Your Manhattan Project road trip

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

By Tricia Ware | August 18, 2023

Road Trip
Now through Oct. 16, the Bradbury Science Museum’s "J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Exhibit" reveals his 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.

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.

> Follow the rest of the trip here in the News and Media part of the Laboratory’s website