Southwestern US, US National Parks

Nuclear science & history at Manhattan Project National Historical Park – Los Alamos, New Mexico

Well, we’ve finally reached the end of Thanksgiving in New Mexico. After four nights in Albuquerque and one night in Santa Fe, we headed north to Los Alamos for the final three days of our trip. The first two were spent visiting Bandelier and Valles Caldera, leaving the final day to hang around town. Like many of you, I’m guessing, we’d only heard of Los Alamos in the context of the Manhattan Project. And while that is what the town is most famous for, it’s also a very scenic location. We were pleasantly surprised by the views as the highway climbed to Los Alamos.

View from Highway 502 into Los Alamos
Rio Grande from White Rock Overlook

During WWII, Los Alamos was chosen as one of three sites for the Manhattan Project – the name given to the US efforts to develop nuclear weapons. More than 6000 scientists were recruited to this remote high elevation mesa in northern New Mexico to begin work on the bombs. But it wasn’t just the bombs that had to be developed; much of the technology required for creation of nuclear weapons didn’t yet exist either. The US also needed stockpiles of uranium and plutonium; Oak Ridge, Tennessee became the main location for enrichment of uranium while a plant in Hanford, Washington was the main source of plutonium. Today, all three locations are part of Manhattan Project National Historical Park and are managed by the NPS.

For example, this camera was built in 1943 to photograph experiments on implosion which ultimately led to the development of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki

The Los Alamos portion of the Manhattan Project began by taking over the Los Alamos Ranch School, a local frontier school for boys, and displacing the native Puebloans and homesteaders. None of these individuals knew why they were being asked to leave; the secrecy surrounding Los Alamos was exceptional. Many of the scientists and military personnel recruited to Los Alamos didn’t know why they were there until after they arrived. The drivers licenses of all Los Alamos residents displayed a PO box in Santa Fe and birth certificates of children born there during the Manhattan Project did as well.

The town grew up around the research facilities, though amenities were often lacking and many dwellings were shoddily built. In fact, only a few houses in town had bathtubs. Built along the accurately named Bathtub Row, these homes housed the families of the most prominent citizens including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Brigadier General Leslie Groves who, despite many differences of opinion, successfully co-directed the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer (left) and Groves (right)

We learned all of this and much more during our day in Los Alamos. We began at the Manhattan Project Visitor Center, where we read up on the history and grabbed a map for the self-guided walking tour of the town. From the Visitor Center we walked around Ashley Pond, humorously named for Ashley Pond Jr., the former director of the Los Alamos Ranch School.

Ashley Pond

From here, we followed the map past the sculptures of Oppenheimer and Groves to the Fuller Lodge. This building was originally used as the dining hall for the Ranch School. Once taken over by the Manhattan Project, it became a place to house visiting scientists as well as a meeting location and events center.

Fuller Lodge

We then meandered past old cabins as well as some Ancestral Puebloan ruins. It was very odd to be walking on a sidewalk in the middle of town and come across the remains of an 800-year-old pueblo.

Romero Cabin, c. 1913
Ancestral Puebloan ruins

A couple old houses have been turned into museums, displaying some old artifacts but mostly just containing signs with more Los Alamos history. The cafeteria and dormitory for the WACs – Woman’s Army Corps – also still stand. Though far too often overlooked, the Manhattan Project would not have been successful without the important contributions of many women. These women held many positions, including working as chemists, computers, and explosives experts.

We completed our tour with a visit to the Bradbury Science Museum, which is free and well worth a visit. By this point in the afternoon – and the trip as a whole – our brains were approaching their capacity for learning and we ended up not having the energy or motivation to view all the exhibits in detail. But what we did learn – some of which is discussed below – was very interesting.

This photograph at the Bradbury Science Center is of the Trinity Test – the world’s first test of a nuclear weapon – in July 1945, about three weeks before the US dropped the first bomb on Japan. The photo was taken from 10 miles (16 km) away, within the first seconds after the explosion.

One thing we unfortunately weren’t able to do was tour the present-day research facilities (tours are offered a few times per year in the summer, but not in the offseason). Los Alamos National Laboratory is still an important research site today, employing about 10,000 people. However, the research methods and applications have shifted. Immediately after the war, the focus became development of the hydrogen bomb. Once the US developed a large stockpile of these and other nuclear weapons, researchers at Los Alamos began working on weapons detection and deterrence systems.

In more recent years, focus has shifted once more toward research that has various biomedical, biochemical, clean energy, and national security applications. For example, Los Alamos researchers are training honeybees to detect explosives, developing improved cancer detection techniques and an HIV vaccine, establishing safer transport and disposal methods for radioactive waste, and advancing the field of nuclear physics with their state-of-the-art proton accelerator. It was really interesting to read about these projects and see how research that used to propel the development of nuclear weapons has been co-opted to facilitate advancements in so many other areas of study.

And that’s Los Alamos. Our time in the town was a fascinating mixture of history, science, and scenery, and we really enjoyed it. We wrapped up our visit with beers from Bathtub Row Brewing, and the next morning we waved goodbye to Los Alamos and began making our way back to Denver.

This was certainly the most unique beer flight holder I’ve ever seen

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Los Alamos is located atop a mesa along Highway 502, about 40 minutes northwest of Santa Fe. The Manhattan Project buildings and Bradbury Science Center are located just a few blocks apart off Central Avenue in the center of town
  • Fees and passes: everything we did was free
  • What to do: being your self-guided walking tour at the Manhattan Project Visitor Center, following the pamphlet they provide, then spend a couple hours at the Bradbury Science Center, and end your day with food and/or beer at one of the many local options
  • Where to stay: there are a handful of hotels in Los Alamos, and some campgrounds about 30 mins away in the Santa Fe National Forest and Bandelier National Monument. Alternately, you could visit Los Alamos as a day trip from Santa Fe
  • Other: much of what we saw here was outside, so come dressed for the weather of the day (sun protection and rain gear in the summer, layers in the winter) and bring water and a snack for the walking tour

23 thoughts on “Nuclear science & history at Manhattan Project National Historical Park – Los Alamos, New Mexico”

  1. What an amazing history – I had heard of the Manhattan project but hadn’t realised its links to the location. I love the beers in the bathtub and that view of the Rio Grande from White Rock Overlook is just wow! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The views from the highway are dramatic. This is certainly a fascinating place to visit and to learn about their new interesting projects which seem to be beneficial to humanity. Like everyone else, I love the beer bathtub shot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funny you should mention movies because we just saw a preview the other day for a new movie about the Manhattan Project (called Oppenheimer). I’ve never heard of the previous movie but now I’m interested to watch it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. It was encouraging to see all the newer and more productive uses for nuclear technology nowadays. It’s pretty amazing, actually, what Los Alamos researchers are accomplishing now

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love how your days end with a beer flight! That is too bad you couldn’t tour the current research facilities. It’s amazing what reachers can discover and the ideas they come up with. I never would’ve thought you could train bees.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You can’t deny that the New Mexico landscape is eerily apropos of an atomic tour. And I didn’t know that it is possible to tour atomic New Mexico without getting irradiated or arrested. Against the geopolitical backdrop of the war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s nuclear rhetoric, there’s no time like the present to think about our nuclear history. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, the nuclear radiation levels in most places are pretty low nowadays. Also, the bomb was tested about 400km south of Los Alamos, in the middle of the desert. Los Alamos was just where it was developed. You would absolutely get arrested if you tried to enter into Los Alamos National Laboratory without credentials or being on a tour, though. To tour, you have to be a US citizen; security is still very tight in that regard.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very fascinating stuff in our country’s history, especially a precarious time at best…it’s wild to know that there were top-secret projects out there in the middle of nowhere, Los Alamos included…I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other secret government projects still being done in the US, let alone related to weapons/the military…all the same, it’s great that Los Alamos’s has shifted its agenda to almost the complete opposite of what it’d been designed for in the first place, to detect and defend from nuclear attacks, to detect and treat cancer, and overall progress humanity in a more optimistic direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m sure there are absolutely hidden projects happening still. It makes sense, I guess, that a place that was up to date on current nuclear technology would be well suited to come up with technology to detect and deter it from proliferating. It’s unfortunate that the technology has already spread and remains a threat, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Funny how timely this post is in light of Putin’s threat today. Nuclear development has been a blessing and a curse. Hope we do not all pay the price for it one day. Loved the beer flight holder. Always up for a tub full of beer. Cheers Diana. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I admit, this post was queued in advance and I didn’t realize the coincidence until you pointed it out. I absolutely agree with your assessment; it’s amazing that the human mind has come up with this technology, and it has been used for some good as well, but the original application was obviously horrifying

      Liked by 1 person

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