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!
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
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
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
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
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.
The Great Outdoors
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.
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
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.