Visit Los Alamos: home of the Manhattan Project

Our Visit Los Alamos post was first published August, 5 2015. We updated it to include the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park and republished it on 9/14/2016.

Have you ever looked northwest towards the Jemez Mountains from Santa Fe at night? Those lights glowing to your right are Los Alamos. Nicknamed “Atomic City,” this small city was the birthplace of the atomic bomb. During World War II, this secret city atop the Pajarito Plateau was home to thousands of people working on the Manhattan Project trying to beat the Germans to a nuclear weapon. They won!

Did you ever visit Los Alamos? "Atomic City" about 45-minutes northwest of Santa Fe was the birthplace of the atomic bomb, Visit Bradbury Science Museum, the Los Alamos Historical Museum,

One of the house on Bathtub Row, photo Billie Frank

Today, the city attracts tourists from all over the world. There are five main attractions in “Atomic City.” Three of them: Fuller Lodge, the historic houses on Bath Tub Row (home to Manhattan Project bigwigs during the war) and the Los Alamos Historical Museum are all on the grounds of what was once the Los Alamos Ranch School and later the Manhattan project. They all now belong to the city of Los Alamos. The other two are the Bradbury Science Museum and the great outdoors. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park is before Congress and is expected to become a reality within three to five years.

To visit Los Alamos or not to visit

Fuller Lodge the main house at the Boys Ranch School, photo/Billie Frank

Fuller Lodge the main house at the Boys Ranch School, photo/Billie Frank

Should you visit Los Alamos? It definitely isn’t for everyone. We drove through it without stopping the first year we lived in Santa Fe. It took us years before we toured the town. Our first real visit was with family who wanted to see the Bradbury Science Museum. We had mixed feelings about this place that had such a big impact on the history of the world. This summer we’ve visited several times including a driving tour with Georgia Strickfaden of Buffalo Tours. It was fascinating (the tour schedule is on their website). Georgia knows and loves this town she was born and raised in. If you’re interested in WWII history, science, geology or the ancient history of the Pajarito Plateau, visit Los Alamos. It’s eye opening.

The Los Alamos Historical Museum

The Los Alamos Historical Museum

The Los Alamos Historical Museum, photo/Billie Frank

Many people don’t know about this small, yet comprehensive Los Alamos Historical Museum run by the Los Alamos Historical Society. Located on Bath Tub Row, the school’s former faculty residential area, it was where the bigwigs lived in the Manhattan Project days. The street got its name because these houses were the only ones on “The Hill” with bathtubs. The former one-room building dating to 1918 first housed the school’s housekeeper and later, with the addition of a room, the school’s nurse. During the Manhattan Project years, this building served as a guesthouse for dignitaries including General Leslie Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, who stayed there when he visited Los Alamos. Many of the Bath Tub Row houses still stand. Oppenheimer’s home was recently given to the city and will eventually be opened to the public. The museum offers a broad overview of the area with exhibits on the geology, anthropology, the Ranch School and the Manhattan Project.

The Bradbury Science Museum

Did you ever visit Los Alamos? "Atomic City" about 45-minutes northwest of Santa Fe was the birthplace of the atomic bomb, Visit Bradbury Science Museum, the Los Alamos Historical Museum,

Bradbury Science Museum, photo Steve Collins

One of the biggest draws for visitors to Los Alamos is the Bradbury Science Museum, named for Norris E. Bradbury, the man who succeeded Robert Oppenheimer as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory. Visitors can enjoy interactive exhibits (our grandsons were fascinated by these) about the Manhattan Project as well as exhibits based on lab research projects in areas including defense, technology, medicine and the environment. While there watch the 20 minute video, The Town that Never Was. It’s a must-see if you’re interested in the Manhattan Project. A second video, Stockpile Stewardship: Heritage of Science at Los Alamos, is about the post WWII lab. This small museum attracts about 80,000 visitors a year. It’s open from Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday and Monday from 1 to 5pm. Admission is free.

Manhattan Project National Historical Park

Los Alamos Main Gate in the 1940s, photo/courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos Main Gate in the 1940s, photo/courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory

The new Manhattan Project National Historical Park is unique. It is spread over three state- at the original project locations during World War II. Besides Los Alamos, there are sites in Oak Ridge TN and Hanford, WA. Right now the park is a work in progress. A September 2016 visit yielded the new gate house at the entrance to town. It’s a reproduction of the one that greeted people in the 1940s. In those days, security was tight and you didn’t get into the town without a pass.

This reproduction gate house was build for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park photo/Steve Collins

Reproduction gate house build for Manhattan Project National Historical Park photo/Steve Collins

The Great Outdoors

Bandelier National Monument has cliff dwellings and the remaims of an ancestral pueblo- it was home to the people that have been called the Anasazi

Cave Dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, photo/Steve Collins

Today, it’s hard to imagine Los Alamos as a peaceful wilderness atop a plateau in the middle of a rocky and mountainous landscape. On the drive up you can get a sense of the natural beauty that first attracted people to the area. A short drive west of the city will take you to the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area where there are fantastic views. You can also take NM 501 out of town and head to NM 4. A left turn will take you down the mountain to Bandelier National Monument home to an ancestral pueblo as well as cliff dwellings. From May through October, from 9:30am to 3pm the site is only accessible via shuttle bus from the White Rock Visitors Center about 10 miles down the road.

White Riock Overlook Park on the way to Bandelier National Monument can be combined with a visit to Los Alamos the birthplace of the atomic bomb

View of the Rio Grande from the White Rock Overlook Park, photo/Steve Collins

If you go through White Rock, turn south on Rover Boulevard. You’ll drive through a very residential neighborhood and will think you took a wrong turn. Continue until you see the Overlook Park sign on your right. The panoramic views of the Rio Grande River below, the Sangre de Christo Mountains to the east and the Pajarito Plateau and the Jemez Mountains to the west is worth the ride.

Heading back to Santa Fe

The old Otawi Bridge was how travelers crossed the Rio Grande River to get to the Los Alamos Ranch School and the Manhattan Project headquarters

The old Otowi Bridge, photo/Steve Collins

On your way back to Santa Fe, just before crossing the Rio Grande River, park on the side of the road and take a short walk down the road’s shoulder to view the old Otowi Bridge. From 1924 when the bridge was built until just after WWII when it was replaced by a truss bridge, everyone headed to Los Alamos, both to the school and during the Manhattan Project days (as well as all supplies headed there), crossed this one-lane bridge.

Did you ever visit Los Alamos? What did you think?

Read our post about Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Site atomic bomb test.

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16 Responses to “Visit Los Alamos: home of the Manhattan Project”

  1. Rachel Heller
    August 10, 2015 at 1:47 am #

    What struck me most in studying the Manhattan Project was the scientific excitement that brought it about. What I mean is that all of these brilliant people, interested in the same scientific questions, were brought together in Los Alamos, so it must have been terribly exciting for them to work on this project. And I think that their intellectual curiosity and excitement prevented them from thinking about whether what they were doing was right. They did it because they COULD, and because they were encouraged to do it, not because they SHOULD. And, yes, I do realize that that’s easy to say with 20/20 hindsight…

    • Billie Frank
      August 10, 2015 at 6:37 am #

      I think there was a lot of intellectual excitement with the challenge of building a nuclear bomb, but there was also the knowledge that the Nazi’s were doing it as well and they had to beat them. Sadly it was not the time for the moral reflection we now know it needed. But the Nazis weren’t giving it moral reflection and it was a race we had to win. Once the Nazis surrendered, it wasn’t necessary to use this weapon. I think Truman and his advisers made a tragic mistake dropping the two bombs. It was to bring the Japanese Emperor, who refused unconditional surrender to his knees. The destruction in Japan and the technologies potential to destroy woke a lot of these scientists up.

  2. Suzanne Fluhr
    September 11, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    We visited Los Alamos during our 2013 visit to New Mexico. My husband is a scientist and found it fascinating. I’m a history nerd, so I was similarly engaged. We drove there from Taos and I recall it being quite a beautiful drive. Unfortunately, we visited New Mexico during a federal government shutdown, so we didn’t have the opportunity to visit Bandelier National Monument which was on our planned itinerary.
    With 20/20 hindsight, I think, for the reason, you mention, the US had to work on the atomic bomb project once they knew Germany was working on it. Some feel that Truman actually saved Japanese lives by using the bomb since the populace was expected to fight to the death to counter the planned invasion by the US and its allies. I think he could have waited more than 3 days to see if the bomb dropped on Hiroshima would have the desired effect. Ironically, witnessing the slaughter unleashed by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, might have helped deter use of the bomb during the Cold War as all sides knew of the horror it would unleash.
    Suzanne Fluhr recently posted..Five Reasons to Visit Philadelphia in the FallMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 11, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

      Because Germany was working on an atomic bomb, we had to develop one, but I don’t think they had to bomb Hiroshima, let alone Nagasaki. The Japanese, from what I’ve read. were close to surrender. I think it was an inhumane thing to do. Oppenheimer and others came to regret the work they did when they saw what it could unleash.

  3. Irene S. Levine
    September 11, 2016 at 6:10 pm #

    I did visit Los Alamos. We went when our son was a teenager and thought that the museum itself, was well done, with something for everyone.

    I loved learning about Bathtub Row (from you).
    Irene S. Levine recently posted..Gates around the world: Doorways to TravelMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 11, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

      I agree about the museum being well done. I’m not particularly into science but really enjoyed it. Our grandsons loved it- they were about 8 and 9 at the time they went.

  4. Rossana
    September 11, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    I have never been, seems like a great place for anyone interested in history to explore. Incredible to think of all those incredibly intelligent people were gathered in one place…. The views over the Rio Grande are spectacular, working in such a sequestered environment, I would think they would have appreciated the beauty around them.

    • Billie Frank
      September 11, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

      There were a lot of super-brilliant people working on the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos Labs employs a lot of brilliant scientists today. I’m not sure that the people stuck there during the war were placated by the natural beauty. In many ways they were virtual prisoners.

  5. Donna Janke
    September 11, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    I have mixed feelings about visiting Los Alamos. I think it might be interesting to get a glimpse into what life in the town was like during the Manhattan Project Days. Does the Bradbury Science Museum touch on the world impacts and/or the ethics or is it strictly focused on the science.
    Donna Janke recently posted..Mass Appeal: Concerts for the Public by the PublicMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 11, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

      We had mixed feelings as well, Donna. We resisted going up there for years. We went the first time when our son and family visited. It was on their list. I’ve come to really appreciate the town, the museum and the natural setting. I don’t know the museum well enough to know if they deal with the ethics- it is a science museum. I’m not sure if the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum, which gets more into the history of the town as well as the Manhattan Project deals with it either. But they do give a glimpse of what life up there was like during the Project. It’s a great question. Next time we’re up I’ll check that out.

  6. Kristin Henning
    September 11, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

    Next time–and we are excited about visiting New Mexico more often–we will stop in Los Alamos. We really enjoyed our hike in Bandelier, nearby.
    Kristin Henning recently posted..The Heunginjimun Gate, Seoul, South KoreaMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 11, 2016 at 10:00 pm #

      There’s so much here to see, definitely come back!

  7. Janice Chung
    September 12, 2016 at 11:25 am #

    I also read your other post and seeing that there’s still radiation at the Trinity Site, I think I would pass on visiting there, but the Bradbury Science Museum looks really interesting.
    Janice Chung recently posted..France To Switzerland (Part 2): Vevey And Charlie ChaplinMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 12, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

      According to the US Army- radiation levels at ground zero at Trinity aren’t worrisome. Not sure if I’d go or not. Bradbury and Los Alamos are definitely worth a visit.

  8. Doreen Pendgracs
    September 13, 2016 at 5:51 am #

    Hi Billie. It’s been SO long since I’ve been to Santa Fe. Your post about Los Alamos makes me want to return and explore. Thx!
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..increasing your chocolate knowledgeMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 14, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

      There’s so much to see here, Doreen, even some great chocolate. Come back!

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