When most people think of Nevada, the thing that most likely comes to mind is the 24-hour casinos and celebrity-studded entertainment of its largest city, Las Vegas.
But America’s seventh largest state offers so much more than just bling and Blackjack. Networks of highways sprawl out in every direction from major cities, making it a breeze to escape the dazzle of neon for a few days or more.
North into the Mojave Desert
Heading north from Vegas on U.S Highway 93, within a very short time, we’re in a landscape that looks like the surface of the moon. The great expanse of the Mojave Desert surrounds us, forming a surreal backdrop for old ghost towns and abandoned silver mines – and even secret military bases. It’s not surprising that they named the road we’re about to join the Extraterrestrial Highway, as this part of the world is home to some strange goings on in its endless starry sky.
The oasis just an hour from Las Vegas
But first we make a detour to the Pahranagat National Wildlife Sanctuary, a tiny oasis in this otherwise unforgiving environment. This part of southern Nevada receives less than 20 centimetres of rain a year, but fed by the life-giving waters of nearby Crystal and Ash Springs, the refuge blossoms with life, creating a watery habitat for thousands of birds, mammals, and rare fish. Its lakes, lush meadows and tall cottonwood trees are a stunning contrast to the stark surrounds. We can’t believe that the bright lights of Las Vegas are only an hour away.
The Extraterrestrial Highway and Alien Research Centre
Nevada State Route 375 was renamed the Extraterrestrial Highway in 1996 to commemorate the launch of the movie Independence Day, which featured the region. Our first stop naturally is the Alien Research Centre. The giant silver alien at the door makes it impossible to miss.
Rachel, population 98
We set our course for Rachel, population 98, home to the wonderfully quirky Little A’Le’Inn. After an excellent burger, and adding to our alien souvenir collection, we decide it’s time to check out this Area 51 top-secret U.S base that doesn’t really seem much of a secret. The staff at Little A’Le’Inn give us directions, along with warnings about what not to do, and whatever we do, don’t try and enter the base.
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The gates to Area 51 are rather unassuming, I suppose that’s to be expected for an installation that apparently the U.S. military says doesn’t exist. But it’s the thrill of taking the obligatory selfie out the front - and boasting the most interesting topic at your next dinner party.
At Tonopah, an old mining town and next stop on the route, it’s easy to see where Nevada got its moniker ‘The Silver State’. The 1907-built Mizpah Hotel has been lovingly restored to its turn-of-the-century splendour and is like stepping back in time to the former boom-town’s past. Our room, named The Lady in Red, is said to be the hotel’s most haunted, and where a former lady of the night named ‘Rose’ was murdered by her jealous beau. Tonopah is also the #1 star-gazing destination in the U.S.A.
Death Valley National Park
As we head south though Death Valley National Park the thermostat on our car creeps higher and higher, finally hitting 50 degrees Celsius. At around 86 metres below sea level, the lowest land point in North America, you could certainly imagine yourself on another planet. The Furnace Creek Visitor’s Centre is a welcome stop for cold drinks and info about this spectacular natural phenomenon.
Drawing closer to Las Vegas, the city’s skyscrapers seem to miraculously appear out of nowhere from the desert. Although we didn’t see any ETs, we feel like we’ve taken a trip to another world.