Beyond the glimmering neon of the Las Vegas Strip lies a sprawling desert filled with subtle beauty, hidden gems and a colorful history. This four-day, round-trip Wild West road trek follows a nearly 500-mile loop from Las Vegas through remote parts of southern and central Nevada, some without facilities or Wi-Fi (so be sure to bring along plenty of water, sunscreen and a first-aid kit). Keep your camera handy for all the photo ops — open-air art, wildlife, occasional fall color, shimmering stars, haunted hotels and, who knows, maybe even an unidentified flying object on the officially designated Extraterrestrial Highway (State Route 375).
Day 1: Las Vegas to Rachel (150 miles)
Begin your adventure with a long drive on the peaceful but largely deserted Great Basin Highway (U.S. Highway 93), where, for 100 miles, you'll find little civilization but cacti, Joshua trees and yuccas as far as the eye can see. Still, it's what you won't see when you soon travel the E.T. Highway (E.T.H.) that makes the day so alluring. The notorious highway runs along the north side of the Nellis Air Force Range, home to Area 51, a top-secret government facility and magnet for conspiracy theories — stories bolstered by frequent reports of UFO sightings and alien activity.
You know you're getting close to the E.T.H. when the scenery transforms from light tans and browns to bright greens and blues near the lush wetlands and grasslands of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo. Do check out the refuge, a major pit stop in spring and fall for more than 230 migratory bird species and a year-round home to species including American coots and great blue herons. You may also spot black-tailed jackrabbits, desert tortoises, monarch butterflies, mule deer and northern leopard frogs while walking or biking on the refuge's seven miles of trails or angling for carp and green sunfish in its Upper Lake or North Marsh. Historical petroglyphs and pictographs reveal Pahrangat's ties to the Paiute tribe. You'll find picnic spots and bathrooms here.
Gas up in Alamo or nearby Ash Springs, then continue north from the latter for another five miles on U.S. 93 to the Y-shaped junction of the E.T.H. and State Route 318. But don't hop onto the alien byway just yet. At the junction sits E.T. Fresh Jerky, a quirky snack and novelty shop with bathrooms. Outside, snap selfies in front of elaborate alien murals. Inside, browse an array of fresh jerky, dried fruit, nuts and E.T.-themed souvenirs such as gooey space slime, inflatable aliens and little green plushies.
At the start of the E.T.H., park under the towering cottonwood trees and snap a photo with the Extraterrestrial Highway sign, marking the road's official entrance. On the road, you'll immediately see a state historical marker to the south, followed by a statue of a tall silver alien to the north. The shiny, elongated space invader guards the entrance to the Alien Research Center, another gift shop where you can bone up on UFO and military trivia, trade abduction stories, buy books on paranormal subjects, and pick up an alien head-shaped bottle of handcrafted Alien Tequila, a liquor brand created by the store's owner, George Harris. Behind the store, you'll see photo-friendly replicas of the military-installation warning signs posted at the back gate to Area 51 to prevent trespassing. Inquire inside for directions to the real, heavily guarded back gate, located more than 40 miles away near tonight's destination, Rachel.
The E.T.H., which attracts astronomy buffs, geocachers and photographers, offers a picturesque drive through mostly untouched wilderness. You probably won't encounter another soul, other than the occasional cow. From the Alien Research Center, drive through open range for 18 miles to the Black Mailbox, a receptacle for letters to another galaxy on the highway's south side, at Mail Box Road. This meeting spot for aliens enthusiasts makes for a cool photo op.
Drive another 20 miles through desert (and deserted) curves, ridges and valleys. Just when you think you'll never see civilization again, the tiny town of Rachel (population 54) appears like a distant mirage. Known as the “UFO Capital of the World,” Rachel is a former mining town with few permanent structures and businesses. In fact, the town recently opened its first gas station in more than a decade, the Alien Cowpoke Gasoline and Convenience Store. Next door, the Little A'Le'Inn has provided earthlings with lodging, RV and camping space, food and drink for 25 years. Its dining room includes a pool table, a gift shop, tables and bar seating. You'll want to take advantage of the interesting photo ops inside and out, which include alien figurines, murals and a pickup with a flying saucer in tow. Especially quirky: a “self-parking” sign for UFOs. You're also likely to run into at least a couple of locals willing to share the mysterious reasons they moved to Rachel.
Where to stay: Be prepared to see more than bright stars in the sky tonight after settling into one of five modular trailer units at the Little A'Le'Inn. No guarantee, but strange sightings do happen. Each bare-bones unit includes two or three motel-style rooms with a shared bathroom, so you'll have to book a full unit if you want a private commode. While there isn't much to do in Rachel other than chat with locals and other visitors, the inn has VCR tapes you can borrow and watch in your room. Rooms from $60.