With J. Robert Oppenheimer's life and legacy now featured on movie screens around the world, 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 mid-morning to sidestep early morning commuters, many of whom are heading 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 last 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.
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, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 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. The Museum has just unveiled “J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Exhibit,” a collaborative production of the Bradbury and the National Security Research Center, the Lab’s classified library.
Through Oct. 16, items on view include Oppenheimer’s handwritten notes on the wartime Lab, his McKibbin Card (an ID card for all Project Y employees, meticulously recorded by Oppenheimer’s secretary, Dorothy McKibbin) and his personal copy of The Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred Hindu text he turned to for poetic inspiration in the wake of the Trinity test, the world’s first nuclear test. The exhibit also features documents related to Oppenheimer’s 1954 security clearance investigation and the Department of Energy’s 2022 order to vacate the investigation’s decision.
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.
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, the “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 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, usually in April and October coinciding with tours of the Trinity site, 280 miles away south at White Sands Missile Range near Alamogordo.
A few blocks down Central Avenue, you’ll find Ashley Pond and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Visitor’s Center (475 20th Street, 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. Not much of the era remains today because 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.
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.
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 “Oppenheimer” movie. The Oppenheimer home is currently closed for historic preservation purposes but you can still take a peek through the windows.
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 17,000 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.
Keep in mind that due to road construction and commuter traffic, the intersection of East Jemez and NM 4 gets quite congested in mornings and evenings, and it may be more efficient to retrace your steps through the Los Alamos townsite.