A Day in the Nevada Desert: E.T. Highway and Ghost Town Loop from Las Vegas

Nevada's Extraterrestrial Highway

Standing in the hot sun, as an all-too-gentle breeze grazed my shoulders, I locked eyes with a small green being with almond-shaped black eyes. I blinked; it did not. I held a camera; it held a sign that said, “Welcome, Earthlings.” I took a few photos; it stood in place like the statue it was.

I wasn’t alone. Around me, a dozen other people took their own photos as they wandered around Rachel, Nevada’s Little A’le’Inn, which welcomes extraterrestrials and Earthlings alike to walk in, drive in, or fly in for a bite to eat and a place to stay. Still, I wondered if anyone else was on the same road trip we were, a drive that connected us to the extraterrestrial and the spirit realm along 500 miles of road. When Adam and I planned a weekend trip to Las Vegas after spending the better part of a week in San Diego, spending a day by a pool sounded nice—but spending a day exploring spots ranging from spooky to mysterious to out of this world sounded even better. With a full tank of gas and gratitude for a rental car with powerful air conditioning, we set off to explore Nevada’s ghost towns and the famous Extraterrestrial Highway.

If the lure of haunted places or the reputation of the E.T. Highway have ever sparked your curiosity, here are some of the highlights that made our trip memorable!

Rhyolite Ghost Town and the Goldwell Open Air Museum

The first stop on our ghost town loop was Rhyolite, which experienced its rise and fall over a single decade at the turn of the 20th century. In 1904, the town boomed as soon as gold and quartz were discovered there. Beginning with a modest two-man settlement, within six-months 2,500 people had moved there, and the population grew to 4,000 by 1907. During that time, the landscape changed from dirt and grass to a fully functioning town with a school, restaurants, saloons, barbers, and its own newspaper. At its peak, Rhyolite welcomed a train station, running water, electricity, and even an opera house after its mine was sold to Charles M. Schwab. Just as quickly as the mine delivered the town to prosperity, it swapped a promising future for a bleak one. By 1909, the mine was found to be overvalued, and as production dropped and jobs disappeared the townspeople disappeared, too. In 1911, the mine closed. Just five years later, electricity was turned off and the town settled into quiet abandonment.

Goldwell Open Air Museum
Goldwell Open Air Museum
It has been just over a century since Rhyolite’s rise and fall, and today it still offers plenty to see. We spent our time walking through what is left of its city blocks, starting with the train station and continuing past the remains of houses and the school. We stood in front of the old mercantile building and thought about what pride Rhyolite’s former citizens must have had as they built a productive home in just a few short years; we wondered how it felt for the last of them as they departed for other places when the lights went out. Rhyolite didn’t feel spooky, but under the warm, bright sunshine it was hard to shake the bittersweetness that seems to haunt its buildings. Not every experiment works, and not every settlement survives.

We spent a final few minutes at the Goldwell Open Air Museum before continuing our trip. Nestled in the shadow of Rhyolite, art is on display in the most surprising of ways. We first saw a silhouette of a 24-foot-tall gold prospector standing next to a penguin. Beyond them, a collection of ghostly figures in white robes paid homage to Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Artist Albert Szukalski conceived the idea of an open air art installation in the USA’s West as a reflection of the independence and freedom the area promised to settlers. When visiting Rhyolite, it’s hard to miss the art installations, and it’s worth spending some time standing before them to appreciate the innovation, expression, and even humor they represent.

Goldfield Hotel

As Rhyolite flourished, the town of Goldfield was experiencing its own moment just an hour away. At the center of it all was the magnificent Goldfield Hotel, which oozed wealth as it welcomed newly affluent visitors eager to spend the money made in the gold mines. The hotel boasted 150 rooms with top-of-the-line finishes, including electricity, heating, and telephones—luxuries most guests would never have experienced before. Like so many towns in Nevada, Goldfield experienced a bust that followed its boom, and before long it turned dark and quiet. In fact, some people say it turned a little too dark.

Goldfield Hotel (Source: TravelNevada.com)
Goldfield Hotel (Source: TravelNevada.com)
Today, the Goldfield Hotel is known as one of the most haunted buildings in Nevada, with some past guests simply unwilling to move out. Among them are a woman named Elizabeth, who is said to have been the mistress of hotel proprietor George Wingfield. When he learned she was pregnant, rumors swirled that George chained Elizabeth to a radiator in room 109 until she gave birth, keeping her alive until her child was delivered and then ending her life to avoid others learning of his infidelity. No one knows what happened to Elizabeth or her child, but some visitors claimed to see her and hear her as she cried out for her baby. A few other guests who met untimely ends are also thought to wander the hotel’s abandoned halls.

Today, the Goldfield Hotel is a favorite destination for ghost hunters, with some claiming it is more than a haunted building: it is a portal to the underworld. Exploring the interior requires permission and permits; if you plan to visit, you’ll be limited to seeing it from the outside, as it remains boarded up to prevent break-ins and theft. There is interest in restoring the building, and there may come a day when it is possible for anyone to stop by and even spend the night there, but for now the only overnight guests are those who have yet to find a way to check out.

Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery

A ghost tour wouldn’t be a ghost tour without a cemetery stop, and we paused for a while at the Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery to seek out a very specific gravestone.

Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery
Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery
Really, the entire graveyard was of interest even before we arrived. As with any town built during the Gold Rush, Goldfield swelled to accommodate thousands of new citizens, some of whom passed away during their time there. The location of Goldfield’s original cemetery was deemed inconvenient when the town prepared to welcome its train station; because the cemetery was located in the middle of town, officials didn’t want people to exit the train into the final resting place for hundreds of people. The cemetery was relocated to the outskirts of town, with many remains moved during the middle of the night.

Today, visiting the Goldfield Pioneer Cemetery is like visiting any other historic cemetery—with a twist. While you may be used to seeing beautifully worded tributes on tombstones in most graveyards, Goldfield’s epitaphs range from basic to bizarre. While some are shockingly specific (including Martin Rowher, who died when the deputy sheriff shot him), others are deeply concerning. We visited for one headstone in particular, which remembers an unknown man who died eating library paste on July 14, 1908. Sure enough, we found his final resting place among hundreds of other small, white stones and wondered how he came to choose library paste as his final snack as a member of the living. Although his name has been lost to time, his legacy lives on to teach us a valuable lesson about avoiding foods that aren’t, well, foods.

Mitzpah Hotel

Mitzpah Hotel (Source: Wikipedia)
Mitzpah Hotel (Source: Wikipedia)
As our trip continued, we paused in Tonopah, the northernmost town on our loop, to see the Mizpah Hotel. Like our other haunted destinations, the hotel was built in the early 1900s, and at five stories tall it towered over the town and, in some ways, the state itself: for 25 years, it was the tallest building in Nevada. Unlike similar constructions, the Mitzpah Hotel did a much better job withstanding the test of time. Where many towns shuttered and other buildings went dark, the hotel weathered the fluctuating economy for almost a decade before it closed in 2000. Just 10 years later, the Mitzpah underwent renovations and reopened its doors. Although guests still check in and out to this day, a few never seemed to have left at all.

The most famous resident is known as the Lady in Red, a prostitute strangled by a jealous customer who continues to interact with guests to this day. Known for leaving a strand of pearls in various locations, guests are encouraged to share their encounters with the Lady in Red in a guest book at the front desk. She’s joined by a few other ghosts, primarily understood to be children and miners, who make appearances from time to time. Not all haunted houses are open for visitors, but if you are feeling especially brave a night at the Mitzpah Hotel could connect you to a few new mysterious acquaintances.

Clown Motel

Goldfield Clown Hotel
Goldfield Clown Hotel
Just before our road trip morphed from spooky spots to otherworldly locations, we detoured into a parking lot to meet what was easily the most frightening location of the day: a clown-themed hotel next to an abandoned graveyard.

Although the motel looks like something out of a horror movie, its circus décor is only meant to inspire joy and whimsy. Pulling into the parking lot, a giant clown grinned down at us as he stood, two stories tall, watching over the cars driving in. Inside, more clowns are on standby to welcome those brave enough to look past them and toward the rooms themselves, which offer some of the only lodging in the area as the Nevada deserts stretches out in all directions.

The most disconcerting detail is the motel’s location just steps away from the arched entrance to the Tonopah Cemetery. The motel isn’t known to be haunted, but trying to find peace in a clown-inspired room overlooking gravestones isn’t the most settling way to settle in for a peaceful night’s sleep. Fortunately, we were looking for photos more than a place to stay, so our time there was mercifully short. Still, for a quirky place to rest for a night, the Clown Motel is by far one of the most unique spots to lay your head.

Welcome to the Extraterrestrial Highway Sign

After a morning spent exploring abandoned towns and looking for the ghosts that might still reside there, the start of the Extraterrestrial Highway was a welcome sight.

Just under an hour away from Tonopah, the Extraterrestrial Highway is more of a tourist trap than anything else, but it’s an effective one. It draws a few hundred people to Nevada’s least traveled roads every day. We drove the entire highway on our way back to Las Vegas, but first we paused for a few photos of and with the famous sign. During our stop, we saw just two other cars, each of which discharged its passengers for a similar photo before returning to the road just like us. In a way, it was the most iconic stop we made during our road trip; the sign is enormously popular and equally famous. Passing it on our trip made it official: we were in alien country.

The Little A’le’Inn

The Little A'le'Inn
The Little A’le’Inn
There is very little to see and do along the Extraterrestrial Highway. If you need something—food, drink, a place to sleep—the only logical place to find them is in Rachel, Nevada at the Little A’Le’Inn.

Most people driving the ET Highway are there because of a fascination with aliens and UFOs, and the Little A’Le’Inn leans into the culture that accompanies it. For more than 20 years, the combination bar, restaurant, souvenir shop, and hotel have welcomed people from across the globe during their quest to meet beings from beyond it. Outside, replica spacecraft assure visitors we are not alone, and a green creature welcomes Earthlings as if we might have already beamed up to another place. Inside, the restaurant was quite full during our visit, and patrons fueled themselves with sandwiches and fries during a break from their drives. Although we didn’t stay for lunch, we did make a few purchases from the souvenir section of the building before returning to the car. Some people make the Little A’Le’Inn a destination in itself; several rooms are available to rent, and its location in a sparsely populated part of the state makes it a perfect place for dark skies and the potential to spot a UFO.

More Information: Littlealeinn.com

The Black Mailbox

The fact that we even saw a random mailbox sitting entirely alone just off the Extraterrestrial Highway was a feat in itself. Not too far from the infamous Area 51, it would be easy to miss an otherwise inconspicuous mailbox, perhaps dismissing it as connected to a house in a place too far away to see. The lone mailbox actually has an interesting history, and it became a meeting point and a beacon of hope for alien enthusiasts hoping to make contact with visitors from other worlds.

The mailbox once belonged to a local rancher named Steve Medlin, who used it as a receptacle for the kind of mail any of us would receive on any given day. However, its location close to Area 51 and under the same skies where people claim to see UFOs regularly led some people to treat it as a sort of portal between Earth and whatever planets otherworldly visitors might call home. People started vandalizing the mailbox to the point that Steve added a second one marked ‘Alien’ to direct visitors toward if they desired to send extraterrestrial mail. When that didn’t work, the mailbox was abandoned altogether. Today, a standard black mailbox stands in its place, typically filled with letters and gifts for the aliens that might one day come to check on it.

Alien Research Center

Alien Research Center
Alien Research Center
Less a research center and more a gift shop, the Alien Research Center was our favorite place to stock up on themed souvenirs. Filled with shirts, magnets, and even hot sauces, it was a great stop to ensure we didn’t return home without proof of our visit to the ET Highway. More than a store, the Alien Research Center is a perfect spot for stargazing. Benefiting from the same dark skies that enshroud the length of the Extraterrestrial Highway at night, many visitors like to drive out during the day, explore the area, and settle in with a picnic dinner as the sun sets and the stars come out.

E.T. Fresh Jerky

Somehow, beef jerky was exactly the snack we needed as our road trip neared its completion. Fortunately, ET Fresh Jerky was open and ready to welcome us. The small shop has a wide variety of jerkies, from the expected to the spicy to the flavorful. We wasted no time digging into a bag of Korean BBQ beef jerky, which had a delicious, unique taste that reminded us of Korean restaurants we have visited at home. The walls were lined with dozens of bags, many of which represented local flavors as well as more common favorites. We were glad we saved time during our road trip to stop in, and we were equally glad for a tasty snack to fuel us on the way back to Las Vegas.

One Place Not to Visit: Area 51

Several stops along our route offered us directions and suggestions for how to get to Area 51, and although it sounds like a must-see place, the opposite is true. Area 51 is an active U.S. government facility. While approaching it is legal, the line between staying a safe distance away and trespassing might be thinner than you think. If you choose to drive toward the military base, be aware of and obey all posted signs. Truthfully, there isn’t much to see, and your time would be better spent exploring other stops along the ET Highway. The risk of arrest, prosecution, or worse is very real.

Where to Stay Along the Nevada Ghost Town and Extraterrestrial Highway Loop

To be honest, your best bets when selecting lodging may be a clown motel by a cemetery or a room at the Little A’Le’Inn. While there are other options, this loop takes you well away from the beaten path and into small towns, many of which have been abandoned for years. We stayed in Las Vegas and made a day trip out of the driving loop, but if you hope to break the drive up with an overnight stop, check out one of the lodging options mentioned in this article or Booking.com, where you can compare properties along your route and find one that meets your needs.



Things to Keep in Mind:

Before you hit the road to explore these locations along the Extraterrestrial Highway, consider a few of these tips.

E.T. Highway by the Black Mailbox

Bring food and water

You may drive for hours without finding places to stop—or places that are open—as you explore, so packing some snacks and water is essential to a successful day. We ate breakfast before starting our drive, but our stops did not align with the time we were hungry for lunch, so we were glad to have a few snacks with us in the car.

Gas stations are infrequent

Start your drive with a full tank of gas and top off whenever you can. You’ll pass several towns with reliable access to fuel, but don’t push your luck on long stretches of road or the Extraterrestrial Highway. You may find it is easier to run out of gas than expected.

Don’t rely on cell service

We were out of cell tower range most of the day, so we found downloading maps in advance was essential to navigating between our stops. Prepare to be offline during your drive; while some parts of the drive had great reception, plenty of our day was spent without access to any kind of signal.

Map of locations along the E.T. Highway

If you’re planning to explore the Extraterrestrial Highway in a day trip from Las Vegas, take a look at the map below! This map has all the locations we outlined above as well as a couple more interesting places along the route.

E.T Highway Map from Las Vegas


Enjoy Your Day in the Nevada Desert!

Later that day, lounging by a hotel pool with a celebratory beverage in hand, Adam and I debriefed our day of ghost towns and stops along the Extraterrestrial Highway. In a way, the day had been as run-of-the-mill as you might expect; we didn’t meet any ghosts or see any UFOs, which was expected given that our visits took place under the bright sun. Still, we gained a new appreciation for the roads that stretch beyond Vegas’s bright lights. The USA’s Gold Rush cities stood up almost as quickly as they fell down, and they illustrate a part of that history that shows the promise, hope, and resilience of those looking for a new start or to strike it rich. The Extraterrestrial Highway is a nod to a different kind of hope: one that might forge connection and friendship with beings we have never met and who might know more about us than we know about them.

There’s a lot about our world—even our universe—that we may never fully comprehend. But that’s why we travel in the first place. From new facts to inspired curiosity, there’s one thing that always remains true: we are not alone.

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A Day in the Nevada Desert: E.T. Highway and Ghost Town Loop from Las Vegas