Area 51 Up Close
by Joe Harkins

    An old spiritual pretty much sums up the secret government facility ninety miles north of Las Vegas known as Area 51. "Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven but ain’t nobody goin’ there . . ."

    Area 51 is a six-mile by ten-mile box-shaped site in Nevada named for a surveyor's numerical designation on an old map so tentative it lacked names. Like one of those Russian babushka dolls, each concealing another nested inside another, Area 51 includes an even more tightly shielded Air Force base on the shore of Groom Dry Lake. Surrounding all is Nellis Air Force Base which encompasses more land than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

    For a long while, the US Air Force wouldn’t admit that the area, roughly two hours drive north by Northwest of Las Vegas, even existed. The only evidence was a blank space on the map that no uninvited visitors could enter either at ground level or (especially) through its air space.

    Still, that very emptiness was revealing. As Ogden Nash’s doggerel expressed it,

"I met a man upon the stair,
the little man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
Gee, I wish he’d go away."

    There are those who believe Area 51 is where captured inter-stellar ships and crews consisting of bug-eyed aliens are held and studied. Others allege it is a laboratory of exotic weaponry the envy of Buck Rogers. It also is claimed that the daily "Janet" shuttle flights that move in and out of a quiet corner of Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport are ferrying Area 51 employees. Bits of evidence suggest those claims, as well as many equally diverse and conflicting, may all be true.

    While Area 51 is the focus of most attention, perhaps due to its mention in films such as Independence Day, it is but a part, and a relatively small part at that, of the Nellis Air Force Base complex. Within Nellis there are a variety of other equally secretive facilities, the purposes of which the USAF steadfastly declines to confirm or deny.

    The Tonopah Test Range (TTR) is a 625 square mile area located at the very north end of the Nellis Complex, about 32 miles southeast of Tonopah, Nevada. Roughly 20 miles south of the TTR is the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range (TPECR).

    There’s also Nellis Area II, roughly a mile northeast of Nellis AFB itself. This separate facility, clearly marked on area maps and formerly known as Lake Mead Base, is an ammo storage area as well the home of the 820 Red Horse Engineering Squadron. NEII can be noted during night approaches into McCarran because it is a brightly-lighted area. It also contains the Nellis Federal Prison.

    Area 51 is widely thought to have served in the development of such projects and aircraft as the U-2 and the Aurora, a super-secret stealth spy aircraft whose very existence has never been openly admitted. Some observers claim the evidence for Aurora’s existence, aside from unconfirmed sightings, is that the US Air Force retired its Lockheed SR-71 Blackbirds in 1990 without replacing them. This is also rumored to have been the testing area for the YF-23A ATF which some say evolved into the A-17.

    Maybe, you are thinking, since it’s so close to Las Vegas, you should go find out for yourself. That could be a mistake. But then, some people seem to have tickled this dragon’s tail without getting burned.

    Whatever the truth is about what goes on inside Area 51, the penalties for excessive curiosity, especially if it involves uninvited entry, are no fantasy. Those penalties are genuine and severe, devised not only to punish those who flaunt the restrictions, but enforced as warning for any others similarly tempted to play James Bond.

    Commentators writing about visits to the publicly accessible lands outside Area 51 describe the so-called Cammo Dudes. These are members of an anonymous security force that patrols the clearly marked border. Their camouflage-printed uniforms display no insignia. Their white four-wheel vehicles, except for generic license plates identifying them as "US Gov't" property, are otherwise unmarked.

    When an intruder is detected, the Cammo Dudes arrive swiftly. As an experienced source advised, since you can't see the base itself, the Cammo Dudes are one of the few Close Encounters of the Sudden Kind virtually assured to every overly inquisitive visitor.

    Hidden electronic sensors form an invisible but inviolable buffer zone. It includes virtually all locations that can see into the terrain. The Cammo Dudes accept no excuses for professed failure to notice the prominent notices.

    Wherever a road enters the exclusion zone, there is a large sign along the otherwise desolate landscape. It warns against going any further. For persons who approach by walking across the open country away from the roads, the exclusionary line is marked every fifty yards with bright orange posts.

    All violators are arrested and fined $600. Of course, if you also happen to be carrying a camera equipped with a telescopic lens and a few dozen rolls of infrared film, you probably will be subjected to intensive interrogation and suffer more severe penalties at "a location yet to be disclosed."

    So why would anyone want to risk all that? And, are there ways to satisfy your curiosity about what must be the best known "secret" base in North America without risking the buzz-saw scene from Goldfinger?

    If you want to get close to the "nothing" that is there, here's driving directions to "a place that doesn't exist."  It's a roughly two-hour drive from Las Vegas. A four-wheel-drive is not required, but would be preferable if you get into the neighborhood and have a desire to do some cross country traveling.

    Interstate 15 runs north out of Vegas. Take it to where it meets Nevada State Highway 93. Continue in a generally northerly direction on 93.

    Stay on 93 through the towns of Alamo and Ash Springs. Not far beyond Ash Springs, stay alert for the intersection with Nevada highway 375. This road will be well marked, and unless some passing sophomore has again taken the sign back to his college dorm, the road is officially labeled Extraterrestrial Highway. This designation is not a reference to who uses the road or advice as to where it leads, but is merely a whimsy of the state's tourism officials.

    Take 375 northeasterly toward the town of Rachel, Nevada. As you descend from Hancock Summit and are near mile marker 29.5, you'll see a mailbox by the side of the road. If you want to go to Rachel, continue past the mailbox and it will be the next bit of human habitation you'll encounter. If you want to confirm for yourself there is nothing to see at Area 51, turn in here at the mailbox. That’s Groom Lake Road.

    In recently published driving directions, the mailbox has been described variously as being both solid black or, more recently, solid white . It's quite appropriate that this magical mystery tour should depend on such explicit confusion. However, regardless of color, it's supposed to be the only mailbox for miles. If you see any mailbox, that's probably the one. (Dis-information agents of obscure government offices are respectfully requested to refrain from buying dummy mailboxes at the Las Vegas Home Depot store and placing them randomly along the road.)

    Go roughly 4 miles. You'll see stock-sorting pens and a water tank. Immediately after it, the road forks in three directions. Ignore the left and ignore the right. Take the middle and drive about 8 miles to the boundary of the base. Along the way you may pass one of the black unmarked buses with blacked-out windows that come and go along the road. Draw your own conclusions about that.

    Remember that the strictly enforced boundary is not fenced off, only marked by signs warning against trespass. Never pass one. Never.

    If you are now as tired and thirsty and bored as most visitors are at this point, you may welcome the respite offered by the small pleasures of the town of Rachel, just up the main road. Return to Nevada Highway 375 and continue in the direction you were going before your side-trip.

    There you'll find a lone café stretched out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. (apologies to t.s. eliot) The doormat of the "Little A'Le'Inn" (say it three times, real fast) announces, "Aliens Welcome."

    The intrepid pilot of a Cessna 132 took up that invitation one afternoon in July 1997. Tracy Shafer of Phoenix flew into Rachel after a pause at North Las Vegas Airport to phone ahead to the Little A’Le’Inn. Although there is an abandoned, overgrown 1,400-foot strip about a mile away, he chose to land on the two-lane blacktop in front of the café while the proprietor held back the almost non-existent vehicular traffic.

    Shafer told Aviation International News in a phone interview that he was meticulous in his use of GPS to stay outside the zone of overflight restriction that defines the Nellis border. However, as soon as he passed Alamo, about 25 miles short of Rachel, he was picked up by Nellis Air Traffic Control and they advised him, "There is military traffic to your left."

    There sure was. Less than one mile away and immediately inside the Nellis line, a pair of obviously fully armed F-16s, complete with bristling air-to-air missiles. Had he turned slightly, he would have flown right into their fire-zone. They remained in his sight, parallel to his path, until he landed.

    On arrival, he rented one of the trailers that the Little A’Le’Inn offers to overnight guests. It’s a popular spot with documentary film crews. The production team from a TV science fiction drama was there all through Shafer’s four-day visit.

    He told this AIN reporter that his adventure did not end with that. Shafer apparently has actually met Ogden Nash’s "little man upon the stair." At breakfast his first morning in Rachel, a man wearing a long civilian overcoat in the mid-summer desert heat approached him. Beneath the coat, the uniform of a US Air Force Colonel was partly visible.

    Shafer says, "He was friendly; kind of like he’d just dropped in for a cup of coffee. But he was full of oh-so-casual questions such as ‘at what altitude did you fly?’ and ‘did you take any photos?’. I’m not sure that he ever gave me his name or explain where he came from, but I have no doubt I had been debriefed."

    An even more daring event involving a small private aircraft is described on the Internet web site at Area 51 Aerial Circumnavigation (see

    That adventure includes a not-recommended intrusion into restricted air space.

    If you are still wondering what all the Area 51 fuss is about, there are many web sites on the subject. Some of the more informative (and less hysterical) are listed in the sidebar. One of them concludes:

    "The universe will always be filled with unexplained phenomena. The perpetual nature of life is that we are playing at the shore of an ocean of the unknown. We'll die long before we figure out most of life's mysteries, so the challenge is to focus on the ones that are reasonably accessible."       -30-

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