In his new book, Top Secret Tourism, Harry Helms spills the secrets on "germ warfare laboratories, clandestine aircraft bases, and other places in the United States you're not supposed to know about." These places are fascinating and creepy--in other words, exactly the kind of spots that our intrepid mascot Bud Travel loves to explore. (Note: The opinions--and even the facts--in this story are those of Harry Helms and not Budget Travel magazine. For more on Harry and his book, see his website, topsecrettourism.com.)
Nevada Test Site, Mercury, Nev.
Sixty-five miles north of Las Vegas is the most heavily nuked chunk of real estate on the planet: Since 1951, more than 800 underground tests and 126 above-ground tests have been conducted. It's pockmarked by craters and radioactively "hot" areas. But what's really creepy is that the site offers guided tours by advance registration. Guides will show you the replica Japanese town built to better understand the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, the facilities used to assemble and disassemble atomic weapons, and even the same command chair the site commander sat in when atomic tests were conducted here. (You can even sit in it!). The Nevada Test Site is reached by taking the Mercury exit off Nevada Highway 95. But Mercury is a town in name only; when you exit, you immediately come to the NTS boundary and can go no further. However, you can see numerous buildings in the distance and are free to view them through binoculars. (There's a state of Nevada historic marker about a mile north of the Mercury exit that offers a good viewing point for the NTS.) Tours are given monthly, and you need to register well in advance at nv.doe.gov/nts/tours.htm. You can't take along any cameras, binoculars, or recording equipment; you can't make sketches or take back any rocks, soil or plants; and you can't wear shorts or sandals. Note: You may be denied permission to do the tour if you're judged a risk to national security.
National Security Agency, Fort Meade, Md.
This location houses the most formidable collection of computing horsepower in the world, and it analyzes intercepts from all electronic sources (satellites, cell phone towers, etc.) from the NSA's network of monitoring sites. Intercepted communications are scanned by the NSA's computers to see if there's a match between your communications and certain words or phrases (such as "Osama bin Laden"). If there's a match, you're placed on a "watch list" and all further communications to or from you are analyzed until the NSA determines whether you're a threat. The NSA headquarters is on Route 32 between Canine and Emory roads. You'll see two ordinary-looking high-rise glass and steel office buildings. Only the antennas on their roofs, fencing, and guardhouse let you know something is unusual about this place.
Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity, Hertford, N.C.
This pleasant little town on the Outer Banks is where the CIA trains its paramilitary forces. Want to learn how to use explosives and the latest "personnel snatches" (that is, kidnapping) techniques, as well as ways to be inserted into and removed from hostile territory? This is the place!
National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Bethesda, Md.
"Geospatial intelligence" is the process of analyzing multiple satellite images to determine what's happening at a given point on the Earth. Since the 9/11 attacks, the NGIA has been authorized to conduct similar surveillance of the U.S. and to offer what it terms "passive assistance" to law enforcement agencies. For example, the agency analyzed images of demonstrations that happened during the 2004 political campaigns. Supposedly the NGIA can offer such assistance only when national security and anti-terrorism are involved, but those issues are much easier to raise in the post-9/11 environment. The headquarters are at 4600 Sangamore Road; only the guardhouse at the end of the access road indicates something Top Secret is going on inside.
Dugway Proving Grounds, Tooele, Utah
Although less well known than Nevada's Area 51, Dugway Proving Grounds may have even more Top Secret and clandestine stuff going on. Biological and chemical warfare tests are conducted here--in 2005, a mock city was constructed inside Dugway as a site for such tests--along with tests of almost every piece of military weaponry and hardware you can (or can't) imagine. Strange aerial lights moving rapidly and performing unusual maneuvers are common sights at night above Dugway, and some visitors say their cell phones and GPS devices are jammed when nearby. The main entrance is at the end of Utah highway 199; it's guarded 24 hours a day and the guards will probably not be very happy to see you. Much of the Dugway boundary is in open desert and is marked with orange posts every 10 to 20 yards; motion and vibration sensors and security cameras supplement human guards and you face almost certain arrest if you trespass. During the day, there's not much to see except mountains and desert. But at night, you might spot those unusual moving lights.