APRIL 16, 2009 — On September 10, 1993, the television landscape changed forever with the premiere of “The X-Files,” a television show about two FBI agents investigating all things paranormal, including UFOs, aliens, and even spirituality. David Duchovny played agent Fox Mulder, a quirky, wry G-Man with an obsession with the unexplained reinforced by an “I Want To Believe” poster in his office, and Gillian Anderson played agent Dana Scully, Mulder’s partner and a self-professed skeptic, originally assigned to keep Mulder in check. With 202 episodes over nine years, 16 Emmys, and numerous appearances on best-television-show lists, “The X-Files” helped to inspire the format and style of many newer television shows, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Alias,” “Lost,” “The 4400,” “Bones,” and “Fringe.”
The sign for the Extraterrestrial Highway.
In the show’s second episode, “Deep Throat,” Mulder and Scully travel to the fictional Ellens Air Force Base which served as a thinly veiled stand-in for Area 51, a real military installation used for testing new aircraft whose existence the U.S. government denied until 2003. The two stake out the facility outside the boundary fence and see two mysterious aircraft in the night sky maneuvering with speeds and agility unmatched by traditional aircraft. When Mulder eventually sneaks into the base and, in a goose bump-inducing scene, watches as a black, triangle-shaped aircraft as big as a football field flies over him, the military takes him into custody. Though the government erases Mulder’s memory before releasing him, the episode managed to implant thoughts of UFOs powered by alien spacecraft technology at Area 51 into the brains of mainstream America.
Over 15 years later, people are still spotting UFOs over Area 51, and like Mulder, I wanted to see one. After convincing my friends Rich, Wendy, and Suzanne to join me for a seven-hour drive to remote Nevada, I threw a telephoto lens and some “The X-Files” DVDs into my bag, and we headed for the desert.
As conspiracy theorists go, we were a pathetic group — Mulder would have disparagingly labeled us skeptics. Though Suzanne and I loved “The X-Files,” none of us believed we would see a UFO, an alien, or even a government agent wearing black sunglasses and a dark suit. But like horror-movie goers on Halloween, we all hoped secretly to be surprised by something sincerely unnerving, even if a real alien abduction seemed unlikely.
The famous Black Mailbox (now white) sits adjacent to a dirt road leading to the boundary of Area 51.
In preparation for our long drive, I had loaded my iPhone with the orchestral score for “The X-Files” and UFO-related Postcast episodes from the decidedly esoteric The Paracast and Binnall of America. (No, we are not a regular listeners.) As we drove toward Area 51, we quickly became experts on UFOs, paranormal activity, and government conspiracies.
Journalist George Knapp taught us about the deep history of Area 51 and introduced us to the Skinwalker Ranch, an alleged site of paranormal activity in Utah.
Director of the National UFO Reporting Center Peter Davenport discussed some of the most credible UFO sightings, including the Phoenix Lights case in which six unidentified lights were seen moving over Arizona on March 13, 1997. He also talked about difficulties of running a UFO hotline: “People call in and essentially lie about what they allegedly saw but in point of fact, they didn’t,” Davenport complained. “These younger generations are not really being carefully raised… They don’t have a sense of good manners or consideration for other people.”
Area 51 security officers sit in trucks on a ridge watching for trespassers.
UFO researcher Carl Feindt even introduced us to the concept of unidentified submerged objects (USOs) and talked about a documented UFO ocean crash in Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia. “We get a lot of visitations from various types of aliens, believe it or not, and various types of craft, and we have liquid water, so evidently they have some interest in water here… If there’s somebody there at a place where they want to get the water from for some reason or other, they will ask politely if they can get the water from that place,” Feindt explained. “Most people are kind of stunned; there’s a strange person here and it’s kind of humanoid, and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, fine, take the water.’ They’re kind of staring at this guy. He gets in the craft, and zing! He’s gone.”
Multiple experts complained about “the curtain of laughter,” a term for an alleged government conspiracy working to marginalize UFO and alien experts in an attempt to cover up real evidence of UFOs and aliens. These explanations and stories didn’t make us any less skeptical, but they certainly helped set the mood for our trip.
After a long drive on the gas station-less Extraterrestrial Highway — a name given to Nevada State Route 375 by the Nevada tourism commission in 1996 hoping to draw tourists — near mile marker 29 we arrived at the famous Black Mailbox, the only landmark on a desolate 40-mile stretch of the highway. For years, conspiracy theorists believed the mailbox was somehow linked to Area 51, and some nights, they gather near it, hoping to see UFOs in the night sky. A cattle rancher named Steve Medlin is the mailbox’s actual owner, and in 1996 he replaced the black mailbox with a bulletproof, padlocked white mailbox due to bullet holes in his mail caused by vandals. A conspicuously nondescript white Jeep whizzed by us, kicking up an opaque cloud of dust behind it as it penetrated farther into the empty landscape, but we saw no signs of alien life in or around the mailbox.
A vintage tow truck carries a flying saucer outside the Little A’le’inn motel in Rachel, Nevada.
We followed the tracks of the mysterious Jeep across the bleak landscape, past the mailbox, down a deserted 13-mile dirt road, deep into the desert. Surrounded by otherworldly Joshua Trees and wandering cattle, we drove through the dust veil until we could go no farther. An orange pole in the ground signaled that we had reached the boundary of Area 51. Two large signs warned us that we were not to proceed without permission of the “Installation Commander,” and told us that that if we continued driving or attempted to take photographs, we could be fined $1,000 or jailed for six months. On a distant mountaintop, we saw high-tech surveillance equipment monitoring us, and on an adjacent ridge, we saw two men in an unmarked pickup truck with a strange white antenna watching our every move.
Little A’le’inn Evidence Room with photos
Self-consciously and nervously, we took our quintessential tourist photos in front of the stern signs. Then, staying on the legal side of the boundary, we decided to drive a steep, dirt path up the ridge to get a better look at the Area 51 security. When we reached the top, our car was face-to-face with the pickup truck. As I whipped out my telephoto camera lens to get photos of the guys in the truck, a second pickup truck joined the first, and one of the truck drivers strangely blinked his left headlight (only) at us. A man got out of one of the trucks to talk to the driver of the other. Then, as the shutter on my camera continued to click, he returned to his truck and started driving toward us.
“They’re coming to get us!” Wendy yelled. Panicked, Rich frantically began driving in reverse as the guard truck drove down the ridge and then dipped out of sight.
“They’re going to cut us off on the road back,” Rich worried. But, after we returned to the highway without incident, our only worry was whether men in black sunglasses and dark suits would be visiting us at our motel.
Dissatisfied, we drove to the only food and lodging on the Extraterrestrial Highway, called the Little A’le’inn (seriously). We checked into our trailer and sat down to drink Alien Tequila and eat “world-famous Alien Burgers” (I couldn’t make this up).
But our Alien Burgers weren’t even made from aliens. As we perused the photos of aliens and UFOs on the wall of the diner, we decided that we needed to intensify our search.
Revealing Area 51’s secrets
Hiking up Tikaboo Peak and witnessing a UFO near a mysterious military base.
APRIL 20, 2009 — On the first day of our trip to Area 51, we had come close to seeing the base, but not close enough. The buildings comprising the mysterious military installation sit in Groom Lake, a dry lakebed obscured from view by mountains on all sides. Almost 15 years ago, it was possible to hike up one of two mountains, Freedom Ridge or White Sides, to see Area 51 from only 12 miles away, but in 1995, the military seized the peaks to prevent people from photographing the base. Nevertheless, we had read that a mountain 26 miles from the base, Tikaboo Peak, was still accessible. Knowing that climbing Tikaboo would be our only chance to see Area 51’s secrets, we started a 25-mile drive on yet another dirt road into the desert. The directions to the peak made us a little nervous, reminding us that a 25-mile hike back to the paved highway awaited us if our car broke down. They noted, “It is advisable to bring a sleeping bag… Drivers may have to get out and repair [the dirt road] to continue further. (Bring a shovel.)”
Hikers Suzanne, Wendy, and Rich look toward Area 51 from nearby Tikaboo Peak.
As we drove, we read about the recent declassification of the A-12 OXCART, a Mach-3 aircraft designed by the U.S. military to avoid detection by Soviet radar. The OXCART flew 2,850 test flights out of Area 51 in the 1960s and had a wide, disk-like fuselage designed to carry huge amounts of fuel, which helps explain many of the Nevada UFO sightings during that time. But since the OXCART test flights ended by 1968 and UFOs are still seen frequently in the area, suspicion about current projects at Area 51 remains.
We arrived in our car at the bottom of the peak without even needing a shovel, and though the hike was steeper than we expected, we tackled it after a couple hours. At the top, we found a protective wall made of rocks surrounding a mattress of fresh pine branches with a tripod and a “Luau Party” sign. We assumed that someone had spent the night on the peak before we arrived drinking Mai Tais while looking for signs of new military aircraft.
Buildings comprising the Area 51 military installation can be seen clearly with a telephoto lens from nearby Tikaboo Peak.
Through my camera’s telephoto lens, each of us took turns looking into the abyss of Groom Lake. Finally, the secrets of Area 51 had been revealed, but again, we were disappointed. We saw a collection of plain, white buildings — no secret weapons, no space ships, and no aliens. After taking a final look at the installation, we climbed wearily back down to our car.
At night, we decided to take one more shot at seeing a UFO. We left the Little A’le’inn and drove once more toward the Black Mailbox. Every couple miles, I slammed on the brakes to avoid rabbits which kept leaping across the road, and we began to wonder whether Area 51’s secrets included a sinister rabbit breeding project.
When we reached the mailbox, we parked our car under the dark, desert sky and waited, and waited, and waited. Since no alien spacecrafts appeared to be approaching imminently, we pulled out a laptop and, huddled in our car near the Extraterrestrial Highway, we watched “Dreamland,” a two-part “X-Files” episode series about Area 51. As we watched Mulder and Scully investigate strange occurrences at the military base, we sat waiting and hoping to see a flying saucer. During the two hours we staked out the Black Mailbox, we spotted some peculiar red and white blinking lights far off in the direction of the military base, but we suspected they were nothing more than the headlights of security vehicles and lights on Area 51 surveillance equipment.
The famous Black Mailbox (now white) sits adjacent to a dirt road leading to the boundary of Area 51.
Disappointed, we began driving again on the dirt road toward the base in the dark, hoping to improve our view, with “The X-Files” soundtrack playing on the car’s stereo. When we reached a position that Wendy deemed “close enough,” we continued to sit and wait. Our skin prickled with desperate expectation.
“WHAT IS THAT?!” Wendy exclaimed, as she gazed out the left-side passenger windows toward a distant mountain range. Suzanne and I looked over and saw a blinding, white sliver of light behind one of the peak’s ridges. As we watched, the sliver of light became larger as it started moving over the ridge.
A genuine unidentified flying object soared toward us over a mountain as we sat in the middle of the desert, an hour’s drive to civilization in every direction.
“GIVE ME THE TELEPHOTO LENS RIGHT NOW!” I yelled as I shifted the car into gear. Panicked, I hit the car’s accelerator in an attempt to get a better view. The engine revved but, for some reason, the car wouldn’t move.
“Where is it?” Rich asked.
“LOOK OUT THE WINDOW TO YOUR LEFT!” I yelled at Rich, exasperated. “IT’S THE BLINDINGLY BRIGHT UFO FLYING OVER THAT MOUNTAIN!”
“No, where is the telephoto lens?!” Rich yelled.
Chaos ensued as we stared in disbelief at the strange craft rising over the mountain peak and moving toward us.
A bright white light appears behind a mountain ridge in a blurry photo taken near Area 51.
“Maybe it’s just a tent,” Wendy offered, knowing full well that the spaceship appeared ten times bigger and 100 times brighter than a camping tent would if one were on the ridge.
Finally, Rich handed me the camera lens just as the sliver of light started to take shape. The sliver became a crescent. The crescent became a half-circle. The half-circle became a full moon.
We sat quietly as feelings of embarrassment began to wash over us. Only 30 seconds before, we would have been willing to swear in a Congressional hearing that an alien spaceship had flown toward us in the Nevada desert. But we realized we had been duped by an atmosphere created by our UFO Podcasts, the expert storytelling of “The X-Files,” and the well known optical illusion of an enormous moon rising quickly just above the horizon. As I wondered how many alleged UFO sightings are simply sightings of a rising moon, I looked down and saw that I had mistakenly positioned the car’s transmission in neutral.
Under a bright, full moon in the otherwise empty desert sky, we sat in silence. We glanced at the moon over the ridge. We glanced at it again, and then again.
Agent Fox Mulder would have been proud.
We wanted to believe.
How to Visit Area 51
Make reservations at a Las Vegas hotel to take a day trip to Area 51, or even better, make reservations at the Little A’le’inn and stay overnight in the desert.
Starting from Las Vegas (the closest airport to Area 51), drive north on I-15, then north on US-93. When you hit the Extraterrestrial Highway (NV-375), drive west.
On the way, you may want stop at the Alien Research Center, near the Extraterrestrial Highway junction. It has a 30-foot aluminum alien outside, so you can’t miss it. It’s run by self-professed Area 51 expert Glenn Campbell, but it’s not open all the time — call first if you have your heart set on entering the gift shop.
Soon after mile marker 29 on NV-375, you’ll see the Black Mailbox (now white) on the left. Turn left on this dirt road and drive for four miles until you hit a fork near a water tank. Follow the middle path for a mile, then turn right on another dirt road leading deep into the desert. You’ll be at the Area 51 boundary in 8 miles. Don’t cross it.
You can also visit the Area 51 North Gate by finding the dirt road 1.5 miles southeast of Rachel and following it west for 10 miles. For more directions and photographs, visit The Dreamland Resort, an exceptionally detailed Area 51 web site.
The only legal way to see the buildings comprising Area 51 is to hike to the top of Tikaboo Peak with binoculars or a telescope. The trailhead is accessed by a 25-mile dirt road found driving north on US-93 soon after milepost 32 on the left side. SummitPost has especially good directions. This is a steep hike on a desert peak, so be sure to bring plenty of water.
View the route below or download the Without Baggage Tikaboo Peak GPS track in GPX format.
When you grow tired of driving around the desert, you can stop for food or a night’s rest at the Little A’le’inn in Rachel, Nevada, about 20 miles northwest of the Black Mailbox.