Los Alamos

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Why Los Alamos:

Every year, my friend Andrew and I clean our adopted highway in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When planning the trip, we always add on somewhere else in New Mexico – ideally a National Park Service site. One site that has constantly evaded us is Bandelier National Monument, located 90 minutes north of Albuquerque near the town of Los Alamos. Last year, we had planned to visit only to have our visit thwarted by a fire, causing us to audible to Truth or Consequences. This year, we were determined to make it happen. We also decided to bring our spouses: Maisie and Shelby to see the road. Shelby attended our first road cleaning in 2017, but this would be Maisie´s first trip to this hallowed stretch of road. 

May 6, 2023: The Secret City

As promised, we spent the morning cleaning the adopted highway: Tramway Blvd between Tramway Road and Paseo del Norte in the suburb of Sandia Heights. The effort took approximately 90 minutes, but the road looks great!

Yup, highway is still here

We then got in the car and drove north. After reaching Santa Fe, we continued north through the pueblo towns before heading west along the New Mexico 502. Here the road steeply climbed a mesa until we reached the town.

Los Alamos is not a normal town. The site was largely uninhabited all the way into the 20th century. There were a few homesteaders and a boy´s wilderness boarding school when physicist J Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves selected the area to be the top-secret headquarters of the Manhattan Project, the US´s effort to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. Oppenheimer proposed the area because he spent time here as a kid…and because its secluded mesa top location allowed for extreme secrecy.  The nearest city was more than a 30-minute drive away. 

The government-built Los Alamos during the war. At the time, it was a closed city, meaning that only authorized people could enter. It also meant that the scientists and their family were generally not allowed in order to leave to protect the secrets. 

After the War, Los Alamos was revealed to the public. Nuclear research continued there under a new banner: Los Alamos National Laboratory. While the laboratory moved to a different mesa next door, the main mesa is now wholly the town. 

Because of its unique history, Los Alamos´s architecture does not look New Mexican – there is not a single adobe structure. Instead, it looks like a generic American town. As the town´s entire economy is based on the lab, which works government hours, almost everything is closed on the weekends. Less than 20% of the restaurants in the city were open on Saturday. Los Alamos has major chain hotels, but they are 50% more expensive than Santa Fe. It´s all government contractors. 

The National Park Service visitor center is a small structure across the street from a strip mall. The site was run by a ranger and volunteer who works in the lab. He said that being able to live in a small town and conduct scientific research is a rare opportunity and he loves the area. He also said that because the town has limited housing, people commute from very far away – even as far as Albuquerque! 

The Historic Site protects historic buildings from the Manhattan Project. Unfortunately, most of the buildings are in the secure zone of the National Laboratory and are only open to the public on a guided tour that operates once a year. Most of the structures that existed in the town site (which was the original lab) were torn down for security reasons. They recommended we do a 1 mile walk around the town to see the few sights that are standing and open. 

The walk took us to the town´s history museum which also contains some of the houses of the prominent scientists working on the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer´s house is standing but it currently being renovated by the museum in the hopes of opening to the public in a couple years. The lodge originally used by the wilderness school is nearby and is now a wedding venue. The town also runs a history museum that is decent, but tells you the exact same information that the Park Service ranger will tell you. 

Our final stop was the museum run by the Laboratory. In addition to the history, it attempted to explain nuclear science. I felt the museum was far too dense to extract any learnings. 

With that, we drove back to Santa Fe where we got dinner with a former coworker who lives in Taos. 

May 7, 2023: Bandelier

Today was the day. The four of us drove from Santa Fe back north towards Los Alamos. Instead of heading up the mesa, we cut left along a windy road until we reached the entrance to the National Monument. We paid the steep $25 entry fee and parked. 

While the monument contains many trails and biomes, the most popular trail is the Main Pueblo Loop, which goes up and back through a steep canyon. 

Lining the walls of the cliffs are cave dwelling inhabited by native people 900-500 years ago. They are the ancestors of the modern Puebloan tribes.  

Some of the dwellings can be entered using ladders!

The main trail is 1.4 miles but there is an additional 1 mile extension to visit the most spectacular house of them all: the Alcove House which looks like a mini Mesa Verde. To reach the alcove house, we had to climb 4 ladders! 

For lunch, we drove back to Santa Fe to eat at the famed Café Pasqual´s. 

With some time to spare, we visited the Folk Art Museum in a district known as Museum Hill. After paying a seemingly expensive $15 fee, we were bewildered when we walked into the first room. 

The Folk Art Museum received a massive donation from Alexander Girard, one of the most famous mid-century architects in the world. The donation came with a big condition: that Girard had complete control over the design of the room. He created scenes of his art. Most of the scenes were of artifacts from single countries, but some were multi-regional. 

This room alone took more than an hour to explore. 

The museum also had exhibits on Mexican papier-mache and Japanese art. All said, the folk art museum is one of my favorite museums in the US. 

From there we drove back to Albuquerque to fly home. 

Final Thoughts:

Los Alamos is weird. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the state as it does not feel like a New Mexican town. It basically shuts down on weekends – even on Saturdays. Very few of the attractions are open to tourists, as most of the historic sites are in the classified area. The museums were not great. Perhaps in the future, the Oppenheimer house will open to the public, which will increase the attractiveness of the destination. The food is also lacking. Every town in New Mexico seems to have at least good New Mexican restaurant, but Los Alamos does not have this. I would not recommend a visit except those chasing National Park Service stamps or if you have security clearance. 

On the other hand, Bandelier is the real deal and is rightfully in the pantheon of the United States´ greatest national monuments in the US. I was so impressed by the cliffs and the dwellings. Getting to climb the ladders was also a real treat. 

While you could stay in Los Alamos or in the nearby pueblo towns, I highly recommend staying in Santa Fe, which is a spectacular destination and has all the good restaurants and things to do in the evenings. 


One response to “Los Alamos”

  1. cowpattymt Avatar

    I totally agree with your conclusions. Thanks for another great post 🤓

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