Nevada's Extraterrestrial Highway: The Weirdest Road in America

Highway 375 south of Rachel wears a single dotted yellow line endlessly straight into the desert, toward mountains climbing into a blue sky

Photograph by Len Wilcox

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In the center of Nevada, angling south from its intersection with US Highway 6, may be the weirdest highway in America: Nevada state route 375.

It’s the Extraterrestrial Highway, a 92 mile stretch of road that slices through some of the most desolate land on the continent. The desert here is empty, hot, and dry; the roads lonely and the towns far apart.

Desolate, yes, but incredibly beautiful as well. It is high desert, very dry, very little vegetation and lots of rock. An extreme land that is biting cold in winter but blistery hot in summer. This is the Great Basin: A geologically unique area which does not have drainage to the sea. Rainfall and snowmelt all settle in the lake beds between the mountain ranges, creating alkali salt flats rich with minerals. These lake beds are flat and nearly always dry, so they do make good landing strips. What little surface water there is, is brackish, often poisonous, not useful for consumption or even for irrigation without treatment.

While mining is the main human enterprise here, be warned about the cattle from nearby ranches: This is free range, which means the roads are not fenced and the cattle wander freely onto the highway. Hitting one at highway speed is a very bad idea.

Just as important as mining or ranching is the tourist industry. Reno and Las Vegas have long held all the aces in that game, but starting in the 90’s, central Nevada stepped up to the table and demanded a hand. In 1996, thanks to sudden interest in the mysterious stories about the nearby military preserves, the state officially proclaimed Highway 375 the Extraterrestrial Highway.

There were a lot of stories and speculation about central Nevada in those days, and as it turns out, something really is out there. It is something shrouded in mystery, something hiding in the haze of a windblown day. It is Area 51, also known as Groom Lake. As more became known about the secret installation, the central part of the state became a Mecca for both military aircraft enthusiasts and UFO buffs. Most visitors aren’t here to see the land; their eyes are always on the sky, watching for space ships or the latest new hardware destined for the Air Force’s inventory.

It may be the military’s best kept secret (but then, how would we know if there’s an even better kept one?). The base was created in the 1950’s and just barely whispered about in the 1980’s. It wasn’t openly discussed until 1989 when a man named Bob Lazar told a story about working on alien spacecraft at a hidden military base in the Nevada desert. His story–an incredible one, but credibly told, coherently crafted and surprisingly plausible–has long since been discredited, along with his curious credentials. But at the time his story was tied to reports of strange craft spotted in the Nevada sky. It touched off a firestorm when curious people learned there might be a secret base on the desert–and there may be secrets in the form of captured space ships and aliens from another planet.

We now know there is such a thing as Area 51, and that Groom Lake really was and still is a secret military base which has been instrumental in the development of most if not all of the fighter aircraft and flight systems built since World War II. The SR-71 spy plane grew up on Groom Lake, as did our super-secret stealth bombers and fighters. If the military really does have some crashed alien space ships to study, there probably isn’t a better or more isolated place than Groom Lake where they can park them out of sight and take their time to tinker with them.

But what’s more, this desert has another claim to fame: It has been nuked beyond all reason.

The Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, is located to the west of highway 375. It was ground zero for more than 1,021 nuclear bomb explosions between 1951 and 1992. Most of the explosions were below ground. About 100 of the tests were atmospheric tests, all done before the Limited Test Ban Treaty signed by President Kennedy in 1963, which banned above-ground bomb tests. So, if the desert glows at night or 6 foot tall jackalopes suddenly appear on the side of the road, maybe they aren’t the result of alien visitors but are genetic mutations from all the radiation released during the nuclear explosions.

Over the years, numerous UFO investigators and conspiracy theorists alike have swarmed Nevada 375, focusing on the community of Rachel. About 20 miles south of town is the famous “Black Mailbox”–though painted silver now–where people still gather to watch for UFOs. Area 51 is many miles west and south of the Mailbox but from this spot visitors can watch the aircraft (or space ships) on final approach to the runway at Groom lake.

a silver box with a variety of names and allusions to aliens written on it
The “Black Mailbox”, south of Rachel, Nevada

Rachel is a young community, founded in the 1970’s, and named for the first (and to date, only) child–Rachel Jones–born in the village, on February 15, 1978. The 2010 census says it has a population of 54, but the community’s website says almost twice that number live there–98 in all. At the moment the only business in town is the “Little A-Le-Inn” restaurant and bar, a place to get a decent burger and all the UFO paraphernalia a person could ever need. They also have a few motel rooms to rent and the management is always willing to share the latest UFO or Area 51 stories. There’s no gas for sale in town, however; the only station closed back in 2007.

While the UFOs and secret aircraft programs bring most of Rachel’s visitors to town, there is another extraterrestrial that landed in the area, and its presence has been scientifically verified. This ET was very large, and its arrival was catastrophic. It was a meteor, most likely a bolide impact. It happened 367 million years ago and wasn’t shy with the geological evidence left behind.

A bolide impact happens when a meteor leaves little or no direct evidence of itself–it explodes in the air, or is a large ice ball (like a comet), so no large core of space rock is left. So far, no meteorite has been found. Instead, the size and power of the meteor is measured by the impact itself. In the Alamo Bolide Impact, breccia was strewn over a very large area and the geology shows the effects of the crash. In an article published in the January 2004 issue of Geotimes, Geologist John Warme estimates that 1,000 cubic kilometers of breccia (sedimentary rock) was displaced during the event. Pieces of the breccia are scattered from north of Las Vegas to possibly as far as Utah.

So if you travel the Extraterrestrial Highway and come to see Rachel, remember this is true desert and plan accordingly; this is not country to take lightly. Always have water and be sure your vehicle is in top shape. And, if you head down the dirt road toward Area 51, stop and turn around when the ‘No Trespassing’ signs appear.

But mostly, keep your eyes on the sky. You will see something–maybe something very strange–because, as they say on The X-Files, ‘the truth is out there’. That truth may be an F22 Raptor fighter jet or a test craft of some new wild design–or an extraterrestrial rock falling out of the sky. Or maybe, just maybe, something else entirely. So keep that camera ready…just in case.end of article

Photograph by Len Wilcox