Travel

Take a Road Trip Down the Extraterrestrial Highway

Weirdness awaits on Nevada SR 375 and beyond.

melissamn/Shutterstock
melissamn/Shutterstock
melissamn/Shutterstock

Were you one of those people who were 100% ready to Storm Area 51 back in 2019? Have you already embarked on a Nevada stargazing road trip and want to delve even deeper into the cosmic possibilities? Do you believe the truth is out there? Then pack your bags, because have we got the excursion for you.

Area 51 tourism is an actual thing, and has been for quite some time-so much so that there are a number of alien-themed hotels, cafes, souvenir shops, bars, and even a brothel along what is known as the “Extraterrestrial Highway” and all throughout this part of the state.

On this route, you’ll start in Las Vegas and head straight into the heart of rural Nevada, making a giant loop by Area 51 (or as close as you can get without being arrested and/or shot), past all kinds of bizarre points of interest (both alien-themed and otherwise), and right back to Sin City. Here’s where to stop along the way.

CloudOnePhoto/Shutterstock
CloudOnePhoto/Shutterstock
CloudOnePhoto/Shutterstock

First: What is Area 51?

You’ve probably heard something about aliens hanging out in far-flung Nevada, but do you know what Area 51 actually is?

Conspiracy theorists will tell you that it’s a top-secret military base somewhere in the southern Nevada desert where they experiment on aliens. In reality, it’s a covert, 5,000-square-mile United States Air Force testing facility where highly-classified military aircraft are trialed. (It’s so secret, in fact, that the government didn’t officially acknowledge its existence until 2013.)

Along with the former Nevada Test Site, Area 51 is now part of the Nevada National Security Site. It’s restricted to both land and area use, and the restricted airspace above the base covers about 575 square miles.

That’s the gist of the situation, but because the desert tends to be fertile ground for alien conspiracies (see also: Roswell), the unidentified flying objects allegedly spotted in Area 51’s airspace were assumed to be extraterrestrial UFOs, and not the more obvious but far less exciting advanced military aircraft prototypes that they actually were. Locals quickly leaned into the alien lore, and thus, an entire quirky tourism industry centered around the base was born.

DiegoMariottini/Shutterstock
DiegoMariottini/Shutterstock
DiegoMariottini/Shutterstock

Go UFO-hunting along the Extraterrestrial Highway

Starting in Vegas, take I-15 north to US Route 93 (Great Basin Highway). In a little over 90 minutes, you’ll end up in Crystal Springs, where you’ll find the second most famous road sign in Nevada, the Extraterrestrial Highway Sign.

It’s located right at the split between S.R. 318 and S.R. 375, and there are two alien-themed points of interest immediately in either direction. The Alien Research Center is a kitschy souvenir shop that greets you with a giant metal alien figure standing in front of an aircraft hangar; stop in for a dose of Area 51 lore, a shot of Alien Tequila, and extraterrestrial-themed paraphernalia to take home.

In the other direction, snack and souvenir shop E.T. Fresh Jerky offers a variety of jerky and other excellent road trip provisions, so stock up. Take some selfies in front of the massive UFO-themed mural that runs the entire length of the building’s exterior while you’re there.

Alien Research Center
Alien Research Center
Alien Research Center

From here, head north on S.R. 375-aka the “Extraterrestrial Highway,” a lonely, 98-mile stretch of rural desert road that takes you as close as you can actually get to Area 51. In addition to all of the cows and Joshua trees, there is plenty more alien kitsch to see along the route. Within minutes, you’ll come upon the Black Mailbox, an unofficial gathering place for UFO-seekers and all those who believe. The current Black Mailbox is not the original, but passionate enthusiasts keep the tradition alive every time it is dislodged, vandalized, or stolen.

Keep heading north to the town of Rachel-which proudly calls itself the “UFO Capital of the World“-where you’ll find the famous Little A’Le’Inn, a motel/diner/gift shop that goes all-in on the alien theme. After a day of extraterrestrial exploration, you might want to rest your head for a night here; at the very least, pop in and order an Alien Burger at the bar, chat with the owners, and pick up some acid-green alien head coffee mugs as souvenirs. And of course, don’t leave Rachel without a stop at the other Extraterrestrial Highway sign.

Photo courtesy of Hame Anan
Photo courtesy of Hame Anan
Photo courtesy of Hame Anan

Spot stars and seriously creepy sights in Tonopah

As the Extraterrestrial Highway ends, continue west on US Route 6 to Tonopah. Brace yourself, because this is where shit gets real weird.

If you’re in need of an overnight, consider a stay at Tonopah’s world-famous Clown Motel, which bills itself as “America’s Scariest Motel.” Accurate. Located next to the century-old Old Tonopah Cemetery (which holds its share of remains of Wild West outlaws and scoundrels), the old motel is stuffed full of some 600 clowns. If that’s too terrifying for you, there’s always the famously haunted Mizpah Hotel also in Tonopah. Honestly, the whole town is just haunted AF.

Once named the “#1 Stargazing Destination in America,” Tonopah is also home to some superb dark skies at Clair Blackburn Memorial Stargazing Park, where you’ll find cement pads designed for telescopes, monthly star parties throughout the summer, and around 7,000 stars visible to the naked eye. Download their “Star Trails” map for a guide of paved and unpaved paths to maximize your star-tripping fun.From Tonopah, head south on US 95-also known as the “Free Range Art Highway“-into Goldfield and the International Car Forest of the Last Church, a stupendously weird place. It is a “forest” of junked cars, trucks, and buses jutting out of the ground. With over 40 vehicles planted across 80 acres of land, the Car Forest is believed to be the largest such public art installation in the country. The vehicles themselves serve as canvases for the founding artists, Chad Sorg and Michael Rippie, as well as visiting artists and graffiti taggers.

Dan Sedran/Shutterstock
Dan Sedran/Shutterstock
Dan Sedran/Shutterstock

Dive into Death Valley

Keep heading south on 95 until you hit Beatty, the “Gateway to Death Valley” and a quintessentially oddball old mining town in rural Nevada. Order a bowl of top-secret family recipe chili (it’s got a kick!) and have a few beers on the patio at Happy Burro Chili and Beer, then head four miles west to the Rhyolite Ghost Town, a gold mining boomtown that thrived for a brief decade before its citizens abandoned it over a century ago.

Also located here is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, one of the eeriest, coolest public art installations in this part of the desert and possibly in existence. There are several large-scale sculptures here, the most famous being the ghoulish shrouded plaster figures staged in a reinterpretation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper by founding artist Charles Albert Szulaski.From Beatty, take S.R. 374 into Death Valley National Park, which straddles Nevada and California across its 3.4 million acres. The landscapes here are otherworldly and utterly extreme, from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the mysterious sailing stones to the salt flats of Badwater Basin. Death Valley is also a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park-the highest level awarded by the International Dark Sky Association-so if you can, stay late to catch a truly phenomenal view of the heavens.

After Death Valley, head back towards Beatty then south on 95. If you skipped the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, climb the slopes at Big Dune, an area most tourists miss. This is a great spot to camp out and soak in the night sky in what is considered one of the darkest regions in the state-all the gloriousness of Death Valley’s cosmic skies, with none of the crowds.

Alizada Studios/Shutterstock
Alizada Studios/Shutterstock
Alizada Studios/Shutterstock

Head back to Sin City via an alien-themed brothel

As you make your way back to Vegas, there are a couple more alien-themed attractions of note right by Big Dune-namely, the Area 51 Alien Travel Center, which has a gas station, a 1950s-style diner, a gift shop with lots of alien-themed merch, and…a brothel! Yep, sex work is fully legal in this part of Nevada, and the Alien Cathouse has the distinction of being America’s only themed brothel.

Once you’re back in Sin City, the bizarro fun doesn’t have to stop: Pay a visit to the National Atomic Testing Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate where you can steep yourself in the history of Nevada’s atomic age and Area 51. (In non-pandemic times, they also lead comprehensive monthly tours of the Nevada National Security Site.)

And if you don’t want to commit all THAT much time and effort to browsing alien tchotchkes in rural Nevada, you can also take an Area 51 day trip from Vegas with Adventure Photo Tours, the only company on Earth to offer such a tour.

Please be aware that you do NOT get to go inside the military facility-the closest you can get to it is still 15 miles away-but you will be able to see the armed guards stationed along the perimeter. (You know, the ones with permission to shoot you if you try to storm it.) Along with Area 51, the tour hits several unusual natural sights and aforementioned points of interest before returning you to Vegas in the evening just in time to party.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Nicole Rupersburg lives in Las Vegas, which is a weird enough place even without any aliens. She has been working on her Naruto run for The Storming, but will probably just get schlitzed next to a bonfire while wearing a green alien spandex suit like pretty much everyone else there. Follow her on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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