Mercury ~ The Nevada Test Site

Mercury ~ The Nevada Test Site

Mercury is located about 60 miles north of Las Vegas on U.S. Highway 95 in an area that used to be called Jackass Flats.  Thousands of drivers speed right by this little town each week without a thought as to why the Mercury road sign says “No Services.”  When travelers see a “No Services” sign, they usually just keep on rolling down the road, because they know that there will be no restroom facilities, no gas, no food, no drinks and nothing to do.  

What few passers by know is that Mercury actually does have modern amenities and services that are functional, but this town is officially closed for security reasons.  The “No Services” sign is enough to make this town sound like the most boring place on earth, which is the intent.  Just a few simple words on a sign is all it takes to deter sightseeing tourists from taking a closer look and this message keeps most travelers moving on down the line.  

Why would a little Nevada town like Mercury be closed to the public when the tourist industry is a major source of income for this state? … The answer has something to do with how Mercury is not just an average little town.  The town of Mercury was built by the Atomic Energy Commission for workers in the Nevada Test Site, which is where all major nuclear weapons testing took place for over 40 years.       

The old Nevada Test Site is now officially called the Nevada National Security Site.  The nearby Jackass Flats and Frenchman Flats is where extensive nuclear weapons testing took place from the 1950s through the 1990s.  The town of Mercury had a population of over 10,000 in the 1960s, yet this town barely even appeared on a map.  The design of this town provided all amenities for test site workers, like movie theaters, restaurants, bars, a bowling alley, a library and a post office.  Mercury even has an airport.  The airstrip actually was built to accommodate a visit from President JFK back in the early 1960s.  

After the 1990, only subcritical nuclear testing has been done at the test site.  The staffing numbers were dramatically reduced by that time and only a handful of workers remained in this town and most of the civic facilities were shuttered.  A bar, dining facility, gym and living quarters are pretty much the only civic amenities that are left in the historic town of Mercury in recent years.

Because the Nevada National Security Site has a long history of high tech research projects, it has secret base status and a security clearance is needed to enter the town of Mercury.  The Highway 95 offramp to Mercury leads directly to a guard house a few thousand yards outside of town. The guard house monitors all vehicular traffic visually and electronically, so even if no security personnel are present, they do know when a visitor or intruder approaches.  At the guard house checkpoint, a huge Nevada National Security Site “No Trespassing” sign lets visitors know that they are not welcome in the little town of Mercury.       

Secret Base tourism in Nevada has gone viral for many years and it does increase the income of this state.  There are plenty of people that tour Nevada’s Extra Terrestrial Highway up by the infamous Area 51 secret base, with the hope of catching a glimpse of a UFO or to meet alien beings from a distant galaxy. As one would expect from a profit driven society, plenty of alien secret base theme tourist traps can be found along the Extraterrestrial Highway. Oddly enough, most of the Area 51 alien tourist traps are far more entertaining than snooping around at the high security military installation itself!  

The thing that holds most people back from snooping around at the many secret bases in Nevada is the thought of making a wrong turn on a long desert dirt road out in the middle of nowhere and accidentally crossing the border of the secret base, which would result in being at the mercy of secret base security personnel, who have orders to shoot to kill or interrogate trespassers.  Nobody knows what happens to those who cross the line, because those who do are rarely ever heard from or seen ever again.  Some believe that captive trespassers are volunteered for alien genetic experimentation in a laboratory that is deep underground.  Horrible rumors like this do have a way of keeping curious people out of trouble.   

When a government no trespass sign is seen out in the middle of the desert in Nevada, it is best to heed the warning.  Those who are into taking pictures of secret base warning signs as a memento of their trip to Nevada usually pose no harm, but those who take detailed photos of the base facilities may end up being detained for questioning.

From personal experience after being detained by military police in central Nevada while taking pictures of an old military facility from the apron of the highway, I found out that the security personnel are okay with people taking pictures of the big warning signs.  That old military base had just raised its level of security because of IS threats a few days before, so the local military buildings that were once okay to photograph were now off limits. There was no forewarning issued to the general public and the security guards realized this, so the situation was actually pretty easy going. I had photographed this base many years before, but now it was back to being a top security site, which outsiders like myself did not know about.

While being questioned by the friendly military base security officer, I found out that if you have a digital camera, the security personnel can detect every photo in the camera long before making contact in person. This was confirmed when the military police told me which photos I could keep in my camera and which ones needed to be disposed of. When I asked about retaining the photos of the official military base signs, the officer responded by saying, “Yeah .. those sign photos are okay, but you have a better picture of the official base sign a little further into the image file.” What struck me as being enlightening is that the officer had not even inspected my camera as of yet!

One of the easiest top security signs to access and photograph in Nevada is the sign at the Mercury security gate.  The guards know who is a threat and who is not long before they arrive at this desolate place and the town of Mercury has not been on extreme security alert for many years, because nothing secretive takes place here anymore.  What this means is if you do not cross the boundary line, taking a snapshot of the official Nevada National Security Site-No Trespassing Sign just outside of Mercury is perfectly okay to do. One word of advice for those who do want to take a picture of this famous sign is to not use a powerful telephoto lens anywhere near Mercury, because there are signs that forbid taking pictures that focus upon the base itself and the camera can be confiscated.  Using a short lens camera or pocket camera to casually take a picture of the Nevada National Security Site from the roadside is okay to do.       

Mercury is no longer officially at a super high security level these days, but the status can change without prior notice.  Mercury will probably never become a regular tourist destination that is open to the public, but there actually are legal legitimate ways to tour this town and the entire nuclear testing grounds!  

For those who are interested in visiting Mercury, the Department Of Energy does conduct guided group tours of the of the Nevada Test Site.  The general public currently can visit Mercury by invitation or by paying to go on an official guided tour, after extensive Department Of Defense security screening. While I was working at a resort in Death Valley, the crew mentioned that a few months earlier the Department Of Energy invited all managers from the resort to take a guided tour of the Nevada Test Site.  The resort managers all stated that they were allowed to see much more than what they expected to be allowed to see.  The tour made its way through a vast underground tunnel system in the Nevada Test Site and many underground nuclear bomb test facilities could be seen up close.  The resort managers said that the Nevada Test Site tour was interesting beyond belief and he highly recommended checking this place out!    

For those who are interested in taking a guided tour of the Nevada Test Site, it can be legally done.  Official tours of the Nevada Test Site are organized by The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.  Transportation to and from Mercury is provided and having lunch in the old military base restaurant is included in the ticket price. The Nevada Test Site Tour ticket price is affordable, but passage has to be booked way in advance, because of the time it takes to do the extensive security background check and because the waiting list to do the tour is a mile long.  

For those who want to do the National Atomic Testing Museum’s official Nevada Test Site guided tour, the important thing to keep in mind is that the Nevada National Security Site does require an official government security clearance.  Applicants for the guided tour are required to provide necessary documents and information, as part of the security screening process.  US Citizens need to provide less information than those from foreign countries, but either way it does take plenty of patience to gain access to this atomic age destination.  

As one can see, a closed town that is off limits to the general public can be accommodating and tourist friendly, because all it takes to visit Mercury is going through the proper channels.  By the way, an acquaintance who works at the neighboring the Paiute Reservation said that the food at the restaurant in Mercury is really good, which is a real plus!  More information about the official Nevada Test Site Guided Tours can be found by following this hyperlink: The National Atomic Testing Museum

The actual location of where the atomic bombs were detonated back in the old days was nowhere near the town of Mercury for obvious reasons. Just south of the Area 51 Alien Travel Center tourist trap on Highway 95, is where the official Nevada Test Site historic marker is located on the roadside.  The little town of Mercury is a few miles south of the historic marker. Looking into the distance from this marker, one can see the mountains that shielded the atomic blasts that were detonated in Jackass Flats and Frenchman Flats. The entire area where the Nevada Test Site Historic Marker stands is actually where thousands of troops were stationed in tents along the highway, back when the early nuclear bomb tests involved human guinea pigs.  

Starting in the 1950s, America’s nuclear testing was performed at the Nevada Test Site.  Visitors of old Las Vegas actually used to stand on top of the casino buildings downtown while wearing sunglasses and watch the above ground atomic mushroom clouds!  The atomic bombs were free entertainment for Las Vegas tourists back in those days and the modern atomic age became part of the local Las Vegas heritage.

Ever since the 1960s, all atomic weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site took place underground, till all atomic testing was banned altogether in the 1990s.  The Nevada Test Site has an extensive system of sophisticated tunnels that were used for nuclear projects.  This test sight was and still is a very high tech area and many areas are not open to the general public.

There are many places in the Nevada Test Site where nobody is allowed to go, because of dangerous radiation levels. In fact, the entire nuclear bomb fallout area does cover quite a bit of territory in this region and heavy levels of Plutonium have been detected as far away as St George, Utah. What this all means is that anywhere that a visitor goes in southern Nevada, they will be exposed to varying degrees of heavy metal and radioactive material, with the highest Geiger Counts found at the old Nevada Test Site.

Mercury may be an officially closed town, but this little military base village sure is an interesting place that relatively few people take the time to think about, especially when zooming by on the high speed freeway. For those who always wondered about Mercury, Nevada, the information in this article may help and the security disclaimers may help to keep snoopy people out of trouble. For those who are in the know, Mercury can be a great place to go!


Author: wildwestdestinations

I worked as a chef in remote resorts and National Parks, which provided the time to explore western travel destinations. I have a BA Degree in Culinary Management with high honors and currently I am working on a Masters Degree in Adult Education. My food and travel blog writing began as a means to generate income during college and now photo journalism has become my lifestyle.

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