Fear less. Fear less. I repeat this to myself as a mantra as I lie wide awake in my room at the supposedly haunted Overland Hotel and Saloon in the old silver mining town of Pioche, Nevada. As an AFAR editor, my job is to explore the world with my guard down, to experience as much as I can without fear. But my comfort zone stops right around creepy, haunted hotels. I don’t believe in ghosts—or at least I don’t want to—but after a day driving through eerie abandoned towns in this remote corner of the United States with local guide and UFO expert Nathan Arizona (yes, like the character in Raising Arizona, and no, not his legal last name yet)—I’ve heard too much to let my imagination not overwhelm me.
I’m on Nate’s Paranormal Tour of the U.S. Southwest, one of more than 200 host-led tours Airbnb launched through its new Airbnb Adventures platform on June 13 as an extension of Airbnb Experiences. The adventures are limited to small groups of 12 or fewer participants and will be the first time Airbnb will fold lodging, meals, and activities into one package for travelers (flights aren’t included). The best part? They’re all remarkably affordable. Airbnb Adventures range from $79 for an overnight up to $5,000 for a 10-day trek and feature a mix of trips across six continents, many of which are exclusive to Airbnb.
When Airbnb asked if AFAR wanted to experience one of these new adventures in advance of the launch, I scanned the list of options (kayaking in Sweden, cliff camping in Colorado, a hiking trek to Petra) and knew it had to be the paranormal tour because it included a stop at Area 51, a top-secret military installation in a remote desert basin in southern Nevada that has become the stuff of legends over the years. My knowledge of alien life-forms is limited to watching every episode and installation of Star Trek: Next Generation and Star Wars. Little did I know, the culture surrounding aliens in this part of the United States focuses more on the supernatural—including ghosts—than beings like Worf or a Wookie.
If you believe what the government tells you, Area 51 is where the Air Force has tested top-secret aircraft—often flying at ultra-high altitudes to escape Soviet radar—since the Cold War. But if you ask Nate—or anyone else you meet along Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway—it’s aliens the government is hiding inside.
But before we even talk about aliens, we spend the first day of our Airbnb Adventure exploring the ancient rock art sites and abandoned homesteads and ghost towns near Nate’s hometown of Cedar City in southwest Utah. Along the way, Nate introduces us to his friend Sandy Whitewinds, a woman who self-identifies as an extraterrestrial and runs a rock shop in Enterprise, Utah, that is attached to a gas station that sells hot dogs, slushies, and rhinestone Trump 2020 hats. I’m the first to question everything I’m told, but after spending a short time chatting with the six-foot-two woman with piercing blue eyes flecked with orange, unlike any colored contacts I’ve ever seen, I start to wonder what is and isn’t possible in this part of the United States. As we continue our drive from Utah into Nevada, Nate finally begins to tell us the stories of his own supernatural encounters. A talkative man in his late 30s who wears a bandana across his forehead—a blue chevron one day and a watermelon pattern the other—Nate started his career leading tours of the Southwest in 2005 as a wilderness guide in the Arizona Strip, the remote northwestern corner of the state.
But after he had his first close encounter late one night just outside of Area 51 in 2013 with what he describes as “four orange orbs” floating along the Extraterrestrial Highway, his interests began to shift. What started as an obsession with aliens is now a vocation for him. He’s led similar tours for a handful of his 100,000 plus followers of his Instagram account @talking_tree and is also hosting the fourth annual Utah UFO Festival June 13-16 in Cedar City. But this is the first time he’s officially organized tours to where he and others say they’ve experienced paranormal activity in the Southwest through a platform like Airbnb.
Whether you choose to believe or not—one thing is for certain: Nate believes in everything he says. This is what makes the way Airbnb curated these trips unique. Instead of picking a destination and going from there, Airbnb began with the hosts and then built out the Adventures around their personalities. What you may miss in luxe (and unhaunted) accommodations, fine dining restaurants, and stick-to-the-moment itineraries, you’ll make up tenfold in the character and local expertise you get from the hosts. After surviving the night in the haunted hotel without incident (but very little sleep), we leave Pioche the next morning and finally make our way toward Area 51, driving across wide swaths of desert highway without encountering another car for miles on end. As we turn off Highway 93 and enter the Extraterrestrial Highway near Alamo, Nevada, Nate begins to whistle The X-Files theme song to himself as he drives.
The unmarked dirt road off the Extraterrestrial Highway that leads to Area 51’s front entrance is so unassuming we actually miss it and have to double back. As we drive farther into the remote desert landscape, I notice an unmarked white truck with tinted windows on top of a hill in the distance. Aside from the neon green alien head pendant dangling from the rearview mirror of the car, the otherwordly Joshua trees along the road are the only other things near us that look like they are from a different planet. But suddenly we round a corner and there it is: the front entrance of Area 51.
Instead of a gate, the entrance is flanked by two signs that read “WARNING: U.S. Air Force Installation,” followed by various punishments that include a $10,000 fine and six months’ imprisonment if you dare pass the white dotted line painted on the road. The same white truck is just up the hill from where we are parked outside the entrance. Nate says it is manned by an armed guard watching and waiting for us to make one misstep. But beyond the ominous warnings, it’s a surprisingly peaceful place. Puffy clouds punctuate the bright blue sky and the air smells like desert sage. Other than birds chirping, it’s silent. There’s no cell phone service. As we drive away, Nate is relieved the white truck stays put. Sometimes, he says, the guards follow visitors to question them about why they’ve come all this way. Part of me wishes our visit was more exciting, but ultimately I’m happy leaving the mystery of Area 51 as it is.
Later that evening, after checking into the Little A’Le’Inn in the nearby town of Rachel, Nevada—the only sign of civilization for miles and “a fort in the middle of nowhere,” according to Nate—we head out to go stargazing. The skies are flooded with constellations and a bright moon, but no aliens or UFOs make an appearance that night. Nate admits that the orbs he saw back in 2013 could easily be experimental aircraft being tested by the government instead of extraterrestrial spacecraft, but that doesn’t stop him from believing that something is out there. While he may never enter Area 51 or ever know what’s actually beyond that heavily-guarded entrance, that especially won’t stop him from sharing his passion and fascination with this legendary place of mystery.
Paranormal Tour of the U.S. Southwest starts at $1,250 per person for a three-day adventure (flights not included). Explore the rest of Airbnb Adventures’ new offerings, bookable now at airbnb.com.
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Lyndsey Matthews Lyndsey Matthews is the senior commerce editor at AFAR who covers travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.