Your Manhattan Project road trip

This day trip from Santa Fe leads you to history in Los Alamos

April 26, 2024

Operated by Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Bradbury Science Museum is free and open Tuesday-Sunday. Inside, visitors can see exhibits on the Manhattan Project as well as the Lab’s current research in supercomputing, nuclear nonproliferation, biotechnology and climate science.

Since “Oppenheimer” stormed the silver screen, locals and travelers are more interested than ever in what remains of the top-secret lab and makeshift town that supported the Manhattan Project during World War II. Here’s a guide of what you can see in a day’s journey back in time.

Head out from Santa Fe around 10 a.m. to sidestep early-morning commuters, many of whom are driving to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Head north from Santa Fe on U.S. Highway 84/285 on a drive that should take 35-45 minutes. In Pojoaque, turn left (west) onto NM 502. Although this road has been widened and paved over many times in the past 80 years, you are now on the route that Manhattan Project scientists, staff and members of the U.S. Army took up the hill to the town that didn’t exist.

Crossing into new territory

The road takes you through scenic country and four Native American pueblos: Tesuque, Nambé, Pojoaque and San Ildefonso. As you cross the Rio Grande, note that you’re at historic Otowi Crossing and you’ll see the old Otowi Bridge on your left, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. “Otowi” is a Tewa word meaning “gap where the water sinks”—and that part of the landscape endures. During the Manhattan Project era, Edith Warner ran a teahouse here, and J. Robert Oppenheimer had a standing weekly reservation. Other scientists of the day—such as Norris Bradbury, Phillip Morrison, Edward Teller, Stanislaw Ulam, Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr—all used pseudonyms to make their reservations, as it was the only restaurant for miles, and they didn’t need an official day pass to Santa Fe to go there.

During the Manhattan Project, Otowi Bridge came to symbolize the gap between the known world and the Secret City. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

For many New Mexicans, Otowi Crossing became symbolic of the boundary between the known world and the Atomic Age. Warner and this period in history are immortalized in the books “The House at Otowi Bridge” by Peggy Pond Church and “Woman at Otowi Crossing” by Frank Waters.

Heading onward, the road rises in elevation, making it clear why Los Alamos was known as “The Hill,” as it still is today. Stay on NM 502 to the town of Los Alamos, which is where Los Alamos National Laboratory is based in a county of more than 19,000 people. Near the city limit, you’ll see Main Gate Park, a replica of the main gate as it looked in 1943. (Another version was reconstructed for the “Oppenheimer” film.) This can be a fun photo-op stop as well as a rest area (with a public restroom) and a place to pick up brochures and maps.

Surveying the science

Venturing into downtown Los Alamos, your second stop is the Bradbury Science Museum, operated by the Laboratory. Located at 1450 Central Ave. and open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m., the museum is free and showcases artifacts from the Manhattan Project, including Oppenheimer’s desk chair and a replica of the Fat Man bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.

Learn about Manhattan Project history and more at the town’s two museums: the Bradbury Science Museum (above), operated by Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Los Alamos History Museum, operated by Los Alamos Historical Society.

In addition to the Manhattan Project, the Bradbury’s exhibits document the science of the Laboratory’s 80-year history, including advances in supercomputing, nuclear nonproliferation, biotechnology, and climate science. For most people, the museum is the closest they will get to understanding what happens at the national security lab, which is closed to the public. Beginning June 11, visitors can see the museum’s new installation, “Project Y Photographers,” which takes a close look at the people who caught on film daily life and major moments of the Manhattan Project, like the Trinity test.

“The Bradbury Science Museum is a place for families to engage in exhibits and learn together,” said Director Patrick Moore. “About a third of our exhibit space is on the Manhattan Project, and many visitors come here for our origin story. The rest of our museum is about Lab research and is ideal for middle schoolers through adults.”

Peeking behind the fence

Down the street at 1735 Central Ave., in the windows of the former CB Fox department store, you can see photos by Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear-nonproliferation-expert-turned-freelance-photographer Minesh Bacrania. After negotiating special permission to photograph seldom-seen Manhattan Project research sites that are now surrounded by modern-day Lab property, he published the photo essay, “The moment of truth: An exclusive visit to the secret U.S. laboratory where scientists developed the first nuclear weapon” in the July/August 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine.

“Manhattan Project employees didn’t have ivory towers and shiny facilities,” he said. “They had relatively dumpy buildings on a mesa in the desert. It’s incredible to think that such a simple setup precipitated these huge technological advances.”

The secluded canyon containing the research buildings of the Manhattan Project is now the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Surrounded by 40 square miles of Lab property in active use, it is open to the public twice a year with tickets distributed by a first-come, first-served lottery. Guides like Elliot Schultz (right) help visitors appreciate history where it happened.

The National Park Service has worked diligently to preserve many of these buildings and sites as part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, and tours of the Los Alamos site are offered twice a year with advance sign-up only. The next sign-up date is May 1, 2024, for tours on June 11, 12 and 13, 2024.

“The Manhattan Project National Historical Park is probably different from any other national park you’ll ever visit because it’s surrounded by Lab property in active use,” says Program Manager Jonathan Creel. “We’re not open every day all the time, but before the park was created, only Lab staff members (and sometimes not even them) could visit this historic place and understand the importance of accomplishing so much with so little. Gradually, we’re making it more accessible to more people.”

About 180 people will get to visit the park on the next round of tours. However, for those who don’t have the opportunity, there’s plenty more Manhattan Project history to be seen.

A few blocks down Central Avenue, you’ll find Ashley Pond and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Visitor’s Center (475 20th St., near the corner of 20th and Central) on your left and Fuller Lodge, Bathtub Row and the Los Alamos History Museum (1050 Bathtub Row) on your right.

Entering the park visitor center, you’ll see a massive photo map on the wall depicting how Los Alamos looked during the Manhattan Project, and a line from the movie, “Build a town and build it fast,” may echo in your ears. Not much of the era remains today because frankly, early Los Alamos was simply not built to last, but the map can help you compare and contrast Manhattan Project-era Los Alamos with what’s still standing now.

Thankfully, Ashley Pond is much greener and grassier than it was 80 years ago and is a great place to take a break or have a picnic. In the evenings, enjoy the free Los Alamos Summer Concert Series.

Visitors can see history where it happened at Fuller Lodge and adjacent Bathtub Row, which includes the house J. Robert Oppenheimer called home during the Manhattan Project.

Beholding the backstory

Across the street, Fuller Lodge is the flagship building of the now-defunct Los Alamos Ranch School, a boarding school for boys from 1917 to 1942. The U.S. government bought the school for use in the Manhattan Project. Fuller Lodge functioned as a meeting place and community center during the project and still does today, though it is now owned and operated by Los Alamos County. Inside, the Fuller Lodge Arts Center Gallery and Gift Shop showcases works by local makers.

Visiting the adjacent Los Alamos History Museum, you’ll learn about the Manhattan Project with an emphasis on the life and stories of its participants as well as the era’s material culture. The houses dotted along the property were originally those of Ranch School teachers and later Manhattan Project leaders. They were the only facilities on the Hill with bathtubs, hence the name Bathtub Row. Along Bathtub Row, you can see and enter the Hans Bethe House, and stand outside the J. Robert Oppenheimer House next door. Fuller Lodge and the two houses were both filming locations for the movie “Oppenheimer.” The Oppenheimer home is currently closed for historic preservation purposes but contains furniture from the movie you can see through the windows.

After the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos National Laboratory moved across the canyon to its current location. Today, it employs about 18,000 people working on national security science, which stretches beyond military applications to include the security of the country’s energy supply, food supply, environment, public health and economy.

Connecting history to today

Driving down Central Avenue, turn left on Diamond Drive, where you will cross the Omega Bridge, built in 1951. During this post-war time period, property previously used for the Manhattan Project became the Los Alamos townsite, and the Laboratory moved across the canyon to its present location. Turning left on East Jemez Road, on your right you will see Los Alamos National Laboratory as it is today: 40 square miles of facilities employing approximately 18,000 people working on national security missions, which extend beyond military applications to include the security of the country’s energy supply, food supply, environment, public health and economy.

Today’s main gate is significantly larger than the original — but make note, no photographs are allowed, even from your car.

From this point, you can stay on East Jemez Road, which will take you back to NM 502 — or on to NM 4 if you want to visit other scenic sites in the region such as Bandelier National Monument or the Valles Caldera National Preserve.