Los Alamos history traces an arc from Ancestral Puebloans to high-tech scientists—in one of the prettiest places on earth.

Hey, day-trippers: Los Alamos is calling with a double dose of mind-bending history and camera-ready scenery. Summer temps are trending downward, aspen groves will soon blaze with golden leaves, and this onetime “secret city” at the heart of three national parks has enough activities to entice you into lingering longer than just one day.

Drive up the “back way” (NM 4, through Jemez Springs) and you’ll want to stop at the Valles Caldera National Preserve, where a 13-mile-wide valley formed by an ancient volcanic eruption welcomes birdwatchers, wildflower lovers, hikers, bikers, hunters, and fisherfolks. (Plan ahead, snowshoers and cross-country skiers: In winter, the snow is deep and the silence divine.)

Alcove House, which holds a ceremonial kiva once used by Ancestral Puebloans.

Keep heading east on NM 4 and you’ll witness the beauty of the Santa Fe National Forest before climbing up the Pajarito Plateau to reach the upper portion of Bandelier National Monument. The Ancestral Puebloan ruins preserved within the monument speak of the people who preceded today’s neighboring pueblos. Climb up ladders into the “cavates” where families lived and ceremonies were held. Hike down into the canyon or take a free shuttle from mid-May to mid-October to access even more trails that range from easy to challenging, including ladder climbs, river crossings, and mile upon mile of rugged backcountry.

Coming out of Bandelier, you’ll hit the town of White Rock, where the Pig + Fig Café will welcome you with freshly baked pastries and a breakfast-through-dinner menu that mixes a bit of France with a lot of comfort. Stock up on maps, trail guides, and brochures at the nearby White Rock Visitor Center to prepare for your trip into the heart of Los Alamos.

The Los Alamos History Museum, housed in one of the century-old buildings that were part of the Los Alamos Ranch School, tells the story of ancient inhabitants on the Pajarito Plateau, 19th-century homesteaders, the sons of the captains of industry who attended the ranch school, and the “secret city” life of the Manhattan Project scientists who created the world’s first nuclear weapon that ended World War II.

That story gains more depth at the nearby Bradbury Science Museum, which includes exhibits on the 21st-century work being done at Los Alamos National Laboratory and features family-friendly, hands-on activities in the Tech Lab. On August 7, the Manhattan Project National Park joins local residents to mark the 75th anniversary of the project’s completion with a variety of public ceremonies.

Bradbury Museum

From the walkable Downtown District, you can see the mountains turning golden and feel yourself drawn toward them. It’s easy to do given the 200-plus-mile trails network that winds through and around town, connecting to the surrounding public lands. For a closer dose of nature, pop into the Los Alamos Nature Center where the staff of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) can help you orient to the canyons, mesas, mountains, and skies of the Pajarito Plateau with a serene wildlife-viewing room and a nifty gift shop. Outdoors, you can roam the wildland gardens and let the kids blow off steam in an amazing log cabin, garden, and child-friendly exhibits. The center leads hikes, talks, and yoga classes and has a state-of-the-art planetarium. Take a peek at the PEEC’s calendar to plan your trip before you head up. 

To re-fuel after all this activity, try one of these options. Fleur de Lys, a French-inspired café, serves up coffee, tea, crepes, quiches, macarons, and calming jazz. Hit the Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op, a taproom offering locally brewed beers and ciders, where you can also take a selfie in an outdoor clawfoot tub. Rose Chocolatier whips up new confections daily and brews a luscious cup of hot chocolate. 

Take a good look at those mountain slopes before you leave. As soon as the snow arrives, the Pajarito Ski Area welcomes skiers of all abilities. And here in the “atomic city,” you might share the chairlift with a scientist who’s taking a break from unraveling the mysteries of the universe.