Ninety miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, a dirt path veers off Highway 375 into the barren high desert. Called Groom Lake Road, it was unmarked on maps for decades. Even today there’s no sign, but most who make the turn at the base of Hancock Summit know exactly where they’re heading. The 14-mile stretch leads to the south gate of America’s worst-kept secret. It’s been referred to as Dream Land, Waterdown Strip, Paradise Ranch or simply “The Box,” but you probably know it as Area 51.
Groom Lake Road pierces the desert in a straight line that vanishes into the horizon. Wisps of white dust dot the trail ahead, ejecta clouds from cars too distant to be visible by the naked eye. Turn in any direction and you’ll see the same thing: brush, rocks and space — lots of it. The lack of water vapor in the air allows for almost surreal clarity of vision, but with no structures around for scale, judging distance is a challenge. Many hikers fall prey to this combination, setting off for a seemingly nearby ridge and never returning.
Will Tryon is here on this September afternoon to ensure this doesn’t happen to me. As the owner of the Las Vegas-based, GetYourGuide.com-affiliated Adventure Photo Tours, he’s spent nearly two decades bringing the curious to the border of Area 51. The installation’s remote location was chosen in part to attract minimal gawkers, but Tryon is charmed by the vast emptiness. “It has a captivating, lonely beauty to it,” he marvels as we kick up dust in his SUV, echoing Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s description of the moon: magnificent desolation.
Strange plants start to appear as we proceed down Groom Lake Road, and we pull over to take a closer look. Tryon tells me these are mutated Joshua Trees, stick straight at the base rather than the bush-like healthy variety. He says it’s a result of the atomic blasts that occurred at the Nevada Test Site, some 35 miles downwind, where at least 100 nuclear weapons were detonated between 1951 and 1962. “There was a lot of fallout that came through here” he says matter-of-factly. I look at my dust-covered shoes and wonder if they should be placed in a HAZMAT bag. Tryon senses my concern and assures me there’s nothing to worry about.
Finally we come to a “Road Closed” sign and a handful of orange pylons, guarded by half a dozen members of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s department. They’re a remarkably friendly bunch, considering the seriousness of their assignment, and we spend a few minutes chatting. Assuming this is as close as we’re going to get, I begin to head back to the car. “Wait!” a policeman calls after me, with a note of genuine concern in his voice. “Don’t you wanna see the gate!?” I’m informed that cars are off limits, but we’re free continue on foot.
The Sheriff’s squad is certainly more friendly than the men in the white 4×4 pickup truck staring down …read more