With the recent release of the movie, Oppenheimer, I wanted to highlight a place where you can literally walk in the movie’s historical footsteps, Los Alamos, New Mexico. We went to this little town near Santa Fe on our spring break trip in April, and it was a highlight of the trip.
The area now called Los Alamos was settled by several Native American tribes such as the Pueblos, and in the late 19th century, homesteaders used the location as warm weather ranches. In 1917, the Los Alamos Ranch School was founded to teach young men basic ranching and survival skills.
With the advent of World War II, the federal government took over the ranch school buildings and the remaining homes to create an isolated site for the Manhattan Project. This project, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, created the world’s first atomic bomb. Scientists and engineers from all over the world lived and worked in this small town, all with the same goal in mind.
While the WWII-era sites have been decommissioned and are now part of the tourist sites, the government still utilizes the Los Alamos National Laboratory which is a research facility under the Department of Energy.
Only a one-hour drive outside of the quaint town of Santa Fe, Los Alamos is a really interesting place to visit. Hidden high in the mountains north of town, it’s isolated but has a thriving tourist business, particularly with the recent blockbuster movie.
Be sure to stop at the viewpoints along the road to Los Alamos. It’s so beautiful!
As you enter the town, you’ll see a replica of the iconic main gate that is shown in the movie. It’s a restroom and a good place to take some amazing photos of the view.
Drive into town and park at the Los Alamos Visitor Center (475 20th Street). This is where you can get brochures, including a guide for the historic walking tour, and talk to the guides about the best way to see Los Alamos. Head to the NPS visitor center next door to talk to the rangers about the Manhattan Project National Historical Park site and to see some historic photographs. Both visitor centers have bathrooms.
Walk across Central Avenue to the statues of Oppenheimer and Manhattan project manager General Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon in the movie).
Directly behind the statues is a large building that is the Historic Fuller Lodge. We did a quick self-guided tour of the interior. It was built in 1928 for the ranch school, and it served as a hotel and cafeteria for bachelor staff members and distinguished visitors to the site. It’s also where two pivotal scenes from the movie are set (Christmas party and staff meeting after the bomb is used). It’s really atmospheric!
Walk behind the lodge to the Los Alamos History Museum (admission fee). While small, this museum, housed in the former guest cottage for the site, has great exhibits on the history of the area focusing on the Manhattan project. My kids loved exploring the excellent gift shop as well! This is also where you can sign up for guided tours of the site.
Walk down “Bathtub Row” behind the museum, seeing the houses that the Manhattan Project scientists lived in during the war. Oppenheimer’s house is at the very end of the row and isn’t currently open (but you can peek in the windows!). The movie was actually filmed here!
Be sure to stop in the Hans Bethe house, next door to the Oppenheimer home. Admission is included in your history museum ticket. Two Nobel Prize winners lived here (physicist Bethe and chemist Edwin McMillan) – don’t miss seeing an actual Nobel Prize displayed at the house!
Walking into this house is like stepping back in time. It’s surreal!
You can also walk to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) dormitory (not open to the public) and the WWII cafeteria, but we didn’t have time. You also might be interested in walking around Ashley Pond and the Ice House Memorial (directly behind the visitor centers) which contains original stone from the ice house that was used to assemble the nuclear components of the first tested atomic device.
I also recommend walking by the Romero Cabin to get a better understanding of life here in Los Alamos during the homesteading years.
With kids, you can do this tour pretty quickly (under an hour). Kids (and adults!) will be really interested in the Bradbury Science Museum (free admission) which has hands-on exhibits about the Manhattan Project and also highlights the Laboratory’s current work. I was sad that it was closed on the day we visited. You can also drive around the current laboratory’s perimeter to see additional Manhattan Project sites (get map from NPS visitor center).
For outdoor enthusiasts or families who just wanted to get in nature, there’s an easy nature hike you can do in the town. The Canyon Rim Trail is paved and is easy for little kids and strollers. We had fun walking on it and taking in the breathtaking scenery. Its parking lot is located near the entrance to Los Alamos.
You can also visit Los Alamos Nature Center for a fun, family-friendly look at the area’s wildlife with hands-on exhibits, play areas, and a planetarium.
For more outdoor time, check out the many area hiking trails and national parks (note that most of these sites have mandatory shuttles in the summer). You should check with the visitor center guides before heading to any of these trails as they get crowded in the spring/summer. We wanted to hike along White Rock Canyon after touring the town, but the parking lot was closed due to overcrowding. Go early in the morning to guarantee a spot. See this link for even more family-friendly hiking trails.
- Bandelier National Monument is south of the town and has a variety of hikes and Ancestral Pueblo dwellings.
- Valles Caldera National Preserve is west of the town and has hiking and mountain biking trails around a caldera formed by volcanic eruptions 1.25 million years ago.
- The most accessible hike to stunning overlooks is in White Rock Canyon, just south of the town.
- Pajarito Mountain is five miles west of Los Alamos and has mountain biking and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Los Alamos is definitely worth at least a day trip when you’re in Santa Fe. It’s amazing to stand in the very spot where momentous decisions that still reverberate in history were made.
- Cost: NPS sites and Bradbury Science Museum are free. The Los Alamos History Museum is $5/person.
- Recommended: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: You can see the majority of the sites in 1-2 hours. Add on travel time from Santa Fe (45 minutes) and any hikes or other outdoor time.
- Transportation: Los Alamos is best accessible by car. There is plenty of parking in the town. At the hiking sites, be prepared to park and take a shuttle bus.
- Dining options: There are several restaurants within walking distance of the Manhattan Project site. We enjoyed our lunch at Ruby K’s Bagel Cafe.
- Nearby hotels: I recommend staying in Santa Fe (we loved our stay at the historic La Fonda on the Plaza), but there are a few hotels in Los Alamos. See the tourism site for more details.
- Nearby attractions include: In addition to the many sites listed in the post, Historic Santa Fe is just 45 minutes away.
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