The “atomic city” of Los Alamos draws hikers, music lovers, and history buffs.
Nicknamed the “secret city” during World War II, Los Alamos also stands alone in the nation as the nucleus of three national parks—Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Bandelier National Monument, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve—making it a prime destination for lovers of world-changing history and life-changing lands.
Heading to Bandelier, you’ll first hit the town of White Rock, where you must stop at the French-influenced Pig & Fig Café. The almond croissants are super flaky and not too sweet, the sour cream lemon pound cake is moist and fluffy, and—voilà!—they pull a great espresso, too.
Tummy filled, you’re on your way to Bandelier’s sheer walls and riverine bottom, which have yielded evidence of people dating back more than 11,000 years. You can hike from the top of Pajarito Plateau or take a free shuttle from mid-May to mid-October to access trails that range from easy to challenging, including a climb to Alcove House, which holds a ceremonial kiva once used by Ancestral Puebloans. Stop in at the White Rock Visitor Center to talk with staff and figure out your approach.
The journey from Los Alamos to the Valles Caldera National Preserve takes you deep into the Santa Fe National Forest, through ponderosa pines, until you come upon the vast, stunning Valles Grande. Forested peaks surround this 13-mile-wide depression left from a spectacular volcanic eruption 1.25 million years ago. Within it, lush grasses and wildflowers thrive, along with herds of elk, bluebirds, eagles, bears, bobcats, and trout. Hikers, bikers, hunters, and fisherfolks share a space so expansive you may not even see one another.
Back in Los Alamos, you can dive into a history so important it changed the world. During World War II, the “secret city” quietly became home to the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first nuclear weapon and continues to push the boundaries of science as Los Alamos National Laboratory. Visit the Bradbury Science Museum to learn more about the creation of the atomic bomb, as well as current innovations and technology applications. Kids (and adults!) will love the hands-on activities in the Tech Lab. Pick up a brochure of a walking tour of the rustically charming buildings where scientists and their families lived and worked. And ask about this summer’s activities commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Manhattan Project’s completion and the end of World War II.
The walking tour leads to the Los Alamos History Museum campus, including the unique log and stone homes on “Bathtub Row.” Built as part of the Los Alamos Ranch School, these were the only buildings in town with bathtubs during the Manhattan Project and were given exclusively to the leading scientists from around the world. Venture into one of them, the Hans Bethe House, to see the 1940’s interior, as well as one of the few Cold War exhibits in the world. Other exhibits dig into the region’s homesteading history and ancient inhabitants. Inside the log walls of the historic Fuller Lodge, be sure to visit the guest room upstairs and peer over the banister for an aerial view of the Pajarito Room where Los Alamos residents have been socializing for a century. The east wing of the Lodge is devoted to the arts where local artists work in the upstairs studio, and display and sell their work in the store in the Fuller Lodge Arts Center below.
Hungry? The nearby Blue Window Bistro serves salads, burgers, and fresh seafood, with a full bar and curated wine list. Or you can sample a locally brewed beer and snap a selfie in the outdoor clawfoot tub at Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op. Known to locals as the “Brew Tub,” this popular brewery is kid- and dog-friendly, and hosts the occasional “On Tap” discussion series in conjunction with the Los Alamos Creative District, Pajarito Environmental Education Center, and the Bradbury Science Museum. Experts from the community highlight topics such as the “culture of brewing,” astronomy and AI machine learning. History On Tap and other topics are also held on alternating months at other establishments around town, including Boese Brothers Brewpub, the Hans Bethe House, and Pig + Fig Café.
Stretch your legs by strolling around the park at Ashley Pond, named for the founder of the ranch school. As the weather warms, the outdoor stage features the Secret City Summer Concert Series—free music under a blanket of stars, every Friday night from mid-May through mid-August. Local and regional bands pack in the crowds. (Last year, Chevel Shepherd, winner of 2019’s The Voice competition, drew 9,000 people to her show!) The family-friendly parties include food trucks, a beer garden, and lots of dancing.
Ashley Pond Park is also where you’ll experience one of Los Alamos’s largest annual events: the Los Alamos ScienceFest. In 2019, more than 10,000 people flocked to a week’s worth of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) activities including rockets, robots, and drones. This year’s event, July 7–12, is themed “20/20: Eyes on the Future” and will feature an electric vehicle show, the interactive Drone Zone, a Meow Wolf talk and workshop, fascinating discussions with Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists, plus highlights of 100 years of advancements made by Los Alamos women, and much more for the entire family. Visit www.LosAlamosScienceFest.com for more information.
Whether you make it a day trip, tuck into a hotel, or spend a few nights in a tent amid the high-country aspens, don’t depart without pulling into Overlook Park in White Rock. Drive to the end of the road for a spectacular view of the Río Grande to the valley and beyond to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Take a moment to give thanks that this stunning spot is a secret no more.