, ‘comatose’ is probably a better description.
Nestled between the lonely mountain ranges that rise out of the barren Nevada desert, it is a pastiche of random buildings and trailers. At face value it barely qualifies as a town. And yet it has a consistent stream of road trippers stopping at the single diner that punctuates the fringe of the settlement.
Rachel may be a world away from just about everything, but if the Black Mailbox is the gateway to Area 51, than these unassuming spots of buildings is the heart.
If you’ve ventured this far into the desert you’ll probably be in want of sustenance, and the town’s single diner is more than happy to oblige. Aptly named the Little Ale’Inn, it contains a plethora of extraterrestrial memorabilia (for sale, of course) and recorded alien sightings. It’s unpretentious with its plastic covered stools and sea of dollar bills hanging from the ceiling.
The place certainly had no problem leaning into the niche that brings a steady stream of customers to its door.
Warm and welcoming, the place inadvertently invites guests to stay awhile, disarming them long enough to share their lives with strangers who either call Rachel their home, or who fate dictated that they wander in at the same time.
We opted for burgers at the counter, while the waitress regaled us with the story of how she came to this sleepy part of the world. She arrived for an adventure and stayed for a boy. Isn’t that always the way?
Many years and a few kids later she calls the place home and has spent her fair share of late nights peering at the sky, seeing things she can’t quite explain.
But she was happy to explain the rules of Area 51 – where it was safe to go and go to avoid getting arrested. And for $1.50 she armed us with the print of a hand drawn map of the sites and we were on our way.
The Back Gate
The first stop was the ‘Back Gate’, the only fenced boundary of Area 51 included in our homegrown map. With a guard post, flood lights and a looming boom gate, the military base vibes are gratuitous.
While it’s certainly fun to wander around, fake a Naruto run and watch a couple of tinted vehicles be granted entrance, it grows old fast.
You can’t see anything particularly interesting besides the glorious surroundings, which I imagine is by design.
Area 51 Base Boundary
Several kilometres away lays another, less obvious boundary. The entrance to the so-called Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range is nestled in a small canyon, between two hills.
There are no gates or fences. The only warnings are two easy-to-miss signs hugging either side of the road. They warn visitors not to pass them, lest they want to be arrested and charged with trespassing.
But if you look closely you may spot a few more indicators that you’re about to trespass extremely private property. On the hill to our left we spotted mounted security cameras monitoring the area.
And a slight wander into the brush will reveal some small orange posts that you absolutely do not want to cross.
But most intriguing was something we we warned about back at the Little Ale’Inn.
According to the locals, colloquially named ‘Camo Dudes’ patrolled the surrounds in unmarked Ford Raptors. If we were lucky enough, we might be able to spot one on a neighbouring hill.
And we did.
Perhaps it was the chill the rapidly setting sun brought, or the sheer mystery of the place. But it did feel like we were being watched. We had even convinced ourselves that perhaps there were listening devices hidden in the scrub.
The latter thought was probably just the manifestation of paranoia, but there were indeed eyes on it.
A glint on a far off hill and some phone camera zoom alerted us to our very own Camo Dude. So we waved.
But it didn’t quite end there…
As the sun drops behind the snow capped Nevada mountains, Area 51 and the desert that houses it transforms. The shrubs cast long, twisted shadows from the lingering rays of light and the sky erupts in such otherworldly hues that you’re compelled to pull over and bear witness.
With the bitumen stretching seemingly to nowhere you feel like you are a perpetual traveller whose soul purpose is to absorb the majesty around you, at least for those few moments.
For us, normality began to settle back in as we began the journey back to Vegas. We had no intention of stopping, but a desert lake accented by a magical dusk convinced us to stop.
As we admired the scene around us, nature’s glory was interrupted by a large boom that reverberated across the sky. Our guess is that someone was conducting aerial related tests. But it was still a touch freaky, and gratifying, to have our own little Area 51 story.
You can listen to the remnants here:
It’s been fourteen months since the echo of the sonic boom against the lilac sky followed us out of Area 51. But it still lingers in my thoughts and dreams.
While there might not be aliens, the place is undoubtedly haunted by its own mythos.
It’s a place pulsating with raw beauty and rumours that extend across continents. To physically stand in a place with such historical baggage — you can almost feel the stories, wild rumours and secrets whisper to you across time.
Perhaps some of the romanticising stems from wallowing in the knowledge that the world has altered so drastically since my boots last crunched against the gritty desert floor.
Still, it’s probably safe to say I left a shard of my heart in the Nevada desert.