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Area 51: Into the Twilight Zone of the Great Basin

“In the desert, things find a way to survive. Secrets are like this too. They push their way up through the sands of deception so men can know them.” - The X-Files

New Adventures, New Stories

Our trip began like most Overland trips do, at a bar in a sleepy little backwater town on the outskirts of civilization. The day was overcast with patches of early afternoon sunlight poking through the clouds. I sat down at the counter as the bartender walked over to greet me. She plopped the menu down in front of me and asked, “What’ll it be today?”. In the desert it’s always the same, whiskey neat. The glass was quickly filled and placed at my fingertips. I took a sip, breathed a sigh of relief, and stared out the window waiting for the rest of the crew to roll up. The adventure was about to begin.

The town is Rachel, Nevada. The place…the Little A'Le'Inn. And we were on the hunt for little green men.

View from a seat at the bar in the Little A’Le’In. Credit Joe Diaz

Rachel, Nevada, is situated smack dab between two of the best kept secrets in the Southwestern US; Area 51 and Basin and Range National Monument. To the west you have Groom Lake where the likes of the U2, SR-71, and F-117 aircraft were developed and tested. To the east you have Great Basin and Range National Monument, which spans nearly three quarters of a million acres. It’s been described as, “one of the emptiest spaces in a state famous for its emptiness.”1 Don’t let that quote fool you however; the Range is less than a decade into its national monument status and the land is nearly untouched by anyone, much less offroaders.

Signage along the Extraterrestrial Highway. Credit Joe Diaz

As I looked past the metal alien situated in the window the crew began to arrive. One by one the trucks rolled up. A feeling of excitement filled the air. This was our third trip as a group since we first forged out to the Mojave Road during the early days of the pandemic. The plan this year was to storm Area 51. Whoa, wait a minute…totally kidding. Let me start over…the plan this year was to begin our 5 day trek on the outskirts of the Groom Lake installation. Stops included the back entrance gate of the military installation (yes you can drive right up to the back gate), the black mailbox along the Extraterrestrial Highway, and an evening of watching the sky for spinning lights and spaceships. Then, after an abduction experience (fingers crossed), we would head into Basin and Range to explore to our heart's content.

The crew arrived, we made a quick toast, and departed towards the secret military base.

A Nissan, a Jeep, and a Toyota walk into the bar. Credit Joe Diaz

Highway 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. Credit Daniel Purdy

No cameras allowed. This is definitely NOT the back gate to Area 51. Credit Daniel Purdy

We settled in for camp early so as to hide from the Area 51 security trucks that were trying to locate us. Phew.

We awoke the next morning with exploration on our mind. The next 4 days were dedicated to the Range and the opportunity to tread new ground filled the air with excitement. With Area 51 in our rearview mirrors we headed back towards the extraterrestrial highway, past Rachel, and into the western edge of the monument. Directly across the highway from Rachel you’ll find Shadow Wells Road…a moderately maintained dirt road with minor washboard. After about 2 miles you’ll soon make a left on Shadow Road. This would be a good spot to air down your tires.

Driving East along Shadow Wells Road. Credit Joe Diaz

Gaining elevation on the way to Tempiute Ghost Town. Credit Joe Diaz

After airing down the first stop was Tempiute Ghost Town. Found about 4 miles down Tempiute Mine Road you’ll arrive with the remnants of the town on your passenger side nestled into the hill. The immediate area enjoyed nearly a century of activity from the late 1860’s to the mid 1950’s. At various times over the decades the population ranged from a few dozen miners to nearly 1000 residents. Silver and tungsten was the name of the game and water was the problem, which is why the area never enjoyed a more permanent success. Along the hillside you’ll find the remains of building foundations, glass, and even some fine china scattered about. Still no little green men.

Searching for the ruins of Tempiute. Credit Joe Diaz

Long broken and discarded dishware. Credit Joe Diaz

Closed mine shaft above the remaining foundations of Tempiute. Credit Joe Diaz

It was getting to be around noon time so we headed back up Tempiute Mine Road to continue heading eastward. In the distance cresting on the horizon we saw what looked to be 3 or 4 buildings. As we approached we found it to be an old homestead. Not so long since abandoned it appeared as if there might have been someone living there in the not so distant past. A house, garage, and storage shed remain relatively intact. The real treat of this location was what we found in the garage. I don’t know how to describe it except to say it was one of the few moments in my 15 years of Overlanding where my breath was taken away for the sheer cool factor of what I saw. I’ll let the photo below speak for itself.

The abandoned house on the former ranch property. Credit Joe Diaz

The second house on the property. Credit Joe Diaz

Abandoned dreams flowing in the breeze. Credit Joe Diaz

After a few photo opps, and a possible alien sighting, we continued on Shadow Road across Hecker Dry Lake at the foothill of the Worthington Mountains. It’s with noting here that at the south end of the mountain range sits Levithan Cave (Click for a video). We didn’t have the time required to make the hike, it's incredibly strenuous, but for those in shape and with the time check it out. I hope to return someday to see it myself. But c’est la vie, don’t try and cram everything into one trip I always say.

The Worthington Mountains. Credit Joe Diaz

Our next stop was an enigma. It’s a city in the middle of the desert except there are no inhabitants and there are no buildings. Since the 1970s artist Michael Heizer has been building a massive sculpture smack dab in the middle of Basin and Range. The sculpture itself is half a mile wide and 1.5 miles long. From satellite imagery it’s one of the most intriguing sites I’ve seen and when I stumbled across it on Google Earth I thought I had found a mystery! But alas no mystery here. At the time information about the sculpture was scant and it appeared that the road to the sculpture was open. As we drove down Coal Valley Road the massive berms of the sculpture were visible many miles out. The gate to the sculpture was closed but we saw a plume of dust heading towards us. An ATV with two people drove up and asked us, “need any help?”. After a short chat with what turned out to be the caretakers, we found that the sculpture would open to the public in just a few short months (Click to View).. So with that we opened our tailgates, pitched our awnings, and enjoyed a quick lunch.

The consolation prize near City Sculpture. Credit Joe Diaz

As we departed the sculpture our minds were set on finding a place to camp for the night. The Range was wide open for us, which is why this particular national monument is such a hidden gem. When you find yourself in the middle of the Monument you can pick anyplace you see…and go there! It’s rare to have such vastness to public lands that are pretty much open to vehicular travel. However, always remember to tread lightly. The sun was hanging over the west and the shadows started to extend over the valley. We were aiming for the vicinity of Freiburg Mine. Not much is known about this mine except the precious metal was silver and it’s been closed for a long long time. Scattered around the mining area you will find a complex web of trails leading to nowhere, some abandoned (and not so abandoned) structures, and a good number of old tailing depressions that make for a perfect camping spot sheltered from the wind. That night we enjoyed a wonderful campfire, good food, and ghost stories from Praveen.

A panoramic view of the Freiburg Mine area. Credit Joe Diaz

A closer look at camp. Credit Joe Diaz

I awoke the next morning to the familiar sound of camp in the early hours of dawn. There’s something that brings contentment when you hear the quiet rustle of people trying to get a few more moments of sleep in their tent; it takes your mind even deeper into the wilderness. In a few moments the tents were open and coffee was brewing…and the cinnamon rolls were cooking. A giant waste of space, one of my sacred camping items is the Camp Chef Deluxe Outdoor Oven. The only reason I bring it is to make fresh cinnamon rolls for the folks in camp. Hell, I don’t even think they are that good. It’s just fun to make cinnamon rolls in the middle of the desert.

Cinnamon Rolls for breakfast! Credot Joe Diaz

On the agenda today is the Black MailBox, the Alien Research Center, and hidden hot springs next to a gas station. All told today would include about 100 miles of driving that works out to about 70/30 dirt vs. pavement. As we left the interior of Great Basin and Range we headed towards Murphy Gap, providing a stunning view into the next valley straight across to the Weepah Spring Wilderness. After stopping for a few photo ops we headed south thru Murphey

Gap Road to Mail Summit Road to Highway 318. Warm water and hidden springs awaited us at the Ash Springs Shell Gas Station. Yes that’s right, you can fill up your tank, purchase a day old pepperoni pizza, and relax in some hot springs. Closed by the BLM in 2013, and surrounded by lovely trees, the parking area itself is closed but there is no official signage regarding trespassing at the springs themselves. If you visit please be respectful of the environment so as to help keep it “open” for future visitors. With that we parked, put on the swim trunks (some of us), and spent a few hours relaxing in the shade talking about what Overlanders usually do…debating as to what “Overlanding” actually means. Side note, did you know that the reason your fingers and toes prune in the water is not due to dehydration but rather an evolutionary adaptation that allows us to increase our ability to grab onto slick surfaces in the water. Big thanks to Taylor, our resident scientist, for that amazing factoid.

The trucks at Murphey Gap. Credit Joe Diaz

Ash Springs. Credit Dave Maxxwell

With pruned fingers and toes we dried off and headed back to the trucks. It was time to head to the Alien Research Center. Look, I’ll be honest with you. It’s a gift shop. They have magnets, hats, tequila, a half spaceship mounted into the ceiling…and it’s freaking awesome. There’s not a lot of research going on except for how your money will part ways with your wallet. I think we all walked out of there with something. I also have to give a shout out to the best damned salsa I’ve ever had…Alien Al’s Green Chili sauce. I’ve been ordering bottles of it since this trip last year.

After a few purchases we were back out on the road and on our way to the Black Mailbox. Cue the X-Files theme; the mailbox has been around since the early 1970s when a married couple purchased a nearby cattle ranch and set it up near highway 375. For a while there was nothing special about it other than it being the only landmark along a lone stretch of highway. It’s so lonely I only counted two trucks passing by as we sat at Alien bar a few days ago. It might be the most desolate highway in America. It eventually became a mecca unto itself for curious UFOologists and aficionados who would use the Mailbox as a meeting place for their desert alien hunts. Bring a sticker to place on the box carefully so as to not fully cover others.

The Alien “Research” Center entrance. Credit Joe Diaz

North of the mailbox, on the west side of the highway, there exists a lovely campsite that is hidden away by the natural curvature of hills surrounding it. The little gully provides a decent job with wind protection and an amazing view of the hills right before Groom Lake proper. We set up camp and began to prepare our meals. The moment you open your tailgate and look through your side windows with a view of the vistas beyond; it gives you a momentary sense of being in-between civilization and the wild. Something familiar yet something so far away. Eh, could just be Aliens watching us before we go to sleep.

As we settled in for our last night on trail we cracked open the whiskey, huddled around the campfire, looked up at the sky every now and then, and enjoyed the company of good friends.

A lone explorer mails letter to ET to return and give the media a better cover up story. Credit Joe Diaz

Ancient petroglyphs along the route. Credit Joe Diaz

One of many abandoned homesteads in The Range. Credit Joe Diaz

A lunch stop along the way. Credit Joe Diaz

The beautify of Nevada in full effect. Credit Daniel Purdy

The last evening at dusk. Credit Joe Diaz

Well that’ll do it friends. Another trip in the books and more memories to converse about during some trip out there in the future. The ride home from an Overlanding adventure is always a bit melancholy. The pavement is just so damn disappointing after the rocky washes and washboard roads. You want to turn back, head out again, and continue the exploration. But alas you cannot. The great thing about the space in between trips is that you have time to recharge and reset. You can research new places to explore, begin planning new trips, daydream about the next adventure, and start buying that new piece of gear you discovered from your friends on the trail. Thanks so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!

Oh by the way…speaking of Space…we found the alien.

The Alien reveals himself. His tail was ready to strike; It’s probing time. Credit Joe Diaz

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