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

13 Reasons to Drive to Palm Springs

Rest, relaxation, and happy hour await you in the desert.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

SoCal winters may not cause locals to flee toward warmer weather, but it does remind us that now is a good time to visit Palm Springs. This time of year is the sweet spot where it’s not too hot during the day and the nights are perfect for a dip in a hot tub. Covered in kitsch, with a culture that encourages you to day drink and lay by a pool all day, it’s no wonder that the desert town has long been a refuge for weekend warriors looking for an escape. Bonus: You can pack up and drive, and be there in less time than it takes to binge a new Netflix series.

Palm Springs is home to a vibrant LGBTQ community-including the nation’s first all-LGBTQ city council-plus art and culture, as well as an abundance of mid-century modern architecture. A field of wind turbines welcome you to town, and once you’re there you’ll be welcomed by leaning palm trees and craggy mountain ranges that keep inspiration flowing. Here you can find warm weather, outdoor activities, and an abundance of restaurants and shops. You’ll also find plenty of opportunities to lounge poolside and do close to nothing, if that’s more your vibe. Use our recommendations below to craft your perfect weekend. You deserve it.

Editor’s note: The city of Palm Springs requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination status or a recent negative COVID test result for entry into the city’s indoor bars and restaurants. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire

Chill out in style

So you decided to make the good choice to spend a weekend in Palm Springs and need a place to stay. Sure, you could go the Airbnb route, of which the town has many. Or you could enjoy the luxury and amenities of one of Palm Springs’ beautifully designed hotels.

If you’re traveling with a whole posse, consider the boutique hotel, Limón. Their interiors are bright, cheery, and inspired by mid-century modern and 1960s Mexico City. The seven-room property books as one unit and can accommodate you and 13 of your pals. It includes a communal kitchen, an entertainment room, pool, and BBQ area. During your stay, let their staff take the wheel and plan your days. They can assist in creating the perfect stay, like a night out for a bachelor/ette party, a hot air balloon excursion, or a personal chef to cook for you and your crew.

For those looking for an intimate stay for two, try the adults-only hotel, Dive. It’s hard not to feel romantic in their elegant rooms inspired by the 1960s French Riviera. Personally, we fell in love at “free glass of rosé upon check-in.” During Valentine’s Day weekend they will up their complimentary glass by offering a complimentary bottle of French Pool Toy Rosé and two chocolate-covered strawberries per room.

You can’t miss Fleur Noire, with its black exterior that makes it stand out amongst Palm Springs’ otherwise brightly colored architecture. The interiors feel airy, modern, and are punctuated with wallpaper bearing large floral prints. The property consists of an array of casitas, studios, and standard rooms surrounding the communal pool. The hotel is near Palm Springs’ famed Palm Canyon Drive with shops and restaurants. However, if you want to stay a bit closer to your home-tel, you can access Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey through their back gate. Try their signature Black Mussels served with hijiki seaweed, scallions, and miso sake broth. On the Fleur Noire property, you can grab a drink at their rosé and champagne bar, La Boisson.

Aptly named Tiki Hotel is a nod to the 1950s & ‘60s affinity for tiki culture. If you don’t like kitsch and bold design, this is not the place for you. The 11-room property boasts island-themed decor, with vibrant colors and patterns galore. You can lounge by their pool or jump on one of the provided beach cruisers to explore the Palm Springs Design District and nearby shops and restaurants.

Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds

Try out the Palm Springs food scene

At some point you might want to stop taking your food and drinks poolside and head into a restaurant. Palm Springs has something for everyone and at least one restaurant for the dogs. Boozehounds makes you wonder: is this a dog-friendly restaurant or a human-friendly dog restaurant? Either way, we’re all in! The restaurant has a large patio perfect for your pooch or if you prefer to dine sans dog, they have an indoor dining area. They serve a wide selection of food, from Japanese yellowtail to a Double Cheeseburger, all inspired by Southern California. They even have a menu just for dogs. with items like a bowl of skirt steak, steamed rice, and sweet potato. As the name suggests, they have a great selection of booze in the form of cocktails, wine, and beer. Not to leave dogs out, you can order your fur baby a weenie-teenie, a concoction of chicken broth, chicken whipped cream, and a dog biscuit crumble. Non-alcoholic, of course.

Eat brunch or lunch outdoors at El Patio, a family-owned Mexican restaurant. Try the Breakfast Enchiladas that come with squash, spinach, corn, cheese, and topped with your choice of green or red sauce and two fried eggs. Or opt for the Bone-in Chicken covered with mole poblano and pipian sauces, garnished with red onion, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Make sure to save room for their churro cart that comes with three different dipping sauces and sprinkles.

One of the most exciting restaurants in Palm Springs right now is Bar Cecil. The culinary commander of the place is Gabe Woo, a Coachella Valley native and local celeb known for his dinner series at Sparrows Lodge and Holiday House that were hard to get into. Woo takes bistro-style foods and expands on it while using seasonal produce from local farms. We can’t promise you it’ll be easy to get a table but we can say that their bar area takes walk-ins where you can order a juicy, flavorful burger and a delicious pork chop with a hint of smokiness. Or order from their “Why Not” menu where you can find swanky items like their infamous $50 martini-Beluga vodka with a kiss of Alessio vermouth is poured tableside in a perfectly chilled glass. The drink is served on a silver tray with a Regiis Ova caviar-topped deviled egg and a bowl of sunchoke chips.

Seymour's
Seymour’s
Seymour’s

Grab a cocktail or two

Drink across decades at Truss & Twine, a cocktail bar that celebrates the history of drinks in America. The interiors may be dark and dramatic, but their staff are friendly and happy to share their knowledge on libations with you. We recommend trying one of their original cocktails like the Game Changer that comes with gin, lime, cucumber, sugar, onion brine, sea salt, and celery bitters. They also serve food that does not resemble typical bar food fare, like their Wagyu Oxtail Grilled Cheese with cheddar, caramelized onion, and green chile aioli. For a mellow night, take a trip to the local speakeasy Seymours, located next to Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. Enter through the unmarked side entrance and step into a bar with chill vibes, moody lighting, and an intimate atmosphere with extraordinary bartenders. They also offer outdoor seating. Try their Oaxcan Hemingway with mezcal, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, and simple syrup.

Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights

Take in the scenery

September through May, Fantasy Balloon Flights will show you the world… or at least the vastness of the Coachella Valley from the sky. Rest assured, the hot air balloon company has been at it for some time (since 1981 to be exact). For those that need a bit of liquid courage, champagne balloon adventures are available.

Hop on the world’s largest rotating tramcar at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The car takes you on a ten-minute ride up and along the cliffs of Chino Canyon for picturesque views of the desert until you arrive at your destination, Mt. San Jacinto State Park. At the top, there are places to grab food, observation decks, and over 50 miles of hiking trails. And if you go during the winter there’s a good chance there will be snow.

Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs

Load up on new and new-to-you goods

Look for retro wares in the land of mid-century modern majesty. Palm Springs may not have invented the style but they sure do embrace it. Go on a vintage crawl on Palm Canyon Drive and gander at shops like Bon Vivant, Modernway, and Revivals. There you can find eccentric accents and mid-century modern furniture to buy or give you major design inspo. While you’re around, you might as well spruce up your wardrobe at vintage boutiques like The Frippery, Iconic Atomic, and Bazar.

If you prefer to be the first owner of your items, check out the Mojave Flea Trading Post. Contrary to its name, the indoor department store features about 95% new and 5% vintage goods. Browse the stylish works of 40+ local artisans and find art, jewelry, clothes, natural beauty products, home goods, and more.

Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret

Support the LGBTQ community

For a bar that has a mission statement that is as good as its food, try Blackbook. Named after the black book in Nevada, a list of notorious people not welcomed in casinos, owner Dean Lavine explains, “We like to think that everyone has been on a blacklist at some point in time. Gay, bullied, racially excluded, Raiders fans, etc.” The bar prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming to all, with some of the best food in Palm Springs. We’re partial to their Palm Springs-style nachos, a version they invented that ensures every chip has cheese so no one is left with a cheese-less chip when sharing. We can’t forget about their drinks. They have a full bar with the largest whiskey selection in the valley, with over 450 different bourbons, ryes, scotches, and international whiskeys, along with beers and other adult canned and bottled beverages.

After eating, sing your heart out at Quadz, where VJs are playing clips of beloved musical theater. You will have a great time at this lively bar even if musicals aren’t your “thing.” However, after a few of their notoriously strong and affordable drinks, you may be belting out Streisand with the best of them. Reserve a spot at Toucans and see a performance at Palm Springs’ longest continuously running drag show. Drag shows are Thursday-Monday with a different theme each night. No matter what day you go, it’s always a good time at Toucans, making it a favorite for tourists and locals alike, but pro-tip: Monday nights are free.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum

Get your art and culture fix

It may be hard to peel yourself away from basking in the sun, but take a break and explore the Palm Springs Art Museum. You can find modern and contemporary art, architecture, and design objects that reflect Palm Springs’ unique history, culture, and place.

Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa

Recharge at a spa

Between work, existential crises, and living through a global pandemic, we all could use a relaxing spa moment. Book a massage at the Ace Hotel’s Feel Good Spa. Try their Rose Goodness, where a masseuse will use quartz massagers to get deep into your muscle tissue. The use of rose quartz is said to help replace toxic emotions and blockages to the heart chakra with loving energy. Release tension and stress and gain clarity through a holistic treatment at The Spa at The Colony Palms Hotel & Bungalows. They offer a wide range of services, including massages, facials, body treatments, vibrational sound healing, and acutaping.

Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours

Go on a tour

Cruise through the desert landscape on two wheels (or by Jeep or by hiking) with Big Wheel Tours. If your interests are more architecture than nature, check out Modern & More Bike Tours and see architecturally and historically significant homes in South Palm Springs.

If biking is not your style, hop in Palm Springs Mod Squad‘s van and take part in a mid-century modern architecture tour. Choose the martini option to learn more about the cocktail and cap off your tour with James Bond’s favorite drink. Their expert will explain why martinis are shaken and not stirred. They also offer socially distanced options for those that prefer to stay in their own car.

Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon

Hike historic trailheads

If you prefer to see the desert terrain by foot, Indian Canyon Trails offer a plethora of hiking options that include cool streams and lush oases. You may even see a BigHorn Sheep. Indian Canyons is the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and you can learn more about their history through preserved rock art, irrigation ditches, and food preparation areas.

The Living Desert
The Living Desert
The Living Desert

Explore desert plant life

See desert animals and plants thriving at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. The world-class wildlife and botanical park has almost 430 animals, including cheetahs, giraffes, and camels as well as creatures native to the area. After that, head to Moorten Botanical Garden aka Cactus Castle, and explore over a dozen arid biomes and thousands of specimens sourced from all over the world. Plus, see rocks, crystals, fossils, gold-mining relics, and desert tortoises. If you feel inspired to become a plant parent after your visit, Moorten’s has a nursery for you to take home your own prickly bundle of joy.

Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours

Take a windmill selfie

The rows and rows of wind turbines off the I-10 on your way to Palm Springs are almost as iconic to the area as palm trees. If you’ve ever been curious about what they do, reserve a tour with Palm Springs Windmill Tours to see these 300-foot behemoths up close and learn how they power the entire Coachella Valley.

The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC

Tee off after the sun goes down

If you burnt too much daylight at the pool or on hikes and weren’t able to get a round of golf in during the day, The Lights at Indio Golf Course has you covered. The Desert’s only night-lit course allows you to hit the links after dark.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Keisha Raines is a LA-based freelance writer born and raised in the Palm Springs area with a tattoo of the San Jacinto mountains to prove it.

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