When TravelNevada approached me about tackling a short road trip in the state, there was one famous stretch of road that immediately sprang to mind – the Extraterrestrial Highway. At first, a 98-mile drive may not sound all that impressive, until you learn exactly what the Extraterrestrial Highway is all about. Driving this now-iconic route through the Nevada desert is about so much more than some nice scenery; it’s about journeying into one of the centers of quirky Americana. Yes, a belief in alien life is at the heart of the experience, but so are the people who live and work along the highway, adding their own eccentric personalities to the patchwork quilt of the drive. Traveling along the Extraterrestrial Highway was one of the best travel experiences I’ve enjoyed in a long time, so I thought I’d provide this mini-guide to the road itself, how to drive it, what to see and do and what it means.
Where and what is it?
Otherwise known as Nevada State Route 375, this is a 98-mile stretch of road that starts at the intersection of U.S. 93 and the Extraterrestrial Highway and continues west to the intersection of the Highway and U.S. 6. Thanks to the fact that Area 51 rests along the highway, this area has long been known for alien sightings and a fierce belief in life from other worlds visiting the remote Nevada desert. Embracing the idea, in 1996 the state, in conjunction with the release of the movie Independence Day, renamed Nevada State Route 375 to the Extraterrestrial Highway, hoping to spark interest from tourists. Over the years the road has developed into what it is today, one of the quirkiest but also one of the loneliest stretches of road in the country. And from my experience, it’s also one of the most fun drives anywhere in the world.
Getting there from Las Vegas was easy and I have no doubt that your phone or GPS will easily direct you there, but I simply followed US-93 North to the small town of Alamo, where I spent the night. Since I started my drive later in the day, the overnight was a nice way to break things up. Getting up early the next day, I then made the short 12-mile drive to the equally small town of Hiko and the start of the Extraterrestrial Highway.
What is there to see and do?
While the drive is interesting, the sights are few and far between. Before launching your own drive of the Extraterrestrial Highway, be sure to fill up at the Shell Gas Station immediately beforehand – you won’t see another gas station for a very long time. Here are some of the highlights of the drive as I experienced them. If you are a hardcore alien-fanatic though, there are even more stops that you might want to consider, but for the purposes of this post I’m only including what I saw and did. Regardless of your interests or how you tackle the highway on your own drive, I know you’ll find it as fun and interesting as I did.
Intersection of U.S. 93 and the Extraterrestrial Highway – There are actually quite a few things to do and see here, at the start of the Highway itself. They’re quirky and unusual, but set the perfect tone for the journey ahead.
ET Fresh Jerky – Rest stops are few and far between, and this is one of the best on the Highway. Open daily, they naturally feature a huge array of different beef jerky flavors, all drawing inspiration from the alien obsession of the area. I picked up a bag of Terrestrial Teriyaki as a snack for the road ahead, but not before chatting with some folks in the store. One gentleman was adamant that I not take his picture, but did want to make sure I Googled a special interview with aliens that proves life from outer space exists. I smiled, thanked him and left, silently grateful for this first and undoubtedly unusual start to my adventure.
Extraterrestrial Highway Sign – Just opposite the jerky shop is the official Extraterrestrial Highway sign, which has been nearly covered with stickers over the years. This sign is one of the most iconic when it comes to weird roadside attractions, so be sure to stop to take a few photos.
Alien Research Center Gift Shop – Almost immediately after the start of the Extraterrestrial Highway is your first stop, this quirky gift shop. It’s only open a couple of days a week and was closed when I visited, but the real attraction here is the enormous alien statue in front of the center itself. Against the stark backdrop of the Nevada desert, I think it’s an intensely beautiful place and one that epitomizes the passion many feel for the Highway.
Area 51 – After leaving the Gift Shop, the next 40 miles are open road through one of the state’s most barren regions. It’s also home to a site that is at the heart of the Extraterrestrial Highway experience – Area 51.
The US Air Force facility known as Area 51 is a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base and while it’s been there since the 1950s, was only officially recognized publicly in 2013. The true purpose of the site is unknown, although it’s widely believed to be a center for the testing of experimental and black box projects. This secrecy has also led to countless conspiracy theories, especially around the concept of UFOs. Both the front and back gates of the base are located off of the Extraterrestrial Highway, along with other famous Area 51 sites including the so-called Black Mailbox. I had done a little research on how to find these places before leaving home, but I was nervous.
I am not a rule-breaker. Far from it actually, I am the type of person who believes rules exist for a reason. That’s why I initially drove past the service road that I knew led to the front gates of the base itself, not wanting to draw the ire of the famously cranky military officers who man them. That changed though after a pit stop at the midway point of the Extraterrestrial Highway – the tiny town of Rachel.
Rachel, Nevada – Home to only about 40 people, Rachel exists today as a rest stop for those looking to learn more about Area 51 and alien life. The cafe, the Little A’Le’Inn, is as quirky and eccentric a place as I could have hoped for; full of kitsch and memorabilia. But it’s more than a novelty, as I learned after chatting with one of the waitresses in the cafe over a delicious piece of blueberry pie. Initially when I said I was from the DC area I was met with a very frosty reception, but she gradually warmed up to me as we chatted about all kinds of things, from our lives to Area 51 itself. The residents here have no doubt that alien life exists and that Area 51 has something to do with it and they’re more than happy to help visitors learn as much about that history as possible. Selling me a 35-cent map that would lead me to the back gates of Area 51, I finished up my pie and coffee and backtracked up the road to take a slight detour that would eventually lead me to the back gates of Area 51.
I nervously drove down the 12-mile dirt road that I knew would lead me to the base itself. The officers here are not known for their patience with alien-hunters and I understood that if I got too close to the gate, I would be arrested. It seemed improbable that anything was out there, I couldn’t see anything for miles except dusty Nevada desert. Then, almost out of nowhere, I saw a series of small structures in the distance. I looked at my odometer and it was almost 12-miles from the main road, just as my copied map indicated. Then I saw it, the simple gates with the famous warnings that marked Area 51. I took a few illegal photos, almost shaking from the flagrant rule breaking. But I figured, I was there, I was next to Area 51 and it would’ve been a shame not to stop and see it for myself; to see what the Extraterrestrial Highway is all about.
Driving back to the main road I was oddly proud of myself. Proud for veering off the road and tracking down the mysteries of the Highway, to see what draws so many people to this sparsely populated part of the country.
Open Road – After Rachel there’s nothing except wide-open road rolling through ranch lands where the only other souls you’ll meet are cattle. Only a couple of hundred cars drive this road on any given day, a tiny number when you think of it. That makes it one of the country’s loneliest stretches of asphalt, but also one of the most fun to explore.
Much more than a 98-mile drive
The Extraterrestrial Highway may not be America’s Loneliest Road but at times it certainly felt that way. But you know what? That was part of the fun driving it. From the ET Jerky Shop to Area 51 itself, this is ground zero for anyone interested in life from outer space. But the highway also tells other stories, of ranchers and VERY intrepid souls who chose to eek out a life here in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes they succeeded and other times they failed, but at least they tried. This drive has reminded me not only how massive my wonderful country is but how remarkable it is as well. In every corner are stories that may not be widely known, but which deserve discovery. They deserve our time, attention and respect because what they have to share adds to the great and quirky fabric that is the US.